I often credit the music industry for making me a better writer, but not in the way you may think. Yes, I wrote a ton of music, but that didn’t do much for my penmanship. To be honest, I look back at the lyrics I wrote in my twenties and cringe. I thought I was pretty deep back then (spoiler: I wasn’t). What music did for my writing career was actually pretty simple: it destroyed my ego.
The music industry is a funny thing. It’s also a terribly corrupt and abusive thing. I once read an interview with Jason Ringenberg (of Jason & The Scorchers), who offered some keen insight. He was discussing his decision to leave the music industry in favor of going independent. He said that “Major labels create the illusion that you are the band that’s going to be the next big thing, when, in reality, only one in 10,000 bands becomes the next big thing. The other 9,999 owe a whole bunch of money to somebody.”
This one quote encompasses the music industry better than any article, book, or blog. I experienced it first hand when I stared down a juicy contract in my days with Sydewynder. Luckily, my music remained more hobby than dream. I had a full-time career and could pay for legal representation. When I presented the contract to my lawyer, he nearly fell out of his chair with laughter (a post for another time). What I came to realize was that struggling musicians who work dead-end jobs to fuel their dreams are easy pickings for the industry. They end up signing their lives away for shots that always miss.
When I started performing in my late teens, my ego exploded onto the stage. I was a rock star! (I performed for small groups of mostly friends, but that’s beside the point.) My audience steadily grew and before long, I was performing in legitimate venues with lighting techs and monster PA systems. At one point, my band was slated to open for Godsmack at the RBC Center in Raleigh, a 19,000 capacity venue. Unfortunately, the show ended up canceled due to a scheduling conflict. But, the industry took notice and came a courting.
By that time I had written and released three studio albums. They were good, but fell short of industry standards. Nonetheless, I owned the stage. When Sydewynder performed, you were guaranteed a spectacle. At the end of the day, that’s what fans appreciated. The vast majority of my CD sales came from live shows, but once the industry got ahold of them, I started to receive waves of insider criticism. I learned something about myself, a point they hammered over and over and over: my band sucked.
In reality, I did suck, but not to the degree they made me believe. I put on a great show with decent music. My biggest failing was that I wrote for the stage, which didn’t translate well to radio (with some notable exceptions that enjoyed a lot of national airplay). But, if I took the industry’s criticism at face value, I may as well have been farting on a snare drum. And therein lies the scam. It’s a lot like basic training in the military. They tear you down in order to rebuild you in the image they want. It works great for soldiers, not so much for musicians. The music industry beat my ego into submission, to the point where I believed every toxic critique.
I was lucky. I got out before I signed away my creative licence. I still own the rights to all of my music, thank goodness. The industry wore me down to the point where even performing lost its appeal. They infected me with a self-doubt that I just couldn’t shake. And so, I hung up the guitar and walked away. It took a few years to shake it off and regain some objectivity, but the damage was done. I never set foot on stage again. I still play today, but only for a captive audience of two cats.
Looking back on it, I can appreciate the experience. But if I had to do it over again, I would avoid the industry like the plague. The one lasting scar I have is a charred ember that used to be my ego. Ironically, that’s what gave me a leg up in writing. I can swallow the harshest criticism with a smile on my face and thank the critic for their opinion. Hell, I welcome it. If it’s useful, I implement it. If not, I ignore it. Simple as that. I slaughter my darlings with extreme prejudice and rework my failings, no matter how big.
Yes, the music industry made me a better writer. I acknowledge the lesson and heed the experience, but I will never thank them for it. It would be like thanking the fracking industry for that flaming water trick.