Tag Archives: the music business

The Musician Label III

I’ve been involved in the business (and to some degree, the art) of music for over 30 of my 42 years. I’ve traveled it, studied it, played it, written it and in the process I hope have learned a little about it. I’ve traveled, studied and written other things as well; but underlying everything that I do and what I’ve become in the process is inseparably tied, at its roots, to music. All kinds of music.

I’ve read a lot about music over the years, too. Reviews, criticism, social commentary and theory that ties in psychology, anthropology, history and religion. My feeling is that sometimes you discover a thread, and sometimes its just a theory of knots. Super-strings, perhaps.

For me, regardless of the genre I play or am enamored of at the moment, I always end up playing my own kind of “seven degrees of separation” where the glue at the center is the music I grew up with and around. If you subtract the Beatles (even though you could in fact trace from them back to Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, the Cookies, Little Richard and Elvis, among others) and the Stones (with their direct line to Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Mississippi Fred MacDowell, and so many more), the music I listened to growing up was American music: rock and roll, blues, folk, bluegrass, country, Tin Pan Alley, ragtime, dixieland, big band, soul, rhythm and blues — and all its combinations and permutations. I studied classical music, because when you learn an instrument formally, that’s usually the genre for most of the instruction. The rest was what people now call “roots music.”

My roots? Hell yes. My paternal great-grandfather on one side was an itinerant fiddler. On the other side, both greats, I understand, traveled the Mennonite church circuit demonstrating and teaching yodeling from their native Switzerland. My father and uncle played “Hawaiian” guitar and accordion, respectively. My brothers, sister and I each were responsible for learning three instruments – a woodwind or brass, an orchestral string, and piano. I added guitar (and eventually a number of other things) to my repertoire.

I’ve written at least one song in the style of every record that I’ve ever heard. From madrigal to musical comedy to mosh pit; from polka to pop to punk; from reel to rap to rave-up. From Bauhaus to Beethoven to Bill Monroe to Billy Bragg to Irving Berlin and back.

I’ve never really found a source of information that covers that range of Americana. That cares about all of Americana. My definition of Americana, that is. Music that describes the profundity, the complexity, the often confusing amalgamation of styles that encompass the soundtrack of these United States, through time and space.

Particularly from a musician’s point of view. But then again, it seems to me these days that musicians (and all artists for that matter) are becoming more and more like physicians. Gone are the days of the General Practitioner. Everyone’s a specialist. That’s where the money is, I suppose. Learn your specific narrow genre – what styles it takes, what it’s audience will tolerate – and never move beyond those confines.

That’s not for me. That’s someone else’s definition of a musician. As a bard (in both the Druidic religious sense, and the musical sense) I have both an innate need, and some might suggest a spiritual duty, to understand the entire cultural spectrum of my time, and its history as well.

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The Musician Label II

The definition of “musician” is given as:

1. a person who makes music a profession, esp. as a performer of music.
2. any person, whether professional or not, skilled in music.

Interestingly enough, the definitions of pianist, guitarist, bassist, flautist, etc. are not, as I would have expected “a musician whose instrument of choice, or expertise, is…[the piano, guitar, bass, flute, etc.]” or even “a individual who produces music using a … [piano, guitar, flute, etc.]”.

There is, however, no direct connection between being a “musician” (with of course, no specific venue or outlet identified) and a specific occurrence of a musician type.

Instead, a guitarist is “someone who performs on the guitar”. A flautist is “an individual who plays the flute.” Now, maybe I’m a little dense, but it unfortunately doesn’t seem to define WHAT is being performed or played. Is it MUSIC? Alas, only a skilled critic would have the temerity to say.

That would seem to infer … and I have in fact seen it happen … that while some musicians may be guitarists (for example), not all musicians are guitarists nor are all guitarists musicians.

And who determines, using the dictionary definition above, whether or not one is “skilled” in music? What exactly does that mean?

Music, in fact, is a broad subject that covers a multitude of smaller subjects. Besides the obvious areas of music theory, counterpoint, composition and orchestration, there are the lesser aspects: foreign language, history, philosophy, physics, mathematics, audio dynamics, group psychology, teamwork, balance, physical training and discipline, communications, space relations, poetry, breath control, posture, memorization.

To be truly “skilled” in music is to know quite a bit, huh?

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The Label of Musician

To call me a musician is to miss an important point. There’s a certain convenience to the label, sure. But labels have a way of limiting their objects, of glossing over the inconvenient details in an attempt to simplify the classification of the whole. There’s a laziness about that kind of thinking. A desperation, almost, that stems from needing to explain something bigger than yourself in a way that doesn’t make you work too hard, or make you feel so damned small.

I AM a musician. Like Einstein was a scientist, or Yeats was a poet. You might argue about the company, but the point remains – the label seems just a little too small.

You could argue that Einstein approached everything in his life scientifically, or that Yeats lived poetically. Likewise, there is a certain musicality about my life and work. But to label us respectively as scientist, poet or musician on that basis alone, and have that label work, requires a different understanding of science, poetry or music. Different, that is, from what you might acquire in a textbook, or from a PBS special.

I had a friend once who said they could understand me as a poet so long as they did not also have to understand me as a musician, an artist, a philosopher. I understand the need to separate reality, to subdivide the infinite into manageable segments. One of the chief tenets of successful project management is to separate the work into small, concrete and achievable chunks in order to reinforce ongoing decision-making and ensure delivery of meaningful, and measurable, milestones.

But there are few projects that fall under the watchful eye of a manager whose span is an entire lifetime.

And what does it mean, anyway, to be called a musician? Is the title applied to amateur as well as professional? Does it mean someone who has spent a lifetime mastering a single instrument, as well as someone who has learned just enough, combined with other entertaining skills, to impress an audience? Is a person with expertise in only a single genre the same kind of musician as one who is versatile in many?

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