After I finished Berklee, I returned to my home town of Chicago and continued studying guitar under the tutelage of the great Jazz guitarist John Mclean. I remember one day, during one of our lessons I asked him if he ever got cynical about the music business and his place in it. I asked him if he ever got frustrated that although he was (and is) an amazing, accomplished musician that he was relatively unknown, compared to groups like the “Spice Girls” (who were big at the time) despite having, at least in comparison to Mclean, little talent.
I’ll never forget his answer. Without a hint of bitterness or cynicism, he said, there are two different mountains to climb in the music business. One is that of becoming a “big”, known artist. The other is the mountain of becoming a “great” musician. Both mountains, he said, were difficult to climb and both had their rewards and merits. But, he emphasized, they are different mountains, that have little to do with each other.
I hadn’t thought about, or reflected on this conversation in a long time, but for some reason this morning, as I was in the gym, getting my morning workout in, this conversation came back to me. I played a gig last night, on a sidewalk, for about 50 people, in front of a Tex-Mex restaurant in the Dominican Republic, where I’m back for I think the 5th time in the last four years, spending several weeks playing music in the beach town of Cabarete, on the north coast of the island. I love coming here and taking a few weeks each year to play music and re-calibrate my psyche and perspective on the world. I always feel like spending time here is sort of like hitting the “reset” button on my life. It’s a time to reflect and unwind a bit, before returning to the many projects and endeavors I’ve decided to purse in both business and music.
After the gig, which was with a 28 year old guitarist/singer from Savannah, Georgia and a 64 year old harpist/Saxophonist from Montreal, Canada, the three of us hung out for a bit, shooting the “proverbial” shit. Of course, at some point, the conversation turned to the music business and how hard it is to “make it” in the current music industry. The harpist, Michael Freedman, who due to his age, has a broader perspective than either of us, in terms of the ways in which the music industry has changed, basically has concluded that the live music, bar scene is dead.
I’ve heard this sentiment echoed pretty much my whole adult life from older, more experienced musicians. I don’t doubt that it’s changed. Even in the 20 or so years that I’ve been playing music things have changed. But to conclude the scene is dead because it isn’t what it used to be seems a bit bitter and jaded. Although, I can understand Michael’s stance, compared to what it used to be, I’m sure things pale in comparison.
But, here’s the thing, live music isn’t really dead and music certainly isn’t dead. The show we played last night, was to around 50 people. Almost all of them stayed the entire show. They were captivated and clearly enjoyed themselves and the music. I play shows like this all the time. No, playing live music for 50 people isn’t the same as playing live music for 500 or 5,000 people. But the point is, people still clearly enjoy live music and there are plenty of bands and musicians who make a living performing live that can attest to this.
In my mind, there’s no point in lamenting the fact that things aren’t what they used to be. The current music industry is the music industry we have, for better or worse. Focusing on the fact that it used to be better or different is as pointless as being single and focusing on the fact that you used to be in a relationship and were happier in the past. You are where you are in life. It’s as simple as that.
Speaking of being single, I recently became single again, after being in a relationship for several years. It was a hard adjustment at first, but I hit the ground running, started going to the gym religiously, got back to focusing on my business, socializing more, playing more music, etc. Now, two months into the breakup, I feel a clear and resounding feeling that things are going to be ok. Better than ok in fact. I actually feel great. I feel much, much better than I expected to feel at this point, but only because I’m embracing where I’m at and accepting the challenge of growing and improving myself, instead of trying to fight it.
I look at the current state of the music industry in a similar way. I write and play music, and this is the climate I find myself in. I can fight reality, deny it, get angry and so on. Or, I can accept the fact that things have changed, adapt, and do what I can to make it in the current music industry. I can get up every day and approach music with the same tenacity that I approach things like going to the gym, working on my business and so on. Or, I could lay down and just give up.
It’s not easy, but back to my former teacher’s idea, the mountain that’s most important to me to climb, is the mountain of becoming a great musician. My guitar teacher and I had this conversation close to 20 years ago. And yet, this advice and philosophy is as true today as it was then. I find thinking about music this way incredibly helpful and motivating.
Climbing the mountain of becoming a “great” musician is something you can actually navigate and control, to a large degree, regardless of what’s happening in the music “business”. You can put in the hours and the work needed to become “great”, and chances are that if you persevere long enough you will achieve a degree of greatness, and in one way or another you’ll be recognized for it.
The mountain of becoming a “famous’ musician has faded a lot for me, into the background of my life. I can still see it from my vantage point, off in the distance, but I’m less and less motivated to make the trek between here and there, and I’m not even sure it’s a mountain that I really want to climb anymore. Perhaps one day, if I truly become a “great” musician, the mountain will come to me, or at least move a little closer.