Special Issues » 2009 Music Guide

Shut Up 'n' Play Yer Guitar

A veteran's perspective on life in the music business



From the moment I saw my first rock 'n' roll show at a sixth grade sock hop, I wanted to play guitar professionally in a band. Nothing else has ever made as much sense to me. Little rock 'n' roll seeds are planted like this around the world every day. And every once in a while, one of these seeds will take root and sprout, and the world will have yet another one out there rocking proper and inspiring a new batch of seedlings.

But it's not automatic. Just because you want to rock, it doesn't mean you can or will. It's not for everyone. Like Jack Black's character said in School of Rock, "Rockin' ain't no walk in the park." It takes a lot more than most people are willing to give or to handle to make the dream come true. Even if you do get there, it's more of a bitch than you most likely bargained for. By most accounts, it's not really even worth it. Show business is a cruel mistress, and the music scene is her red-headed stepchild.

But for some of us, doing anything other than making music is not an option. Honestly, even with all the bullshit that goes with it, I'd rather be dead than do anything else. I know I'm not alone when I say that music is life. And life is music. They are one and the same and cannot exist without the other. That's why every town in the world has a handful of die-hard, misunderstood, seemingly-misguided poor souls out there fighting for the cause at all costs, night after dreary night.

Many people would ask who the hell am I to be giving advice to anyone on the subject. I understand that. I am barely a tadpole in a puddle. But I've been in the puddle for a very long time.

Like anything else in life, music is something that you have to work at. You will have to spend years in the woodshed learning your ax. The more you put into it, the more you will get out of it. We are magnets, and when we are aligned, we pull goodness to us.

Once you have your chops down, you have to decide which route you want to take. Really knowing yourself and your strengths and weaknesses will help you make that choice. If you know your specialty and you bust your ass at it, there is a spot somewhere for you. If you can lay down some funky bass and you can get gigs and fix shit, or run sound, you will be more valuable than you would be if you could just lay down some funky bass.

You may be more technically minded so you may go with studio or live sound engineering or tech work. You may have a knack for organizing so promotion or management may be for you. Or you may have the muscle for humping gear.

On the creative end, you may write and sing well, so you might want to take the original route. In which case, you will probably need to have a flexible straight job (like in food and bev) that helps you keep the bills paid while you get your act together. Or you may not really write or sing; you may be a shredder and you may not want to hump for the man with a straight job, so you may take the sideman or session man route, putting together or joining a working band and gigging your ass off.

I actually took both routes, getting working band gigs to fund my original projects. Though my original work is probably taken less seriously for having done a lot of commercial gigs, I haven't had a straight job in a very long time. (For me, this goes a long way. I was miserable when I was humping for the man.) Some people may look down on playing in a party band at a chicken-wing joint, but I built a studio with party-band chicken-wing money.

Unfortunately, original material is not always well received or embraced. Most people want lively, upbeat, familiar shit they can dance and get drunk to. My thinking has always been if people want to hear "Brick House," and they are willing to pay a lot for it, then I'll do that and then take that bread and do something that I want to do with it. Like make records. Or buy a house. (And if I have to play "Brick House," then I play the ever-loving shit out of it). Ain't nothing wrong with getting paid to get down on a cover song. Don't frown on it. Get down on it.

Another good thing to know is that even in rock 'n' roll, etiquette is important. Don't be an asshole. If people can't stand being around you, your phone won't ring no matter how good you are. I know plenty of cats that can really play that can't get gigs because nobody wants to work with them. You can't buy or fake likability, but if you want a gig, you can at least learn how to not be unlikable.

A good work ethic goes a very long way, too. Consideration, promptness, responsibility, and establishing and keeping a good rapport with everyone in the club involved (from the dishwasher to the doorman) is crucial. There are a lot of very slack fuckers in music, and it really brings the bar way down. Believe me, you do not want a bad reputation. It is hard to live down. And remember: you are only as valuable as your last fuck up. So don't fuck up.

Keep your rig tight. Replace your ghetto-ass cords and your bunk-ass drum heads and cracked cymbals. Make sure your amp works. Get it fixed when it craps out. And, for the love of God, please keep your ax in tune. Don't be the dude that never makes it to sound check or rehearsal, or that drinks up the tab or smokes up everybody else's weed, or that never learns the whole song, or that can never keep his phone bill paid, or never returns calls, or can't keep his calender straight, or ditches gigs at the last minute, or that plays too loud.

It will also serve you well to let all the ego stuff go. For the artist, this is much easier said than done because you wouldn't even want to be on stage if you didn't have an ego. In show biz, your ego can be your biggest obstacle. You have to learn to get yourself and your attachments out of the way. Look at the big picture. Don't worry about some bullshit role or the acknowledgment or recognition or the pat on the back that you probably never got growing up. And do not look at making music as a competition. If you are competing in art, then you are losing.

If you choose music as a life, you will probably stay broke. You will probably have to deal with stupid, never-ending, amateur night bullshit. You will probably end up playing in bars for $100 a night to young, drunk fools who want to hear "Brown Eyed Girl." You will probably scrape by week-by-week, and you will probably get fucked over by unreliable bandmates and shit-talking, double-booking, coked-up bar owners and grumpy, technically-intimidating asshole sound men-slash-failed-musicians with PAs that sound like ass on a nightly basis. You will probably get overlooked and deemed "not cool enough" by the stuck-up, lazy hacks at the local paper who never get your listings right and can never remember how to spell your fucking name no matter how many years you have busted your ass. You will probably spend years and tens of thousands of dollars and pour every ounce of your being into albums that 95 percent of the people you give them to will throw away without ever even listening to. You will probably not only not be taken seriously, but you will probably even be mocked. You will probably bust your ass for 10 or 20 years and never really ever "make it" — no matter how good your songs are or how much you can wail. This is a very sad and frustrating fact. The reality of the music business is very hard and very cold.

Something else you need to know is that you have to hustle. In the music business, if you aren't lucky enough to get a record deal, then you are completely on your own. No one will help you with anything. So you have to get off your ass and do it all for yourself. You have to write songs, learn songs, get the gigs, put the band together, and keep it together (good luck with that one). You have to manage, promote, record, distribute, and transport everything yourself. And you will probably have no help from your slack, ungrateful asshole bandmates. You will probably end up having to provide, transport, and run your own sound for many gigs as well. (Watch how good your band gets at showing up right after you get finished humping the PA in and setting it up.) You have to do all this tedious left-brained shit while you are trying to stay creative and inspired and productive. It's a real bitch trying to do all of that at once.

Trying to come up with a bridge for a new song after having spent all day on the phone trying to get gigs and rounding up a drummer because yours is MIA (again) and writing charts for the new bass player and fixing a broken mic stand is a very tall order. But since you have no one to help you, if you want the gig, you have to learn how to keep all those plates spinning up in the air. It ain't always pretty, but it can be done.

It is also crucial to stay inspired. You cannot let yourself fall into the trap of getting lazy with your talents or taking them for granted. If you are an artist, your main job is to keep the fire burning. Keep seeking out new music. Keep listening and learning and growing. Keep evolving personally and artistically. When you do this, all the things about the business that would be a drag will be tolerable because you still have passion for your thing. And what would be a chore becomes a labor of love. Stuff that seems like bullshit is really just a small tax you have to pay for living the dream. If you are really burning, none of that stuff really matters. Do what you have to do to keep burning. Try to stay productive and creative and positive. There are things you can do to keep your light shining bright. Growing musically, eating right, exercising, ditching emotionally and physically toxic shit, and perhaps getting more in touch with your spiritual side can help get you aligned and inspired. And if you are an artist, then inspiration is everything. You will be happy. Your art will kick ass. You and your art will inspire others. Your phone will ring.

Success is relative and measured differently by everyone. If you get the chance to make music on any level — from the garage to Madison Square Garden — that is success. Every song you write, every beautiful moment you have getting down with your buds in the jam room, every ticket or record or T-shirt you sell, every kid you inspire is a little more icing on the cake.

Though the music business is not for everyone, if you hear the call, I say go for it. Even with all the bullshit. Life is short. You have to let it all hang out.

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