29 July 2008

Glass Houses

Yesterday's PPMB "earning a living from your music" discussion has died down a bit, but bits of outrage and hurt feelings are still flaring up, most frequently in the form of "What makes you think I wanted to make a living from my music anyway?"

Fair enough, and given that it's not unheard of these days for pop punk musicians to have second (or first, depending how you're counting) careers as lawyers, teachers, real estate appraisers and God knows what else, why indeed would we expect someone to trade a secure and comfortable job - especially if it's one for which they're still paying off the student loans - for the considerably riskier prospect of traveling around the country in an old van and quite literally singing for one's supper?

Some of the musicians I worked with in the 80s and 90s ended up as lawyers and professors - MTX's Aaron Rubin and Sweet Baby's Dallas Denery come to mind - but that usually came after, not during or before their musical careers. The great majority were young, barely if at all employed, and with few if any prospects. As Billie Joe Armstrong put it when I interviewed him in 2001:

At that point I'd been playing music my whole life anyway. I knew that I would end up playing music regardless...I just didn't want to be one of those guys driving around in a car with a bumper sticker that said "Real Musicians Have Day Jobs."
But being that committed to playing music had its price: for Green Day it meant years of living wherever the rent was cheap or nonexistent, long rides in vans to play shows where there might or might not be an audience or a paycheck, and complete, utter uncertainty about what, if anything, the future might hold for them.

And they had it relatively easy compared with many bands; by the time they'd been around three or four years, at least some money was coming in from record sales. By contrast, the Offspring's "overnight" success took a full 11 years, and many of us know someone or several someones who are prodigiously talented and should be internationally famous and rich beyond their wildest dreams from playing music, yet never made it beyond the coffeehouse or bar band circuit.

So it's a crap shoot, though perhaps not as much of a crap shoot as some would have you believe. When I hear people say, "Oh, Green Day were lucky, they just happened to be in the right place at the right time," it kind of makes my blood boil, because they were pure and simply a great band who were totally committed to their music and getting that music heard by the world. They would have been successful in whatever time or place they found themselves.

But that's not actually what I meant to talk about today: what I realized from the reaction to some of the comments I made here and on the PPMB is that musicians can get very touchy indeed if someone suggests that they're not doing as much as they could to advance their music or their careers, and on further reflection, I don't blame them at all for being mad at me. Not just because everyone has to make his or her own decision about how much of their life they can stake on the dream of playing music full time, but even more because my self-righteous pronouncements masked a considerable degree of hypocrisy on my own part.

It's not that I'm not personally pursuing a career as a musician, and never seriously did, even when I was in bands. My audiences, or lack thereof, made it clear that my ultimate destiny lay elsewhere. True, being in a band and playing to people who enjoyed our music (it really did happen sometimes!) was one of the best and most exciting things I've ever done, and would still qualify as my idea of a dream job, even today.

My talents apparently lay elsewhere, though, and for a while that elsewhere involved helping other bands to get their music heard by the public. It wasn't quite as exciting as being a pop star myself, but it was what I seemed to know how to do, at least until I walked away from it for reasons that aren't completely clear to me even now. But when I left the music business, my motives, muddled as they might have been, were largely about wanting to do something creative myself instead of facilitating other people's creativity, and the thing I most envisioned doing was writing.

Of course I'd been writing for many years already; Lookout Records itself was an outgrowth of Lookout magazine, which I'd started publishing in 1984. Ironically, as things turned out, I ended up writing less once I'd "retired" from the record company than I did during those years when I was supposedly too busy to do so.

During that time at least a dozen friends have written and published books; I've helped out with proofreading or editing on some of them, but haven't come close to producing one of my own. Well, I've written one, a rather lengthy memoir, but after two agents passed on it - and in retrospect, I can see why - I gave up, threw the manuscript in a box under the bed and forgot about it.

Well, mostly forgot about it; occasionally I'd dredge it up in my memory and brood about it for a while. Meanwhile, I've come up with at least two other ideas for books and apart from drawing up a partial outline for one, done absolutely nothing about them. As it stands, I can barely muster up the initiative to write more than a small fraction of the blog posts that occur to me.

I don't have that many demands on my time. I don't have a job, and don't have to have a job, although given the extraordinary cost of living in New York City, I could certainly use some extra income, the sort of income that could be generated by writing a few magazine articles or the like. Instead, I find myself mulling over the idea of moving to some small town in the South or Midwest where I could live for a half or a quarter of what it costs me here.

How is that different from a musician sticking with a lousy dead-end day job instead of throwing himself wholeheartedly into his music? Well, for one thing, the musician could end up homeless if the music doesn't start paying off fairly quickly, whereas I could spend the next ten years collecting rejection slips and still be reasonably certain of where my next meal is coming from and where I'm going to lay my head that night.

So while we both might have a certain degree of cowardice in common, my own would seem to be far more egregious. What, after all, do I have to fear, apart from rejection, and any collateral damage that might wreak on my ego? It's not like my ego has ever done me any great favors anyway; on the contrary, it's been directly responsible for most of the misfortunes and misadventures that have assailed me thus far in life.

Maybe I'm just lazy? I have no trouble whiling away whole days reading message boards or newspapers from half a dozen countries, all the while seated at the very same computer I could be using to write my own stuff. Whole days can go by without my having produced anything of substance apart, perhaps, from a rather substantial grudge against myself for being so useless.

But laziness, procrastination, whatever you want to call it, is just another form of fear, the way I see things. The same goes for self-defeating attitudes, the kind that have you telling yourself, "Well, nobody really wants or needs to know what I have to say anyway."

It may very well be true that I've got nothing important to say, or lack the skills to say it in a sufficiently interesting way. So what? I'm not forcing anybody to read my writing, and at least so far, am not even making an effort to convince anybody they should. It might be worth wondering why I still feel the need to write at all, but on second thought I've been doing that all my life.

The crux of the matter, though: until I put my own ass on the line by trying to make a go of my own long dreamed of writing career, I'm on pretty shaky ground when it comes to hectoring young musicians to show more commitment to theirs. So I apologize, and at the same time invite you to turn things around and nag me about when I'm going to finish that book/article/memoir/blog post. It's no less than I deserve, and hell, as much of a pain as it might be at times, you'd be doing me a favor.


Pieter said...

When I was younger I grew up with punk-rock and GD and lots of other bands inspired me to started playing drums in punk bands and I was convinced this was the only thing I should do in my life ... some years later I became a Police officer. While many of my 'old' friends turned backs on me because of me joining the Police was a hard thing, but trying every day to help out people and staying true to myself, my beliefs is the hardest most 'punk' thing I ever had to cope with... Integrity is a very thin line for me on the job, punk-rock and its beliefs I still believe in and doing the job correct ... inspiring post here ... greetings, Pieter - ainpieter@hotmail.com -

colin said...

Sometimes it is really hard to make any sort of living in music without making any big sacrifices. I've been a struggling musician for years, not making a dime, and now trying to pay my way through college. It doesn't work. I (unfortunately) realized a while ago that unless you are willing to sacrifice your potential future, music has to be a second priority. Oh yeah, and you should definitely keep trying to publish that book.

Anonymous said...

come to Springfield, IL, Larry. Nice slipaway from St Louis, Chicago, Champaign, etc

Christen said...


(remember me?)