What, exactly, does it mean to be “successful” in music?
Artistic success is sticky at best, since we all know that while recorded songs stay the same, the people who listen to them change… and change their opinions, minds, tastes, likes & dislikes quite regularly. What we despise from one decade or generation becomes “retro cool” the next. Hell, my favorite song one week becomes tired “old news” the following Sunday. Perhaps “satisfaction” is the better word. “As an artist, are you ‘satisfied’ with the results of what you’ve done?” seems to me a fairer question than, say, “do you consider this an artistic success?”
In the past, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of durability… in other words, I wanted to create something with staying power. I wanted to know why some songs… say, for example, “Summertime,” the jazz standard, persist generation to generation and are recognized as classic, whereas some songs that are a huge hit in their day are entirely forgotten relatively quickly. Why is it that some records I could hear 10,000 times and I would still find them interesting on the 10,001st spin, whereas others just kind of ‘wear out’ eventually…becoming something I just don’t want to hear anymore. The more I understand about the underlying mechanics of music, the less I understand the concept of durability. In a cruel kind of paradox, by learning more I understand less than I ever have about what makes a song enduring.
What I have learned, however, is a great deal about the other kind of success…. that hard & fast tangible kind that comes with recognition, money & compensation…net profits, media coverage… etc. Now, I’m not at all “famous.” I don’t have roadies or groupies. My tours are small and unprofitable. My records don’t sell. So, how did I learn about such things?
Over the past 5 years I’ve lived neck-deep in the Portland music scene, which is a “Scene” with a capital “S” if there ever was one. I helped curate and book festivals, benefits, and shows. Some of them had thousands of attendees, some had 10. Some were at the Crystal Ballroom on a weekend, some were at a stage-less dive bar on a Tuesday. To do all this I’ve had to work with breakout “buzz” bands, total unknowns, mid-level workhorse touring bands as well as the über-famous (by Portland’s standards anyway, which is to say still not all that famous, really).
This is what I’ve learned:
The further up the food chain you travel… that is, the more recognized/successful an artist is, the more ‘petulant’ they get. I wish there was a better word for it, but petulant is the closest I can come. They’re snobby, whiny, offended easily, flaky, irresponsible, and god dammed if they aren’t the most prickly bunch of nit-pickers I’ve ever met.
Case-in-point is arguably the ‘most famous’ person I ever worked with: Colin Meloy of the Decemberists. Yeah, that’s right, I’m calling him out and finger-pointing right here on the internet…*gasp!*
My god, he was impossible. He responded to the initial request almost immediately, but then gave no word for months. Wouldn’t sign a generic performance contract for no other reason than that he didn’t want to. He showed up late with no word…and when he finally showed up he was obviously drunk, with wine-stained lips. He didn’t really banter or chat between songs, and obviously didn’t really know much/care much about the event he was taking part in. Immediately after his set he shook my hand limply, smiled wanly and promptly disappeared.
The worst part, though, was after the performance. Someone had taken a crude video of a new song and he threw a fit. He wanted it removed, he didn’t want his new song on the internet from someone’s cell phone. He wrote a wordy blog post about how the internet is killing a musician’s ability to “road test” a song. When, after a lot of pleading and emailing I finally had the offending video removed he insisted that it’s not what he wanted and that he never wanted to have it taken down… I suppose since he now appeared to everyone as the petulant, tantrum throwing child that he was being, he didn’t want people to see him as such and wanted the video re-instated on Stereogum, et. al. All this over one benefit performance with just him and an acoustic guitar. I’ve heard similar stories too, from other people who’ve worked with him. I’ve heard of outrageous demands, tantrums, and other disasters.
He may be a completely different person to his friends and family… in fact I would posit that he is very likely so… but my point is this: the bigger pain in the ass you are, the more attention you get. Just like a child that realizes he/she gets comforted the more he/she cries, musicians are trained and conditioned to be terrible people in order to get more attention…aka to succeed. The lower you’re willing to go… the more outrageous or unfair your demands/complaints, the more people who curate/select for events and press and tours and compilations will notice you. The sad fact is I know people who, in my opinion are “better” song-smiths than Colin Meloy is or ever will be. They are completely unheard of and will likely remain so because they are not a sharp pain in the asshole to work with.
I’ve worked with some bands who were sweethearts, some of the nicest people you’d ever meet and I know it’s unfair to generalize an entire category of person or profession based on my limited sampling, but I do think that everyone can acknowledge the bit of truth in the stereotypes I’m referencing. I think it was Kerouac who said “Clichés are truisms, and all truisms are true.” I will say that the absolute nicest people to work with were the workhorse bands… the heavy-touring, mid-level indie bands who are just slogging it out every day on the road or on the blogs. The vast majority of them are incredible, sincere people, some of them make truly incredible music. None of them are truly “successful” in the tangible senses I mentioned above. I.E. none of them are on par with Colin Meloy, even if they’re doing a bit better than I.
So the better question, I think, is this: “What exactly does it mean to be a failure in music?”
I think to be a failure at music is perhaps the best possible thing that a person can do… since it means you should succeed at just about anything else. I say this as a ‘failed’ musician and as someone who has seen both success and failure in others. Most people would acknowledge that the opportunity for success in music is narrower today than it has ever been. To fail and to yet persevere…to continue despite every rational, contrary evidence that this is a really bad idea. Failed musicians demonstrate (to me, anyway) true durability of character.
The people and the musicians whom I respect are the people who continue to make music – publicly and professionally – against all hope and all odds, and without a single complaint, despite rejection and indifference at every turn. I know from experience that every gut instinct and rational thought in your head is constantly saying to you — Hey! You’re bleeding money over here… you’re exhausted and frustrated and broke and you have very little to show for all your work… what is WRONG with you??? Just get a new line of work already. –and why don’t we? Most of us probably will, eventually, but in the meantime I hope we keep at it.
Seriously… this is my attempt at consolation to all of us unknown, hard-working-but-ignored artists here in Portland (I’m lookin at you STEVE HEFTER, DANI FISH, JENNIE WAYNE, JESSE STUDENBERG, BARRY BRUSEAU, MATT CADENELLI, CARY CLARKE, SLOAN MARTIN, EZZA ROSE, LANCE LEONNIG, JI TANZER, MIKE APINYAKUL, JOHN VECCIARELLI, PHILIPPE BRONCHTEIN, TIM SHROUT, ALEX LEWIS, LEONARD MYNX, TATE PETERSON, ORYAN PETERSON, ZACH STAMLER, NATE CLARK, TYLER AND GAREN GASTON, ALI IPPOLITO, DEAN GORMAN, WILL HATMAN, and all the others, so many others…both friends of mine or not). I hope we all continue trudging along day by day, ignoring success and being ignored by it…and if it does come your way (and I do hope it does, despite how this sounds) then I hope you will never give in to the pressure of petulance. Meanwhile, remember that to fail, ironically in this case, is the best kind of success one can hope for, so just keep fucking doing it, arright? Thank you.