July, 2008

The Important Stuff

As a musician, it’s important to keep playing. That’s what it’s really about at the end of the day. All of the other stuff, marketing and promotion, and expanding your fan base- all of that stuff doesnt really matter if youre not actually working on music. Maybe it doesnt always have to be “creating” new songs- but playing…that’s what really matters. It could mean maintaining your chops, it can be working out new ideas, it can be discovering another instrument, it can be learning a new technique, or maybe just generally exploring another music direction. But you have to play.

Recently, a good friend of mine passed away. His name was Red Shea- he was an iconic Canadian musician and guitarist with a huge list of achievements including being Gordon Lightfoot’s lead guitarist for over 15 years. He went on tours with acts like Bob Dylan and the Band, and hung out with some pretty neat company in guys like Kris Kristofferson and Jack Nicholson. A couple of years ago, our back fence started breaking down and I was approached by the man on the other side of the fence about fixing it…and so Red and I sat down in his backyard, had a glass of lemonade and started talking about music and the rest is history. After learning who he was, I was compelled more than ever to pepper him with questions and pick his brain whenever I could. So the backyard chats became more regular. We were forty years apart- but I can assure you, it never, ever even occurred to me.

I learnt quite soon that it didn’t have to take a lot of work to pick Red’s brain. Red was an ocean of common-sense, practical wisdom. He could talk about anything under the sun, and give you something new to think about in a flash.

He had a lot of interesting things to say about music, the music industry then and now, and what it means to be a musician. He was the first to remind me that despite everything that’s going on in the world, in the music industry, and in my life…if im not playing and im not writing, im not much of a musician. All of the other stuff is only slightly relevant, if at all. When I asked him about his best memories from being in the business and his career, he always said (other than hanging out with Jack Nicholson), “Playing. Playing- that was the only thing that mattered. And writing of course, and creating…but everything revolves around playing.”

Sounds obvious doesn’t it, but it’s amazing how easily we forget. As a songwriter, it’s important to keep writing songs. If youre not actually “songwriting”, youre not much of a “songwriter” are you? I read once in a book of interviews of Bob Dylan, when someone pointed out to him the various opinions of the critics on his latest album, he responded with, “Well, at least Im out there writing songs. What are they doing?” It wasn’t said defensively (this was very clear when reading the full interview), but more matter-of-factly and semi-humorously. And it’s a good point- it’s not his job to worry about what every Tom, Dick, and Harry has to say about his music. He’s imposed upon himself the job to just continue to write and create.

If after umpteen albums and hundreds of songs, this truth is not lost on Bob Dylan himself, why is much of the independent music community full of fresh, raw, and developing artists (us included) at such a loss to accept this? I dunno, maybe it’s point that is only better understood with maturity and stability.

Unfortunately, with the nature of the business changing so rapidly and massively, the new DIY (Do-it-yourself) approach for indie artists has utterly confused and paralyzed many of us. There is no map, much less a compass, and so the most important truths of all are being forgotten. We are struggling mightily for validation – to feel acknowledged and to feel heard. One industry executive told me that before, people were trying to get their 15 minutes of fame; now, they’re focused on already managing their 15 minutes of fame- among 15 friends. What’s worse is that most of us believe that the 15 minutes of fame among 15 friends will translate into something more.

Much has been said about this already, so I wont dwell on it, but the stark reality is when you look at the end goal of being a touring artist who sells enough and makes enough to enjoy a full-time career, almost all of us in the independent music community will fail. It’s a incredible amount of work, an incredible amount of luck, and an incredible amount of work (yeah, I know I said that). Only a few get through to that kind of success, and credit to them.

But what’s the worst part…it’s not that so many of us will fail in that one picture of success…it’s that most of us are forgetting what the point of all this actually is/was in the first place. It used to be that you had a song to sing, and had to find a way to get it out. And so you would learn to play it and sing it wherever you could. Nowadays, the mediums to get music out — the internet revolution, the digital revolution, the myspace revolution, the independent music revolution — have completely overwhelmed an essential part of the process. We are trying to walk, run, and sprint all at the same time…flocking from one revolutionary medium to another to ensure we are on the cutting edge of what is happening in the “community”. Dont get me wrong, it can be a lovely community and an important one, but nonetheless a community of no use if we still havent defined who we are ourselves, individually. Let’s face it- we’re more concerned with how many people viewed our MySpace profile in the last three hours than investing the time and energy it needs to become better musicians and write better songs. And so really we’re investing a whole lot of time and energy into a giant cyber black hole. We’re scrambling from one thing to another to make sure that we dont miss anything- except we’re placing into jeopardy the most basic truths of all! In our search for validation from the business and from others, we have lost sight of the basic requirements and focuses we need for ourselves- to continue to develop and hone our craft, and play and enjoy music! No wonder the public can’t sift through the mess…because that’s what we are- a very, very large disorganized mess of people drifting in and out and of a “music business” with no real sense of purpose, understanding, or direction.

Does this sound gloomy? Well, when you think about the positives- that within that enormous network of people there is an incredible amount of creative energy, drive, and talent – there is much to feel good about. And there are songs…tons and tons of songs, many of which are already good or have the potential to be good.

So youre wondering why I’m saying on the one hand we’re all doomed to failure but on the other hand we’ve got so much potential? Well that is kind of what I’m saying. But mostly, I’m saying, as a music community and as an individual, it’s important to accept the reality of what we are dealing with.

And it’s even more important that once we accept that reality, we remember why we’re actually doing this in the first place- to play, to write, to create, to realize an idea- because, ladies and gentlemen, that may well be all we have left in the end.

If months go by and you’ve forgotten this truth, then slap yourself in the face. Nowadays, I know I try to remind myself constantly. I also think its a good thing for us to do other things to manage the risk and do the work without having any expectations. So many of us are moonlighters and that is a good thing. It gives us options, it gives us balance, and it gives us the ability to create and play music without living in cardboard boxes. I know im so lucky that I have a day job and that i like it and am thankful for it every day. As Red told me, “Just enjoy playing. And challenge yourself constantly. Don’t worry about everything else. It may work out this way or that- but this is the only thing that really matters.”

Red loved his aphorisms. He loved to tell me, “Show me a genius, and I’ll show you a man who work ten times as hard as anyone else”, and “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” He always told me how those people out there whose work we are aware of – the Bob Dylans, the Gordon Lightfoots…even dating back to the Da Vincis of the world…the body of work that we saw from them was just a fraction of what their actual output was. He was very quick to point out to me that what we don’t see- that’s of a volume that’s 100 times greater than what we do see. “Their waste paper baskets are full 50 times over, even for just a short period of work”, he would say. The point is they never stopped playing. They never stopped writing. They never gave a shit if anyone was listening. They never forgot why they were doing this. It’s something for us all to learn from.

Red Shea was a musician and a person from another era, and yet at the time of his death was the youngest 70 year old I knew. He was very active, extremely full of ideas and excitement and he could talk a mile a minute. He was from an era that represented a different generation of music, of values, and of “musical values”. I feel lucky and cheated- lucky that our fence broke and that I got to meet and befriend this great man; cheated because our friendship was only a couple years old and there was so much more I wished to share and listen from him.

My favorite memory of Red, was sitting on his front porch last summer talking about music- he was explaining to me how to work in modes. After a little while we started talking about other things and I asked him if he still found time to practice, to which he immediately retorted, “Oh geez, no i dont touch the stuff”, He went on to explain how his fingers would hurt, and he couldnt practice for as long anymore and he had already played some that day and was feeling tired from it, and on and on and yadah yadah…and then all of a sudden he stopped abruptly and said, “Ill be right back.” He went in the house and emerged with one of his acoustics, and what happened next was sublime. That fine summer evening, I sat quietly on the steps of his front porch and listened to the incomparable Red Shea play his guitar- he played Bach and Mozart, he played the blues, he played jazz…he seemingly played everything and he played for a while. And I just remember feeling so happy sitting there listening to him. It was typical Red- starting off saying one thing and then doing the exact opposite. It’s an hour of my life I’ll remember forever.

Maybe most of all, I’ll miss his wicked, wicked sense of humour. He was sharp, wickedly sharp. One of the lines he’d always throw into our conversations was, “My doctor asked me how well do I sleep? So i said, I don’t sleep too well in the morning, nor too well in the night…and I toss and turn all day.” I’m so thankful for getting to know him – I’ll miss my friend.