|The ongoing saga of the struggling artist: |
Always on a stage where everybody doesn't know your name.
However, you won't catch me at any stadium-filled concerts featuring choreographed dance numbers, cookie cutter song choruses and musicians whose acts are as ostentatious as their lyrics are superficial.
And don't even get me started on the sky-high ticket prices which proportionately reflect the number of hit songs and the overall cool factor involved in associating with an eye-candy-coated celebrity who oozes sex and mass marketing appeal. I don't buy into that (figuratively and literally). I've never been cool enough and I don't intend to start now.
Instead, I gravitate towards the overlooked geniuses that nobody has discovered yet... or at least, not nearly enough people appreciate. Perhaps I can relate to them more because they exemplify the struggle of the perennial underdog, or perhaps they actually generate songs that speak to a deep-down part of me that is mired in silence too much of the time. It's probably a little of both.
These hidden gems can most often be found in intimate and more comfortable settings where their tickets are inexpensive and easy to come by. It's actually quite awesome. It's like having the entire movie theater, restaurant or mall all to yourself.
Ah, but that is also the rub.
As Neil Young once said, "the same thing that makes you live can kill you in the end." Becoming a fan of these artists can certainly lead to countless hours of unmitigated pleasure, but it often leads to heartbreak, as well, precisely because their tickets are inexpensive and easy to come by.
It kills me — absolutely kills me — every time I go to watch a gifted performer, full of passion, creativity and talent, play to a small venue with only a handful of people in the room.
|Matt the Electrician sports what I like to call the |
"polite lumberjack" look.
In this modest-sized gathering we all were absolutely mesmerized as we listened to a stirring, melodic narrative about how this particular singer/songwriter (whose unhip fashion sense and facial hair could best be described as the "polite lumberjack" look) tried to help his wife find strength after her father passed away. The song was startling beautiful. Its sentiment was heartbreaking, to be sure, but more so because there were so few hearts present to be broken by it.
Just to make matters worse, shortly after finishing the profoundly touching tune, the troubadour admitted that the last time he was in the city (about ten years ago), he simply played on a stool at the bar because there was only one person there to hear him play. The weird thing was, he wasn't complaining. He genuinely appreciated the Hell out of the one person being there that night and the 11 people on this night because he actually has something he really wants to say... something that goes way beyond overplayed epiphanies such as "My vibe is too vibelicious for you, babe."
Without a set-in-stone song list, without another band member or instrument to share the stage, this type of pure, bare-bones artist has no choice but to sing with all of his heart (no matter the size of the crowd) because the alternative would be to die inside. He might be unknown to the world at large, but he is appreciated by his modest body of fans on a level that goes way beyond pop culture popularity and a flavor-of-the-month fan base that wants the same overproduced drivel everybody else has on their iPhones and iPods.
It depresses me to no end that many big teen stars likely make more money in one night's sold out extravaganza show than what some of these hard-working nomads make all year touring night after night after night, playing every song request, playing various small back-alleyed clubs and even in people's homes, just to keep their careers one step above life support.
What can a true music fan do? Show up every time they play within 100 miles, of course. I also try to buy the t-shirts, the CDs and the other merch for sale. When it's possible, I attempt to do the latter in person. I believe the musicians make more money this way and I'm happy to oblige. But then, they are, too. They will stay late and talk with everybody who showed up, look them in the eye and have a real conversation, sign anything that needs to be signed, etc.
Basically, I try to let them know they are appreciated because it might not be something that is painfully obvious to them day after day on that long and winding road they perpetually find themselves on. The other small pockets of fans who show up do the same. We all understand how important it is that this unique and unusual artist keeps producing original music, even if it will likely never see the inside of a Top 40 chart.
It's kind of crazy, though, when you think about it. You can take in a show, buy a CD and talk to an artist and pay about $20 to $35 altogether. That won't even get you the nosebleed seats in the cordoned-off general public section of an arena show. Not even close.
Admittedly, it sounds like a relatively cheap hobby until you realize just how many artists there are out there who deserve to be heard but aren't even noticed. Once you like one of these artists, that exposure inevitably leads to another discovery of somebody else nobody has ever heard of who plays songs that actually enable you to stop thinking about all the day-to-day trivial minutae in the world for three-and-a-half minutes of unencumbered bliss.
Perhaps popular or casual music fans might see five concerts a year or less, which can be quite expensive if you're wanting to see the Justin Beibers and Shakiras of the world. I probably spend the same amount of money, though I certainly make up for it in quantity. Hell, February isn't over yet and I've already seen over 30 acts this year for about the same price it would cost to buy a lower level ticket at the Sprint Center for Miley Cyrus (granted it's been a busy two months thanks to a local Folk Alliance Conference, but you get the point).
Of course, I've also bought a ton of new music, as well. The money is well spent, though. I harbor no doubts that I am the one who benefits more in this relationship. Nothing breaks up the drudgery of a long drive or work day quite like singing along to one of your favorite tunes. Quite simply, it makes me feel happy. It infuses me with an extra dose of energy. Even the sad and angry songs are cathartic whenever I feel the need to unleash those negative pent-up emotions.
Music, when it's done right, has the amazing ability to help people gain perspective. It can refresh a person's diminishing optimism. It can bring you back to life. It really can.
Even as I write this, I find myself laughing with a sense of irony. I am listening to Matt the Electrician sing about being in Denmark, reading a novel by Junichiro Tanizaki and feeling homesick. His writing is detailed and evocative, much like the accompanying guitar work. It's exactly the type of unique and audacious song that so rarely makes it to the radio playlist.
One lyric in particular echoes the sentiments of that endless sea of struggling artists who sometimes sink into despair when they see more empty chairs than full ones in the audience: "The radio is playing a song by Shakira. I've heard it twice already. I'm going to hear it again..."
Well, for this moment anyway, one person is not listening to what everybody else has on their stereos. One person is enjoying those original voices that are too often overlooked... waiting for the next unappreciated artist to announce a tour date close to his general vicinity so he can feel more alive again.