I’ve reached an age and a stature where young musicians frequently come to me for career advice. Actually, young musicians have almost no interest in career advice from me, but I get asked to speak at schools a lot, so they’re forced to listen to my advice while their teachers hold them there by the scruffs of their necks. I also offer completely unsolicited advice to anyone unwise enough to talk about the music business within earshot of me in a public place. In short, I am a veritable fountain of information about the music business that almost no one wants to hear, and the few kids who do seem to be listening I can tell are only trying to figure out what not to do. No kid ever starts out thinking “I hope my band is moderately successful like that old guy’s band.” But the truth is that people like me—graying, semi-sorta-famous, still hanging around trying to look busy—we’re the source of the best advice you can get.
If you asked Lady Gaga for advice for aspiring musicians, she’d say something inspiring like “Keep pushing and striving until you reach your dream!” All massively successful people say this kind of platitudinous horseshit, because inspirational-sounding crap is all the wisdom massively successful people have to offer. Lady Gaga kept striving until she reached her dream, so she has no context to reflect on what could happen if you keep striving and don’t reach your dream. People who become massive stars in their youth really do believe that they just worked harder, or had bigger dreams, or were exceptionally more talented. But the music business is a meat grinder of young people’s dreams, and there’s no way to “earn” success by following a simple set of rules. Colin Powell once said “There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.” What Colin Powell should have said is “The secret to success in the Army is to unquestioningly do what your superiors tell you for 40 years until everyone else either drops out, gets court-martialed for war crimes, or dies.” I only wish the music business worked this way.
So listening to famous people describe the secret of their success is about as helpful as listening to microwaved popcorn. In most cases they have no idea why they became successful, and they’re too embarrassed or egotistical to admit that it was a product of luck and well-timed blow jobs. The fact is that most musicians toil in obscurity, even the ones who keep pushing and striving until they collapse in a heap. If your “dreams” are to be universally acknowledged as a groundbreaking auteur, may I humbly suggest that realizing those dreams is about as likely as learning to fart rainbows. That’s not to say that there aren’t a thousand ways to have a rewarding and spectacular career in music, but almost every kid I meet has the same short list of goals: blow everyone’s mind, reinvent music, then show up to their high-school reunion riding a gold-plated unicorn.
Whether it’s the up-and-coming local star who expects his first tour will be supporting Arcade Fire or the popular hip-hop combo who act like their largely white Seattle audience has never heard rap music before, this town has too many geniuses. For instance, a couple of weeks ago I overheard (on Twitter, naturally) a female rock musician asking the wry, age-old question “When will rock journalists start asking dudes what it’s like to be A BOY in an indie rock band?” Ho ho! So true. Young women in bands are routinely underestimated and demeaned, and it is time to stop the madness! I appreciated her point but, despite appearances, she wasn’t issuing a feminist battle cry so much as she was calling attention to her new power, humblebragging. “I am being interviewed! It’s so exhausting to be famous, but I’m still ‘street’ because I point out hypocrisy! Fight the power!”
Listen, no one’s got more beef with bad interviewers than me. Hell, just a few weeks ago a local magazine published an interview with me in which they blithely claimed in the opening paragraph that I was married! (That took some explaining around town, let me tell you.) But to keep my sense of humor intact, my feelings about this kind of small beer have had to mature. Complaints about music writers are all equal; they reflect only the preoccupations of the musicians. I personally have 50 questions I wish people would stop asking me, starting with “When’s the new record going to be finished?” and ending with “What’s it like to not be a woman in a band?”, but my frustration is tempered by gratitude that anyone cares enough to be asking them at all! Only the very smallest group of musicians remain fascinating to writers over the years. Most of us get a small window where people are listening. I’ve seen plenty of artists, enjoying a taste of success, loaf through their first dozen interviews with a “I don’t like the way you phrased your question, man” attitude, only to discover later that those were the only interviews they were ever going to do.
These opportunities to be heard are nothing to squander. Music writers aren’t engaged in a conspiracy of bitterness and bad taste (at least not most of them), they’re just trying to make their deadlines. When a male writer asks “What’s it like to be a woman in a rock band?”, what he’s really asking is “What’s it like to be a woman?” Seriously, he wants to know! Women are mysterious to him! If you waste 30 seconds of your life seething about his Neanderthal question, you’ve already lost the initiative. Likewise, when he asks “What’s your wildest tour experience?”, he’s asking “Do you get to have sex?”, and when he asks “Where’s your favorite place to play?”, he’s practically begging you, “No, seriously, you must get to have sex a lot of places, right?” That’s how all interviews go, unless you get one of those “What’s your favorite color?” interviewers, who are really asking “Are you ready to be blown away by my off-the-wall interview?” Don’t complain, don’t sneer, just tell your story how you want it told.
I hate to see young musicians get buried under waves of disappointment at the start of their careers. A bad tour and a few bits of bad press can crush the enthusiasm of otherwise talented kids who expect too much right out of the gate. Sometimes you push and strive and never get a gold-plated unicorn, but it doesn’t mean you’re not talented and might not have a long career if you keep at it. Often it only means that unicorns are fake and if you gold-plated one it would die.