In the world of internet memes, the ones related to music read like Greek mythology.
Take, for example, a recent meme of a Dave Grohl quote that popped up on Facebook recently and then spread like wildfire to the indie musician’s walls. It’s a picture of Grohl, and this quote:
“When I think about kids watching a TV show like American Idol or The Voice, then they think, “Oh, Okay, that’s how you become a musician, you stand in line for eight fucking hours with 800 people at a convention center and then you sing your heart out for someone and then they tell you it’s not fucking good enough. Can you imagine? It’s destroying the next generation of musicians! Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old fucking drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in and they’ll suck, too. And then they’ll fucking start playing and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives and then all of a sudden they’ll become Nirvana. Because that’s exactly what happened with Nirvana. Just a bunch of guys that had some shitty old instruments and they got together and started playing some noisy- ass shit, and they became the biggest band in the world. That can happen again! You don’t need a fucking computer or the internet or The Voice or American Idol.”
Thanks, Dave. For a brief glimpse into the most unrealistic version of how to succeed in music right now you could possible piece together. On top of the part about it destroying the next generation of musicians being totally untrue (let’s talk about that last), it’s an absolutely Paleolithic version of how to succeed in music.
To really get at the heart of this argument you have to look at two things: 1) why the industry crashed in the first place, and more importantly why the singing shows have taken over; and 2) what you actually have to do to succeed as a band in today’s music climate.
Let’s start at the beginning of the story. Which in a nutshell goes like this: In the late 90’s the profitability of the music industry was disarmed by a lack of foresight, some massive mistakes in controlling the medium, and an overly zealous woman named Hilary Rosen (head of the Recording Industry Association of America) who erroneously believed that instead of being involved in the next wave of music delivery to try to litigate the industry out of what had obviously become a very sticky situation when selling music: digital file sharing.
They were late to the party.
They made a ton of mistakes.
And they were notoriously lazy about being involved in its history.
It ended badly in the late 90’s with some of the industry’s most famous and prolific record labels being absorbed in a mish mash of mergers and buy-ups, which has resulted over the years in the emergence of 3 basic controllers: Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, and Sony Music Entertainment. The largest music retailer in the world is now Apple’s iTunes.
Worldwide revenues for the industry fell from roughly $37 billion to $15 billion over the decade of 2000 to 2010, most of the loss from sales of CDs. There has been a slight uptick in digital album sales over the past few years, but the industry remains a completely different animal than it once was before the 90’s.
From the artist side, the result of this was basically massive layoffs. Even established artists were dropped from their labels. Development deals all went bye-bye. Fewer artists were signed as labels focused on channeling funds into their few profitable artists rather than new ones.
“Getting signed” basically disappeared.
But let’s face it – interest in new music and new artists didn’t. So when the rise of reality shows hit the networks, it was only natural for them to fill a much needed hole – finding and showcasing the talent that at one time had been the music industry’s whole purpose.
Now let’s talk about #2. To glamorize the experience of being an indie band sucking in their garage and sucking and sucking and adding more people to add more suckage and suddenly exploding into the “best band in the world” (umm…okay…) in an era where grunge is gone and production techniques are stellar, and the music colleges in this country have graduated some amazingly talented people, and the population has exploded, and the competition is fierce, and you need more money than ever to make a decent album, and you are going to get lost in a sea of online sales and marketing, and no matter how hard you try you are only going to be able to get 10 people to a gig, and anyone with clout in the industry wants you to sell at least 10 to 20,000 records and support your own national tour in order to even get a meeting – well – you’d have to be high on crack. Or at least completely disconnected to how this works now.
So…how does it work? You have three choices.
1. After investing in not only lessons, but possibly a complete music education, and learning to play your instrument REALLY well, writing at least a few solid radio hits, putting and keeping a band together that doesn’t fight most of the time or screw each other over, you will need to record, mix, master, press, and distribute your own album.
After that you’ll do all your own marketing. And online media. You’ll need to do this while playing consistently – but only a couple gigs in any one city in a month (otherwise people won’t show up). You’ll enter every online or showcase contest ever known to man. You’ll do nothing but talk about your music and yourself to strangers 24/7. You’ll endeavor to put yourself on tour – even a small one. And you’ll do this while working at least one full time job because you’ll be paying for all of it yourself.
2. You’ll make an awesome video of yourself and put it on youtube. By some miracle it will either go viral or a major celebrity will see it and decide to champion your career. (Obviously, you’ll want to hold your breath for this one.)
3. You stand in line for eight fucking hours with 800 people at a convention center and then you sing your heart out for someone and then they tell you it’s not fucking good enough. And so you go back. Or to the next one. And you keep doing that until someone says you’re good enough. Because even a moment in front of the right people or on that stage could move your career further.
As for the singing shows destroying the next generation of musicians…I can tell you, Dave from the trenches of daily teaching, that it isn’t. The next generation of musicians is more motivated than ever. They like great music – even some of yours. They practice hard and they perform regularly to get to the next level. And those that may end up on the singing shows are no different – most of those singers have decided that learning an instrument would benefit them so they’re doing that, too. Some of them write. They ask to learn theory. And to learn to sight sing.
So never you mind your pretty little rock star head, Dave. For those of us living in music reality, the future isn’t a complete disaster under the pop vocal banner as unglamorous as it is to the punk and grunge generation. Sure. It’s different. And it’s probably going to change again at some point and people are gonna have to roll with it.
Oh…and just so you know…no matter which path you choose you need both a computer and the internet. Unl
ess you want to be the only person who will ever hear your music at all.