It's Cheating, Almost: Making It In Music / by Carl Bindman

Shouts out to Jeff Gandell.

Dave Laing looks like a monk. Not a stuffy, dreary monk, with dirty robes and donut hair—a cool monk. Sitting cross-legged in his chair, tapping to an inaudible tune on his armrest, he is a man whose internal rhythm beats with the universe. Right now he is thinking and meditating, silent and monastic.

In the next measure he smiles, and turns. “Here,” he says to me. He picks up his drumsticks. He unfolds his legs. He rolls over to the window, where there’s a black drum pad, a rubber hexagon perched on a stand between an electric keyboard and the wall.

“This is the single stroke roll.”

Bap. Bap. Bap. Bap. It’s a fluid motion, not a strike. Each alternating shift in his wrist carries the sticks up and down. Each muffled beat is definitive, a complete realization of a human thought from intent to impact, flowing between and into each other. Each is a series of moments with no beginning or end.

He stops. Watching me, the afternoon sun draping across his forehead, the corner of his eye twitches. I feel its question. Do you understand?

I don’t know.

***

Music, long ago, was simple: once you started to sing or play an instrument, music existed—one you stopped, it didn’t. But nothing can be good if it’s simple, so humans invented sheet music, transforming auditory information into a visual, physical medium. Music could be carried, broken, bought, written. Music could be made without making a noise.

Jump forward a few hundred to a few thousand years—depending on your civilization—and more options for storing music arrived. From metal pancakes to vinyl pancakes to strips of magnetized tape to smaller, shiny, plastic pancakes, the information of noise moved from physical to electric to digital. Easier to save, easier to store.

Easier to consume. From the tavern to the stereo, out of the radio and onto the screen. An accompaniment to dinner, to a movie, to a bus ride—a tool, used in ads, to pluck your wallet open through your heartstrings. Music floats through the air between our phones and the cloud(s), ephemeral and inescapable. That’s a good thing. Music is great.

Being easier than ever to consume and store would be negligible if music hadn't also become easier to create. Ultra Music Festival happened a few months ago (Note: I wrote this first draft in March but it's always, really, a few months ago), an orgiastic ode to making music without using instruments. EDM as a genre best illustrates the democratization of music making. You don’t need to go to school for years to make an EDM song, you just need an idea and some software and the patience to learn it (why is this different than learning an instrument? I'll write an explanation at some point. Be excited). You don’t need a record label and an agent to get your music out, you can upload it on Soundcloud and wait/hope for listens (again, this applies to everything. Just using EDM as an easy example). Cheapish production software and high-quality recording equipment have facilitated non-electronic music-making too (see?).

In our new world, the place of the musician deserves to be questioned. No longer constrained to symphony halls, vinyls, or instruments, where does she/he/they belong? When the ability to create and consume music is so ubiquitous, what does it mean to be a successful musician?

***

Dave tells me about his former pupil in idle conversation after our interview. She passed through his McGill University class on jazz appreciation a few years ago—but he can’t remember how many, exactly. She plays guitar with Prince now, part of his all-female backing trio, 3RDEYEGIRL. Her name is Donna Grantis. I saw Prince perform on Saturday Night Live. “That was her with him,” he says.

I never thought to look up her name after the show, though I remember turning to my mom and commending Ms. Grantis’ skill with the instrument. I don’t share this with Dave. Dave is also a backing musician—a freelancer, he calls it. A sideman. A jazz drummer, under-appreciated in both instrument and genre.

“But I’ve had a good run, doing that. I’m very happy to be a collaborator, to help people develop their own music.”

In that way, his work at McGill compliments his art. It’s easy to see how he makes a good teacher, the way he reaches for metaphors to simplify ideas, the way his eagerness to be understood hums through in everything he says.

“Karate Kid is the ideal student-teacher relationship. It’s that sacred bond. I’m shocked at how few of my students know that movie, it isn’t that old.” He scratches his scalp-stubble. “But it’s the... I teach, you do. And it really is true, that there are no bad students. Only bad teachers.”

Go on.

“We all thirst for that, ‘I want a mentor, show me, unlock the secrets for me.’ It’s an awesome responsibility.”

And yet…

“It’s cheating, almost. You know, the most common advice to writers is to read a lot and write a lot. It’s the same thing for music.”

The music community has taken that lesson to heart—there’s a lot of music out there. In 2013, there were 26 million songs on iTunes, give or take. Assuming each song is four minutes, that’s a little less than 200 years of continuous music. But that’s just iTunes, two years ago. Today? Tomorrow? It’s immeasurable, it’s overwhelming, it’s a glut of supply that consumers don’t want to have to navigate. They’ve stopped buying music, at least online. There’s too much stuff.

Well, to say they’ve stopped buying is an oversimplification. In 2014, the United States downloaded $2.6 billion of music, according to the Record Industry Association of America. That’s more than a third of all music revenue in the country, but it’s falling and has been for a while. Streaming, on the other hand, is blowing up. In five years, paid subscriptions, ad-supported apps, and SoundExchange (a group that distributes money to artists from digital plays) contributions went from 5% to 27% of all industry revenue, up to $1.9 billion.

Still, it’s easier to have the music delivered to you, to have it curated to your specific tastes, than it is to track down and buy music you heard somewhere out in the world. Buying has become a statement of fidelity. People pay more for what they like, when they know they like it.

The onus is on the artist, then, to get out there and get the level of engagement that fosters buying big-budget albums, CDs, and vinyls. But how?

***

Grøenland are going to Europe. The local band—whose album The Chase won the 2013 ADISQ Anglophone Album of The Year, and whose thoughtful, intricate, fun pop is, like, really good you guys—is on their first international tour. I spoke with Sabrina Halde, lead singer of the band, before she left.

“Why do you guys tour?” I ask her.

After all, touring is hard. It’s expensive. It’s risky. The time, money, and energy invested in touring could be used instead for promotion, for making new music, for getting a law degree like dad said years ago before you decided to run off with your little friends and their ripped jeans and their marijuana and their feminism.

“It just worked out like this,” she says. “We started touring and it just worked. We realized that our music works well for touring. It’s got range. Our parents listen to it and people, like, 13 year old girls listen to it.”

“It’s accessible?”

“It’s accessible.”

That’s something you don’t get in law school: live feedback. While you may be able to comb through demographic reports on a Soundcloud stream or a Spotify playlist, it’s not the same as looking into an audience and seeing the people you’re connecting with. To that end, touring ends up being a tool for developing music as much as spreading awareness. David Longstreth of Dirty Projectors says in an old Youtube interview that when he writes a song and then takes it on tour, its energy changes completely. You learn about your music from touring. You learn about yourself.

“We’re not the same people we were when we started,” Sabrina says. “Touring tests your core. There’s a lot that happens, there’s a lot that changes.”

“Like what?”

“There’s a lot to do about knowing how to deal with pressure. I put a lot of pressure on myself, I always want to make the best of everything, but you can’t go like that forever. You need to let go of things that are stopping you from getting to the next step. It’s understanding the sacrifice it takes to do that, the changes you need to accept, and relaxing and being okay with that.”

It’s a tradeoff. In exchange for the time to make new music, touring spreads and changes your current opus. In exchange for your vitality, touring teaches you about life.

“It’s demanding. It’s testing. It’s hard.”

***

“It’s a lot of love,” Dave says, before clarifying, “the music scene.”

We’re talking about Whiplash, the jazz drumming movie.

“The idea of musicians competing like that, hating each other, not wanting each other to succeed to the point of running in after a car wreck, bloodied...nobody is like that. It’s brutal enough making it in music, you need the scene to take care of each other. You need the other musicians.”

No man is an island entire of itself. It’s an interesting oversight in the public consciousness, regarding musicians, how we have this vision of a person or small group standing on stage making sound all alone. Nowhere in our consideration are the vital producer, mixer, distributor, roadie, groupie, speaker designer, music teacher, bar owner, or backing musician. It takes an army to bring a song to life. They shouldn’t be forgotten. Because after all,

“Music in general, you’re trying to connect with people. With other musicians, with an audience, whatever. In Whiplash, though, the music is athletic. This drummer just wants to be able to do as fast a beat as possible. It’s a football movie disguised as a music movie.”

An apt comparison, for a few reasons. Music is like sports in that the top tiny percent makes all the money. Also, people are deeply invested in their favourite bands and teams. Growing up, everybody dabbled. There’s rampant drug use in both. These all seem like benign similarities, so why is it being said as an insult?

“In the movie, there’s this obsession with Buddy Rich” The. Greatest. Jazz. Drummer. Ever. As revered in the movie. “But do you want to know something?”

Yes.

“Of the last 200 drummers I’ve taught, maybe 2 want to study his work. He didn’t play with the innovators. His actual stature is really quite low, even if he sold a bunch of records. It’s a cliché, I know, but commercial success doesn’t mean artistic achievement.”

“What makes a successful drummer, then? Why does playing with innovators matter?”

“Because they did something new.” Dave says. “Success might be capturing the zeitgeist in a novel way. And the innovation, it’s part of that devotional element of jazz. You want to bring the art forward, as an artist.”

It is hard to see how a wide receiver would be able to innovatively catch a football. But musical innovation doesn’t always equate with success, commercially or artistically. Metal Machine Music had novelty in spades—it’s still shitty noise.

“You just have to change your conception of success,” Dave says, reading my mind. “Max Roach, another drummer, he travelled the world, sold tens of thousands of records, moved the art forward, connected with an audience… he was the real deal.”

But... Buddy Rich travelled. He sold records. He connected with people. That's real, no? Besides, thanks to Whiplash, he's now canonized as a pioneer. How many moviegoers are going to google Buddy Rich to check the movie's accuracy? How many will know that Whiplash’s ending—Miles Teller's guy (Teller actually played the drums there, fun fact) slowing down to a stop and then speeding all the way back up to lightspeed—is a grab of one of Rich’s most-used and most-disparaged tricks? It seems like Rich is posthumously stealing artistic success after already dying with commercial success. Doesn’t that count?

***

“I feel like as long as I’m still learning, I’m successful. If you want to stay sane, that’s the only way to see it.” Sabrina says. I’m inclined to agree. But then, “I’m just happy to say I don’t see it as Beyoncé would see success.”

What an interesting comment. The obvious implication of the Beyoncé jab is that Beyoncé espouses commercial success, and that that is bad. Yet Sabrina refers to her band as a company a few times during our conversation. That’s incongruous with the intangible, self-improving style of success that she says she believes in.

After all, Beyoncé is a company too—an industry. Her art actually changes social conventions, so powerful is her influence. To reduce hers to financial success is to miss the point. It’s like this: Beyoncé (the company) exists to facilitate the existence of Beyoncé (the artist). It is a platform for her to exercise her creativity safely. Sabrina is copying Beyoncé’s model when referring to her band as a company. It’s a good model. It encourages the artist to be responsible for her own image, for her own sound, and ultimately for the entirety of her art.

The independent desire to control the whole package forms a large part of the widespread rejection of record labels. But Sabrina even acknowledges the utility of her label, Bonsound, when it comes to security when making art. “Our relationship is great and simple, and there’s a lot of trust,” is one of the many nice things she had to say about Bonsound. And while few people have the power—and borderline insane image control—of Beyoncé, we can all exercise what she teaches.

Creating a machine to promote art without sacrificing the art for the sake of the machine is hard, but worth it. The Black Keys did something similar, that Grøenland can too. Before they were known for their music, the Black Keys were known for their music—in ads. Car companies loved their imperative, urgent, edgy blues. Something in the music fit the image, and the Black Keys made lots of money selling their songs, thirty seconds at a time. They didn’t sacrifice making the music they wanted to make. They didn’t stop going on tour. They didn’t “sell out” beyond literally selling their music. And they prospered for it.

Now that advertising is softer and more fun, more “hip,” the ad men have turned to bands that produce soft, fun, hip music. Like indie pop bands. Indie orchestral pop bands. Indie orchestral pop bands named after Danish landmasses. In fact, just a few months ago (Note: see first note), a Grøenland song scored an iPad ad during the Oscars, narrated by Martin Scorsese. Beyond that, a few other songs of Grøenland’s have appeared in ads and at the ends of TV shows.

“I guess it just catches people’s curiosity,” Sabrina says about the placements. “The right people will go listen for more, and that’s what we want out of that. I don’t worry about, like, not getting to the right people, because they won’t go looking for it.”

I understand her focus on the art. I admire it, even if some doublethink is needed to avoid the supposed evils of corporatism. I like that she thinks that music isn’t about “making it,” but about making music. And I agree. I just don’t think it’s wise to disregard what makes making music possible, even if it brings us closer to what I’m trying to say about success.

***

“Am I successful?” Dave repeats the question, feeling it out. “I don’t think I’m…”

He pauses. I wait.

“The more I do it, the more I realize I’m at the bottom of the mountain. It’s inspiring, sometimes, how much there is to learn.

He makes a mountain with his hands, and places us at its bottom. We look up together.

“When you consider your place, when I consider my place, I’m part of a tradition now. A lot of us get into this with dreams of fortune and fame, and stay even when that doesn’t happen. It probably won’t happen. You know that, but still, you end up questioning if it’s worth doing when it falls through. Music is worth doing. I’m not famous. But I keep coming back. You put the thought of fame, of that success, out of your head. You strive for creativity.”

He pauses again. He looks away from me, and starts tapping a beat on his chair. Then he smiles at me, and says, “Here. This is the single stroke roll.”

He does the single stroke roll.

“When you do that for five hours, you have to decide how deep into it you’re going to go. When you tune into that, into that energy, and you’re with a band, and you’re all into that, you have this moment where… where you see God.” He stops, and laughs at himself. “You want that.”

What is “that?” The spark of divine creation feels a bit too intangible—not to say unreliable—a thing on which to build one's philosophy of success.

“That’s why you work. For that. When you can just,” he snaps, “turn it on, when you can connect with people, it brings the music to life.”

So it’s connecting with people, then. I think I understand what he wants me to know. Then he asks me something unexpected.

“You’re not religious, are you?”

“No.”

He laughs again. “Well then. I’ll put it this way: I’m in a good spot. I’m lucky enough to do what I want to do. I can wake up and make music and know that I’ve fulfilled a goal through hard work. I’m lucky enough to do that and feel successful.”

He smiles. I feel his question again. He wants to know if he was understood. He wants to know if I know, now, what I should take away from all of this. He wants to know: Do you get it?

Maybe? I won’t know until he reads this, I suppose, but what I gathered is a simple creed that has applications beyond music. If you can set yourself a goal, and try to grow in the general direction that you think will get you there, then you will never not be successful. If it just so happens that on the way to wherever you’re going, somebody else likes what you’re doing and wants to give you money or accolades for it, more power to you. But in the end, in music, in business, in life, the only person who has to deal with your choices is you. Make them for the right reasons. Make them for your reasons.