(We wish we were as lucky as he!)
Over the holiday break, my wife and I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan on a long road trip. It got me thinking about luck and how we envy and analyze the lucky. As she often does, my lovely lady said something that made me think for a long while: We revere the lucky but they don’t deserve to be revered because of their luck. Luck, in its purest form, has nothing to do with skills, quality, ability, kindness, intelligence or other attributes.
Applying the message of Sirens of Titan to the art/entertainment world brought me back to bit from my own post on Resonating – Why them and not me? That trip is a sad spiral that leads us to critique others’ work in a rather childish way that begins focused on them but (if we’re willing to follow the thought chain to the end) ends up focused on us:
“I don’t like what they do because…” they can’t sing well…. they don’t really know how to play their instruments…. they sound too 90s… they haven’t paid their dues …my ideas are just as good or better…. I want to feel like what I do is valuable to others but it’s not.”
In truth, the lucky are often no more deserving that anyone else – they’re just… well.. lucky!
Still, I ruminated on that and wrote about 10 different drafts of this post. Then I discussed it with my friend and fellow musician Erin Rodgers of Houston’s Glass the Sky. Erin recalled this quote from her teacher (who actually got it from the Roman philosopher Seneca): “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Thinking on that quote and the message of Sirens of Titan has led me to an interesting place in my own philosophy on luck. I think there are two kinds. While I think we have to be ready to harness the power of luck’s lightning bolt when it strikes, I do think there is some luck that you just can’t prepare for.
THE KIND YOU MAKE
The classic musician fairy tale is a good example – record label talent scout happens to walk into a club and catch a band that he or she really loves and strikes a deal with them then and there. It’s luck that the talent scout happened to go into that club at that moment – but it’s not luck that the band sounded good and could actually play their songs well. That was preparedness.
It’s this kind of luck that is analyzed in SxSW panels, by non-profit organizations, music business colleges and individual musicians all asking, “Why them and not me/her/him?”
All that analysis has led me to identify the following things that all buzz bands have in common. This is fairly obvious stuff:
- Somehow, they all find the money to finance their efforts
- They do something that resonates with enough people to achieve critical mass (something very difficult to do in Austin)
- Someone with the power/organization to do something with the band’s career notices and takes action
I hear (and have thought), “They’re so lucky,” about bands like Ghostland Observatory, Bright Light Social Hour, The Sword and every other band that’s ever swept the Austin Chronicle Music Awards. It’s hard to make people CARE about what you do and can be hard to predict what they might like. However, there a ton of clues out there to point us in the right direction. The bands I listed all play a form of music that essentially already had an audience – synth pop (remember this from the 80s?), heavy metal (a la Maiden or Ozzy) and bluesy indie rock (My Morning Jacket with a ZZ Top twang). That’s not luck. Building on what already works is just good business sense!
I want to believe that’s all it takes – Good decision making and preparedness. However, when it comes to art, your heart really has to be in it or it’ll seem phony to your audience.
Here’s what I mean about having your heart in it. I have a lot of respect for Ghostland Observatory and I’m glad that they’re doing what they do on their terms. However, I don’t think I’d like to do what they do. They’re fine enough, but it’s not a form of music I particularly enjoy. They worked like hell in the last few years and were willing to make sacrifices because they DO love what they do. I wouldn’t have made those sacrifices for that project.
(SIDE NOTE – Speaking of critical mass and the winners of contests like Austin Chronicle Music Awards? It’s easy for non-winners like me to write these things off as just popularity contests – but popularity is the fuel of the entertainment world, not quality! The quality of your work is a matter of opinion but the number of people that like you is a real – if hard to approximate – number. When a lot of people CARE, the gatekeepers notice regardless of your quality or their opinion of you. “They sold out Emo’s?! Wow! Let’s book them for our festival!” Buzz bands are “chosen” because they are marketable and have proven that people already like what they do.)
So there’s the answer to “why them and not me?” Right?
Well… not in every case. Think about that sentence from before: “Luck, in its purest form, has nothing to do with skills, quality, ability, kindness, intelligence or other attributes.” Ghostland has made a ton of luck for themselves by being prepared and good, but there are a ton of bands that you’ll never hear that are just as amazing and prepared… yet luck’s lightning bolt never strikes. That talent scout from the fairy tale above could’ve walked into any bar that night. What if he’d chosen a different one? Now that’s just plain ol’…
There’s another kind of luck where preparedness plays less of a role, if any – the kind Vonnegut addresses in Sirens of Titan. It’s blind, dumb luck – the kind that truly puts one ahead of the game by no choice of one’s own.
Real life examples include the Kardashians and Paris Hilton. Tell me, what skills and abilities does our society revere about these women? Being born into some of the richest families in the most powerful country in the history of our planet? How exactly did preparedness play a role in their fortune?
We can prepare for potential opportunities we can identify, but most of us in this world have limited resources. We can make our own luck to a degree, but not on the level I’m talking about here.
Have you heard this joke?
Q: How do you make a small fortune in the music business?
A: Start with a large fortune.
It’s not really a joke, it’s more of a truth.
The stereotypical broke-ass touring bands living show to show have been run off the road by high gas and food costs. Most of the bands that can still afford to tour these days are often already well off. Some of them can afford to finance one money-losing tour/album/project after another because they have a trust fund or a rich and enthusiastic parent or someone who’s done it before to guide their efforts. (Granted, if they’re no good, it won’t make them any more popular… but at that point it doesn’t matter. They can afford to do what they want to do regardless of resonating. Permanent vacation!)
Years ago, The Invincible Czars did several dates with a band from LA that rented their van and trailer, had a merch display the size of a stage and a bunch of expensive gear, wardrobe, roadies, an actual stage set, make up, lights, etc. At the end of each night, though, they were walking away with about the same pay we did. At the time I thought, “These guys are going to go broke!”
I didn’t’ realize that they had money up front and advice from people in the industry that allowed them to calculate and take a risk most bands can’t afford. They put together a great live show and went out and performed it for everyone. What I thought was losing money they saw as investing money. Eventually, they attracted higher level representation and now they open for bigger major label acts like Mudvayne on national tours. That in turn put them in front of enough people that they can now actually draw enough people to play larger nationally known clubs on their own.
This wasn’t their first time around the block, either! They’d done this same thing before under a different band name but with less success. However they did it, they were able to afford to go out there and take a big expensive risk and fail at least once. Without their resources, that first go ‘round might have been their only shot – they’d probably be just another really good band stuck in their home region like so many others.
(Now, there was definitely some of the luck-you-make-yourself involved in the example above. The band I was talking about was lucky but also – really good and had an easy target audience: goth rockers. They inhabit shopping malls and black-lit dance clubs in every major city in the US. It’s not hard to reach that audience plus that audience already liked what the band did before they even heard the band. Who is the target audience for a band like Opposite Day or Octopus Project? They’re a little harder to nail down because the music isn’t associated with a specific fashion or lifestyle.)
What about natural ability? Singers are a great example. Sweetmeat’s excellent singer Gina Holton has virtually no training. She just sounds like that. I can sit and sing and sing and sing… and I’m never going to sound like that. I can’t be trained to suddenly have a different physical make up. Think about basketball players. You might be able to practice and train and shoot 10 for 10 at the free throw line — but nothing and no one can train you to be taller than Shaq.
(Gina Holton debuting a new song w/ Sweetmeat. What pipes!)
SO WHAT’S THE CONCLUSION HERE?
Whether the chosen are better or more deserving is a matter of opinion and analyzing their luck quickly becomes a depressing game of diminishing returns. I spent 3 years working at a place that did just that I think I got into some bad habits that have made me feel bitter and even hopeless at times. While we can learn from those who were prepared, there are some things we simply can’t learn (like how to be a millionaire’s child or how to make your preferred genre come into favor). The only reason to hate them is because we wish we were them. Just as the people in Sirens of Titan did Malachi Constant.
But that’s a pretty lame reason to hate or criticize someone. The lucky are just doing their thing. Just like the rest of us.
I often feel unlucky because I like things that are too colorful, weird, silly or adventurous for mainstream audiences. I sometimes wish that I could make it through a whole song by Fleet Foxes without falling asleep or that I found Radiohead more entertaining than my grocery list. Most music that resonates with LOTS of people bores me.
(Brian Kenney Fresno – possibly the most entertaining live act I’ve ever seen.)
But those wishes are foolhardy. In truth, luck’s lightning bolt has already struck me – and most people that will read this post. Each of us in the Austin music scene, and every other scene in this country, is lucky enough to have been born in the USA to whatever degree of fortune allows us to pursue creative arts instead of hauling precious metals at gunpoint, searching for landmines or spending every waking hour making textiles so we can feed our starving families. Even within our nation – we may be broke but most of us ARE the privileged people born into fortune with a safety net in place, not the ones working multiple day jobs just to keep the lights on.
I’m terribly lucky to have been born to parents that let me make my own choices and to live in a town that values variety and weirdness. I also feel lucky, in spite of the lack of commercial potential, to like and make music that’s not run-of-the-mill.
I’m pretty damn lucky to do what I do whether anyone else cares or not. What did I or anyone else do to deserve such fortune? I think Vonnegut answers that question in Sirens of Titan: Nothing.