Off Topic: A Response to Whether I “Shelved” a Band 20 Years Ago and What Makes Bands Happy

Gardian 1980s

Blogs can be pretty amazing communication tools. Take in point a blog posting from someone I worked with over twenty years ago (and pictured above) surfacing an issue that was important enough to him that two decades later he is writing about it. Despite all of the other forms of communication, email, phones, faxes, IM, and Twitter to name a few, it is only blogging that has the delicate balance of introspective thought and public sharing.

The post in question is on a personal blog by a former rock and roll artist, David Bach. I signed David to my record label in the middle 80’s and we have remained friends ever since. Before I get into his post, I want to give a little aside about the music industry. Most people who consider themselves musical artists will never have the chance to record professionally. Of those that do, only a tiny percentage will get signed and of those it is only a minority that will have enough success on their first album to put out additional albums. Anyone that is able to have a career making music is an incredible success and the very use of the term “career artist” means that they beat the odds–probably by a combination of talent, luck and a lot of hard work. To use a basketball analogy, being a “journeyman” in the NBA might not seem like a compliment but it means that one is among the top .00001% of basketball players in the world.

However just because an artist should feel good about themselves and what they’ve accomplished doesn’t mean that they do (at least until many years later when they can view their accomplishments with a little more perspective). I can think of four reasons for this which I’ve detailed below.

First, almost everything an artist does is graded against an array of metrics. When a band gets a gig, the question will be how many people did they draw? When they release an album, how many stores it is in and how is it selling? When their music is on radio, how is it performing and is it spreading to more stations? Each of these activities (gig, album release, and radio airplay) are accomplishments in themselves but the system and human nature keep one from seeing it that way. A song that reaches #11 is viewed as not cracking the top 10, reaching #2 is perceived as missing out on #1, reaching #1 will be called a one-hit wonder if it isn’t followed up with equal or greater success. Everything in the process of being a developing artist is about maintaining upward momentum which is impossible to do forever and notably there is nothing is about taking a step back and feeling happy/satisfied about what they’ve accomplished. It’s a perfect illustration of the hedonic adaption.

The second major factor getting in the way of artist happiness is how the process of new artist development works. It’s basic supply and demand and if think of the children’s game of musical chairs (where kids run around a set of chairs and sit down as soon as the music stops) you get a good idea of music industry dynamics. However in the music industry instead of being one chair short there are hundreds of players and only a few chairs. For everything a band does (tour, get exposure, etc.) there are far more artists than slots and odds are they are going to eventually come up shorter than where they want to be. Not the kind of thing that breeds contentment and satisfaction.

The third issue making life difficult for artists is what economists call the “agency problem.” So much of what artists need is in the hands of others. They need shows, that’s the job of their booking agent. They need promotion, that’s the responsibility of their record company. Everything else is the responsibility of their manager. Back to our music chairs analogy, artists aren’t able to be the ones running around the chairs, they have proxies out there doing that for them; proxies that are also representing many other artists at the same time. So the bands are literally watching the success/failure of their careers be held in the hands of people who are busy doing the same thing for many people. Not the kind of thing that helps one sleep at night. The rational thing to do is to make sure that you are the highest possible priority for all of these proxies and that is done most often by being the “squeaky wheel”–and squeaky wheels are by definition not satisfied individuals.

The fourth (and for this post) and final issue affecting artist happiness is the very subjective nature of the music business. Why do some albums sell while others do not? Why do some records perform on radio while others don’t raise a pulse? To be sure there will be a theory for everything that happens with a record but in the end who really knows? This vagueness inherent in the arts creates a lot angst, turmoil and second guessing. A band notices that their album is not selling as much as their inherently subjective opinion thinks that it should and tries to figure out why. Someone tells them that another band’s album only started to sell after their record company sent out posters to the fan club and that they should do the same thing. This leads the band to believe that the only thing standing in-between them and the success they deserve is getting their record company to do this one simple activity. When the record company inevitably doesn’t agree, the band worries that success will now elude them because their record company is not committed/competent/etc. Back to the musical chairs analogy, the music is about to stop and they’re going to be left without a seat because of the lack of support from their label. Continuing on with this paranoia, they’ll then be dropped, no one else will sign them, they’ll have to get real jobs, they’ll get fat and old, etc., etc., all because the record company wouldn’t send out the posters. By the way, record company personnel are not immune to grasping for explanations on why particular records sell or don’t sell. But instead of it being something like a fan club poster it’s the need for a remix or for the band to get on a bigger tour or in extreme cases the need for the band to change its name. Just like bands, record companies feel the need to reduce a complex multi-variant equation and distill it down to one factor that is not their fault.

Thus far it appears from my writing that recording artists are destined to lead unhappy and fulfilling lives. It turns out that it is quite the opposite and in the later years they are armed with all kinds of things to contribute to happiness, satisfaction and contentment. My point is that during the active portions of their career development there are so many challenges to them feeling good about what they are accomplishing but years after escaping the vicious world of career development they are well positioned to lead exceptionally contented lives.

With the passage of time, most recording artists will be able to see that regardless of what they thought they ought to accomplish at the time (that is the artificially high goals), they in fact accomplished quite a lot. They are able to look at the fact that while their friends were slaving in entry-level jobs, they were touring the country playing gigs in towns that most people will never hear of, let alone visit. They’ll remember the feeling of being woken up from an afternoon nap to do more interviews, or receiving fan mail from people around the world, or people just wanting to hang and party with them. When it was happening these didn’t seem like big deals or worse they were treated as unwanted distractions. In retrospect however they were all pretty cool.

Besides the memories, they have been part of a select group of the human race was able to create something that is lasting. I believe that humans have an innate satisfaction in creating things. However for most of us what we create is ethereal. If you are a lawyer you create contracts and advice, not the kind of thing you can pull out 20 years later and enjoy with your kids. If you are a chef and create the world’s greatest meal, it’s a distant memory the very next day. Like authors, painters, directors, sculptors, etc. , however recording artists have the benefit of a tangible manifestation of their work that will be with them and others the rest of their lives and they can re-experience it anytime they feel like it.

This diatribe was precipitated by a blog post on whether I “shelved” a band 20 years ago, basically signing them to get them off the market so they couldn’t take thunder away from another band on our label. This theory couldn’t be more wrong. I vividly remember when I first heard their demo tape and remembering how much I liked it because it had a progressive rock sound, something I hadn’t heard on a demo in many years. But for all of the reasons listed above about artist development I understand how misconceptions and band-label miscommunication are the rule and not the exception. Hopefully the comment that I left on his blog clears up the “shelving” theory once and for all.

One of the interesting things that comes across in his postings is how much perspective he now has about music and life. I believe that he has had a richer life by being a professional musician, in short a better person for it. I feel the same way about many of the hard rock, punk rock and other bands who I worked with in the 80s. Anytime I have the chance to run into one of them years later I get the same impression so I think there is something special gained during those years of fighting for gigs, attention, etc., not to mention humping your own gear.

Diatribe out.

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