Your Mother Was Wrong: You Aren’t That Special.
Last night I lay in bed not sleeping and seething with rage for the internet. Turns out, six cups of coffee at ten-thirty really gets the dander up and hinders restful repose. How an Indie-Rock Label Saved My Life is a really thoughtful article by someone I really respect about how opportunities to be a full-time musician have expanded in the last fifteen years. The comments are a total shitshow of people meowing for their parade or their trophy. Never read the comments, even if you aren’t the content creator. Never.
The basic tenor of these comments is that b) the author John Roderick is a dilettante who never had to grow up because of material ease and a) if I’d never had to grow up, I’d be more successful than him because I’m more talented. In addition to being factually inaccurate, the mindset behind this bellyaching is the kind of gross philosophical inaccuracy caused by too many participation trophies in primary school.
Attention Internet: you have not been cheated by the universe. The center of the super-destructive commentary about art is the notion that cosmic forces are preventing the next Hemingway from writing the great American novel. With self-publishing, YouTube, and - as Mr. Roderick’s article points out - independent record labels, this is less true than ever. There is not a causal relationship between Katy Perry’s career and your shitty desk job.
Fame is zero-sum. If what you want in your secret, dark heart-of-hearts is super-stardom, the adulation of millions, to never work another day in your life, you’re a small person with terrible priorities and you deserve the corrosive envy that is eats away at your spleen right now. Then again, in the age of reality TV and viral videos being a terrible, unpleasant person is a viable path to celebrity. In fact, you should probably start pursuing your own show on Bravo, because you’re not as talented as you think.
You’re not. If you were God’s gift to a creative or performing art, you would be pursuing it in a meaningful way. The difference between being “good at drawing” and being an “artist”, is the difference between being double-jointed and being a gymnast. Sure you’re flexible, but have you done the ten thousand hours of somersaults?
Whether you’re whining about not being a writer, a musician, or a sculptor, the fact is you didn’t want “it” enough to make the necessary sacrifices to make a living with art. You could still be living in your car, subsisting on Ramen noodles made on a hot plate, trying to keep the dream alive. Then again, having a family and health insurance has it’s charms as well. Material comfort and security aren’t bad things but they are occasionally at cross-purposes with the life of a professional artist. The Cool Police aren’t coming. It’s okay to admit that you hit 30 and wanted to be comfortable and middle-class more than you wanted to be Iggy Pop.
Because the truth is, no one cares about you and your great unwritten rock opera, so quit griping about how everything else sucks in comparison. The essence of criticism is not complaint. A 4,000 word essay about why something sucks doesn’t help anyone. Stop it. If your basic reaction to art is “I could’ve done that better,” you’re wrong. If you really could have, you would have. You are sitting on the couch claiming you can run faster than Usain Bolt when you don’t own sneakers. When you’re a working musician, a published author, a committed artist you can tell us what sucks. Until then, talk about something you’re passionately in love with other than your own failed dreams.
- Listen to Scared Straight a half-a-dozen times.
- Read the article How an Indie-Rock Label Saved My Life, by John Roderick at RollingStone.com
- Come back for Part Two, “Why I Love Independent Music.”
- Try being really good at the thing you do instead of wishing you were better at something else.
Hobby, Obsession, Recovery
I’ve never taken drugs, but I imagine my relationship to music as a teenager was similar to a better-than-casual relationship with narcotics, beginning with the blind, dumb totality of it. I developed a tolerance and then love of silence in college, but before that I required constant background music, morning, noon and night. Of course I owned a CD walkman, which got no more than an hour of use a day and fit in none of my coat pockets, but I also owned a succession of waterproof CD player-radios. For showering. Even a fancy teenage girl doesn’t get through more than a couple classic rock tunes in the shower, but I had a habit that needed constant feeding. In retrospect, this lifestyle required a series of gestures that the age of computers rendered meaningless.
I loved my mixtapes and records, but the form my music consumption most often took was the Compact Disc. I loved and hated buying CDs. Visiting Tower Records was an act of pilgrimage, an all too-rare opportunity to commune with the objects of my devotion with other members of the faithful. I could spend hours in a record store, days in a used record store, which added a frission of intrigue to my reverie.* The reality of being 14, of course, is that no one will take you to the record store. I’m sorry, that should read “NO ONE will take you to the record store, EVER!” possibly punctuated by a door slam. The scarcity of record store visits reinforced my tendency to linger, which of course, reinforced the scarcity of record store visits.
It wasn’t just lingering to enjoy the fluorescence reflected in the shrink wrap. I always had a backlog of albums to consider buying - completing the discography of a favorite band, edifying myself with a classic - occasionally, disappointingly - falling for Rolling Stone’s relentless hype. Half of my gray hairs come from agonizing over which CD to buy. This was not a trivial decision. If the single was the only good track on the album, that’s a wasted trip to the record store and $12 - 20 down the drain. Reflecting on this, I’m ashamed of how I’ve squandered $20 in the last month, and wish I could recover the frugality of my youth, when I expected a lot of $20.
I fetishized the CDs themselves. Humble-bragging about how many CDs one owned was not uncommon. For me, after a point, keeping a CD case alphabetized was untenable, and I switched to an autobiographical system, a la Rob Fleming in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. This system was unbelievably inconvenient for anyone but me to navigate, but as the book suggests, “comforting.” Flipping through my CD case was like Scrooge McDuck swimming in a pool of money - I took pride in the time, money and discernment that went into my CD collection.
The mentality that I developed around music in my teens transmogrified into something completely untenable as an adult. Like my Depression Baby grandparents with toasters, I have been hording MP3 files in an era of auditory plenty, and my iTunes is now out of control. With 30,000 tracks, it takes a painfully long time to load, consumes half my hard-drive and, even if I went back to the round-the-clock music consumption of my adolescence, there is no way I could meaningfully enjoy all of these songs.
The first inkling that I could prune my iTunes collection came a few years ago after my all-consuming obsession with The Black Crowes had come to an end. For several years, I’d traded live recordings with other obsessives - .FLACs only, primarily legally through BitTorrent, but also through the mail. I had months of these shows, and even after I wasn’t actively listening to them, I couldn’t bear the idea of getting rid of these shows I’d diligently chased down and collected. Finally, it occurred to me: “I can back these up.” Woosh! Hours of extended soloing on “My Morning Song,” zipped on to an external hard drive. If I ever want to go back to my nag champa and Birkenstocks days, those recordings are just a mouse-click away.
Today, it finally occurred to me that I can do this with studio recordings as well and I spent two hours curating the mess that was - and is - my iTunes library. Indie compilations from music blogs - gone. Pop-punk records I loved in middle school - gone. Lackluster sophomore efforts, eponymous releases overhyped by Rolling Stone, volumes of miscellany brought down in the hay-day of bittorrenting - gone.
Even as I’m liberated from my hording, I am afflicted by completism. Before MP3s, buying a CD single was a massive waste of money. Three or four songs, two of which are ‘live’ or ‘outtakes,’ no significant savings. The idea of having one or two songs by a band, unless it’s a genre or era-related compilation still feels wrong. ”Stacy’s Mom” by Fountains of Wayne wants, and deserves, to live with the rest of Welcome Interstate Managers. This explains the unspeakably large number of unplayed tracks by power-pop acts of the 1990s in my library.
The more pernicious completism, is the philosophical. For years, my identity was built around a holistic understanding of pop-rock music and canonically good taste. We own Physical Graffiti, Live Through This, and In Utero, and I like none of those records. I have listened to Nevermind the Bollocks, but I don’t need to have ready access to that or Pinkerton, and they will be safe in digital mothballs in the event that the Cool Police should bust down my door.
The truth is, the Cool Police aren’t coming. The Internet with it’s endless lists of “Top 100 Most Important Rock Albums” and a proliferation of proto-Fricke’s reviewing the latest underground lo-core sensation, put them out of business, and services like Rdio have rendered music as a ‘collection’ obsolete.
Unless, you’re buying vinyl. Which you would if you were serious about music.