STAR F*CKERS

On my flight back home from Chicago acouple of weeks ago, I struck up a conversation with the lighting designer for the recent R. Kelly show. Like most of these exchanges, our conversation began with a lot of name-dropping — musical territorial pissings, if you will. After establishing that both of us had an impressive body of knowledge and had worked with notable folks in the industry, we started to get deeper into our respective career trajectories. We both were drummers and had similar tastes, and we both had experienced the highs and lows of the music biz — the highs being playing music in amazing places with amazing people around the world; the lows being never getting rich and famous and having to take day jobs while music was, at times, largely supplemental.

As I thought about this odd dichotomy, I was simultaneously depressed and elated. As I unpacked it, some things became clear, and I thought I’d further flesh it out here. I am incredibly fortunate to have enjoyed relative success in both the field of music journalism and as a performing musician. Of late — the past five years — I’ve been a full-time performing musician and a part-time writer, a flip of the script from the previous two decades. I’ve suffered the bitterness of knowing that people far less talented than I were making bank playing shitty music for the drooling masses. I’ve been envious of those who made little effort but somehow rocketed to fame. It’s brought me to literal tears over the years.

I have gotten close many times. Ask any musician and they’ll tell you how they almost got signed, how they had a “development deal,” how they opened for the really big national acts who said they’d “pass the demo on to the label rep.” My stories are as maudlin as theirs, as I have shared the stage with some big names, done showcases for record labels, and been in a band that had our demo “shopped around.” I played the second Lollapalooza, for crying out loud. You know — when it was still respectable.

But in the end, no one cares about all that muck. You either make it or you don’t.

But who makes it and why? The formula changes from generation to generation, decade to decade, and now year to year. What is certain is that talent is not necessary. Quality is rarely part of the equation, and the industry (or, more accurately, the buying public) rewards mediocrity. There have, of course, been many exceptions, but on the whole, you can be a completely talentless hack and still make millions with the right marketing team behind you.

I mean, how sick are we of hearing about how Kanye West is brilliant, how Beyoncé is a genius? (They aren’t.) How many times must we listen to Maroon 5 or Ed Sheeran rehash 30-year-old pop tropes? (Please make it stop.) When will someone tell Hozier and Imagine Dragons that they kinda suck — a lot? (When people stop buying their crappy records.)

Pop music, like professional sports, relies heavily on marketing and image. But in the sports world, you can’t become a celebrity unless you are very, very good at what you do. Pluck any celebrity athlete out of the pack from the past 50 years, and everyone — EVERYone of them — could play the game better than anyone else. They may remain famous because of endorsement deals or doing color for sports networks, but they got there through hard work and commitment to perfecting their skills.

Reach into the pop music hat and pull out a name, and you’re more likely to get a Britney Spears than a Joni Mitchell, a OneRepublic than a King Crimson, a Creed or Nickelback than a Beatles or Radiohead.

As I waded deeper into the pity pool, I began to realize all of this whining was getting me nowhere — literally and metaphorically. I needed to remember all the amazing moments I’ve been fortunate enough to experience through music with both famous and non-famous people. I thought about all of my friends who have enjoyed some level of success in the industry specifically because of their talent. And I decided, at least for the moment, that it was incumbent upon me (and the rest of us) to keep working, keep practicing, keep playing, keep progressing. It’s incumbent upon us all, really, to put aside notions of fame and fortune and get down to the real business of making music.

As I bid farewell to my new friend, I had a bizarre but important revelation: No one blew up my plane today. Out of nowhere, that’s what came to me. No one blew up my plane or hacked me to pieces with a machete or held my kid’s elementary school hostage with duffle bags full of automatic weapons. There is food in my fridge, a home waiting for me, and friends and family with whom I share my life — and my music. That’s more than anyone could — or should — ever ask for.

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