Music, business (Part 3: The Reckoning)

A little while ago I was complaining to someone about my lack of success (in a long list of other things that were/are wrong with my life). In the course of this I mentioned offhandedly that I loved playing music, and she interrupted me:

Do you love it?”
“Yes,” I said. It seemed like a strange thing to ask.
“Well, isn’t that success?”

I chewed on that one for a while and finally had to conclude that no, that is not success. But it is happiness, even if only in brief, occasional little bursts.

At this advanced age, I’m unlikely to become an overnight (or any other kind of) sensation (although Robert Pollard was my age when Guided By Voices broke, so a guy can always dream).

But I have to ask, what is the absolute worst-case scenario? Probably something like: I have a minuscule audience and barely break even on my expenses. (I hope you will forgive me a moment of self-pity when I say that this is not drastically different from the actual scenario).

What then? It’s not like I would stop writing songs, recording or performing. I don’t think I would be able to even if I wanted to. (Whenever I do harbour the notion of abandoning it all, as in The Godfather III, just when I think I’m out, it pulls me back in).

It might seem self-evident, but the fact that my music doesn’t make business types see dollar signs when they hear it, and that it doesn’t fit into whatever the latest micro-trend might be, doesn’t have anything to do with the music itself.

As my brother, a wiser man than me, said in this interview, music is its own reward. It’s so easy to lose sight of that in an atmosphere where a few (very few!) artists’ genuine, hard-won success has filled the community with delusions of grandeur.

Truth is, there are only three kinds of people who can “make a living” in the music biz:
1. Trust fund kids
2. People who are comfortable with a quality of life one step above that of a homeless person
3. People who are really smart and serious about the business side of things.

If you, like me, are none of these, then it’s probably best to separate your artistic pursuits from business concerns.

I have a lot of respect and admiration for my more business-savvy friends. But the fact is that if I look at my own music career as a business, it is not a successful business. If I look at it as something that I do for its own sake, it actually seems worthwhile.

Earlier this year I was unexpectedly offered a job. It was kind of a no-brainer: being chronically broke is a lot less romantic in your late 30s than it is in your early 20s. I took the job, putting my dreams of rock glory on the back burner for the time being, going back to being a guy with a job who plays music for fun.

And strangely enough, I feel better about my music career already.

Maybe I’m crazy, but…

Going insane is a pretty common lyrical topic in rock music (especially if you listen to a lot of Ozzy Osbourne), and it’s pretty common for me to wonder “Am I losing my mind?” when confronted with some major or minor mental lapse on the day-to-day. But I never really thought about it seriously… until now.

So I got the new Harper’s magazine the other day (yes, I am very urbane, thank you for noticing!) and started reading one of the feature pieces, an article by Rachel Aviv called “Which Way Madness Lies” (not available on their website, sadly) about the possibility of diagnosing schizophrenia before it seriously takes hold.

A really good article, but there were a couple of things that disturbed me. Mainly, a questionnaire developed by a psychiatric institute to detect signs of possible encroaching psychosis. The first question (or at least the first one quoted by Aviv):

Do you daydream a lot or find yourself preoccupied with stories, fantasies, or ideas?

Uh… yeah… who doesn’t? Not, for example, anyone I know. Maybe I should hang out with saner people, but wouldn’t they be kind of boring if they’re not preoccupied with ideas?

The next question:

Do you think others ever say that your interests are unusual or that you are eccentric?

Uh… wait just a second here, do these things make me crazy?!

To my relief, after that the questions get into things that might actually make you crazy, like thinking that the world might not actually exist or that people around you might not be real. I mean, those kinds of thoughts cross my mind from time to time, but not regularly. That’s normal, right?

Later on the article describes the typical personality to later develop schizophrenia:

The only commonalities were that nearly all of them had moved through childhood and adolescence feeling more thoughtful, intelligent, or probing than their family or peers and that there had been an existential tinge to their preoccupations years before their symptoms emerged.

OK, so now I’m starting to get worried, because this basically describes not only my entire childhood and adolescence, but most of my 20s as well. (These days, I’m more likely to feel shrivellingly inferior to others).

I can only come to one of two conclusions: either a) scientists have yet to make a fine distinction between early-onset craziness and creativity, or b) I am at serious risk of going insane.

In other news, a hip underground record label wrote me back recently declining to release the new WP album. (I should stress here that I really, really appreciated the reply, as the overwhelming majority of labels – no matter how half-assed they are, and even those run by people I know personally – don’t even bother to dignify my entreaties with any kind of answer).

Quoth he:
i listened to the album and it has alot of good hooks but it’s not the type of stuff that i’m releasing.
i’m into weirdo synth stuff and outsider rock.

So after a decade of being considered too weird and outsider, all of a sudden I’m not weird or outsider enough.

Sigh. It’s enough to drive a guy…. oh, never mind.