Sunday, November 13, 2016

Dog Eats Dogma (Disc Makers Style)

How do you do, I don't think we've met
My name's Ian, and we're Minor Threat
I count on music to be a good bet
Catch me counting after every set (yeah, yeah)
--Minor Threat ("Cashing In")

The important moments of any conversation are the unsaid ones. That certainly applies to a chat I had with a fellow musician, back in the '90s, when the alternative rock gold rush was underway. We shared the same practice space in Grand Rapids, so it was impossible not to get caught up in the fever, especially after hearing -- via another band's drummer -- that Green Day had just signed to Warner Brothers! Just then, the energy in the room audibly perked ramped up. You could feel the excitement rippling through everyone: God, I hope that's me one day! Maybe there's something to this rock 'n' roll dream after all.

My friend felt differently. Things weren't going well with his band,  the first one he was trying to lead. One weekend, the guitarist insisted on going off to see the Grateful Dead -- now well into their ugly twilight era, with Jerry Garcia crumbling from heroin addiction before the eyes of all those adoring Deadheads. Apparently, the guitarist wanted to see what the phenomenon was all about -- an odd priority for someone playing in a punk-garage band, perhaps, but human nature is often hard to fathom.

However, this burning desire to experience the decaying Dead conflicted with a gig that didn't promise to pay much, but might definitely pay something. My friend  begged, cajoled, even threatened, but the guitarist held fast. Band be damned, gig be damned; he'd bought his ticket, and that was that. To his everlasting chagrin (and outright resentment), my friend scrapped the gig.

Bigger problems loomed with the drummer, who had problems controlling a tempo. 
Instead of paying attention to his "day job" -- as in, practicing regularly, so you don't get tired, and tempos don't waver all over the place -- Drummerguy preferred to spend much of his down time playing his preferred instruments (guitar and keyboards). While that policy maintained his status as the second main songwriter, it didn't help the band gel instrumentally as a unit.

So I popped the obvious question: "Well, if those guys are giving you so much grief, why not get rid of them, and find more compatible people? If you write and sing two-thirds of the songs, it's your band, plain and simple. Make it your band."

"I know," my friend agreed. "But if I did that, I'd go right back to square one: a frustrated bass player trying to convince total strangers to fall in line with his vision. You know how that one goes." I duly conceded his point.

Not long afterwards, though, the band fizzled out, amid a flurry of ultimatums from Dummerguy. His demands included a change of the band's name, plus additional air time for his songs (that took up a third of the set, as it was). According to my friend, this final crunch came a week after an unproductive demo session that failed to yield acceptable versions of two of Drummerguy's songs. Apparently, the guy who sang so effortlessly from behind the kit couldn't nail his vocals when the red light blinked on. 
Fed up and frustrated, my friend rejected the ultimatums out of hand. These days, he mainly works solo. After seeing what he went through, I understand why.

Forget honesty, forget creativity
The dumbest buy the mostest,
That's the name of the game
But record sales are slumping,
And no one will say why...
Could be it one they've put out one too many lousy records?
--Dead Kennedys ("MTV Get Off The Air")

That's not how Disc Makers sees it, however. Typically, I discard their articles after they roll out into my inbox, but this time, the headline -- "Your Musical Talent (Isn't Enough To Make It In The Music Business") -- caught my attention. So did the telltale lead-in: "Your brilliant musical talent (imagined or otherwise) is worthless unless you understand how to stand out in the crowded marketplace. So what does what it take? You have to hate to lose."

The first sentence is factually correct, on its face. Talent alone isn't enough: to succeed in any creative field. You definitely need timing -- think of the hair bands stranded by the grunge gold rush -- plus an attention-grabbing piece of work, and, frankly, a lot of luck. The trouble starts with the next statement ("You have to hate to lose"), which introduces the author's thesis: treat music like sports heroes treat their business. If that means throwing everybody overboard as you go, so be it.

The author goes on to reference a sports podcast (of all things) run by a guy who's written 25 books and interviewed over 2,500 major sports stars in his career. (Life's been good there, I guess.) One question always popped up in every interview, without fail: "If you could name one talent or characteristic that you believe separated you from everyone else you competed against, what would that habit or characteristic be?"

To the author, the answer is simple:
 "I found it interesting that most of the sports heroes Don spoke to didn't mention their physical or athletic gifts, at all. Instead, they articulated that they all had a fear of losing that surpassed their joy at winning. At some point in their lives, they all learned to HATE losing far more than they love winning..."  

Scratching your head at this point? I don't blame you. How many interviews have we all read with musicians who said they hated sports, kept getting into run-ins with the jocks at their high school, or picked up a guitar because the competitive angle didn't appeal to them? Tons and tons, I suspect. (There are exceptions, of course: Johnny Thunders, the late New York Dolls' guitarist, was equally adept at baseball, and good enough to get scouted for it, until he refused to cut his hair. But I digress.) 

The worst part of the article, however, comes under the final heading ("This Is Show Business, Not Show-Friendship"): "Surround yourself with the right people. This means your band. If everyone isn't on board, get rid of them. It can also include your significant other. If he or she is not adding to your success, they're detracting from it."  Ironically, the author proceeds to recount a problem with his drummer ("We went out into the parking lot and found him in his crappy-ass, rusted-out, shit-box of a pickup truck -- surrounded by a literal sea of empty beer cans").

Now, ponder that image for just a minute. Are you picturing a healthy, well-adjusted individual? Hardly! I'd say, somebody with a serious substance abuse problem that -- at the least -- needs referral to a clinic, even an intervention. But that's not how the author tackled the problem, as he proudly declares: "We did the show, he sucked, and then he was gone. No questions asked."  Remember, it's not about your ability or creativity. It's who you step on.  (For further reference, see my previous article on this subject, "The 10 Commandments Of Hipsterdom.")

I'm taking a walk on the yellow brick road
I only walk where the bricks are made of gold
My mind and body are the only things I've sold
I need a little money, 'cause I'm getting old, right?
Minor Threat ("Cashing In")

I'm not going to belabor the rest of this article, which you can read for yourself below. What's interesting is the mentality on display. It's one thing to giggle aloud at the lead-footed cluelessness that characterizes so many music industry missives; quite another, though, to see it spelled out so nakedly in print.

That being said, much of this advice reads like counsel for an '80s- or '90s-era music industry, before the Internet blew up the infrastructure. If you want a snapshot of the aftermath, check out the latest episode of "Payday" that I caught this week on VICE. The show followed four people working unconventional jobs in Reno, NV  -- including one Feeki, a self-styled "redneck rapper" who spends much of his time crafting gimmicky videos and tracks along those lines.

On one level, it's superficially impressive. As of February 2016, Feeki's Facebook page stood at 89,000 "likes," and counting, plus 2,000 Twitter followers, the Nevada Sagebrush reported. How's all that self-promotion impacted the box office? According to "Payday," Feeki's efforts have netted him $9,000, though he was about to spend $4,500 on props for his latest video -- and he's still working as a parking valet, one of many McJobs that pays minimum wage (or barely above it).

So goes life in today's musical technocracy, where fans can "like" and "share" and pat you virtually on the back forever -- but whether it inspires them to plunk down some money for your product, and escape the valet parking McJob for good, is an entirely different proposition. I felt likewise about another "Payday" subject, a young girl who focuses on producing webcam porn-- a time-intensive gig that pays just $400 per month. She's also working a McJob (naturally, she didn't say what kind) that pays the same. How her boyfriend copes, God only knows.

As these examples suggest, the reality of selling out is far more complicated and messy than the images commonly associated with it. As my friend discovered, playing with your buddies only goes so far if they don't share your sense of commitment. But I don't think the Discmakers oracle's advice would have helped him, either. As an out-of-towner, he wasn't plugged into the local music scene, so he'd have found replacements hard to come by, anyway.And that's before we drop the obvious statement here. The ease of recording and uploading original content means that barriers to entry have never been lower, even though the path to success -- as in, shedding the McJob forever -- has only gotten narrower. Most will never earn more than a part-time income, if that. 

Still, I doubt that Disc Makers' management cares one way or the other, since these types of articles are often cranked out by consultants, doing what they do best: selling a dream. It's the same mentality that fuels those never-ending audition lines for shows like "American Idol," or "The Voice," because every hopeful chants the same mantra under their breath: I can't miss. I won't fail, because I'm special. I'm the exception. Wait till you get a load of me! 

Now, if you still want in, after reading these articles, fair enough, because no power on Earth will dissuade you. Just keep one question in mind along the way, though: "What the hell's the point of selling out if you can't even reap the benefits?" --The Reckoner


Links To Go (There's No Place Like Home, So Where Am I?): Your Musical Talent Isn't Enough
(To Make It In The Music Business):

(Paste into browsesr: link's not working, for some reason)

Minor Threat: Cashing In:

Nevada Sagebrush: Reno's Redneck Rapper
Is Making Moves To Success

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