I’d like to address a subject that I have discussed with numerous people of differing ages, backgrounds and musical styles. It seems to come up during a car ride, having some drinks after a show, or (unfortunately) when someone actually has to deal with it. It’s something that I have, in a way, witnessed firsthand and have done my absolute best to avoid. I have begun to refer to this as the “trinity” of what will kill a musician’s career faster than admitting you sang backgrounds on a Miley Cyrus track. These three elements are ego, undependability and laziness. It’s what can make people both inside and outside of our little fishbowl develop negative perceptions about musicians as a whole. It will drive employers and consumers away from a particular person that displays one or any combination of these traits. It’s what can take an otherwise amazing musician and put them on the shelf because they either don’t play well with others (ego) and/or can’t be counted on to do the job they are hired to do (undependability/laziness).
It’s a fact of life that when you’re in a realm where people have had to work and toil to hone and develop the craft in which they make a living, most people are very proud (at least internally) of their abilities. Take a welder who has worked years to develop his/her craft, or take a salesman who started at the bottom of the food chain in his/her company and has spent years climbing to the top. Anyone who has spent years getting to where they currently are, either ability-wise and/or career-wise, is going to have a natural degree of pride. I’ll gladly admit that I don’t want to be told I suck (even though it’s good for me to take constructive criticism when it comes along). Where things seem to get out of hand in the world of art is when people begin to think that they have somehow learned everything there is to know, and they now look down their nose at others in the same realm.
I’ve had the privilege of working with some amazing talent over the last handful of years, some have been world-famous and some are just making a living like everyone else. The degree of talent is never a concern. Some of the best players I’ve ever seen have been playing at the local watering hole on a Friday night, working to pay the rent like the rest of the world. But a pattern I’ve noticed is that sometimes the people playing that local bar have become jaded and resentful that they have this talent, yet they feel they’ve never been given a chance (or didn’t take a chance when their lives allowed them to do so). They feel the world doesn’t care about them, therefore their pride is hurt and it festers within them. Things start to get hairy when that resentment starts to come out toward others. This, by my estimation, is the essence of ego. It makes people miserable to work with and gives that particular person a bad reputation. Oftentimes it isn’t displayed with anger, but rather the fabled “delusions of grandeur,” where they feel they have become this legend in their own mind. I have literally had people tell me that they think it is better to be a “big fish in a small pond.” Why did you start playing music? To say you’re “better” than everyone around you? Glory? Money? I have never understood that mentality.
I faced this in my own situation last fall when I moved to Nashville. I went from a “small pond” in Illinois where I had developed (by my estimation) a good reputation and was in (once again, by my estimation) one of the top bands in the region. For the first time in my life, other musicians wanted my job. I was in a comfortable situation with a great band making good money every week. I had done just about everything a musician could ask to do playing in that region: we opened for huge artists, we played giant summer festivals and we had become a local headlining act ourselves. When I moved to Nashville, all of that was null and void. No one knew who I was. No one cared. Take it from me, that was enough to hurt anyone’s ego! It was huge for me to understand that as soon as I came to grips with the fact that no one knew or cared who I was, I was set. The world became a blank canvas. I no longer had to worry about the old cliques back home, or having the right “name,” or hanging out at the right clubs with the “in-crowd.” Everyone is a nobody well before they’re somebody in a bigger market like Nashville.
All career fields have those people who have the skills but lack the willingness or ability to sacrifice to get to the next level. Once again, I’ve witnessed people who possess some of the greatest talents and abilities I have ever seen, but lack the essential ingredient of getting off their ass and doing something. I have met tons of musicians whose abilities far exceed my own. I don’t feel I was blessed with a natural musical ability at all. When I was growing up, I didn’t have much of a musical family or anything like that. My Grandpa Ken played acoustic guitar, but that was it. My parents both took accordion lessons at separate times and quit after the first lesson if that's any indication! (Not that I blame them). So I’ve had to figure out pretty much anything I’ve been able to do.
That in itself can be a blessing in disguise because it taught me not to take anything for granted. If I wanted to learn that Stevie Ray Vaughan lick, I had to take the time to figure it out. If I was going to learn to play and sing at the same time, I had to map out the words with the chords. If I wanted a poodle ‘do like Dee Snider, I had to get the perm and the spandex and have three cans of hairspray on hand. Wink! Guitar great Eric Johnson once said that you have to enjoy the process of learning to play music as much as you enjoy actually playing music. That is some of the best advice I’ve ever heard. I need that tattooed somewhere so I don’t forget.
In the modern world there are a lot of things that tug on a musician’s sleeve: you must possess a good skill set, you need business sense, you need marketability, you need a good look or image, you need to know your audience, and above all else you have to be a nice, dependable person. With as crazy and unpredictable as the music world can be, I am going to try to be on top of the things I can actually control.