Serving the music (a rant)

They asked me to describe my gig at Carnival a few years ago. I said, among other things, that I am “a bartender who serves memories.” For probably a decade, though, I’ve felt that artists are all in the service industry. We’re supposed to serve the art.

When I was younger, playing drums in the showband on my first ship, I felt differently. We all did. We invested years of time and money into our vocations – my drum teacher always thought it was hubristic to call it a career – and we felt entitled to the same kind of path any dedicated student of any other field was entitled to, even though we were already the first generation to discover that ship work was the last gig an educated player could get according to their ability instead of who they knew.

Even then, I wasn’t sure why some of my peers were doing the gig. We were already forgetting the biggest lesson in music: It doesn’t owe us anything for the work we put in.

The world might.

The 20-somethings on the S.S. Undergrad, the union had long forgotten about us and focused on big money, orchestral instrumentalists and the last remaining handful of studio session guys. The lottery-winning stars and the grandfathered cash cows, of course. Ever wonder where all the multi talent has come from? Actors have a union that works.

The AFM under Chicago music shell namesake Petrillo used to pound the pavement, club to club, with the power to shut down any joint employing a single musician who couldn’t show a union card. ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC still collect for copyright holders (mostly major record labels), and the tiniest bar with tunes on the speakers will write the second check after the liquor license to them, the performing rights organizations.

Brian Eno has compared musicians to whale blubber merchants since then. Obsolete. And it’s difficult to argue. The pay for my position with Carnival (or any other line) hasn’t changed in a decade, and the number of qualified workers have been cut at least in half according to IRS filings.

The song, though, gives back exactly as much as the singer is willing to serve it. Give enough, and the magic happens, exponential feedback springing between listener and performer and through the fucking roof. Every time. EVERY time.

I mean service from the soul. This isn’t about how fast you hit the strings or how hard you blow the horn. You can’t expect anything in return. “Dear Valentine, here’s a copy of my paycheck. 40 hours plus overtime. Sincerely yours.”

No. Romance, motherfucker. Finger paint on cardboard, in your own blood.

Doesn’t pay the rent, but my wife didn’t marry me for the money, either.

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