You, oh avid reader of this blog (ok maybe occasional reader), might have recognized that I have a consistent format here. I describe an interesting situation or conversation in a very specific context and extrapolate it to other disciplines. I really enjoy finding the connections among different disciplines.
So I was moved and excited after reading a speech made by Patton Oswalt, a professional comedian and overall inspirational person. You might know him from as the lead rat from the Pixar film Ratatouille, or from King of Queens. I myself will always think of this particular NSFW gem:
In any case, he was the keynote speaker at the Just for Laughs Comedy Convention in Montreal. In his speech he talked about the state of the comedy industry, both from the perspective of the comedians, as well as the “gatekeepers of the comedy industry;” the producers, labels, and institutions that deal with comics and their work. He did this in the form of two open letters, one to the comedians, and one to the gatekeepers. They’re a bit long, but they’re definitely worth the read. Please, take a few minutes to read them, as it’s important to the rest of the stuff I’ll be talking about; I’ll be right here waiting!
When I got finished reading the transcript, it started to dawn on me how many missing pieces this brought together for me in my thoughts and my music career. Most of the pieces fell into place on the subject of hard work. A few weeks ago I wrote a piece called the Refried Beans Epiphany, which opined about how we artists get held back by the powers-that-be citing the mantra “that’s just the way the industry is.” I wrote it after two different professional musicians told me that the bands that survive in this industry are the ones who spent years focusing exclusively on their art, often to the detriment of their health, wealth, and snealth (ok, just checking if you were paying attention there).
When I apply the contents of this speech to my music career, it both invalidates and confirms portions of what these incredibly talented musicians were saying to me. The invalidation comes from the old-school mentality of “this is how the industry works.” No, you don’t have to sleep in your car for the first five years. That kind of “devotion” was from a time when it was much more important to be physically mobile to promote your work (drive to a new city, play a show, sleep in car, drive to the next city, repeat). These days, the vast improvements in media that I have access to mean that I have more flexible options in how I get my music to your ears. That iPhone that gives comics the ability to tweet, record video, and engage with their fans also does the same for me as a musician. I mean, I did record a whole album at home in 2011. Ten years ago, that would have been almost unthinkable.
With that added flexibility comes more of a need for dedication, integrity, and hard work, which brings us to how the above speech confirmed some of what I was told. In a conversation with a professional friend, he told me “in general [to have a sustainable career in the music industry,] it takes a do or die type of focus…unless you have that, not a lot will happen.” I read it at the time as yet another reiteration of “pay your dues,” “this is the way this machine works,” etc. I now believe what he was saying is that that same type of hunger that up-and-coming comics need is also needed to be successful in music. Patton Oswalt cited the innovative podcasts, tweets, and communities that comedians are creating. Doing a podcast takes a relatively small amount of effort; doing an amazing podcast takes a huge amount of focus and effort. Similarly for musicians, writing a song is easy. Writing a great song is really hard. Writing a great song and promoting it is even harder. Writing a great song and promoting it while juggling 3 other groups you play in and finding time to rehearse and record… well, welcome to the path to success in today’s music industry. Because this is something we can actually do now, as opposed to previous times when only record labels had such power at their fingertips.
Just as we comedians can’t legitimately blame someone when their YouTube video falls flat on its face, we as musicians can no longer blame the institution when we don’t get our free 15 minutes. We have the tools and we have the wide open space of the age of technology and media. What we do with it is up to our own limits. I share Patton Oswalt’s excitement for the possible shapes of that future and the wonderful possibilities that it opens up. I also share his understanding that complacency just doesn’t work any more. No one is going to hand it to us. We need to be constantly thinking of new ways to approach our audiences, new ways to combine different, and new communities with which to collaborate and innovate. It’s all there, ready for us to get to work and do the best that we or anyone else can. That’s an eye-opening revelation I can certainly get behind.
Tiny aside: Thanks Bryce for the heads up on the etiquette of posting large quotes on a blog.
Larger aside: My CD Release Party is coming up August 25th. It’s going to be lots of fun. I think there might be a piñata, and I know there is going to be amazing music.