Thursday, October 27, 2005

How to not be a rock star


In speaking to an audience of musicians, it's important to be realistic. They're dreamers. This is a fact exploited by the majority of popular literature and media for musicians. Looking back at my music-themed bookshelf, I see way too much "How to Be a Rock Star" fantasizing and not enough reality.

The more mundane (but supposedly indispensable) "Everything You Need to Know About Whatever" books quickly collect dust once the lay reader stumbles upon the percentage of gross mechanical royalties the producer receives before recouping. Say what?

But even the cooler, more down-to-earth books, like the ball-busting classic Confessions of a Record Producer, are still geared towards a musician's lust for rock stardom. The book details the many ways in which unsuspecting young artists can be viciously exploited by the money-hungry recording industry, but it's nothing more than recreational reading for the vast sea of musicians that will never see a recording contract.

It's not that the fantasy of rock stardom has a wholly negative connotation; both Kurt Cobain and I rocked out on our cheap guitars in front of the mirror facing thousands of imaginary fans. Even rock stars have rock star fantasies. Whether you're a celebrity or an amateur, being a musician is about communicating with people on a level that can't be reached by any other means. It's the same for every artist, from Sony Records to the sidewalk.

Fame and fortune signify to many musicians successful communication. This is a media and industry distortion. The quality of music must come before its quantity. Successful communication -- "good music" -- is about quality. Quantity (album sales) should follow from popular acceptance of "good music". Instead, quantity follows from public demand that is just as manufactured as the product being sought. Quality is an afterthought; it's an extra bonus if less than half the album sucks.

And that brings us full circle. Ask any musician and they'll tell you that music, on the whole, sucks these days. The "music" they speak of in the general sense is whatever's "popular" or "mainstream" or "selling millions of records while the rock stars bathe in champagne and I eat Ramen." Aspiring artists hear the media conglomerate broadcast pipe vomiting plastic pop at the supermarket and, fortunately for us, reach for the guitar before the gun. They make music to create noise in the system and interrupt the bland frequencies that listeners are inundated with.

It's no surprise, then, that musicians can be a conflicted, bitter bunch. The majority of them carry unfulfilled dreams of becoming rock stars. Paradoxically, the reason they keep playing music is because rock stars suck! They hate the mainstream yet yearn to direct its current with music of their own.

I think a lot of musicians subconsciously recognize that their rock star odds are low and even if they do get lucky, the house always wins. It only takes a few days on the road to realize you've gotta pay to play. But it's time for musicians to bravely confront the world beyond rock stardom: the real world, where the majority of musicians are independent and struggling to realize their dreams.

This world bears no resemblance to the set of American Idol. It looks more like your local music shop, VFW hall, suburban basements, cramped rehearsal rooms, music college campuses, open mic nights, dirty 15-passenger vans and small clubs.

This is the audience I want to write for. It's who I am, and it's who I want to reach out to. In the world of music, we are the creative majority. It's time to drop the rock star myth. We're over that. If it happens, it happens. Being a rock star is no more of a career choice than being a racecar driver. You only have to prove you're good and get a few lucky breaks. Winning is secondary to playing.

I've never seen a royalty check, but I'll still play the guitar in front of the mirror, imagining 1,000 screaming fans. 999 of them won't be at my show tomorrow. I'm playing for the one who will. Maybe they'll tell a friend. Maybe they'll buy a T-shirt.

If all you want to do is be a rock star, you'll spend thousands on musical equipment and years of your life to reach semi-unemployed creative purgatory. If you acknowledge your humble role as communicator and accept the responsibility of taking care of yourself... you might sell a T-shirt and the band can go out for pancakes after the show.

What's it gonna be? Purgatory or pancakes?

Monday, October 10, 2005

"Can you imagine? States of mind have sounds?!"

Today I found a great blog via the The Association of Music Writers and Photographers (AMWP) newsletter. This BeatnikPad post titled "Cool musicians who blog" was an eye-opening look at the fiercely creative minds of some truly visionary artists.

I was hooked the moment I entered David Byrne's online journal and read the following conclusion to a post on the philosophical implications of Japanese linguistics:

Can you imagine? States of mind have sounds?! Concepts have sounds!? Who’d ‘a thunk it? It this a kind of synethesia? So therefore a musical composition (musique concrete, most likely) COULD be a real map or analogy or model of a progression of concepts —a sonic map of a progression of thoughts… sometimes proceeding one after another, in traditional logical fashion, and sometimes overlapping, rushing onward, and sometimes happening simultaneously — as sounds certainly do, an maybe thoughts too? Each sound corresponds to an idea or concept, and then logically (or not) leads on to the next… eventually arriving as some sonic/psychic conclusion. Or merely an ending. Who needs philosophy? Who needs books? We have sounds."


Right? Crazy! And the list goes on... There's the photo-rich blog from The Doves and Tony Levin, the megastar modesty of Radiohead's journal or the spiritual outlook of Ben Lee. It was encouraging to note that the blogs, for the most part, were genuine and authentic attempts to a) connect with their audience and b) satisfy the uniquely postmodern, Digital Age appetite for content. Not coincidentally, the all, for the most part, make amazing, original, authentic, moderately popular music.

The blog strikes me as a standard feature of an artist's arsenal, both to unsigned and independent musicians and those on indie and major labels alike. Yes, occasionally these blogs become acts of admitted self-obsession, such as Rivers Cuomo from Weezer (on MySpace no less) or celebrity political rants from Moby (though he at least deserves credit for being one of the first musician-bloggers.) But in the general sense, the blog in an indispensable if not only for the fact that is so free and easy to use and pays large dividends in the attention your music will receive if your fans are involved on a more personal level.

If music is about communication before it is about profit, then the music with be better and the profit will thus grow larger as listeners buy more music. But if music is about profit first, all the communication manipulation in the word (i.e. marketing and promotion budgets) cannot restore the creative and aesthetic luster of the dull, repetitive, derivative, mass-produced sonic product that dominates the marketplace today. Besides, musicians promoting each other on their blogs edges out the authenticity of, say, Macy Gray wearing a dress to the MTV Music Awards that says "Buy My Album in July".

The musician blog is one step forward into what Jacques Attali (author of the book that I'm currently reading that's rocking my whole world -- Noise: The Political Economy of Music -- more on that in a future blog) referred to as a new phase in musical development, a methodology based on composition in which music listeners are also the musicians themselves as the musical experience becomes interactive. The blog is a harbinger of this trend as it opens a direct line of communication between musician and listener. As is seen in MP3 blogs, independent authors can thrive in extremely small niche communities. For musicians, this can mean an instant connection with listeners and industry people, which translates into greater musical and economic prosperity. With greater prosperity comes greater participation, and those who have important musical contributions to make to our culture will gain new opportunities in communication and remuneration.

My advice to serious musicians of the 21st Century: you have two instruments at your disposal... the one that you play and the one that you control with a keyboard and mouse. Individually, they are the two most powerful weapons of change in the known world. Together, you are unstoppable.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Of blogs and books

By now I'm sure you're used to seeing a blog go black for a month here and there, and mine was no exception. I've been working on some exciting projects related to the future of the music industry. I'm still following all the major developments -- you can check out my bookmarks here to view articles of note.

I have also started work on a short book / website which will be along the lines of a 'Careers in the Music Industry' employment manual, but with a strong editorial direction towards debunking industry myths and describing how independent artists and entrepreneurs can create their own careers with the aid of new technology.

Expect the blog to be back in action soon as my writing muscle becomes strong enough to lift the paragraphs into place.