A Musical Voice In The Wilderness: Lessons from the Music Business

I’ve been kicking around the music business for a long time now. Played my first paying gig when I was just thirteen, well over fifty years ago. In all the gigs over all the years, there are very few regrets. Some bad decisions but that just mirrors life in general. I always felt regret is a wasted energy, like, why didn’t I play a minor cord there?  

In all those years, I’ve seen some enormous changes and none more than the last fifteen or twenty years in particular. When you are witness to history, you are not always immediately aware that it is history in the making. The turning of the worm to which I speak is the evolution of analog to digital. For those who know only digital, it’s not so self evident. The change was akin to a slow nuclear blast. It completely destroyed everything around and so many years later strange and wonderous new things started to grow. Record companies have become nothing more than court eunuchs even though they still like to strut their self importance and their grand influence on the industry. Truth be told, they have evolved into an appendage of little value like tonsils and your appendixes. A cute evolutionary bump in the road. 

One thing that has remained the same is the cast of characters that still inhabit this world. It’s like a casting call for a Fellini film or the hordes that used to follow the  Roman armies on their conquests of foreign lands. Con artists, prostitutes, drug dealers, pimps, and swindlers. Where ever there is a successful musician or group, you are bound to find the hangers-on. That part has never changed and probably never will. It's just a part of the rich pageant called the music industry. Good musicians, bad musicians, fraud musicians and genius musicians. I find, in the end, it all balances out. It can't be all geniuses, that would be far too boring. What would music be like if everyone was Mozart? I call it the hand of nature, sort of like Darwin's theory that life finds a way, no matter what. 

What I find interesting about today’s young musicians is their zeal. Despite fewer and fewer venues, hideously low pay and far too many groups chasing the same dream, they are out there trying to reinvent themselves and their music. The Darwin theory again. The downside, in my opinion, is that you don’t learn to be a musician sitting at home doing scales, you don’t learn the craft of being a musician in a rehearsal, you learn the kills of being a musician and a band on stage. That’s where the rubber meets the road and the entertainer is born. My observation is that this generation of musicians while technically great, lack the onstage experience that incubates into entertainment, which is what we are in the end. By the time I got to college I was already a battle hardened, road seasoned stage ready sideman. I meet young aspiring musicians who are in their mid twenties and they are green as hell. I can pick them out in a heartbeat no matter how hard they try to cover up or bullshit their way into a gig. It’s not their fault, it’s just the nature of the beast these days. A lot of my peers have no time for this wave of artists but they have to start somewhere. I think the modern day musician is swimming in muddied waters not realizing the difference between a side man and an artist. Steve Gadd once said technique doesn’t mean shit if you can’t play a backbeat and lock it in. That’s what a seasoned sideman can do and is a piece of the puzzle that’s missing presently. 

The vast shore that I was able to stand on and learn from is steadily disappearing and musicians will have to morph into something completely different all together. They will have to be even more self reliant and more multi instrumental and learn how to adapt to far different kinds of environments.