This morning I have been reading lots of recent stories about musicians selling off their catalogs to big companies or investors. The latest was Bob Dylan, who sold his catalog for $300 million.
It reminded me of when Michael Jackson out-bid Paul McCartney for the back-catalog of The Beatles, for somewhere around $50 million.
All of this got me to thinking about the concept of money, how it influences the concept of “value,” and why it should not always be the point of measure for such a concept. I’m mean, if you are BUYING something, then you will want to have an understanding of value.
But what if you’re not buying? What if you just… ARE?
CRITERIA FOR BEING A MUSICIAN
Someone once told me, to my face, “If you’re not making at least $10,000 per year at it, then you are NOT a musician.” Fortunately for me, I never again suffered the displeasure of encountering this person.
This encounter got me thinking about how people apply money as a measure to almost anything and everything. I will maintain the focus of music or musician for most of this.
Still, I will say it. In America, if you do not have money, then you are not treated as a valid human being. You are a “bum,” a “loser,” or at least a big, lazy burden who needs to grab his own bootstraps and pick himself up.
To me, the definition of a “musician” involves a person who has the ability to express themselves via music. They can play an instrument or even just use their own voice.
There are some “nice to have” features, such as reading music, understanding music theory, and engaging in formal study. I have achieved all three of these things. Still, The Beatles did not understand music theory, and Eddie Van Halen couldn’t read sheet music. Should they be discounted? Of course not!
Hell, there are people in the music industry today who cannot play an instrument, and who cannot really sing. They have lots of producers and studio musicians working on their tracks. The producers will modify the vocals to make them on-pitch and in-time.
Then they are lauded as “genius musicians.” How ironic that some who exist in the music industry have more in the way of personality than they do actual musical ability. To me, they aren’t expressing themselves, but their producers are. To be fair, they might write some or all of their own lyrics. But then declaring one’s own self to be a “genius” takes it all way too far.
To wrap up on Kanye, who became my main focus for the past few paragraphs, the guy is a decent rapper. However, he tries to sing and can’t carry a tune in a bucket, and then hails himself to be a musical genius. While he is an extreme example, he is inside the music business, he is raking in millions upon millions, and he has been worked up to the point that he sincerely believes that he’s got musical abilities that he simply does not possess.
My take is that he’s most definitely NOT a musical genius, by any stretch of the imagination. However, even in this I am fine with him calling himself a musician, and NOT because of his money.
His money doesn’t matter. What does matter is that he records tracks and goes out to perform them.
So yes, while I am no fan of Kanye West, and I am pained by his lack of ability and knowledge, I will still recognize him as a “musician.”
THE LOWER END
That’s the higher end, within the context of the music industry. What about those of us at the lower end?
I have been making music for my entire life. From the early days of drumming, when I used trash cans and other things to generate various percussive sounds, to the first grade trump recital, to high school marching band, to the theater, jazz, and pep bands, to the ISSMA state competitions, all the way up to writing, recording, and performing with bands since 1984, I felt it in my heart that I was a musician.
I studied trumpet with Gary Hoover. I studied drums with John W. McMahan and Richard Paul, and took formal lessons from players like Chad Wackerman. I studied bass with Dr. Irwin Mueller in college. I’ve taken guitar lessons from a variety of people, most recently Zoot Horn Rollo of Captain Beefheart fame.
I’ve written musicals and have been the Music Director for a few productions. I’ve played drums, guitar, bass, and keyboards in a variety of bands over the past 33+ years. I wrote an album for a singer and worked with studio musicians to get the precise sound that we wanted for the album.
And for all of this, I have no money or fame to show for any of it.
I think that fame and money are a rare thing for musicians. For every rich-and-famous musician, there are thousands of other musicians who have played the clubs, weddings, and other events that play a major role in the lives of people.
And I know way too many musicians, more talented than me, who aren’t making any significant money with music. As great as they are, they will never find fame.
Money and fame aren’t the norm in the world of music, so why use it as a measure of validity? A broke and unknown musician is just as valid as a rich and famous musician.
SOME CASE STUDIES
There are a few extreme best-case studies for my idea. One can be found in my friend, the late Nick Menza, who was a pro drummer with Megadeth for roughly 11 years. After he was let go, he never got another huge gig. For the remaining 19 years of his life, he played drums in a few bands, played guitar on a few projects, and made his living in woodworking in a drum-related shop.
Even though he was no longer in Megadeth, was no longer in a big band, and not making big money, and not releasing any new music, he was still a musician to me.
But the most extreme case is a guitarist who was also one of my music teachers, Bill Harkleroad, aka Zoot Horn Rollo of Captain Beefheart fame. His career started with Captain Beefheart in 1969.
At one point, he had a handful of albums and a few world tours under his belt, and he yet was still waiting in line for food stamps and waiting for his mother to send money to pay the rent.
He’s listed in Rolling Stone as one of the top 100 guitarists of all time, and he could barely make two pennies to rub together as a musician. He quit the music business in 1986, to work at a record store, before becoming a guitar teacher.
He never made any money, and only has niche fame, at best. Is he NOT a musician? To the contrary, he IS a musician and always will be.
My final case study is my own uncle, Kevin. He had a band in the late 60s called The Sounder. When I was very little, I would sit on a stool behind the drummer. I’d watch them play their instruments with great excitement. My uncle even wrote out the six-string F Major scale for me, which I kept for almost 10 years before I referenced it after buying my first guitar.
He was a MAJOR early influence on me as a musician.
Is he a musician?
Not anymore. He quit music, declaring it to be “a waste of time.” He married rich women and sat around. Today, he’s overweight and spends his day in a chair. He couldn’t play a chord on a guitar if his life depended on it.
One of my greatest musical inspirations is no longer a musician. Imagine that.
I have taken short breaks from music at times when life demands my total attention. But I will often think up melodies and motifs, rhythms, bass lines, and other things in my head. I’ll sing them into my phone or watch and work them up later.
That is what makes a person a musician, even when they are not making any music at all.
IN THE END
A musician is one who creates music. Nothing more. Nothing less. So long as one is creating or making sound, they are still a musician.
I’ll close this with a Zoot Horn Rollo solo track. Have a great day!