By Terri Hendrix
(LSM July/Aug 2011/vol. 4 – Issue 4)
Whenever I’m asked, “What do you do for a living?” and I answer, “Music,” every now and then there’s an awkward pause, followed by a dazed look, and then, “You can make a living doing that?” If this happens, I immediately ask what they do for a living. When they answer, I reply, “You can make a living doing that?” It stops the conversation, along with further questions, cold. I’ve always found it rude to assume that just because an artist — in any art form — is not a “household name,” that means they have not “made it” and therefore are starving and penniless at the threshold of obscurity.
What is “making it” anyway? What is success? Such a personal question takes quite a bit of soul searching to answer regardless of what you do to put food on the table. True, I have responsibilities, like a mortgage payment, that my music must support. But as any good ol’ hard-workin’, self-employed, middle-class American business owner will tell you, “making it” is a marathon, not a sprint.
I’m fortunate in that I have a network of musicians I support and who support me in my endeavors. Regardless of the collective differences in both our income and career paths, we share similar stories. Mulling over our conversations about our common experiences has helped reinforce my own conclusion that, no matter how one defines success, the key to enduring the highs and inevitable lows might be as simple as remembering why you ever started singing, writing, and playing guitar in the first place.
If you’re in it for the long haul, your career’s gonna ebb and flow just like the Guadalupe River. In fact, when you make a living making music, some days it might seem like the only consistency is the inconsistency. You’ve no doubt accepted the reality that your paycheck will vary from gig to gig. Also, some folks you hire to work on your behalf are gonna either do the job they promised and deliver a touchdown (or at least attempt one), or charge you for lip service, and drop the ball.
Another interesting paradox will be the overall temperature gauge of your buzz-o-meter. One day your name will be too hot to touch, and the next, it’ll either be as lukewarm as the kiddie pool at Schlitterbahn Waterpark, or as frigid as the sections of the Comal River where the cypress trees bend over the water and create dark green shadows beneath their limbs along the riverbanks.
Some days you’ll feel like you’re off the ground and really getting somewhere with your craft, only to discover that the entire tour you just did cost you more money in expenses than it made you in income. In this economy, it’s hard to anchor a guarantee, and even when you do land one, it’s a challenge to work the show so that the venue will make the money they gambled on you back in ticket sales. Getting the word out on a string of shows takes time. Publicity is expensive. A mailing list costs money. A database takes upkeep. Hiring employees will create challenges with your budget as well as complications with how you pay your taxes. Even if you’re on a record label, the tools to chisel out an identity for yourself in a field teaming with players are going to eventually come straight out of your pocketbook. Most people will want to work with you — if they can make money off of you. Period. It’s not personal. It’s business. But you are human. And therefore, you are capable of being hurt.
You get a bad review, and the words sting. Your record’s not even officially out yet, but some snarky critic or blogger’s already gleefully torn into it and by nightfall, it’s plastered all over the Internet. And the person that’s first to tell you about this just happens to be an artist himself. Whenever you’ve played an event with this fellow colleague, he’s stood backstage and in response to whoever is playing onstage has muttered, “I just don’t get their music.” You’ve desperately wished to inform him that his thinning, greasy scalp is not only incapable of holding up a ponytail anymore, but that his head resembles a coonskin cap — with mange.
You vow to not let the review — or him — bug you. You set out to get some office work done. Your printer dies. You drop your laptop. Over a hundred copies of a CD you released three years ago are returned from your distributor. Most of the cases are broken. Reselling them will be practically impossible. You finally get that crack in your windshield fixed only to have a rock nick it the very next day. After the right front tire blows on your van on the way back from Folk Alliance (where you played a showcase for five people — including your booking agent), your sanity will kick in, and you will ask yourself this one simple question: “Why am I doing this?” As you fumble through your wallet for your AAA card, you’ll shout, “I quit!” At that moment, feeling as burned and worn out as the frayed treads on your tire, you will have reached the very end of living your dream.
The next day, as you wearily pull out of the parking lot of Discount Tires, you will wipe the sleep from your eyes and remind yourself that as of yesterday, you quit. At that moment you will do one of two things: Quit for real, or roll on.
If you chose to continue onward to your next gig — which is five hours away — you’ll think about the time you had a sense of purpose behind the lyrics you wrote. Once you set those words to song, it not only fed your soul, but you had a profound belief that what you created made this world a little better for others, too. This connection seemed otherworldly and it mattered to you. Therefore, you faced adversity and obstacles head on. You had a voice. You didn’t need a manager or a booking agent to speak for you. If you had a problem with something, you picked up the damn phone yourself. You were self confident enough to stand behind your own choices. And when you did hire out, you had people in your life that not only did their job, but also went above and beyond to help further your career — because they truly “got you.” They believed in you long before anybody else did. You understood that a lifetime in the music business wasn’t created overnight. You invested in your fans and in turn — they invested in you.
You remember the woman that came to your last show fresh from radiation therapy. Although the chemo had taken her hair, she looked radiant with her head gently wrapped up in a purple scarf. Having seen her at countless shows of yours in the past, you were on friendly enough terms for her to shyly disclose that her breasts were so burned from her last treatment, that she could barely stand upright. Yet somehow, she’d found the strength that night to get out of bed and come see you play. While you performed, you watched her out there in the audience singing along to one of your songs. At the conclusion of your show, she came up to you and whispered, “That was exactly what I needed.” You watched her walk away, and she turned around, lifted her chin, and smiled one last smile back at you before disappearing out the door and into the dark.
Thinking about that woman, you can’t help but feel a profound sense of success. You embrace it. Because that is your real “Grammy Moment.” You take the gift of her smile, along with the memory of having helped someone, and you put it on a shelf in your mind. You think about that last mail out you did. You know, the one mixed with e-commerce Internet orders and cards for weddings, funerals, births, graduates, and soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. It took over two decades of playing music to gather a fanbase like what you have. And you care. Oh yes, you care. You send a prayer out to the woman with the purple scarf.
You have quit before. You will quit again. But this time you vow to never again forget that you have indeed “made it.” Though your career path might be similar to the Guadalupe River, by the time you reach the ocean, if you don’t cave into the demons who have outposts in your head, your art will have made an impact on this world — one person at a time. That is, if you rise up and claim your real Grammy Moment.