Friday, June 22, 2012

Rage Against Being the Machine

"It's a long way to the top if you wanna rock n' roll"
    - AC/DC

"It's also a long way to the middle if you wanna rock n' roll"
   - Jeffery Clemens (Drummer for G Love & Special Sauce)

I am a musician. I was born and raised in Mobile, Alabama.

As a lot of you know, Mobile has long been a hot bed for musical talent. I have a theory as to why this is but it is only a theory. But since you are reading this I guess you wanna hear my thoughts on things so here they go:

We are in the deep deep south where forever society has been predominantly made up of hard working blue collar folk. This only plays into the equation because, the blue collar hardworking folk that work exceptionally hard party exceptionally hard as well. And where there is a party there needs to be music.

The want for music is so prevelant and powerful in the South that it is more of a need. This "need" paired with the geographic remoteness from major cities brings me to my next point. These hard working people wanna blow off steam by partying. This partying will virtually always be accompanied by some music. Problem is most all of the big touring acts (which play the most popular songs) are far away.

Let's say Artist X is the biggest hottest act in the country. Artist X is all over TV and Radio. Everyone hears Artist X's new song, "blah blah blah" wherever they go.

Well when the hard working folks finally get off of work after a week of back breaking labor they need a relief. They wanna go out, relax, spend some of (read: more than they should) the money they made while enjoying music. What music specifically do they wanna hear?  ......Well...."blah blah blah" of course. It's the hot new jam. One problem: Artist X isn't playing in town. Moreover, Artist X isn't playing in town this month. Actually Artist X isn't playing within 6 hours of here on his whole tour. So seeing Artist X isn't an option. Dang. Well these hard workers REALLY like "blah blah blah" (it's been drilled into their head from the radio at work all week). So what do they do?

Realizing that seeing Artist X isn't an option, they accept the next best thing: someone doing a good rendition of "blah blah blah".

As any good business man knows, where there is demand someone will provide the supply.

Somewhere back in the long forgotten past musicians began mimicking popular artists. Somewhere (also back in antiquity) one of these musicians realized they could make a killing in the South if they catered to the blue collar folks I have mentioned by mimicking popular artists (i.e. Artist X).

As a matter of fact these musicians realized they would be even more successful if instead of just mimicking Artist X, they also mimicked Artist Y (who had a reggae hit last year) or Artist Z (who is an classic country artist). As the amount of musicians who were financially better off grew so did the competition. The more versatile the musician, the more sought after he would be. ( "All you hard workers come down to "the Dixie Dive" this Saturday and blow off some steam while listening to the amazing Bill playing all your favorite songs by Artist X, Artist Y, ...." I imagine their advertisements to be).

Fast forward a few generations and you can see a deeply rooted , thriving music scene of cover musicians across the South. I see nothing dishonorable about playing other people's songs. I've done it for years, and many of my all time favorite musicians have made a career out of doing it. But it should be noted that for obvious reasons if all musicians play cover music, music will die.

This is a good spot to note that the southern bar/venue owners who are in the business of entertaining the blue collar workers, are very shrewd. They understand fully (at least the successful ones) that they aren't in the business of selling music. They may very well love music but they know it isn't the commodity they are selling. They are selling a good time (most of the time beer and a good time) to those overworked blue collar folks. I'll try to explain why this distinction is important.

In a thriving original music scene (as is seen in bigger cities) music is the actual commodity being sold. The venues in such places would not only hope but expect the musicians they hire to give a unique and individualized original performance so that the music loving customers would be entertained and be willing to return in the future to buy tickets again. These shows are expected to move the audience by giving them 1-2 hours of original music that connects with them.

But in southern venues the owners aren't trying to sell tickets to musical events, they are selling beer (and the party that goes along with it). In this scenario it only makes sense these venue owners need to extend the length of the party in order to maximize profits. Due to this the venue owners are able to offer musicians more money to play longer.

The entire set up I just described evolves over many decades to result in a region filled with extremely versatile musicians who are incredibly competent at their respective instruments. (the physical act of performing makes these musicians better. Even if they are playing "Brown Eyed Girl" and "Wagon Wheel" all night, they are becoming better players and performers through the act of playing and performing).

The sad news for a vast majority of these musicians is even though this "baptism of fire" has honed them into world class performers and highly skilled musicians, they can't get a break. The reason for this is most of the industry is far away (which is why Artist X never toured here in the first place). So these intensely skilled and talented people just kind of rot on the vine. They wow the workers after their daily grind, they collect their pay, and they go home and get ready to repeat it all again tomorrow.

Some of these musicians are also epically great songwriters (I won't list them here for If I just listed the great songwriters I'm friends with I'd run out of room). A lot of these songs will never reach further than the 20-30 people at the corner bar.

It is sad to watch. The same machine that is creating generation after generation of superb talent is the same machine the stiffles their ability to succeed.


Last night I had a release party in celebration of my first solo CD, "My Brother's Keepers".
It was a special moment for me. I saw one of my biggest dreams realized. It was a day I will never forget for as long as I live. I felt so much love and support it was overwhelming.

But last night was more special than even that. Last night was so much bigger than me. Of course I felt very honored to be supported by the community so fully. But there was something so much bigger than that occurring.

Mobile, Alabama. A city at the heart of the deep south. A city that could be considered the epicenter of the machine I spoke of above.

Mobile went against everything it was EXPECTED to do. Mobile went against everything it has learned and grown to call the norm. Mobile went against what it probably thought it was "SUPPOSED" to do.

Mobile supported me 100%.

And although I did try to publicize it as much as I could (Facebook, the Newspaper, Studio10, 92ZEW), my publicity wasn't what made it a success. The people rallied. The people rallied strong.

And I'm sure to some it was just a good party at the Blue Gill. But to me it meant something.

The people of Mobile stood together and said "We will support our local talent". Obviously I am very proud that it was me they were supporting. But I sincerely would feel equally proud if the same response was given to any of my colleagues (and there's bunches of em).

Yesterday made me proud as an artist. But I think more so it made me proud as a Mobilian.

Yesterday Mobile did something special and against convention.

I think yesterday gave hope to a lot of local talent.

For that you should be proud of yourself, Mobile.

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