Staying Sane in the Music Business (Part 2)
Updated: Jan 17, 2022
In Part 1 of this blog series, I told the story of how a "moment of clarity" deflected me from a philosophy career into a career as a guitar player. I said,
I tell you all this because it is my training in philosophy, logic and analytical thinking that has helped me to stay sane as a musician...Life is funny that way - things that I thought were dead ends and wasted time turn out to be an integral part of what I do today, contributing in ways completely unforeseen back when I thought I was giving them up.
So how has my training in philosophy helped me survive as a musician?
For one thing, the music business is full of moral dilemmas. Being able to dispassionately think through the issues is important when dealing with them.
Booking agents tell club owners they have the perfect band for their venue. They tell the bandleaders they have the perfect venue for the band. A percentage of the time those two things line up. The more ethically-challenged booking agents don't care, they lie and get their commission whether or not the band bombs and the club loses money. Ethical booking agents are almost an oxymoron - I say, "almost" because I've known a couple of booking agents in my career that I thought had integrity.
I should write a blog on some of the more ridiculous mis-bookings I've endured.
One time a national-level booking agent I knew called me and said,
"Do you know anybody who wants to be a booking agent? I have an opening in my agency that I need to fill."
"Um..no, I can't think of anybody."
"Let me rephrase that; do you want to be a booking agent? I don't want just anybody!"
Oooh...flattery! Agents are masters at that. I said, "Thank you for the offer, I appreciate it that you would think of me but I have enough moral dilemmas just being a musician!"
He laughed because, I think, he understood. I felt that there were times when this particular agent was ethically-challenged - he pulled some pretty brutal, cutthroat maneuvers over the years. To him it was "just business." I actually broke up one of my bands to get out of a contract with this guy. But I have to say that this same agent once voluntarily returned his commission check to me when a club owner wrote me a bad check and then declared bankruptcy. The "ethics" are rarely black-and-white - it's almost always shades of grey. I worked a week for nothing and paid my band guys out of my pocket (because of my ethics) but at least I didn't have to eat the agent's commission too. I appreciated his action in that instance.
My ethics have been defined and supported in part by my training in philosophy, which has enabled me to think analytically, define the issues, accept the reality, enact the best response and compartmentalize &/or deal with the emotional fallout.
Take, for instance, the constant conflict/dichotomy between art and commerce.
The nightclub world is full of angst-ridden, unhappy, drug-addled alcoholic musicians who have been screwed over by the music business multiple times. In some cases, amazing musicians, as good as anybody in the world on their instrument.
One element out of what is usually a complex of sources for their angst is that they've not understood or accepted the fact that making money as a musician in a club is not about the music, it's about drink sales. Musicians in a nightclub are alcohol salesmen - that's their function. If you want a chance at getting booked back, the music that you play should be designed to sell drinks. The club owner has to make at least three times in drink sales what he pays the band to make the band worthwhile.
Back in the day when I was playing dance clubs every night, the strategy went like this; play 3 slammin' dance songs in a row, back-to-back. No break between the tunes so people would dance their asses off for 12 or 15 minutes. Get 'em all hot and sweaty, then chatter a little bit ("Hey guys, we appreciate you so much! Kamikazes are only a dollar!") and play a song to which no one wanted to dance so that they would all go back to their tables and order a round of drinks. If the club owner knew what he was doing, he kept the thermostat on the warm side and provided a salty party mix on each table. If the waitresses and bartenders were good, they were prepared for the rush of orders every 4th song. Get it? Musician = drink salesman. The band's job was to get the customers hot and thirsty, the rest of it was on the staff and the owner.
The same holds true in a "listening" environment as well, although the strategy is different - the goal is to get the "listeners" to buy drinks. If the venue is a restaurant the goal is to get the customers to stay an extra 20 or 30 minutes after dinner (because the music/atmosphere is so great), relax and buy another round or 2 of drinks before leaving.
If there's a significant wait time to get a table, the goal is to get the customer to leave as soon as possible so the tables turn as quickly as possible and the wait time is reduced. It's just as valuable to know what people don't want to hear as what they do want to hear. A little bit of wait time can be a good thing; it communicates that the scene there (which includes the music) is popular and people want to go there but a 3-hour wait to get a table is just costing the venue income. The restaurant manager doesn't want the band to hold a table full of people who are going to buy one more round of drinks when there are people waiting who will buy a whole round of steak dinners.
It's all about making the establishment money.
No club owner ever took me aside and explained all this to me; if you didn't make the club money you simply didn't get booked back. Nor was this something I learned at the Conservatory of Music; Drink Sales 101 was not on the syllabus - I figured it out on the gig through observation and analytical thinking.
The afore-mentioned angst-ridden musician playing the dance club thinks it's all about him and the music; the people are there because of his music and his awesomeness - they're not. They're there to party, have a good time and get laid. The musician is merely a facilitator for these activities. The angst-ridden musician continues in his unreality, unable to compartmentalize, wondering why people ignore his talent, never defining and resolving the conflict and is clueless about the source of his issues, descending into an emotional spiral resulting in all kinds of compensating mechanisms - anger, bitterness, alcohol, drugs, mental health issues etc. At some point he becomes a liability to the band and must be cut loose, thereby reinforcing his angsty downward spiral and confirming in his own mind the righteousness of his indignation. I've personally known several musicians that the end result of this process was death.
Some musicians understand the problem but emotionally, they just can't accept the reality; they live in denial, enraged at the unfairness of it all - that something as pure and wonderful as their talent and music is prostituted to sell drinks or cars or a political agenda or whatever, resulting in the same downward spiral.
"But Jay, you're talking about cover bands at some bar in Nowheresville, Nebraska, right? I'm not doing that! I'm shooting for playing my own music in venues like theaters, concert halls, auditoriums, festivals - maybe even stadiums! People at those places are there for the music!"
Yeah, ok, well...how do you think you're going to get there? Straight from your basement rehearsal space to Madison Square Garden? I hate to break it to you, but even if that were to happen (unlikely), those huge shows that tour the world where the music is the raison d'être are sponsored by companies like Ford, Budweiser, Volkswagen, Jameson Whiskey and Jaegermeister. Same dilemma. If you have a problem subjecting your musical skill/art to sell drinks at the local strip mall bar, or promote a local car dealership, you should have the same problem having your music subsidized by Ford or Jameson Whiskey. If you don't, I would say you're a hypocrite. If anything, the moral dilemma is more acute, because the stage is bigger - both literally and metaphorically.
Now there are legitimate reasons to forego the cover band in a local bar routine and hold out for the long shot bigger possibility that have nothing to do with any supposed, artificial moral dilemma involving alcohol or selling cars on either the local or the international level - it's just business strategy. I get it. There was a time when that is what I did. More power to you - go for it! Of course, some musicians have zero sense of morality...so no moral dilemmas. Lucky them.
So what is my conclusion/solution to all this and how did I arrive at it?
First of all, as I said, for some there is no dilemma. Great. One less thing. For those who have a dilemma, there is no single "right" answer. The right answer is different for different people, because people are different.
Here, in part, is my answer;
When I agree to play for money, I'm selling a product and/or providing a service. I compartmentalize that from any kind of art, personal expression or lofty ideal. I define what it is that is the goal of the music - drink sales, ambiance, promotion of a business or product? The music is a means to an end, not the end in itself. That is the default. That is the reality.
So...the question is, can I live with that? Not just live with it; be happy doing it? Can I happily subject my musical ability, my talent, my unique musical awesomeness to the endgame of selling drinks, promoting a car dealership or providing ambiance for fine dining?
If the idea of doing that makes you unhappy and frustrated, get out. Find another way to make money, and keep your music pure, free from the corruption of filthy lucre. Be happy.
For me the answer is, "Yes, I can." The reason is that, for me, the love of playing the guitar is such that it compensates for almost everything else. Once I figured that out, I realized that I am one lucky guy! (See, I Used to Love This! What Happened?) I'm happier playing a guitar in a bar, a restaurant or promoting a car dealership than I am working a non-guitar related job to make a living and playing guitar in my basement after work. If I've got a guitar in my hand I'm usually happy. I'm not limited to defining my musical self by one genre, nor am I conflicted by potential moral dilemmas concerning what my playing is being used for, or whether I like the music or not, or the depravity of the environment.
Liking a song and liking playing a song are two different things. I play songs I don't like all the time and I like playing them! I play in places I don't like and I like playing there! I just like playing.
I play music, that's what I do. Everything else is a secondary issue as far as I'm concerned. My first priority is to just play.
The love of playing the guitar pretty much negates a lot of what would otherwise be moral dilemmas for me.
Another example is playing casinos;
I consider casinos to be fairly evil places. Wanna see real zombies? Go to a casino and look for them; they're pulling the slot machine levers. Yeah, I know some people have a good time, it's entertainment, and they don't have a gambling problem (I have a friend who defines gambling as, "Voluntary taxes for people who are bad with math!"). Same thing as people who are not alcoholics; they go to a bar, have a few drinks, have fun, go home. No problem.
For me, the moral dilemma occurs when bars enable alcoholics. Consider this; casinos schedule their employee shifts based on when the social security and welfare checks are direct-deposited. That's enabling people with a gambling addiction who can't afford it to lose their social security or welfare money - I know, it's "just business."
But that doesn't stop me from playing casinos. It's just another source for gigs. I can play my guitar and I don't have to have a crap day job that I hate; I get to do what I love. The morality (or lack of it) of the surroundings is covered over or compartmentalized by the love of playing the guitar. "...love covers a multitude of sins."
Besides that, the alcoholics and gambling addicts would be there anyway - the music is not the reason they go to bars and casinos.
BTW - the social security or welfare check is my money that's being gambled away; I pay taxes. So gambling addicts are enabled by the government taxing the income I earn playing the casino. Irony strikes again.
Speaking of a multitude of sins, casinos are on the low end of the scale. I've played music in clubs owned by pimps, thieves, drug dealers and murderers. I've played at political rallies of candidates I didn't agree with and against whom I voted. I've played for strippers. I've played "sacred" music in churches the theology of which (both the music and the church) I categorically deny. I've played at swinger parties even though I'm happily married and monogamous. The oft-quoted Hunter S. Thompson is relevant;
“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.”
All this is not unusual; most working musicians can tell similar stories. It's the nature of the business and the culture.
I figured out that one of the things that makes me happy is my love of playing the guitar and for me, that love and happiness compensates for any moral dilemma I am faced with relative to playing the guitar. My life illustrates what Aristotle taught 25 centuries ago:
"Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom."
"Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence."
Another philosopher has said the same thing:
“So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot.” (Ecclesiastes 3:22)
If you aren't happy playing guitar for money in the sleazy corner bar or at the local car dealership then don't do it. Why spend time on something that is counterproductive to your pursuit of happiness? If you love to play the guitar but can't be happy using it to sell drinks or cars - on any level of the business, local or international - then you need to figure out a way to play guitar without using it to sell drinks or cars.
Or maybe you don't love playing the guitar as much as you thought you did.
Now some might view my reasoning up to this point to be merely rationalizing an untenable situation in order to live with it. Fair enough. The next blog will be devoted to another line of thought that might help;
Music can transcend what it's being used for!
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