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What is being a musician all about? Is it about a decent rift and killer solo? Is it about lively lyrics with penetrating meaning? Could it be as simple as being an entertainer? And where do you draw the line between someone who has music as a profession versus someone who lives music as a lifestyle? Is there a difference?
Summer 2015, Nashville.
You walk down the street and there's a group on every corner, playing their music for cash, all hoping to make it big one day. Some are pretty good, while some might need to go back to the drawing board. Every night, the bars are full of great artists doing the same thing, and down on John A. Merritt boulevard, they're making the big bucks. However, if you've ever been sober at each of these three venues, one could argue that the music quality has, at times, been equal in each different location.
So, what's the difference? I would argue that it's all about who you know. Though you might be a talented musician, you may have never had the opportunities to meet some of the people who could get you on stage. That doesn't make you any less of a musician, it just means you're not making as much money. On the other side of the coin, some professional musicians may have less talent musically, but know the who's who can get them into the limelight. It's an unfair reality, but it comes down to the question of why your playing music in the first place. If you're just here for the money and fame that goes along with it, then you might fit the category of a performer as opposed to an artist.
My old acquaintance, Benjamin, loves vinyl. He has a half a dozen mountains of records that he rotates constantly. Its about the most diverse selection I've ever seen. From 80s pop to 50s jazz, 90s rap, country, gypsy punk, hard rock, classical. If you name it, he probably has it. I asked him once that impossible question: "which one is your favorite?" and without missing a beat, he pulled out a blank white sleeve with "Snot" written on it. It had been his first concert that he attended back in California in the late 90s. He had gone there with some friends after a rough break up and ended up having a great time. I could see it in his face as he relived it in his story. As I recalled my own experience with live music, we listened to the album. It didn't hold the same appeal for me as it did for him, but I could understand why he had such an attachment to it. Live music is an experience. The time and situation around the experience can improve or diminish the joy and affect of the music.
You can tell when a crowd and a musician have chemistry. There's a sort of dialogue between the two, echoed often by unintelligible shouts and laughter. It's a magical thing that enhances the show. You feel like you almost know the musician and could just walk backstage and catch up on things (wouldn't that be awesome?). It's musicians like that who sell the most merchandise and really excel in their careers. Then there's the artist who stands up, sings what he came here to sing, and goes home. It's still a pleasant musical experience, but there isn't as much of a connection. Between different cities, crowds, and days, I'm sure the chemistry can change between the performer and the mob. I guess its one of those things that, "If you got it, you got it, and if you don't, you don't."
"If music be the food of love, play on." —Orsino in Twelfth Night