Monday, September 1, 2008

"Uncle Johnny's Tips for Musicians" (Scene) September 2008

Update: This entry is from my column that originally appeared in the Northern Colorado entertainment magazine The Scene. While I'm not doing this column anymore, I'm still as involved as I can be in the Fort Collins area music scene in general.

This edition’s topic: Why Do We Do This?

As musicians, we’ve all asked ourselves this. It’s a pragmatic and valid question. Let’s start with a few negatives that theoretically should stop us before we even entertain any aspirations of playing music professionally: The odds of actually earning a living as musicians are stacked overwhelmingly against us. The music business in general has scaled down to roughly one third of what it used to be only a decade ago and shows no sign of fully recuperating. The overhead cost of performing and touring is soaring due to high fuel costs and a troubled economy. Even devoting the time to hone your skills is a never-ending challenge, unless you are independently wealthy or you have no other life at all. – I’ve been in the latter category a few times and admit so unabashedly.

We know the odds, yet still we gather in someone’s garage or cramped rehearsal space to forge ahead with our goals to “make it.” Every year a handful of bands do just that. They somehow acquire decent instruments, write, rehearse and play their collective asses off. They earn a fan base, get the attention of one of the remaining record labels, and manage to get a deal. From the point of view of someone who has been through that music biz gristmill several times…if you really believe in yourself and feel you have something to offer to the music fans of the world, never give up. There were several times in my life when I put my guitar down in frustration and went back to “regular” jobs after yet another failed attempt or dead end. Each time I was miserable, until I got back in the game at least on some level. I know that someday, I will likely opt out again. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, knowing it will all end, but it’s reality. The average life span of a band is six years. We’ve gone eighteen with Cracker. Nonstop. The odds are stacked against any one band making it AND especially, against that success lasting. So why do I do this? Why do any of us do this?

I remember reading a quote from a musician long ago that went something like this: “Anyone who says they did not start a band to get laid is lying.” Although it may hold some truth, that’s a rather presumptuous take. I can honestly say that I started playing the guitar and hanging out with musicians when I was “pre-pubescent,” and it was as a direct result of what I heard on the radio. I knew I wanted to make those sounds. I was only seven when I first picked up a guitar. It wasn’t until I was around thirteen or fourteen that I had the first inklings of understanding that music-carnal connection. I was playing with eighteen and nineteen-year-old guys who made me stand in the back because they were a little embarrassed by the “kid”. Pretty girls swarmed them after we played, as my dad came to pick me up in the family station wagon. I remember Dad’s knowing look as he scoped out the scene and his words of concern as we drove away, all of it ignored as the music in my head cranked and my thoughts drifted to ways to look a little older and cooler NEXT gig.

What it all boils down to is this. If you were meant to make music in your life, then you will. There simply is no other choice. You will suffer all manner of hardship, indignity, confusion, broken relationships, and frustration. This goes for the successful and unsuccessful among us. It’s a mysterious and bumpy elevator ride and you will hit every floor. Learn from what’s there or get out and slink back down the stairwell with your tail between your legs. Remember this: John Lennon was raised by his aunt Mimi who told him, “Music is a wonderful thing but it will never make you a living.” He lived in squalor with his mates, and ate beans on toast every day until he “made it.” He eventually framed his aunt’s words and hung them on the wall of one of his splendid homes. When my own father, a.k.a. “The Colonel,” tried to encourage me to join the military for the hundredth time, my humble response paraphrased another adage, “If I have something to fall back on, I just might.” After that Dad slowly began supporting my musical aspirations wholeheartedly. Now, I admit, I might advise that my own sons and nephews actually have something to fall back on. Given those pesky odds, I know that even with sheer determination, talent, and a huge dose of timing and luck, it won’t always work out. But, if music is not your primary passion, forget it. And while I don’t have my youthful, hubris-stoked statement framed on my wall, I do have it echoing in the back of my mind when I contemplate the realities of the precarious life I have chosen. I take it one day and one step at a time. So far so good.

Uncle Johnny, over and out.