Being a working musician is like no other job I can think of. There are many reasons for this, but for the purpose of this discussion I will concentrate on one only: the emotional rollercoaster.
I have had my share of day jobs, in fact quite desirable and committed white collar jobs, in which I had development plans, promotional opportunities and all those nifty long-term goals (some might call it bait) offered by business organizations, and the salaries to go along. When I have been bypassed for a promotion, or when I’ve had a hard day at work, I get as stressed out as anyone, maybe even depressed for a few days. But for the most part it has always been a fairly even-keeled emotional experience where one day rarely varied much from any other day, and the reward at the end of two weeks generally made up for whatever minor heartaches you suffered along the way.
But music is quite different. It is an all or nothing game where you are the product, and every small accomplishment feels like a strategic victory, and every small setback fails like a catastrophe. Especially if you are a songwriter, and every night you pour your soul out and leave it on a stage at the risk of being thrown out, booed, ridiculed or what’s even worse, ignored. You bear your soul in hopes of making a connection with at least one person in the crowd, that connection being the real reward for the risk, as the vast majority of working musicians don’t make enough from gigging to even pay the rent.
I remember in my last gig in Folsom, CA, there was a gentleman wearing a cowboy hat, sitting alone towards the back wall, sipping on his beer. He arrived roughly in the middle of my set, and then only got up to refresh his beer and sat back down in the same spot. At the end of the gig he walked over to the front of the stage, tipped his hat in my direction, dropped three dollars in the tip jar and with a southern draw said: “nice set.” He then walked out of the bar. He made my night. The three dollars, while not an insignificant gesture, was nowhere near as important to me as the fact that he took the time to acknowledge me and to let me know that he both approved of and enjoyed what I was doing. I had another similar experience playing in Placerville, CA, where a woman actually got up at one point of my set and danced to my music, which is hardly dance music. At the end of the show she bought my CD, asked to sign it and took a picture with me because she was sure that someday it would be worth more than a memory.
Then there are the other nights. Nights where you play your heart out to an empty room because you can’t risk that somewhere, unseen, in the shadows, an important music industry player is silently watching; and the whole time you’re on stage you’re wondering how you will apologize to the venue for the lack of turnout. Or the other “other” nights, in which you simply fail to make a single connection and you just get through your set hoping the stage will swallow you before you have to walk off and into the cold night, with a couple of bucks in your pocket if you’re lucky, which you would gladly give up for just one sympathetic listener in that crowd.
I have told myself and others, more than once, that my music is not everyone’s cup of tea and I don’t expect everyone to like it. But secretly, I so hope for popularity. I also tell myself and others, and I genuinely believe that music is not a competition and should not be rewarded on such a basis (i.e. the Grammies). But every time I see a fellow musician in the local scene get an opportunity for a prime gig or a media feature, I jealously wonder “why not me?”
For all our bravado and renegade nature, musicians, especially those that create rather than pay tribute, are fragile creatures with very delicate egos. While this may not be anyone’s problem other than our own, it would be just plain human decency not to viciously rag on music that is not to your liking, instead offer constructive criticism that, while hard to take, may be helpful in the long run to the artist. And if you ever find yourself in the enviable position to presence a show you truly enjoy, take a few seconds to let the artist know how you feel. All it takes is a tip of the hat.