Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Postmortal

*Post title a nod to Drew Magary's enjoyable-if-flawed post-apocalyptic novel. Magary is one of the all-around funniest writers on these entire internets, and I will throw down with anyone who claims otherwise.

So this happened a few days ago -- Esquire magazine takes a break from telling you why you're a soul-raping cultural barnacle for enjoying illicit nekkid fotoz of hot babes, juxtaposed with monkey-spanking American Apparel ads and barely-clothed fotoz of the very same babes, to give us these nuggets of wisdom from schlock 'n' roll grandpa Gene Simmons, as dutifully transcribed by Simmons' son Nick. Apparently Larry King's questions are just too incisive and probing.

NICK SIMMONS: You once said the music business isn't dying — it's dead. What would you say to young musicians and songwriters today trying to navigate this new terrain?
GENE SIMMONS: Don't quit your day job is a good piece of advice. When I was coming up, it was not an insurmountable mountain. Once you had a record company on your side, they would fund you, and that also meant when you toured they would give you tour support. There was an entire industry to help the next Beatles, Stones, Prince, Hendrix, to prop them up and support them every step of the way. There are still record companies, and it does apply to pop, rap, and country to an extent. But for performers who are also songwriters — the creators — for rock music, for soul, for the blues — it's finally dead.

Rock is finally dead.

I am so sad that the next 15-year-old kid in a garage someplace in Saint Paul, that plugs into his Marshall and wants to turn it up to ten, will not have anywhere near the same opportunity that I did. He will most likely, no matter what he does, fail miserably. There is no industry for that anymore. And who is the culprit? There's always the changing tide of interests — music taste changes with each generation. To blame that is silly. That was always the exciting part, after all: "What's next?" But there's something else. The death of rock was not a natural death. Rock did not die of old age. It was murdered. And the real culprit is that kid's 15-year-old next-door neighbor, probably a friend of his. Maybe even one of the bandmates he's jamming with. The tragedy is that they seem to have no idea that they just killed their own opportunity — they killed the artists they would have loved. Some brilliance, somewhere, was going to be expressed, and now it won't, because it's that much harder to earn a living playing and writing songs. No one will pay you to do it.

The masses do not recognize file-sharing and downloading as stealing because there's a copy left behind for you — it's not that copy that's the problem, it's the other one that someone received but didn't pay for. The problem is that nobody will pay you for the 10,000 hours you put in to create what you created. I can only imagine the frustration of all that work, and having no one value it enough to pay you for it.
This is such a conflation of "somewhat right" and "mostly wrong" that it needs to be disentangled a bit. Let's start with his point about record companies and the music industry in general, that there's this beneficent, moneyed, monolithic industry just waiting to help the next great artiste be all they can be, and so much more.

There was indeed a time when record companies were run by rich men who truly enjoyed the bands that were on their labels. But the Ahmet Erteguns of the world no longer run record companies, unfortunately, and in fact, mostly never did. You know what ruined rock music and record companies in general? Thriller. Yep, I said it. Fucking Michael Jackson.

It wasn't Jacko's fault, not directly. But all the noble muzak industry learned from dumping millions of dollars into ramming every bit of that thing up the world's collective ass was that promotion works, and that there's no such thing as over-promotion. But it takes a lot of promotion to create a monster, and only so much money overall available to tap. Since Jackson was on Columbia, which never exactly had a huge stable of actual rock acts in the first place, there probably weren't many rock bands that got short shrift. But you can bet that that wasn't the case at, say, Atlantic or Warner Bros. All they saw was that over-produced dance music was easy to manufacture and dump into the hype machine.

(It should be duly noted that Simmons' band saw their glory days as the only rock band on a disco label. Hmmm. I wonder if Neil Bogart had any vested interest in making sure that Kiss became successful?)

Simmons is correct that many kids now might just look at the prospect of dedicating thousands of hours to learn to actually play an instrument, and regard it as wasted time. I would suggest in response that whatever one's age, if you are looking at a career in the music bidness as a way to get yourself infinite amounts of fame, money, and pussy, you are wasting your time. You literally would be better off getting a law degree, or going to a vocational school and becoming a really good plumber or swimming pool contractor.

Anyone who says that gaining fame and fortune as a musician hasn't always been a serious crapshoot, literally on a par with buying a lottery ticket, doesn't know what the fuck they're talking about. You will definitely meet women playing in a rock band, unless you're a troll and have zero game. But you will meet more and better women driving to the club in the Beemer your partnership at Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe got you, than in the beat-up Chevy Express van your indie-pop band flogs from one gig to the next on a shoestring and a prayer. And if you're a noob starting up a band to make a living, I have just one word for you:  Don't.

If rock is dead, it is due more to people's tastes changing than to file-sharing (let's call it what it is -- stealing). The time and effort it takes to really learn and master a musical instrument may simply not be "worth it" to a demographic used to getting things quickly and easily. It was easy for me to put dozens of hours a week into learning guitar back in the '80s, because I had a black-and-white TV that got three channels, and no computer and no internets. There was nothing else to do, I'm an insomniac by nature, and slowly became gratified that my incessant jamming along with Rush and Deep Purple records started sounding more and more like actual music. Life is a series of distractions now, and creating decent music takes time and effort somewhere along the line.

There was a time when you could justifiably say that Gene Simmons and Kiss were very important to the development of rock music. They were probably as big in the mid-'70s as The Beatles had been ten years earlier. More importantly, they helped break a lot of hard rock bands that are still around today. They took Rush out of the Great Lakes region for the first time, they took Def Leppard and Iron Maiden out of England for the first time. The first Van Halen album would not have been made at that time without Gene Simmons' direct involvement. Credit where credit is due and all.

But the fact is, the next Eddie wailing away out there no longer needs a Gene to produce a demo and schlep it around for him. Production, promotion, and distribution  -- much like the product itself -- are all now virtually free, in that they require minimal sunk cost invested, just sweat equity, persistence, and an ability to network. Which are pretty much the requirements of being in a rock band in the first place.

Creative people don't need to be told that they need higher motivations than money to do what they do. I'm not talking any highfalutin nonsense about the nobility of the calling or whatever. It's just the cold hard fact that if you try to factor in all that sweat equity of learning and refining your craft, whether it's music or writing or whatever, and figure it as a career or by an hourly wage, you'd give up immediately. And it was even worse when you could go into hock just getting your music recorded, much less promoted.

And Chris Holmes wasn't bullshitting -- touring will take years off your life. Alcohol, drugs, women, fast food, stress, and boredom all combine in a toxic brew that, over extended periods of time, will fuck with your mind and body like nothing else. Getting on stage in front of a great crowd is the closest thing to sex you can have with your clothes on. But that's a few hours a night, in a strange town with nothing else to do the rest of the day, for weeks or months on end.

Anyway, by the time you calculate your practice time as an individual musician, your rehearsal time as a band, splitting the paycheck between the band and manager, gas for the vehicle(s), food, etc., you're probably not making even minimum wage, not until you start playing some real money gigs or selling some songs.

Same with writing -- while a more solitary pursuit and fewer mouths to feed and bad habits from traveling, the time it takes to go through multiple cycles of draft-edit-refine until you have a decent finished product doesn't get recouped for a good long time. The e-book craze has spawned a raft of folks who promise to show you how you can crank out an Amazon bestseller in a couple of hours. And if you're okay with churning out compilations of hastily edited PLR jabber with a GIMP-ed cover from Fiverr, you can. Hell, you can probably sucker a few people into buying it.

But to turn out something of real quality, regardless of genre, it takes time, patience, commitment. There's nothing at all wrong with wanting to make a buck doing what you love, you just have to really love it first, because the odds are against you making a career out of it. Even if you're really good.

The dynamic Gene Simmons laments, before he heads into a weird pseudo-patriotic fugue toward the end of the interview, is the same as it ever was, just a different set of middlemen this time. Last I checked, there is more good rock music out there than ever; it doesn't get on mainstream radio because mainstream radio is run by people who hate music and their listeners. Gene is just pissed because he no longer understands how to turn a buck from it.

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