The Way It Was.
Big kerfuffle the other day over Gene Simmon's "rock and roll is dead" ravings, leading to some spirited discussions on a couple of friend's FB pages. Personally I wouldn't care to weigh in one way or another, in no small part because everybody seems to have their own, sometimes rather narrow, definition of what "rock and roll" (or, to use the geezer spelling "rock 'n' roll) actually is. My own admittedly subjective view is that "rock and roll" petered out sometime in the early 60s, with the onset of the teen idol trope as personified by Fabian and Ricky Nelson, with the final nail in the coffin being the more complex, music hall/psychedelia of the Beatles "Sergeant Pepper" LP.
Since then there have been a number of "Rock Revivals" (think punk rock, the Beatles "Get Back" etc.) where the emphasis is on a no-frills, three chord approach, while mostly ignoring the sociological/contextual origins of the music itself. Alan Freed's original coinage of "rock and roll" was simply an attempt to give "race music" (rhythm and blues) a rebranding and a shot at the larger (white) market. White rock and rollers were judged by their ability to sing "colored," and the degree to which they could recreate (and appropriate) the additive rhythms of African American music.
It's not my intention to get into that discussion here, except to mention that commercial segregation of African American popular music didn't end with "race music" categorization. There have been all kinds of semantic attempts to relegate black music to the back of the bus, from "Urban Contemporary" to the ongoing debate over where to put Jimi Hendrix albums in the color-coded space of the average chain record store. I remember a hilarious conversation I had with a record store clerk around 1980, asking him why the new Neville Brothers LP was way in the back of the store, whereas music that shared many, many structural similarities (like Hall and Oats) was right up front. He kept saying the Nevilles were "Urban Contemporary" while Hall and Oats were "Pop."
What really interests me here are two interconnected points. 1. Simmons insistance that the old record-company-based model gave opportunity to any musicians willing to work hard and 2. the current notion in some quarters that the "new" internet model offers more and better opportunities to develop a customer base and 'sell directly' to fans.
The first is pretty easily dispatched as nonsense. Simmons, like all neo-conservative blowhards, sincerely believes he created his own success through hard work, and that anybody who didn't succeed in the music business was just lazy. This completely ignores the function of luck as it relates to any endeavor. I knew plenty of rock n rollers in the 70s who worked their nuts off and never achieved any lasting success, not because they couldn't play (most of them could play rings around a hack like Simmons) but because they didn't trip over that particular alignment of the cosmos (the right A&R man at your gig, the right business cycle at the record company, the right pop culture alignment to assure that your look and sound are exactly what every teenaged boy in America thinks is cool at that very moment) that would have helped them benefit from all that hard work. It's not enough to be good. You have to be lucky.
The second is a bit trickier to debunk, because many people are still functioning under a false model of individual agency, and the notion that great work will eventually be acknowleged. Both, again, ignore the element of luck. The sad fact is that great music still gets lost in the shuffle, and individual actors are far less able to turn that around than record companies and radio used to be able to do. Nobody, least of all me, disputes that traditional record companies were a sackful of rapacious pirate-bastards. But they knew how to sell a "product," they had the business structure to bring it to market, and, if they so chose, to advertize the hell out of it. Having "access" to an infinite internet of millions of "songs" does nothing if you can't get noticed, and getting noticed still costs money, sometimes a lot of money. Internet access hasn't democratized the process, you just have to pay off and get screwed by different people.
The really important issue that gets lost among techno-babble is the demonitization of work, any kind of work, and in this area musicians are just the canary in the coal mine. "Work" of any kind is simply valued less now, paid less, sometimes not at all ("unpaid internship" and "playing for exposure" are essentially the same thing) and more and more risk is devolved to workers, leaving 'entrepreneurs' free to make money with little or no risk. In my lifetime, the once noble profession of "professional musician" is close to vanishing completely. In the interests of describing what used to be the norm for aspiring professionals back in the stone age when music was a job rather that a futile and financially ruinious quest for fame, I offer my own story.
The first professional gigs I ever played were in strip clubs, backing up the dancers. This was in the early 1970s, and were were generally paid around $100 a week, for six 45 minutes sets a night, six nights a week, three dancers per set. That doesn't sound like much now, but in 1973, my rent was $35 a month, and a glass of draft beer was twenty five cents. Most of my musician friends were doing this kind of work at least part-time, and we all made more money than most of our friends who had real jobs.
Of course being 19-20 year old aspiring artistes, we didn't much like the idea of spending our lives grinding out "Night Train" for strippers, so we hired a "chick singer" and shopped ourselves to an agency. In our case it was the Feldman and Allen agency, who would later go on to great success with acts like Heart and Bachmann Turner Overdrive, but when we signed up they were still one booking agency among several in Western Canada at that time. And that was the standard pattern of my career for the next ten years or so. Agencies like F&A, or Whitefoot or Seigal Booking, would book you out on a network of clubs in Western Canada and the Pacific Northest for 15% of your gross. Nobody expected you to sleep in a van, in Canada most clubs provided some sort of accomodation, and in the US you'd build that expense into your fee. Nobody asked us to play for "exposure" or the door receipts, we would have laughed in their face if they had. It was a business, we were professionals, professionals get paid.
Those of us who enjoyed a degree of success exanded this paradigm over time, but the basics remained the same, it was just the networks that got bigger. Eastern Canada put you in the bailwick of agencies like CTI (Canadian Talent Internation). For a while I worked with "oldies" acts in package tours (the Coasters, the Platters, Bobby Curtola) and with reformed versions of famous R&B and Soul performers (the Temptations, Mary Wells, Solomon Burke) on long strings of one nighters. This last was my first indication that the life I'd picked might not be viable in the long term. Initially (especially in Canada) you'd book into a club for a week, maybe even two, and have time to really settle in and get to know the town you were playing. Sometime around the early 80s, "split weeks" started to appear, where you'd work, say mon. through wed. in a club, then have to pack up and drive to another one to finish out the week. By the mid 80s, playing three days in the same spot started to feel like a luxury, and one nighters became the norm. They paid more on a per diem basis than clubs ($100 to $150 a day, versus around $400 for six days in a club) but the itineraries went on forever and agencies tended to work you like a rented mule.
Still life was pretty sweet, at least compared to what I see young musicians getting put through today. I'd do 30 days of one nighters and arrive back in town completely fried but with two or three thousand dollars in my pocket, take a week off at the beach (I lived two blocks from the beach in Vancouver, Canada's west end at the time) and spend the rest of the month in town, maybe pick up a little studio or club work to help make ends meet, then go out for another month of one nighters. The idea of getting a day job never even occurred to me. I thought it would go on forever. I was wrong.
My way of getting out was to teach. I had friends, more successful than me, who parlayed hit record income into subsequent businesses, one has an internet service provider business, another a trucking company that works in the movie industry. Some people did indeed get bent, greased and fucked by record companies, but others managed their contracts and copyrights successfully and did fairly well. But all of us got paid. Sure, hit records and success on that level was a crapshoot, but nobody asked us to work for free. Records were a commodity that cost money. Live performance was a service that cost money. How much of that money wound up in your pocket was a function of how savvy (and lucky) you were in dealing with the infrastructure of the business, but at least there was a business to deal with.
All that is gone now, and what's replaced it is extremely dubious. In some respects it's similar to the old model, in that most of the really serious money ends up at the top of the food chain. But what's been wiped out is the middle class, people like me who made a solid if unspectacular living in music. That's what I mean by 'canary in the coal mine,' the music business is just a reflection of the larger world of modern capitalism, which was sold to us under the guise of "freedom" and "entrepreneurship." How wonderful, we can all be independent capitalists with our own small businesses, working for ourselves, answering to no one. It sounds great but, unless you're very good and very lucky, it's a con. An empty promise.
Of course the reason it's easier to con musicians than it is to con plumbers is because we really, really love what we do. And unfortunately in some cases that love is tainted by an unhealthy desire for attention and fame. These types are the real marks in the music biz and always have been. As my friend the late bassist-composer Jasper Clarke used to say, "if you're in it for fame and attention you'll probably be disappointed, but if you just love to play it's win win." But I think there may be confusion in some quarters about where the art ends and the commercialism begins. I recently had a friend tell me something to the effect that "you can make more money playing weddings, but that's not what music's about to me." But music has (or should have) many functions besides high art; ceremonial, entertainment, dancing. All these things are important. And if you're a professional musician, you need to cover a lot of ground. Everyone draws their own line in the sand with this stuff, for instance I have no interest at all in playing in the kind of wedding band that does all that "wind beneath my wings" stuff, but as a saxophone player it's unlikely that anyone would ask me to. But I really enjoy playing standards with small jazz bands at weddings, or R&B oldies with show bands for conventions. It's fun, sometimes you get to show off your sight reading skills, and you get to work with other skilled professionals. What's not to like? It's not "art," but life doesn't have to be high art all the time.
"Art," in fact, is getting to be more and more the province of a moneyed elite with leisure time to spend on this stuff. And again, that's a function of the demonitization of professional music. Pretty much all of my jazz idols were professional musicians. John Coltrane used to "walk the bar" with rhythm and blues bands. That's what you did. Wilton Felder's band the "Jazz Crusaders" had a whole other life as a dance band. That's what they did to pay the bills, until they achieved success in the wider world. Musicians (professional ones anyway) play music. All the time. They don't sit around in their bedroom fiddling with computers, waiting for the muse to strike. That stuff is for amateurs.
We're lucky in New Orleans, in the sense that you can be a pro here. The money sucks, but you can still get out there and play every night. That's important. And, probably within my lifetime, it's going to disappear.