passing the hat
i was watching a great guitarist in a small club recently & i noticed he had large biceps (not common with guitarists, ha ha). i wondered what he had to do for a living because the band was just passing the hat. he looked like a delivery driver or something. i thought about what a shame it is for such a talented musician to have to do something else for a living when what he was doing with that guitar should be more than enough to make his way in the world. do you want to play until one or two in the morning & then have to get up @ 6am to go to some day job because they don’t pay you much to play music? i don’t.
why don’t people value the work of musicians & other artists? a lot of people say they love music, but do they spend money on it, will they pay people to do it? if you only like something when it is free, you don’t really value it. sure, a lot of businessmen get off on screwing other people & driving down their wages, it makes them feel big & powerful when really they are petty & small-time, but that doesn’t tell you why they don’t value the work of an artist, only what they do because they don’t value it. a musician spends 100 hours working @ home for every minute you spend working in public & most of us aren’t looking to get paid for our rehearsal time, but that makes our public time even more valuable. i will let you think about this question & then i will tell you my ideas about what the answers are down @ the bottom. a lot of it is simple greed & exploitation, of course, but there is more to it than that.
no, the sad truth is that the music business is sort of like the olympics–a huge scam where everybody is making money but the people who are actually doing it. the reason is simple–so many of us are willing to do it for nothing, like in the olympics. why would this club owner pay me to play when he can get this other guy for free & keep all the money for himself? greed wins out, they take advantage of you. my music may be better, but if they keep all the good music down then nobody will know the difference. that guy who says he has all the big connections & he will make you a star–he will end up taking your money, not making any for you. like these so-called “artist management” people who approach me online & want to “bring me aboard” their roster of touring artists. all they are really doing is selling services which may or may not be real. legitimate artist management does a number of things for the artist like booking their gigs, arranging their tours (planes, hotels, other acts on the tour, etc.) for a percentage of the artist’s income. if the artist doesn’t make money, neither do they. it’s the same with legitimate booking agents. but, these scammers want their money up front, a lot of it, & they say the artist will make money later if they pay them now. like this guy calling himself “artist management” who will sell you a list of booking agents for a lot of money but doesn’t book anybody himself. oh really? i am supposed to give this guy a lot of money just because he says if i do i can make money later by doing the work myself, & he displays some certificates from unknown people on his website? give me a break.
almost all of the music business is set up to victimize the want-to-be artist. for example, if somebody wanted to charge me money to apply for a day job, i would know that it isn’t legitimate, but reverbnation wants to charge me to apply for any gig they have or submit my songs to the radio. oh really? all you would have to do is make up some phony gig & collect all the application fees, like these bogus “poetry contests” that charge you 25 to submit a poem. people do dishonest stuff like this all the time. internet businesses approach me often selling fake plays on any of my websites, which is why popularity rankings of how many times your video or song has been played on any website are meaningless. these people with lots of “plays” are often paying for fake plays, which calls everybody into question. how much did you spend to make that “promotional” video? you give it to youtube & they use it to draw people to their site & sell them advertising & spy on them so they can sell the data. youtube makes money but you don’t, you are out for the cost of the video. facebook makes money off you by spying on you & selling the data but you don’t get any of it. itunes & amazon charges you to sell your music there if you aren’t a label. all that money you spent on videos & “promotion” & all that–how much money have you made from all that? what have you got but a bunch of meaningless “likes” & fake rankings? big deal. (the one site that i think is fair to pro musicians is bandcamp, but if you don’t have pro-quality audio you can’t get on there. if you think mp3s sound as good as CDs & can’t come up with good audio quailty they won’t accept your stuff).
if you want to be a pro musician, in my opinion, you should get down to the basics of what you have to offer–entertainment so people can dance, loosen up, party & have a good time. you have a professional service to offer, you are there for the people, they aren’t there for you. you are there to play them music they like, but it has to be the kind of music that you play well & like to play. the more kinds of music that you are able to play & like, the more likely you are to find an audience that likes what you do. learn how to be an entertainer, how to make people happy. try to please them so that they have fun. communicate with them, joke around, don’t just stare @ your shoes. reach out to them, try to get them going. people need to loosen up & have a good time & if you can help them do that they will like you & value what you do. when i was playing bars our job was to get the people to dance. it was up to us to know what worked for that & how to do that. if they didn’t dance to this one song we quit playing it. if they all got up & danced to this song then we played it twice as long & improvised.
a pro musician needs to know a lot of songs. if all you want to play is your own songs, get used to that day job (you will need it to pay for all those promotional videos so youtube can make money off of you). a pro musician needs to know the entire history of pop music. i would often get gigs to fill in with a band where we would have no time to rehearse & we would just discuss what we would do right before the gig: “do you know ‘money for nothing’ in G? i can sing the high harmony if you can sing the lead. good, how about ‘addicted to love’ in A? i take an extended solo @ the end. how about “spoonman” or “karma police” or ‘feel good inc.’ in the record key of E flat minor?” sometimes we would get a request for a song we had never played before & if i sort of knew it we would fake it. you get a lot of tips that way. good players can follow along, especially if you give them a nod of the head when the changes come. being a pro means faking it so well that nobody realizes you just totally screwed up & played the wrong part. i saw paul mccartney’s band do that when he went back & played the cavern club several years ago with an all-star band that included david gilmour. they blew the chorus to the song & paul just led them back into it without missing a beat & they nailed it the second time.
when i was playing in cover bands in bars my friends who had original material bands playing the showcase circuit (for free, sometimes paying to play) would look down @ us; they thought they were better because they didn’t play “copy music”. maybe they were rich kids with daddy’s money who didn’t have to make a living. well, most of them couldn’t have done what we were doing if they had wanted to because learning a lot of songs quickly off of records by ear & being able to nail them on stage with very little rehearsal is not easy. now i am a prolific songwriter & recording artist in my own right & nobody accuses me of sounding like anybody else, so my ability to play songs written by other songwriters has not hurt my originality, creativity or unique style & it won’t hurt yours either.
thom yorke was listening to the beatles’ “happiness is a warm gun” when radiohead wrote “paranoid android”. the songs sound nothing alike but the idea is to put together very different sections into one song, with different tempos & everything. i was thinking about “paranoid android” when i did my long version of “kiss of chaos” from my “spiral city sky” album. again, the idea was to put together very different sections into one long song, with fast parts & slow parts. nobody has ever said “kiss of chaos” sounds like “paranoid android” because what i took was that particular concept & song form, not the song itself. see how that works?
i think that learning songs off of records by ear is about the best way for you to learn pop music. if there is a song you really like, learn to play it. learn the words & sing it. put it in another key if you have to. you know who i learned songwriting from? john lennon, jim morrison, todd rundgren, bowie, david byrne, prince, portishead, beck, damon albairn, thom yorke, etc. you know who i learned guitar from? jimi hendrix, jeff beck, robert fripp, steve howe, adrian belew, etc. i had to cop their licks note for note. a good record is a free songwriting lesson & for me, a free guitar lesson. guitarists–try learning that guitar riff from “every breath you take” by the police. you have to stretch your fingers over 4 frets to do it. if you can do these things you can make money in music because people will pay you if you can play them the songs they want to hear. yes, i know we all want to play our own songs, we would always play our originals mixed in with our cover sets even when we were playing bars, but the reason that our songs were good enough to play with all these other major artists was because we knew a lot of songs & knew how to write good ones. we learned all the tricks in the book that way.
it’s all about ear training, “playing by ear”. you get to where you can listen to a song & tell what the chord changes are just by listening to it. you get to know keys & scales & what different kinds of chords sound like. i can always tell a major 7th chord or a diminished chord when i hear one; i may not know if it is a D diminished or an F sharp diminished, but that isn’t hard to figure out. you just listen to the bass line, which is usually playing the root of the chord. when you learn a song, you listen to it like you never listened to it before, you hear the players doing things you hadn’t noticed before. that’s ear training. learn to hear it when you don’t quite have the chord changes right to the song–sure, sometimes you change a song when you cover it, but if you play different chords than the ones people are used to hearing they won’t think you are being creative, they will just think that you don’t know what you are doing. get it right, struggle with it, work hard, that’s how you get to be a good musician. one of my favorite albums from the 70s is “faithful” by todd rundgren, which is half original songs & half covers of songs by the people who inspired todd: the beatles, the yardbirds, the beach boys, bob dylan, jimi hendrix. his versions are as good as the originals & he stays very close to them–he even plays note-for-note the jimmy page & jeff beck guitar solos from the yardbirds’ “happenings ten years time ago.” there is nothing uncreative or unhip about playing cover tunes if they are great tunes, all good musicians do it. i saw a video the other day of jarvis cocker jumping on stage with the strokes & faking their way through a cover of the cars’ “just what i needed”–he really screws it up badly but it’s great anyway. reminds me of all the times i screwed up in front of a lot of people & just grinned my way through it. if you haven’t been involved in a train wreck onstage in front of a large audience, you haven’t lived, ha ha.
once you know what all the great players did on all these great records–which is a never-ending process & takes years–you are ready to make records yourself. you’ve heard the old saying that “he who doesn’t know history is doomed to repeat it”–that means that knowing what has already been done makes you more creative, not less creative. i know musicians who brag that they never listen to anybody else’s music. mostly they are still playing in an outdated style that hasn’t changed in years. creative people are constantly changing & updating their music, keeping up with the times. i remember rock bands who used to brag that they didn’t use those newfangled synthesizers–their music was too pure for that. what a lame pose.
one of the things i learned playing covers was that most of the great guitar solos i had to learn were obviously composed, they were not improvised. i learned a lot about how to put together guitar parts for my own songs & for other people’s songs. people started asking me to play on their recordings. there is nothing like recording to really polish & sharpen up your playing. i have one good tip for beginning players about recording–learn to play with a click track. you have to have perfect timing to play on recordings & it’s much easier to put recordings together if you play to a click track. people who don’t practice with a metronome or a drum machine or play with click tracks on recordings usually have terrible timing that constantly speeds up & slows down & is almost impossible to play with. you don’t even notice how bad your timing is until you try to play along with a steady clock. once you start really listening to recordings you will realize what hard work making good records is.
if you do get that big phone call one day from a pro touring band offering you an audition or a gig, guess what they will tell you? get our records, learn these songs, & show up @ this time & place ready to play. know the songs when you show up, do your homework. i always hated it when i had to hire a musician & told them what songs to know, sometimes i would even give them a disc or a tape, but they would often show up for rehearsal not knowing the song & depending on me to teach it to them. that is a huge waste of my time, i would fire those people. i have had to learn 30 or 40 songs in a few days to fill in or join a band quickly because of gigs. that’s one reason why i can make money; i can do that & not many people can. there were some train wrecks there, ha ha, but the more you get used to learning songs from recordings by ear the easier it will be for you when you do get that big opportunity.
those of us who were born to be musicians & can’t really do anything else might have our 15 minutes of fame @ some point in our lives, but sometimes you’re hot & sometimes you’re not. sometimes the kind of thing you do is popular & sometimes it isn’t & you can’t really do anything about that. it’s not a matter of how good you are, it’s just a matter of what is popular @ the time. when times are tough we can still drag our guitar & amp or our keyboards or drums or whatever down to the bar & play for 20 or 50 people, because that is what we do. there will always be parties to play, there will always be a need for entertainment.
so, getting back to the question i asked @ the beginning–what do you think the reason is that a lot of people don’t value the work of musicians & other artists? i think it is mainly for two reasons. the first is the philosophy of materialism. materialists only value solid objects. music is not material in the usual sense–it is sound waves in the air, which are physical, but you cant hold it in your hand, you can’t weigh it or measure it. it is gone as soon as it happens. you can record it onto a solid object but the music itself is all mathematics, numbers, information. any song can be reduced to just numbers & stored on a computer. in other words, music is ethereal & spiritual, not solid & material. music even exists apart from sound waves because when i compose a song, i hear it in my head (my imagination) first, before i ever turn it into sound waves. music exists apart from sound waves, in the world of ideas. any composer will tell you that. materialists don’t see the value of that, they think that sausages & beer are real & valuable but mathmatical ratios & sound waves in the air aren’t. they think music is just an ornament, a decoration, & not something vital that you really need. an artist is somebody who contradicts that, who says that culture IS valuable, just as valuable as solid objects, & that the mind & soul needs the nourishment of good culture just like the body needs solid food. a person who has no soul doesn’t understand this. remember, equations like E=MC2 can rock the world even though it is just an idea, just mathematical ratios. ideas are real & they are powerful.
i think the other reason is that a lot of the business world is based on getting people to do things they hate for money. in order to get people to do something they hate, you have to discourage them from doing what they love. your parents have to be able to say “don’t be a musician, you will never make a living @ that & raise a bunch of kids & pay off your mortgage to the bank. be an insurance salesman or a car mechanic, that’s a REAL job”. of course the prophecy that “you will never make a living @ that” is self-fulfilling, they will make sure of that. drive a delivery truck & play music on the side–if you have any time & energy left. pass the hat. that’s the deal.
some musicians like busking on the street for handouts & some musicians will pass the hat in a club. if you have a day job or are on welfare & want to do that then more power to you, but i don’t want to do that. i don’t want to be put in the position of being a beggar. we need to really overcome this scam. once music business people get more professional & start paying pro musicians a decent wage, then soon the rest who are still using what they can get for free will be driven out of business because they don’t have the good talent. that’s how the scene improves. we need honorable business men in music who like musicians & aren’t into exploiting & taking advantage of us. we need to have a decent business here where hard work & real talent are recognized & rewarded & mediocrity is discouraged. great music will come out of a scene like that & rock the world.