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Tuesday, 10 February 2009

The Dreaded Credit Crunch, A Musician's Perspective

I was recently asked by Gigwise.com to write a brief piece on being a musician in this rough economy. Here's what I came up with. As always, email your thoughts to jvfanmail@gmail.com. Hope you dig...

The Credit Crunch. I never heard the term before I moved to England. Now I hear it all the time, read it daily in the headlines, see it smattered across scattered pages of the latest London Lite on the tube. The BBC has a way with words. Poetic descriptions seem to float out the TV set every 15 minutes. Last week it was ‘Siberian Winds’ and ‘Flirting with Hypothermia’. But the dreaded ‘Credit Crunch’ has been their favorite phrase of the past six months. New programs pop up nightly on BBC 3 about how to save while shopping locally. Last week I watched Gordon Ramsay teach men with Moobs (that’s Man Boobs for Americans) to eat cheap and healthily, sandwiched between segments of him shouting expletives at McFly and running the London marathon. All this commotion caused by something that sounds a lot like my favorite sugary breakfast cereal. To be honest, I’m not too fussed. In fact, it’s the only time in my life I’m glad I’m a musician.

I’ve been playing music professionally for 10 years. It hasn’t been the easiest road. So many days I wish I had a time machine so I could go back and grab that curly haired 19-year old kid, shake his shoulders, smack him up and down and convince him to do something reasonable with his life, something where there’s a guaranteed check on Friday. I’ve had to work my fair share of jobs to make ends meet. Waited tables for years, bartended, even taught elementary school gym. By day I led vicious gangs of kindergarteners in jumping jacks and squat thrusts. By night I sang my songs in every hole in the wall club, hotel, bar and restaurant New York had to offer. Countless evenings I’d come home at 2 in the morning, lug my 45-pound, 88 key digital Piano up a 4 story walk-up, only to wake up at 7 AM and head off to 8 hours of pounding basketballs and twirling hula-hoops. I vividly recall frothing at the mouth while singing My Funny Valentine to a group of noisy investment bankers slurrping Beefeater Martinis in a midtown cabaret bar. They talked through the entire song, a brave, drunken few shouting that most sacrilegious of requests, Billy Joel’s Piano Man.

One thing a recession teaches you is there’s no such thing as a guaranteed check on Friday. This past fall I recall watching footage of ex-Morgan Stanley employees aimlessly idling at Canary Wharf, flocks blue-shirt oxford boys looking like deer in the headlights. These guys knew exactly what they were gonna do with their lives. They had a 10-year plan: work 100 hours a week till your 30, then sit back and watch the cash roll in, a steady stream of bonuses whether their clients make or lose money. And here was a generation of Gordon Geckos standing around like Footballers at halftime. Brilliant.

Being a musician offers something that few career paths do: purpose without money. Apart from a few notable, extremely talented exceptions who are typically self-absorbed (Sting, Chris Martin), self-righteous (Springsteen, Bono), pompous (McCartney), or bloated egomaniacs (Kanye West) who look at music as a path to fame (Beyonce) and use songs as marketing slogans (Jay-Z), most musicians make a modest living at best, and at worst live off credit cards and take-out menus for the bulk of their lives (that was me before my record deal, and may still be me in the future. Time will tell. I’m praying I get to become one of the self-absorbed, pompous, egomaniacal ones!) The one thing we are never want for is purpose. I find most musicians so wide-eyed and na├»ve that they actually believe quality will prevail, and their goal is to be a part of, or get as close to that quality as possible. Money is just an afterthought. I suspect that’s why the music business is full of sharks and opportunists. Musicians are a biggest bunch of suckers I know, myself included.

Sorry if I sound unsympathetic, but in the midst of a world-wide downturn, I find myself on the same path I’ve always been on: a slow, grinding gravel trail up the mountain, pushing my financial boulder as always, forever Sisyphus. Except now I see a lot more people alongside me, pushing even bigger boulders, trying to get back on top in this crumbling economy, when in the end, the boulder always rolls right back down to the bottom. I’m happy to sing songs for you guys while we push. Just don’t ask for any Billy Joel.

1 comment:

Ben said...

Bravo JV. I think you will appreciate this on the way up the mountain (even though her big hit is a "chick book"). 18 minutes of your time and it may change how you look at your 'job' -- http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html

-Ben