Struggling Musicians, and the War They Wage.

If you are a struggling musician, there is a constant war that you’re waging.

You may say, war? Are you crazy? I’m a sensitive artist, and my talents will soon be known.

Yeah, good luck with that. The thing is, every musician out there is fighting an uphill battle, whether or not they acknowledge it.

There are a few exceptions, like folks that view their musical pursuits as a hobby, and one that they have no interest in taking beyond their bedroom or home studios. They play for the sheer joy of it, and nothing else. However, even these pure hobbyists can become the enemy of aspiring “serious” musicians under the right circumstances. More on that scenario shortly.

However, the struggle is on many fronts. Most musician types seem to start out with an idealized view of what it’s like to be in a band. After all, we’ve all been fed the same fantasies about being instantly discovered and immediately famous and successful. Sadly, these are almost always fantasies, and one that millions of people have. One look at a “Guitar Center” catalog proves this point. Plenty of cheap entry-level instruments all marketed with “The perfect tool to help launch you to success!” copy.

Every single 13-year old kid whose parents buy one of those entry level guitar and amplifier combo packs thinks he or she is going to be a huge star. We all do at one point or another. Picking up a guitar and learning a few chords is all it takes to create a lifelong passion for playing in some people, and that’s a very special and cool thing.

The reality is that any serious move from playing alone and only for fun into the “joining a band” scenario introduces a player to the war.

First, just finding the right people to play with is enormously difficult. Most people who are in their first few bands are in them because a few friends decided to form one. There’s no real audition process, or networking. Your best friend Jim whose parents gave him a drum set for Christmas last year wants to “jam” with you, and he has a friend that he used to play soccer with, and that guy has a bass. You can all meet at Jim’s house to jam in the garage. Thus are born many first or second, or maybe even third bands. For the most part, they last a short time, until one or more of the members get bored with music or find another hobby. Maybe a few last through high school, or even manage to play a few “shows” in someone’s backyard or garage.

In these situations the war is a minor one. The enemies encountered are likely to be a neighbor that wants your band to turn everything down, or a parent that doesn’t want you to “waste” too much time chasing dreams of being a rock star. There will likely be mild scuffles, and occasional head-butting between your friends/band mates or from the aforementioned concerned parent, but nothing too dire. This is essentially the last time many people will seriously entertain any thoughts of trying to “make it.” Soon, the prospect of college or other pressure from impending adulthood will chase away any fantasy of becoming a successful (generally interpreted as “rich” and “famous”) rock star.

However, for those that continue to harbor dreams of success in a band, the next stage in their war is where things get more intense. This is where most of us are no longer living in the protected environment of a parent’s home. Some have moved on to college and have started a second stage similar to their high school years. They’ve discovered a few of their college buddies play instruments, and the natural next step is to form a band from these alliances. The perks are increased from the high school version, any person in a college band is more potentially fuckable than the same person would be if they weren’t in a band, and college is a strange environment where people are experiencing new things. The goofy Emo band that a guy loved in the 10th grade might start to seem stupid, and suddenly funk might be the edgy sound he longs to create. Most colleges also have venues that cater to students, and some of these will allow bands to play real gigs. Success seems right around the corner!

But there’s a war going on, right? So whose the enemy here? Well, usually it’s your band mates, and the fact that you’re all mostly there to earn a degree and then move on to “real life” where for most people, music is a hobby, not a serious pursuit.

For those that are still interested in that pursuit, but who didn’t go to college, things are perhaps clearer. The reason for that is that along with their musical aspirations, they must also make a living somehow.

I know guys that opted out of music scholarships at prestigious schools because they wanted to pursue their bands full time, basically a nightmare scenario for the concerned parent of a high school kid in a band. Either being young dumb asses or just not caring, they figured it would be a lot cooler to throw away that college experience for what they thought would be the more direct path to rock stardom.

These people often DO form bands, and also alliances with other people in other bands. Local “scenes” tend to develop, because everyone is chasing a similar goal. At their best, these sorts of scenes inspire a lot of creativity, and some truly good bands result. But they also usually create rivalries, which brings us to another aspect of the music war.

Yes, if you’re in an even slightly popular local band, some people will love you and support you. You might become a locally famous scenester, and have a certain amount of local cred. Often this will lead to a relatively comfy day job working at a trendy record shop or music venue. You may even become one with the enemy itself – the local music reviewer (we’ll get back to this).

But you’ll also probably make a few enemies, in some cases with people you have barely interacted with. Other people in shittier or less popular bands will be jealous haters if your band is doing well. Many musicians share a toxic personality trait – low self esteem mixed with a large ego. Any perceived slight is enough to create an imagined enemy. When I was in a semi-high profile local band, people I didn’t even know seemed to hate me because of the band I was in. It was stupid, but is often the norm.

Then there are the venues. More accurately, the people that own and run the venues you’re going to want to play in. The people that own any bar or club are really interested in one thing – making a lot of money, generally from bar sales or the cover they charge for entry. They don’t give a shit if you’re in an awesome new band called “Death Hippie” and the music is genius. If they think that the only people you’re going to bring to their club are your significant others and a handful of good friends, “Death Hippie” isn’t getting the gig, or will get wrangled into some abysmal “pay to play” deal, where the band has to pre-sell a certain number of tickets or ends up paying the club.

In a lot of cities, the only types of bands that clubs want to feature are cover bands, because they tend to bring in enough drunk idiots to make a lot of money. Understandable, but not ideal for any musician or band trying to push their own original songs.

Fortunately, larger cities usually have a handful of venues that will feature bands playing original material, and that will allow new bands the chance to play without too much hassle. These are the types of clubs struggling bands should try to find. Generally, the more of those type there are, the better a town’s live music scene.

In the long run, all bars and clubs are in the business of making money. If your band isn’t going to help them do that, then why should they let you play? It’s not a matter of artistic merit, it’s a matter of economics. It’s also why some bands end almost before they get a chance to play out. There aren’t enough venues with an owner adventurous enough to take a chance on something that might not pack the place.

Another enemy that can destroy a band’s chances at local success is the local music reviewer. Almost any city of a certain size will have a weekly local music and culture paper, or the Internet equivalent. As such, they will also have a number of reviewers going to local shows. All it takes to hurt a developing band is one or two shitastic reviews by one of those people. And bands take this stuff seriously. I used to know a band critic for “The Austin Chronicle” who got occasional death threats from bands she’d given bad reviews to. On the other hand, I’ve also seen cases where some local band that wasn’t great got rave reviews, probably because someone in the band was a pal of the reviewer.

So what’s the best tactic for besting this enemy? Have someone cute in your band fuck them, or better still, gut the reviewer like a fish. That would be my advice. If those aren’t options for you, then I would try to evade the creepy eye of the critic until your band is popular enough that their potential scorn can’t hurt you. But really, just murder those guys. No good music scene needs them.

After one has been pursuing their musical goals for a few years, one of two things usually happens. They may become almost ridiculously positive people. This is not a bad thing, but it’s really a survival strategy. Because if they let the negativity and rejection they’ve faced chasing their dream affect them, they’d probably never leave their bedrooms again.

The other extreme are the shell shocked, battle hardened music veterans. They’ve been in gigging bands for years, and have adopted an “us verses them” attitude. Understandably, it usually is a realistic attitude to have. They’ll generally have a very professional, but jaded way of dealing with everything. No longer caring if their band mates are friends with one another, everything is a business decision, even their haircuts. They’ll sometimes talk about all of the sacrifices they’ve made for their art, but it’s just as honest to say that they didn’t make “sacrifices” so much as decisions, and some of those decisions don’t guarantee success.

A lot of the time, these types of individuals and bands will uproot from whatever not-so-happening scene they currently live in, and flock to places like LA, or wherever the new hotspot for music is. The problem for them is that they soon discover that LOTS of similarly motivated musicians made the same decision, like thousands of cutthroat pirate businessmen following the same trends.

Another huge enemy to the aspiring musician is the acquisition of a significant other. Yes, some manage to score the golden ticket, and actually find a muse that doesn’t want to capture them and then force them to quit doing the things they were attracted to to begin with, but a lot of them don’t. It’s a cliche for a reason.

And it makes sense. Being the boyfriend or girlfriend, or husband or wife of an even slightly successful musician is tough. They’re going to be away from home for long periods of time, and there will be attractive men and women throwing themselves at them. For someone that’s young and still really motivated to chase fame and fortune as a musician, it’s probably best just to avoid serious relationships. Sounds harsh, but it’s true. I’ve seen more band drama caused by an angry significant other than any other cause over the years.

The “war” is a life-long one for many of us. Playing music and being in bands gets in your blood – Almost anyone that’s played a few live shows will know what I’m talking about. The idea of just permanently leaving that behind seems incomprehensible, but maintaining one’s sanity and relationships while trying to go further with musical goals is a tough road to follow.

But it’s the only one some of us CAN follow. Our goals may change, and the ways in which we pursue those goals may change too, but quitting entirely is just not an option.

I always try to remember that haters are going to hate, that fools and creeps will try to tear you down, but in the long run, at the end of your life, you can still say “fuck it, I did something here, and it was worth it.”

But first you have to start murdering all of those troublesome club owners, music critics, and rival bands.


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