We Don’t Care
After being involved in the music industry for around 20 years, first as a performer, then roadie, and now as a writer, I am sometimes asked by struggling bands if there is any wisdom I can impart to aid them in their quest. Yeah, there is. It goes like this:
We Don’t Care.
We don’t care about your show, or CD, or website. We don’t care who you opened for, what your girlfriend thinks, or that some low-level dink at a low-level indie thinks you’re the next Oasis.
We Don’t Care.
And ya know what? It don’t matter a rat’s if we do or don’t. It only matters if you care. And if you don’t, get the hell back to UPS where you belong. To succeed in any art form — music, dance, prose, or ritual body modification, it only matters if you care, if you meet and exceed the standards you set for yourself. Sure, it would be nice to support yourself playing your hot brand of Euro-Speed Metal, but it most likely ain’t gonna happen. What will happen, if you’re lucky and somewhat talented, is that there will come a moment that is so incredibly perfect, that you sound, or paint, or dance so completely RIGHT that nothing else you’ve ever done comes close. The money won’t matter.
Other than government work, the performing arts are one of the few careers that the better you lie, the more successful you are. Anyone who has taken an event or a feeling and put it to music or scribbled it down on paper knows this. To be able to elaborate, embellish — in other words, lie about something — is what an artist does. It takes a lifetime to come up with experiences enough to draw on — which is why the music of 13-year-old phenoms is generally technically brilliant, but rarely emotionally engaging. What does a kid not old enough to drive have to say about anything? Not a lot. What they will have is a mastery of other people’s work — a mishmash of stolen riffs and borrowed ideas. I would much rather hear the ideas of Johnny Rotten at 19 then the bleatings of some boy-band at 13. Rotten wrote about his experiences as a youth growing up under the specter of England’s monarchy — unemployment, racism, and a culture built on worshipping impotent royals at the expense of the people. This gave us punk — but do you think Rotten believed he was an antichrist, as he snarled in “Anarchy in the U.K.”? Probably not. He lied about it — and created an entire movement.
Now some of you — our readers in bands, who slave away in your basements, surrounded by the latest and greatest gear, thousands of dollars in effects mounted in racks, are rankling at the mention of the Pistols — “They couldn’t play! Anybody could play that crap!” True enough — it was simple. Basic, even. Not even close to the musicanship required to sound exactly like Phish, or some other supposed example of “chops”. To all you basement Jerrys, rehearsal room Rush repeats — we don’t care — simply because you don’t, either. No matter how fast you play, or how expensive your guitar was, or how many hits you get on your Geocities website, we don’t care. Because you aren’t saying anything. To a teenager in the late 1970’s in the South, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and the Clash were clarion calls — shots across the bow of the ship Complacent. It changed our lives because the music breathed with raw energy, emotion — fueled by cynicism, alienation, and dread. The music was made because its creators had no other voice by which to speak. They knew they would never get on the radio, sell a lot of records, or be on Top of the Pops or American Bandstand . They did it because they had no choice. Freed from concerns of sales, they spoke in literal terms about the frustration they felt each day, in whatever language worked best.
Counter this with the question posed to me by an up and coming local band concerning one of their songs and its chances of getting on the radio. They were worried that the subject matter would “piss people off” and limit airplay. To even ask such a question is its own answer. If you are concerned with getting on the radio, or into a cool opening slot for next week’s show, concerned enough that you would change what and how you say something, then the race is over before it starts. You are a whore — or at least a whore in training, since nobody has paid you yet. Add enough “Yo’s” and drug references to your songs, and I’m sure they will.
But don’t expect anyone to take you seriously. Sure, you’ll make some money. I could make money writing for Spin about Insane Clown Posse, but I ain’t gonna. But if your motivation for your band succeeding is so that you can “bag that job with the landscaping crew” and stop mooching off your stripper girlfriend, then don’t be surprised if no one cares when you break up, or miss a show, or whatever. That’s what happens when you’re product.
But on the other hand, if you have twenty hours of tapes that you recorded in your bedroom, or if you’ve written 5 novels and never shown them to anyone, then chances are good that what you have to say might just be compelling enough to listen to. If your notion of success extends no further than your own room — then you might be on to something. If you can’t describe your art to anyone else, if it doesn’t sound or read or look like anything you can put your finger on, then it might just work. If at the end of creating it you smile, or feel a burden lifted, or your anger is transformed into art, then you have succeeded.
And you won’t worry if we care or not.