*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine April 2016
Spring is here! But life as a musician ain’t all Easter bunnies and daffodils, I’m sorry to say. Musicianhood is fraught with self-doubt, heartache, disappointment, bloody fingers, late nights and worst of all – anonymity. There are so many of us fighting for the same gigs, marketing to an ever-decreasing audience, trying to secure the best musicians and attempting to balance our rock-star delusions with day-to-day doldrums, we all tend to feel a bit lost in the shuffle. This year, there were two thousand bands at the music festival South By Southwest in Austin, TX who all traveled there from around the globe to play thirty minutes in a bar with its doors open right next to another bar with its doors open hosting another band who competed with thousands of other bands for the right to perform next to the other band. What are any musician’s chances of ever standing out? Musicians and bands with name recognition get the best gigs, the most money, and all sorts of other things I know nothing about. But how are we “discovered” so things get just a tad easier?
The road to musical fame and fortune is different for everyone, as well as the definition of it. Some musicians are happy to play out only on the weekends and have their day jobs, kids, and lawns to mow. Others are happy to bang around in a van on tour half the year, come home to an apartment to write and record, and head back out. Some prefer to just record, sell the music, and never play out. Some people only want to sell their original songs to well-known acts via basement demos. Some musicians only work on television and movie scores with barely a line of credit at the end of the show. Some people end up somewhere they never even thought of.
One commonality among those who have “made it,” made it to a point where millions of people knew who they were, is that they usually never saw it coming. Whether they were ready or not for the fame, it was thrust on them, and they had to deal with it. Some faltered, some thrived.
Bruce Springsteen played New Jersey clubs for seven years before he was referred to manager and producer Mike Appel in 1972. Appel got Bruce an audition with CBS Records’ John Hammond, which led to Bruce’s first record contract. Bruce worked with Appel on “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.”, “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle”, and the epic “Born to Run.” Eventually, President Reagan thought his song “Born in the USA” was a great patriotic anthem and then he and the E Street Band played a Super Bowl half-time show televised to millions.
Blogger Justin Gage, who runs the Aquarium Drunkard blog, posted a song from an Alabama Shakes EP, and the Internet went nuts. The band then played at the CMJ Music Marathon, and somehow shortly after received some Grammy nominations and the following year, a Grammy.
Bonnie Raitt played solo at Boston coffee houses in between her college classes and soon met blues promoter Dick Waterman, and then, record executives at Warner Brothers. Then she won a ton of Grammys and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Lady Gaga, who is really Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, quit, started performing in lower East side clubs, and collaborated with other bands. She got a job with Interscope Records as a songwriter for other artists on the label, including Britney Spears, New Kids on the Block, and The Pussycat Dolls. While performing at her own burlesque show, R&B singer Akon saw her, signed her, recorded with her, and then she eventually sang “The Sound of Music” at the Grammys and then pretended she was David Bowie at the Grammys.
Las Vegas area rock band Imagine Dragons were recording and playing out like everybody else when they were asked to step in for the band Train at the Bite of Las Vegas Festival because lead singer Pat Monahan was sick. Then a couple years later they won a Grammy for Best Rock Performance.
Aretha Franklin sang in church with her father, a Baptist preacher named Reverend Clarence La Vaughan Franklin, and performed on the road with his traveling revival show. She went to New York, was signed by Columbia Records, and is now the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Famer Queen of Soul.
Adele attended the BRIT School for Performing Arts & Technology, cut a three-track demo for a class project, and posted it on MySpace. Executives at XL Recordings heard the tracks, signed her to a record deal, and then she won a million Grammys and did carpool karaoke with James Corben.
Ed Sheeran left home for London at age 14 with a guitar on his back and worked himself into the local singer-songwriter scene. He recorded and posted his songs online, and one tune reached No. 2 on the iTunes chart. He was signed to Atlantic Records and then he was nominated for 109 awards and won 40.
Taylor Swift sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a Philadelphia 76ers game at age 11, and started writing her own songs and learning guitar at 12. She talked her parents into moving near to Nashville, Tennessee, she performed at The Bluebird Café, and was signed with Big Machine Records. Then she sold out football stadiums and picked fights and won them with the Apple Corporation and Kanye West. One time, my daughter and her friends were on their way to a Taylor Swift concert at Gillette Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots, and I was packing the car up for my own gig. I said, “Taylor Swift gets Gillette Stadium, and I get the Olde Mistick Village Gazebo.” And they laughed and laughed. What else could they do?
The Beatles played Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, and Buddy Holly covers in Hamburg, Germany bars, and then met Brian Epstein in Liverpool who made them wear Pierre Cardin suits and get haircuts. Then they became the best-selling and most influential band of all time.
Did they all have talent? Yes. Did they have determination and actually try to do something musically? Yes. But why were they the lucky ones? It’s clearly like when Professor McGonagall finds the dead troll in the bathroom at Hogwarts and says to Harry Potter and Ron: “Not many first year students could take on a fully grown mountain troll and live to tell the tale. Five points will be awarded to each of you, for sheer dumb luck.”
It’s just sheer dumb luck. I’m thinkin’.
Those of us stuck in the “I want it so bad I can taste it” road to nowhere still can’t stop trying though, no matter the ridiculous odds of notoriety or slim chance of quitting the day job.
And let’s face it, being able to say, “Don’t you know who I am?” when pulled over by a cop could be quite gratifying, and so could the million dollar paycheck for a two-hour set. But more importantly, what fame and fortune bring, if you choose to use your power for good rather than evil, is a voice. You gain the ability to impact change through your voice. You can “leave the world better than how you found it,” which isn’t such a bad gig. Good luck! Happy Spring!