Here are some random thoughts from Joe…

Things to Never Say to a Musician, a Rebuttal

Every musician has seen those lists “22 Things you should Never say to a Musician” or whatever. And, sure, some of them can be pretty funny. But they are usually pretty off base. I mean, to be a musician — to stand on a stage and pour your heart out to complete strangers in the hopes that they might actually like it — you need to have a certain amount of confidence, but usually, these lists are so ego-driven that it just makes me laugh.

So, here’s my rebuttal to those types of lists.

1 – Can you play something we know?

Most musicians seem to be annoyed by this question. Almost like the audience is lucky to be allowed to listen to what the musicians are playing and everyone should just shut up and enjoy the aural jewels that are being bestowed upon them.

I am on a stage, so my job is to entertain the audience. I try to sprinkle in some things that I like in the hopes that someone out there will, too (like maybe a couple of original songs), but mainly I’m playing music that I think people will respond favorably to. If someone has to ask me to play something that they know, then I have failed as a musical entertainer. And when I’m on a stage, that’s what I am. If I just wanted to hear myself play music, I wouldn’t leave the house.

2 – Can (I, my drunk buddy, my niece, my 89-year-old grandmother — fill in the blank) sing/play a song with you?

I do understand that some performers don’t want their show to be messed with (like a singer/songwriter playing at a coffee-house), but almost all bands HATE when people want to “perform” with the band.

My answer when this question is asked is almost always yes. It will make the show that much more fun for everyone involved, and at least a couple of people will go home and talk about the great band that they saw last night. Isn’t that the point of playing out?

3 – You sound like (fill in a famous band or musician).

Many musicians take the stance that they are original and don’t sound like anyone else — that they are somehow reinventing the world of music and creating something that no one has ever imagined before in their wildest dreams. A lot of musicians are actually insulted by these types of comments.

That’s bull. EVERY musician started playing because they heard something that they liked and wanted to make those sounds. If someone tells me that I sound like “blah, blah, blah,” I take it the way that it was intended, as a compliment (hopefully!!). The most that I can hope for is that I bring a little bit of myself to the mix, too. But if people don’t really notice that, I’m fine with it. If they barely know me, can I really expect them notice my personality in the music I play? As long as they enjoy it.

4 – You should try out for (fill in currently popular TV musical talent show).

Musicians REALLY get annoyed with this one! Most of these shows are more about popularity and marketing than musicianship. But…

Isn’t success in playing music mostly about popularity and marketing? Being a good musician is a personal quest. It’s mostly down to practicing a ton and pretty much anyone can become a good musician given enough time and effort. Having a successful career in music is an ENTIRELY different thing and to be honest, musical excellence and popularity really don’t have a lot to do with each other. I just take this comment as a compliment and say thank you to the nice person who thought enough about me and my music to come up and talk to me. And they thought that I looked young enough to qualify for those types of shows!!

5 – What’s your “real” job? Or the similar, what’s your backup plan?

I’ll admit that this question (usually posed by an extended family member at a family party or a wedding or a funeral) does get a little old to me, but not for the reason that most musicians hate the question. Most musicians detest the question because they hear it as: music isn’t a real job.

To most people, music isn’t a real job. It’s a dream job! Fame, fortune, adoration — that’s not reality!

I get a bit annoyed at this question because what it seems like they are asking is: so, you’re taking everything you own, trading it for a single lottery ticket, then hoping that you win the jackpot? They may mean well, but they are kind of asking me if I am really that stupid. I’m not that stupid. I always had/have a backup plan or a “real” job so that I can take care of what I need to take care of.

If you are a musician and are not making enough money at music to live on and have no “real” job to take up the monetary slack, then you actually are that stupid.

6 – Why can’t you write music like what’s popular today?

“I write what I write,” is what most musicians dismissively say. What they really mean is that they either don’t know what will sell or they don’t care about what will sell. Most of the music that sells isn’t really written as much as it’s constructed. Very rarely is a song written by a musician that sells a million copies. The songs that sell consistently are usually put together by a committee (8-10 people sitting around a conference room table) and adhere to a very strict set of rules on what is marketable. Then these songs are backed by millions of dollars to market them.

A musician sitting in their basement with a pencil and some paper and without the backing of a major corporation, sadly, has virtually no chance of selling millions of copies of their song. And without a committee constructing the “perfect” song, all you can really do is write what moves you and hope and pray that it maybe moves someone else.

Believe me, if I had any idea how to write a million-selling song, I would do it in a second! In whatever style I needed to do it in to make money. “Selling out” be damned! If I could write a song that allowed me and my wife to never have to work again — what’s the issue? I could then go back to writing and playing all of the bizarre, esoteric music that no one wants to hear in the comfort of my lonely basement.

7 – Too bad you couldn’t get on one of those multi-million dollar tours with a pop singer. They always have a ton of musicians on stage with them.

A lot of musicians take umbrage with this comment. They would NEVER sell out like that!

As previously stated, I would GLADLY “sell out” to make some money!

8 – But it will be great exposure.

This is a VERY sticky subject. Musicians don’t want to undersell themselves and feel that their music is worth a certain amount of compensation.

I totally get that! If you don’t value your music, who else will? I get it. But I love to play and it’s very hard for me to say no to an opportunity to play. But that’s my personal problem.

More realistically, a musician could play every weekend for “X” amount, or once a month for twice that amount. Some simple math shows that you’re WAY ahead of the game playing more often for less money. But what about those “free” shows or the “gas money” shows?

Well, you make your own luck. The more often you play out, the better you get and the more people see you and hopefully like you. I have gotten more out of networking (and this includes free or very low-paying shows) than anything else that I’ve done. When people see and hear you enough (and you’re a decent enough musician), you start to get paying jobs out of it. It’s as simple as that.

Musicians always compare it to some other profession like a plumber. But they fail to realize that a plumber, while mainly providing a service, is actually leaving you with a tangible product. You have a leaky pipe, the plumber comes and does their thing, and you now have a pipe that doesn’t leak. You’re mainly paying for his/her service (how much does three feet of copper pipe really cost??) and expertise — just like a musician. That’s true. But after a musician packs up, all you have is the memory of an experience. That’s VERY difficult to put a dollar amount on. So, I just try to play as much as possible and if I’m up a couple of bucks at the end of the night, it’s a bonus.

9 – I have a great idea for a (song, band, stage act — whatever).

Most musicians that I’ve encountered HATE this comment. This is the peak of egotism. Apparently they are so omniscient that they do not need to hear any ideas from anyone.

I believe that I can learn from anyone and anything, and I am more than happy to hear what anyone has to say. I won’t always follow their advice, but it’s certainly worth listening to!

10 – When will I hear you on the radio?

When this appears on most of these lists, the response is something along the lines of “when radio stops playing crap.” Just because you don’t like something, doesn’t mean that it has no value. So calling it “crap” only exposes your small-mindedness.

Personally, I would do almost anything to have some of my “crap” on the radio. It would be a dream come true.