What is it really like to play music for a living?

I get a lot of comments and questions from people at my shows regarding the title subject, and I always seem to hear one of a few things. Folks either comment on how fortunate I am to be doing something I love, want to know if it’s truly possible to not starve and play music, or express how horrifying and terrible it is that I have to be on the road so much. With all that in mind, I decided to do a blog post and pull back the curtain a bit on what it’s like to make a living from music. I’ll be debunking some misconceptions, along with offering up some common realities, bullet point style. So let’s go!

  • Playing music for a living changes the way you feel about playing music.
    I don’t want to say it takes the joy out of it, because it doesn’t. But it definitely moves it around a bit. Most people I talk to that play music for pleasure talk about how relaxing and wonderful it is to pick up their instrument at home. How fun it is to jam out on something. Well, in my experience, when you play music for several hours a night, multiple nights a week, that goes away. I never pick up an instrument when I’m at home, unless it’s to practice something specific or write a song. It’s of critical importance that I rest my fingers and my voice, so I can go do those four hour solo gigs on back to back to back nights. Truth be told though, I just don’t want to sit around and play. It’s in the “work” part of my brain now, whereas it used to be in the “fun” part. BUT: the joy I get from performing and sharing music with people more than makes up for that.
  • Super drunk people, smartphone addicts, and loud conversationalists are the devil.
    Alright, so I just talked about how playing music for a living sort of takes the joy out of playing an instrument, and puts it into playing on stage. So imagine how frustrating it is to go to a venue that is either filled with obnoxious drunk people shouting “FREE BIRD!”, or people engrossed in conversation with their friends about the latest Taylor Swift relationship news, or THE absolute worst, people that never look up from the screen of their phone. Look, I’m sympathetic to an extent. I understand that people come out to drink and have a good time. I also understand that people want to talk to their friends, and they might need to check their phone from time to time. I don’t have a problem with any of those things to a reasonable degree. But there is such a thing as balance. Driving hundreds of miles to a gig, and then playing to a roomful of people where not even ONE audience member will stop talking or look up from their smartphone is absolutely demoralizing. It is the single most discouraging thing that can happen to a performing musician, and it sucks.
  • Travelling on the road is the best thing ever.
    Alright, let’s move on to happier things. In 2014, I drove almost 50,000 miles. I played in a dozen different states on both ends of the country, and I absolutely loved every minute of it. Touring is probably my favorite part of this occupation. Seeing the country, experiencing new cultures, meeting new people, eating great food…it’s the best. When people say they feel sorry for me that I have to travel so much, or get a horrified look when I talk about how much I drive a year, I really don’t understand it. It doesn’t compute. I freakin’ love doing it!
  • You CAN make a living playing music.
    Like I mentioned at the open, there are a few things people always seem to say. One of the things I get most often is pity from people who I assume I must be a starving artist. This is lazy thinking, and it’s an inaccurate conception. Am I rich? No. Am I making a decent living? Absolutely. Not only that, I don’t have the average $30,000 of student loan debt that most 22 year olds are burdened with. If you are talented, and willing to work at it, you can make a good, solid living playing music. Don’t believe me? Ask my friend Ted Yoder. He has a wonderful wife and seven kids, and supports them all by playing music. (Check his stuff out at http://tedyoder.com)
  • Booking shows is the dumbest part of this whole thing.
    I do my own booking, because I haven’t attracted the attention of a booking agent yet. (They come to you, you don’t go to them most of the time.) So, I book 150-200 shows a year by myself. The booking itself is not hard. The flakiness and inconsistency of people who book for venues is. If I’m on tour in a region and I need to book a show, here’s what I can count on. I can count on having to email or call about 30-40 venues to get 1-2 bookings, because the vast majority of venues never check their email or look at band submissions. I can count on being low-balled at some point, by somebody. And I can count on hearing from a venue that enthusiastically wants to book me, but then never follows up again on locking in the date and working out the details. It’s just stupid, and it’s how I spend a lot of my time.
  • The “rock star” lifestyle doesn’t exist.
    I was amusingly warned by some people when I started doing this that a world of wickedness, drugs, sex, and rock and roll would descend upon me. I’ve even heard of guys that weren’t allowed to go out and play because their wives were so concerned about it. Well, I haven’t seen it yet. Maybe it’s just the style of music that I do, but my biggest fans are 50 year old dudes. Not really groupie material. There is the occasional stalker type, and the occasional drunk lady that requires some additional explanation to understand what “I have a girlfriend” means, but that is the exception FAR more than the norm. Those experiences become stories to share, jokes that get laughed about with friends. The most experience I’ve ever had with drugs is playing an event that focused on the integration of legal cannabis and hemp into the economy of Colorado. It was attended by business people and local politicians. Yeah, rock and roll? Maybe for someone like the Biebs, it’s out there. But I’m pretty sure there is no reason to be concerned otherwise.
  • It’s true. I am so fortunate to be doing this. And it’s because of you!
    OK, so all of that being said? This is still the best job in the world, and I would never want to do anything else. For all of those bad moments, with drunk smartphone addicts, flaky venues, and breaking down gear at 3 AM…the great moments blow all of that away. The joy of connecting with an audience is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. It takes me to another place, and it takes my playing to another level. I am energy dependent. If there is good energy from the crowd? I play 10 times better, and that is not an exaggeration. A bad show sticks in my mind for a day or two. A great show with an awesome crowd sticks with me for weeks. I do this for those moments. I do this for the people that feel something in my playing, and connect on an emotional level. I do this for the people that have an awful job, or a bad relationship, and find solace in music. I do this for the people that derive joy from music. I do this for anyone who thinks that Top 40 and Bro Country are horrible, and need something real. I do it for you guys. Thanks for believing in me. I’ll try not to let you down.
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The Machine (And How It Relates To Music)

Garth Brooks came out with a new record recently. It is called “Man Against Machine.” I had to laugh a little bit when I found out about it, because when Garth Brooks appeared on the scene, he very much represented pop-country. He was the establishment; the face of corporatized music. Fast forward from 1989 to 2014, after a decade of bro-country and Taylor Swift, and Garth Brooks is now being marketed as a traditional country artist, raging against the machine and staying true to his roots.

In this blog post, I want to delve into the world of corporate music. People tell me on a regular basis that new music is bad, old music was good, and the fact that most music on the radio is awful proves it. Truth is, it isn’t quite that simple.

Chances are that any music you hear on the radio, or anywhere else, is owned and produced by either Universal Music, Sony Music, or Warner Music. They control almost all of the music in the world, and they certainly control what gets played on the radio. 99% of radio stations in the United States operate off of “playlists.” This is essentially legalized payola; these three massive corporations have extensive relationships with other massive corporations, and they provide radio stations with advertising contracts in exchange for that station playing songs off of the playlist that they provide. Oh, and “indie music?” Almost always published by an imprint of these three music conglomerates. “AAA” or “Alternative” stations are usually provided with playlists from “indie” artists to give you the illusion that you are listening to something outside of the mainstream.

This has largely been the case for decades. People who act as if something has changed are generally looking at the past through rose colored glasses. Pull up the pop charts from just about any year from the 60’s to the present, and you will see that a good percentage of the top charting songs are bubblegum fluff, mixed in with some substance. Don’t believe me? I looked up six random years from 1960 to now, and easily found these artists on the list of the biggest radio hits of the year.

1969

  • The Archies (#1 song of the year, as a matter of fact.)
  • 1910 Fruitgum Company
  • The Cowsills
  • Neil Diamond
  • Andy Kim

1978

  • The Bee Gees
  • Andy Gibb
  • Debby Boone
  • Barry Manilow
  • A Taste of Honey

1985

  • Madonna
  • George Michael
  • Hall & Oates
  • New Edition

1997

  • Backstreet Boys
  • Hanson
  • Spice Girls
  • 98 Degrees

2008

  • Nickelback
  • Nelly
  • Britney Spears
  • Avril Lavigne

2014

  • Taylor Swift
  • Iggy Azalea
  • Nicki Minaj
  • Pitbull

Now, before you get all defensive and tell me about all the great artists that were around and on the radio when you grew up…that’s pretty much my point. There have always been great artists, and there has always been plenty of fluff. What HAS changed? A couple of things. One, actual sales of music don’t drive the revenue generation anymore. It’s advertising, be it on the radio, on YouTube, or even in the song itself. And two, the fluff production machine has gotten more and more efficient over the years. It is now down to an exact science. They know what formula to use, and with the advancement of technology, it’s now to the point where they don’t even really need musicians a lot of the time. With a songwriter, a producer, a computer, and a singer (doesn’t even need to be a good singer!) they can crank out songs with a fraction of the effort and cost that it used to take. Since it’s been scientifically proven that repetition is the only thing needed to make people like music, and since the three big corporations control all of the radio stations, all they have to do is plug in the formula and put it on the radio.

Of course, the formula for country songs is beer, trucks, America, girls, and mud tires. “Tailgate music” or “Bro-Country” as it’s called. Garth Brooks was, ironically, one of the pioneers in this segment. For pop music, it’s about highly repetitive choruses and melodies. Oh, and product placement! Like all of the Patron and Chevrolet name drops in Country, or when Kodak paid Pitbull more than $1,000,000 to say “Kodak” twice at the beginning of a song. You listen to ads on the radio, and then when the songs play, you’re still listening to ads.

Now, if you don’t love the Archies, The Bee Gees, Madonna, the Backstreet Boys, or Pitbull, you are somewhat of an outlier. Warner, Sony, and Universal recognize this. That is why they put out music to get YOUR money as well. For every five or six “created” pop artists, there are one or two “genuine” artists that gets pushed through their media machine, to capture your attention and dollars. Let’s go back to those six random years again; 1969, 1978, 1985, 1997, 2004, and 2014. Check out some of these artists that were getting radio play.

  • The Rolling Stones
  • Creedence Clearwater Revival
  • Eric Clapton
  • Queen
  • Steely Dan
  • Stevie Wonder
  • Dire Straits
  • Whitney Houston
  • Jewel
  • Mariah Carey
  • Sheryl Crow
  • Matchbox Twenty
  • Switchfoot
  • Alicia Keys
  • Los Lonely Boys
  • Jet
  • John Legend
  • Aloe Blacc
  • Ed Sheeran
  • Hozier
  • Imagine Dragons
  • Adele

What does all of this mean? It means that this is a very carefully crafted, controlled, and contrived industry. Anyone you hear, anything you see, is not by accident. It is designed to make Warner, Sony, and Universal MONEY through advertising. If they think that an artist can make them money, they will give them the full compliment of media exposure and radio airplay that is necessary to make them “famous.” If they can’t make money off of that artist, out they go. And if need be, they will do whatever they possibly can to make you buy in, even bringing back Garth Brooks to be a “man against the machine.”

There is no great conspiracy. Music wasn’t “better” back then. This is the way the industry and “radio music” has been since at least the 1960’s. It has changed in some ways as time and technology have progressed, but the basic model is and was the same. Follow the money. Lynyrd Skynyrd told you all about it 1972.

Seven years of hard luck, comin’ down on me
From the Florida border, yeah, up to Nashville, Tennessee
I worked in every joint you can name, mister, every honkytonk
Along come Mr. Yankee Slicker, sayin’ maybe you’re what I want

[Chorus]
Want you to sign your contract
Want you to sign today
Gonna give you lots of money
Workin’ For MCA

$9,000 dollars, that’s all we could win
But we smiled at the Yankee Slicker with a big ol’ Southern grin
They’re gonna take me out to California gonna make me a superstar
Just pay me all of my money and mister, maybe you won’t get a scar

[Chorus]

Suckers took my money since I was seventeen
If it ain’t no pencil pusher, its got to be a honkytonk queen
But I’ll sign my contract baby, and I want you people to know
That every penny that I make, I’m gonna see where my money goes

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The Grinch Was Misunderstood

First of all, above is my favorite Christmas song of all time, which will make more sense after you read this post. And also, I truly believe the Grinch was misunderstood. Poor guy. I’m sorry to say this, but I really don’t like the holiday season. I don’t know what it is about it. But, by and large, whereas most people succumb to the winter doldrums, I am very glad when the calendar flips over to January 1st.

I think what I don’t like about the holidays is the fakeness of it all. Lets be honest; we all have issues when it comes to family. There are strained relationships and wounds that can be difficult to deal with. Yet, at Thanksgiving and Christmas, we are supposed to forget all about that, and be a big, happy family like nothing ever happened. Advertising and media shoves images of the happy family at Christmas down our throat, and makes us feel bad when ours doesn’t match up.

Then, you have the religious aspect. There is a large segment of society that doesn’t identify with Christanity, and it is growing. Everything from Judaism to Spiritualism to Atheism to every kind of -ism you can think of. But, we expect them to sweep their beliefs under the rug, and go right along with Christmas. Then, we have the nerve to attack them for taking the “Christ out of Christmas” when they try to find ways to celebrate this holiday that they (of course) MUST celebrate, without compromising their beliefs. As if we somehow have the right to dictate what they do.

First of all, we have no idea when Jesus was born. Secondly, many historians believe the whole concept of Christmas on December 25th was an attempt by the church to “repurpose” a “pagan” holiday, the Winter Solstice. And thirdly, I can’t speak for him, but I’m pretty sure Jesus would be absolutely disgusted by our fervent consumerism, militant religiousity, and complete lack of focus on anything resembling his teachings. When we shout and stomp our feet at Non-Christians about “taking the Christ out of Christmas”, or “keeping the Christ in Christmas” as the case may be, and knocking people over in Walmart on Thanksgiving Day for video games and toys, are we really doing what we should?

My friend Ted had some great comments last night. He called attention to that familiar passage in Matthew, where Jesus laid out the ONLY two principles we are to live by. “Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Ted pointed out that we really tend to gloss over this, and asked a question. How many of us can say at the end of any given day, that we really loved God with all the love we can give, and that we extended as much grace to people in our lives as we extend to ourselves? I don’t know about you, but I fail at that every single day. You can argue the details all day long, but that simple, powerful statement sums it up. If you are not extending everyone you meet the same grace that you extend yourself…you aren’t really loving your neighbor as yourself.

Which brings me to this. For me personally, Christmas is a fundamental flaw in our belief system. For one month out of the year, we pretend that we don’t fall short of that goal. We get caught up in some shiny trimmings, say Merry Christmas to people that pass by in the mall, drop in some change at the Salvation Army kettle, and feel good about ourselves. We don’t do anything to mend those broken family relationships. We just put a bow on them, box them up, and stick them under a tree. We don’t do anything to solve poverty, or addiction, or homelessness. We dump our pocket change in a red bucket, and figure that’s good enough. We don’t take the time to love other people who don’t share our beliefs; we force them to celebrate our holiday, and then get angry with them if they try to make it their own. We spend large amounts on gifts, and then don’t give love the other 11 months of the year. Even if you think what occurs during the Christmas season is good, why do we only do it for one month?

If you like Christmas, I am happy for you. If you have found joy in it, that is terrific. I am not judging you, or telling you what to do, or trying to force my beliefs on anyone. But I think the Grinch was misunderstood, and I wanted to explain why you can count me amongst his sympathizers.

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Rock and Roll

I recently played at the Fandana Festival in Huntington. My (current) favorite band in the world, NEEDTOBREATHE, was also playing the festival, and I got the privilege of watching them perform. Standing just a few feet from the stage, with the kick drum and bass pounding and vibrating my chest, and the guitars screaming, and the lights shining…I got chills a couple of times. Good rock and roll and good blues will both do that. (After all, blues and rock are pretty much the same thing.)

It got me thinking about the generation of people who had, in the past, stubbornly referred to rock and roll as “the devil’s music”. And of folks I’ve run across who curiously seem to live in some sort of self-made bubble, listening only to a certain kind of music, and making various other exclusions for whatever reason.

To each their own, but for me…man, rock and roll is beautiful. Because of this.

Image

Yeah. It’s from the heart. From the soul. Guitar is my preacher. Drums are my choir. Turn it up to 11 and feel the joy.

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Paper Planes

We get high
And just pass on through
If you get knocked down
Don’t let it be what makes you, you

I used to be afraid of myself
I used to not know who I could be
But now, I’m just free

We’re like paper planes
Floating by on the breeze
And when we crash
We fall down like the leaves

I used to be afraid of myself
I used to not know who I could be 
But now, I’m just free

© 2013
Brian Keith Wallen

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Heroes

I am blessed, always. But I am blessed this week especially, because I got to see two of my biggest musical influences and heroes perform, up close and personal.

As a guitar player, there are four people who have really shaped and molded me. Doc Watson, Tony Rice, Richard Thompson, and John Mayer. I never got to see Doc Watson, but I have seen the other three, and I saw Richard and John this week!

We’ll start with Richard’s concert on Sunday. It was in Kent, OH, which is in the Cleveland area, and I went with some of my best friends, Steve, Gene, and Gary, all of whom are huge RT fans as well. I had seen him a couple of times previously, both solo acoustic shows. This performance was electric, with his trio. It was phenomenal. The sheer power and energy energy that flowed through his playing was amazing, and Richard is an absolute virtuoso, but he makes it look effortless. He never fails to humble me,  and it was worth the 500 mile roundtrip drive to see him. We were only 2 or 3 rows back from the stage, in a very intimate venue called the Kent Stage. For an example of his playing, check out this video.

So, I was hanging out on Monday, still thinking about how awesome that show was, when I was reminded by a Facebook post that John Mayer would be in Cincinnati on Tuesday. I decided on a whim to see if there were any tickets left, and there happened to be a single seat in a great location. I nabbed it, and headed down to Riverbend.

Phillip Phillips opened, and he was solid, better than I expected in fact. But when John Mayer came out, the place went nuts. It was absolutely surreal having someone who has occupied a very large space in my musical life playing a few dozen feet from me.

I love John Mayer for his blues work, but he is currently pursuing Americana and Country music, primarily. I knew that going in, but I had hoped he might still slip in a few blues tunes. Unfortunately for me, he didn’t. It was still a very solid show, and he displayed plenty of great musicianship. He played a good number of new, unreleased originals from his next record, and also an interesting array of covers, including tunes by Bob Dylan, Blind Faith, and the Grateful Dead.

I felt a lot of mixed emotions walking out of the concert, because as I said, I feel that John is one of the best blues guitarists in the world, and that was what I really wanted to hear. However, I understand wanting to try and pursue other styles of music. As an artist myself, I’ve gone off on a few tangents that people probably didn’t appreciate.

One thing that definitely shone through was that John obviously feels very strongly about what he’s doing now, and genuinely has a passion and a love for it. So, I can’t fault him for it, and I support his creative spirit. I’m glad I went, but if he decides to come back to the blues, I’ll be first in line for a ticket. I have a few pictures below.

Riverbend, 7/9/13

Riverbend, 7/9/13

 

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Stories of the Road

I have played 11 shows in the past 13 days. About 1,800 miles and 27 performance hours later, here I am. I have loved every moment of it.

One of the coolest parts of being a musician is meeting new people out on the road, and I have a great story from my time in Evansville, Indiana. I was playing at a bar called Lamasco, a real haven for live music. They have some form of entertainment going on just about every night of the week. It’s a cool, cozy venue, and a good place to play some gritty blues. I was there this past Tuesday, and about halfway through the show when a big group of guys walked through the door. They were taking pictures, videos, really getting into the music.

I went on break, and one of them came up to me and introduced himself. He said his name was Mike, and that he played guitar for Barry Manilow. He explained that Barry was in town for a gig, and it had been pushed back by a few days for some reason. So, they had been stuck in town for a while with not much to do. They really dug my sound, and after we had chatted for a while, Mike joined me on stage for a couple of tunes. It was awesome! I chatted for an hour or two after the show with all the guys, which included David Rozenblatt (Percussion), Ron Walters Jr. (Music Director/Keys), Joey Melotti (Keys), Ron Pedley (Keys), and as I mentioned, Mike Lent (Guitar).

A nicer, more gracious group of people you will not find anywhere. They offered me a ticket to the show, so the next night, I got to sit about five rows from the stage at a Barry Manilow concert and watch some of the best musicians in the world.

There is a belief held by most independent performers that someday, someone who can give you your big break will walk into whatever bar, club, or venue you’re playing at in the middle of nowhere. I wasn’t sure I believed that, but I do now! Thanks again to all the guys, and thanks again to Amy and Jessie at Lamasco! What an awesome place.

If you want to keep up with my crazy schedule, as always, bkwmusic.com is the place. Where will I be in July? Well…Lexington, Dayton, Richmond, Pendleton, Cincinnati, Columbus, Metamora, Fairfield, and Evansville, to name a few cities in the three states I’ll be visiting this month. Can’t wait to see who I run into out there!

I’m starting a new tradition. With every blog post, I’ll share a song/artist with you that has really been impacting me lately. This week, it’s the band Wilco. Specifically, the “Sky Blue Sky” and “Wilco (The Album)” records. Both masterpieces. Check out “Country Disappeared” here.

Thanks to Arnold’s, Brukner Nature Center, the Wine Stable, Raintree Square, the Three Legged Mare, Lamasco, Expressions, Wildwood Pub, Charley Creek Arts Fest, and the OTR Biergarten at Findlay Market for having me here in the past couple of weeks.

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