For so long back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a musician. My uncle was a musician, as were other members of my family. The distinction was that they were doing it for personal reasons, but I wanted to work my way into the music industry.
Some family members were encouraging. My mother told me that I could “major in drums in college,” which was her way of encouraging me to get a higher education.
My grandparents were the most polarizing. My grandfather told me that music was “nice and all, but how will you earn a living?” Meanwhile, my grandmother talked with me about music, encouraging me to focus on drums and bass, listening to records with me, and giving me advice. She even let me use her bass rig when I joined a punk band in college.
Those who were against me taking on this pursuit didn’t have any solid reasons why striving to get into the music business was a bad idea. From what I could tell, it was a case of their mindset regarding doing things the way your parents did, because that’s the way things are done.
An appeal to tradition did nothing to sway me.
But it was in my blood. For first grade show-and-tell, I went up to the board, picked up the teachers pointer, and pointed to the map above the chalk board. I said, “This is Hollywood, California. When I grow up, I’m going to move there and play drums. I’ll be a musician.”
Everyone laughed at me at the end of my presentation, including the teacher. They all believed it to be the dumbest thing anyone could want to do.
That was in 1971. In 1986, I finally made the move to California, spending six months in Bakersfield with some family who had just moved there, before I ventured into LA.
During my time in LA, I would encounter horrible people, such as a producer who got in my face and yelled at me, after listening to my demo. “I don’t care if your name is Ludwig von Fucking Beethoven! Hollywood doesn’t need you! Now get the fuck out of my mansion!”
I remember that guy more than most others, because that was my very first interaction in the Los Angeles / Hollywood area.
I would press on, pursuing my dream, for 33 years. And while I have been in Oregon for almost two years, I still have the itch to make music. Right now, I’m just waiting for the pandemic to come to an end so that I can get out again and at least meet other musicians for an open jam, if nothing else.
Although I got in some interesting bands and made some decent music, I never made it in the industry. In fact, the most money I ever made in music was during my second year of college with my punk band. Everything after that was breaking even, if I was lucky.
For a long time, I was really rough on myself for being a failure. In America, we are taught the lie of “rugged individualism,” in tandem with another lie known as “success based on merit.” The idea is that you are 100% responsible for your own success and failure, and if you don’t get somewhere, then you are lacking in merit.”
Of course, this is NOT how American Capitalism works at all. Being good at something does not mean that you will find success in a career. Additionally, doing a great job does not mean that you will get a raise or a promotion.
At the same time, lacking in talent does not mean that you can’t get somewhere. There are people in the “music industry” right now who cannot play an instrument or write out sheet music. They have producers doing everything for them, and then they take all of the credit.
So much of “success” in the music industry depends heavily upon who you know, where you are, timing, and other attributes that can all be distilled and filed under the label of “luck.”
When I was just a kid, I had no idea how corrupt the music business was. My ex-guitar teacher, Zoot Horn Rollo, had a handful of big albums, and had done several world tours. He realized that he had achieved these things while he was standing in line to get food stamps, and hoping that his mom’s check was in the mail so that he could make rent.
He’s in the Rolling Stone list of Top 100 Guitarists of All Time, and I probably made more money in the music business than him, not counting his teaching gig.
And then there were bands, like Badfinger, who got ripped off so bad that lives were literally lost.
Musicians had eventually become the lower-run ditch diggers of the industry. They became the least important and lowest paid.
Recently, Alex Van Halen talked about how, in the old days you would get a dollar every time you sold a record. Today, you get 50 cents for 275,000 streams. You can read about that here.
Yes, it is possible to have a viral hit song and earn almost nothing for it.
The music business, once a shameful scam, has officially died. What you are witnessing now is the maggots feasting upon the puss-filled remains of the corpse.
And in every business, the consumers play a big role in how things happen. Most people have NO respect for music or musicians. Yes, they might be fans. But they will also say really dumb things, like, “Music should be free because it doesn’t really cost anything to make. I mean, you just hit RECORD on the deck, play the music, and that’s it.”
My response to that would be to show them the $70,000 worth of bills, for what it cost to record an 8-song CD, with full production, mixing, glass mastering, art production, product production and distribution.
Guess how much money we made on that? Nothing.
People will then declare that, “It must not be very good if you didn’t make any money.” This is a highly false belief. William Hung has a GOLD RECORD. This is not the case for many musicians I know, many of whom I believe to be better than most in the industry.
This fact alone speaks volumes about not only the industry, but the fans as well.
In summary, the music industry is dead and the commercial music fans are shitty. So why play music? Why do I continue to be a musician.
A big part of it is selfish, in that playing music is something that I find fulfilling. Beyond that, it helps me regulate certain things, such as OCD stimming. It’s my only true social outlet; the only way I meet new people. Everyone I meet or have met is due to my being a musician and performing.
When I’m playing music, I’m having a great time, and so are the people in the venue.
It becomes a situation where some great memories can be built.
Music is therapeutic.
Music build community.
Music creates opportunity.
Music can wash away a bad day, or make a good day even better.
Music fuels creativity for everyone.
The list goes on.
The last thing anyone needs to talk about with regard to music is money. Sure, people like to get paid for their work. In the music industry, you don’t get paid. Certainly, I’d appreciate it if I could break even.
At some venues in Los Angeles, you have to PAY them to play the show.
So if you want to play at The Whisky on The Sunset Strip, management will set up a 25-minute set for you, for the “low price” of about $600. Then they give you about $1,000 worth of tickets, which you have to sell. Anything you make beyond the $600 that you are repaying to yourself is all yours.
Good luck selling those tickets to a population of people who are constantly being asked to buy tickets or being given flyers by 20 bands per day, every day, for decades on end. You will encounter a great deal of rejection, generally speaking. Few bands can consistently sell big ticket numbers.
However, a good number of people will show up if they were going to the venue anyway and you happen to be there. Over time, having people there was more important than making a profit. Breaking even became my eventual goal.
A RUDE AWAKENING
I went fishing one weekend with some people, and we went out on the lake on his boat.
While out, we saw this professional fisherman. He was standing on the deck of his boat, doing his thing. It looked like a ton of work. The big thing I noticed is that he did not appear to be happy at all. It was as if his job required him to be there, which was literally the case.
After witnessing this, my brain and mouth worked on their own and said something that surprised me. “Damn, looks like he ruined something that he loved by making it his job.”
I would have loved to make music performance my job, my career, my profession. While I lamented that I never made it that far, my own statement gave me a new perspective. It’s a good thing when I educate myself.
In my educated opinion, based on decades of experience, it didn’t matter that I didn’t make it in the music industry. The music industry has been dying ever since Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” took it temporarily off life support.
The response to this could be the idea that there are people in the music business right now making big money. Well, some are making big money. Typically it’s producers or anyone who holds the publishing rights to songs. And as I write this, big-name musicians are selling of their publishing rights for cash payments because they can’t tour, can’t make money, and are desperate. The K-shaped economy continues to claim its victims, but I digress.
The way I see it, our economy has been rigged for close to 50 years, and it has been getting progressively worse as time passes. We are now in the throes of End-Stage Capitalism, which will not end well for the majority of people on the planet.
The American way of measuring success with money is faulty, flawed, and immoral. This measure is not an accident, and serves to SHAME people into working more so that they can make more money, so they can fit in socially or appear to have some kind of value.
Human beings have value, and this is NOT tied to their work, or ability to work. I know too many disabled people who cannot work, and they feel like they are worthless; a burden upon society. This is morally wrong, and needs to stop.
But it won’t stop because it’s too profitable.
I could go deeper into the tangent that is the broken, corrupt, and gamed American Capitalism system, but I’ve already said enough. It’s shit. Done.
When I can get work, I work my ass off. My life has been a series of jobs that I work. All along the way, I would always have a band to play gigs, or I’d play at an open mic. If I felt really lazy, I’d go out for Karaoke with my chiropractor.
If I didn’t have music in my life, then my story would be nothing more than a series of jobs where I worked, got paid less than I was worth, and was then let go when I was of no further use to those who got wealthy off my efforts.
What a pathetic life THAT would have been!
Instead, I have stories. I’ve met people. I’ve done things. I’ve been in bands with people I admire. The last one was a little band called “The Wrong Dots,” fronted by Robbie Rist, best known as “Cousin Oliver” on The Brady Bunch.
I could rattle on and keep sharing pictures, but maybe I’ll share more another time. I don’t know how to end this one, so I’m going to do so by sharing a video of me performing with Robbie and the band, playing a cover of a fun little song about cannibalism, written by the “Pina Colada” guy himself, Rupert Holmes.