What Do Musicians Do All Day?

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but music plays a very important part in my life. I have blogged endlessly about it (here, here, here, here and here for a start; also here and here); it makes the day worthwhile, and if I have no music playing I often feel like I am being punished for some crime. I am currently listening to the current album by Ghost, Prequelle. I thoroughly recommend you doing so.

With Ghost – a very successful touring band from Sweden – I can imagine that this is their full time job. Like a lot of people I know I turn up at work early in the morning, I then toil away at my tasks until it is time to stop working. This makes perfect sense to me. The idea of the life of a jobbing musician or actor does not, as it is unfamiliar to my very existence. I think about their lives a lot.

For all but the most successful musicians, the life of playing music is a relatively precarious existence, based on keeping a string of jobs in progress. Or they have to work in non-musical jobs for a spell. Music doesn’t often pay much. Is it patronising that I feel sad when I think of the musicians I so enjoy listening to having ordinary jobs, not being able to live exclusively from their music? I’m not sure.

I have now elevated music to such an important position in my life that it causes me pain to think of the performers not doing only that for their entire existence. I recently heard of the lead singer of a bunch of – in my world – very successful and influential lads from Stockholm working in logistics as his main source of income. He also has at least three other metal bands on the go at any one time.

The problem is there in the word “metal”. The music I listen to is fairly niche, and so sales are low. I have been listening to a pair of doom musicians from Japan, who I am fairly sure work as graphic designers during the day. I suppose part of me cannot imagine holding down two jobs at any one time, but mostly I want the thing I think of as the coolest thing to be the thing which sustains them.

I understand that my perception is a romantic one, which has nothing at all to do with the nasty reality of earning a living and making music. It doesn’t mean that I am happy with the situation. It makes me ask questions about the bands I have loved over the years: what do they do once they stop putting out records and touring? Do they all get office jobs or sign on? Are they session players?

Are they stuck in a meaningless office job like so many of us? Are they that guy in the guitar shop who sells you the crap you don’t necessarily need, so that they can noodle about on guitars all day? Do they appear in the back of endless radio jingles? How does a failed metal star retrain to become an IT professional, or is there an overlap between wiring up a stage and installing a new server?

I basically fell in to the job I have, and have developed in to it. It has taken me more than a decade to develop a sheen of professionalism and a reputation for doing a good job in my unchosen field. The difference is that many people who were in bands chose to be in bands; chose to sacrifice the stable life of the others for life on the road; chose to sacrifice the development of more transferable skills.

It strikes me as similar to walking out of prison for the first time, or ceasing to be a professional sport playing person: that shock of the world needing you to crack on, like a bucket of icy water in the face. It’s no wonder Ozzy Osborne chose to blow all of his money on booze and cocaine, and hole himself up in a Hollywood flat, when he was eventually kicked out of Black Sabbath. He was done.

I suppose the crux of all this is the thought that I could turn up in my local supermarket and find myself being served on the till by the bass player from my favourite incarnation of the American band Hed(PE). I bought those albums on the understanding that I was helping the members of the band to succeed financially: I am not impressed with a world where that hasn’t been successful.

I don’t want a spill on aisle seven being mopped up by the guy who drummed on the second Kill II This album, not that I would recognise him. Then again, there have been so many great bands over the years who have now fallen by the wayside that the majority of them must have ended up in some pretty crappy jobs. I don’t want to feel sorry for them, because they are better than that.

I feel remorse that I have not done enough for them; I feel pity for the fact that their dreams did not pan out – followed by feeling guilt for pitying any other human being, feeling shame that I should be so condescending and then feeling the  gut-wrenching knowledge that my own dreams of creative successes are all destined to fail. It’s a complicated business, but then again, isn’t everything?

I understand that pop singers and dancers – for there are rarely musicians, except for the roster of hugely talented session players they have brought in – will often turn towards the greasepaint and the limelight of musical theatre. That makes perfect sense to me, and I can imagine that it is a far more secure gig than that of the plaything of a record label. It is an allied trade at the very least.

I cannot imagine the hard drinking, hard screwing, hard drug consuming denizen of some middle order metal band readily stepping on to the treadmill of professional musical theatre – the Green Day musical, and its need for good rock guitar playing notwithstanding – but I’ll bet that that is the scrabbling attempt that is made. Frantically trying to avoid the oh so boring world of office work.

Yet I like offices. When I am in a company I like, surrounded by people I enjoy spending my working day with, doing tasks which I find rewarding and challenging I like working in an office job. As long as the physical environment is comfortable I can put up with most kinds of office-based tasks. Mostly if I am listening to some good music: I cannot condone the musicians I respect having to copy me.