These days I’m mostly known for writing articles that piss off the world’s more meatier meatheads, but I actually got started as a writer because I was a popular rock musician. Ten years ago I set out with some guys and a girl to form The Black Math Experiment; I’d describe that band to you, but we actually won an award here for being indescribable. If you do remember us it’s probably because of our weird adventure with David Arquette, who cannot be killed. Once our 15 minutes were up I signed on with Houston Press as a music journalist.
The love of making music never really left me, and for a brief time BME guitarist and primary songwriter Bill Curtner and I forged ahead as The Ghost of Cliff Burton. We recorded an album. It was a good album. I’m really proud of that album. I’m probably never going to do another.
Last week, our own Kristy Loye wrote up a fine piece on the death of rock and roll that explains partially why. Whenever I think about making an album again, I get filled with this paralyzing sense of despair. Not about the actual making. That’s a blast, and Bill and I can knock out a pretty good record in a couple of weekends when we’re firing on all cylinders.
It’s just that I no longer have any idea what to do with an album once it’s out. What comes after in an age when all the old paradigms have fallen save for the chosen few that iTunes deems worthy? I can make something, but I no longer know where to sell it or who is buying.
The Internet was supposed to be this vast launching pad for musicians, but all it did was drown them. Yes, there are success stories. Justin Bieber owes his career to YouTube, for instance. In the end, though, all it did was create a sea of noise from which only occasionally did people rise above the waves. I started playing and promoting when every band needed a MySpace, but quickly it became a rush for empty, connectionless numbers cruelly called “friends.”
As Loye said, it killed the next generation of rock stars. Every act I know, big or small, can’t seem to tour without a GoFundMe. Social media has completely killed the mystique of the road. Every microagression, bit of stolen gear and shitty treatment from indifferent venues comes screaming out of the "share" button. The reality of playing live is a long haul of late nights, too much bored drinking and begging for money along the way.
Granted, it’s always been that way, but rock and roll is about a dream. You can put up with the various buckets of puke you step in as long as you can keep godhood ahead of you. That’s the carrot that makes you see the glitter through the haze of vape smoke and hear the roar of the crowd over your growling belly.
But there is no “making it” any more. There’s no record deal to be had. There’s no talent scout out there looking for the plucky next thing to guide. There’s no trusted DJ guiding listeners on new discoveries. Every concert exists as a cell-phone video with all the heart and life vacuum-sucked into a box, and you’ll only see virality if you fall off the stage or something. There’s no win state.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t make music just to make music. That’s a great thing, and sometimes I miss it terribly. It’s a different kind of creation than writing, and live performance is a drug like no other. However, the notion that music should be an altruistic gift of yours to the world has worn down the concept of craft and labor. When a company like McDonald’s asks a band to play for free without even thinking there was something wrong with it, that’s not one bad apple but an entire rotted system.
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Music becomes completely disposable. It’s all priced like breakfast tacos and easier to get at 3 a.m. Maybe the answer is going out more and just playing your heart out, but that really doesn’t do jack for the commodity of a song itself. What is a song worth to someone? I remember when “Ridiculous Thoughts” by the Cranberries was worth $17 for a whole album of other tracks I’d never heard.
I know exactly what my songs are worth. Some time ago MTV’s Ridiculousness had David Arquette on their show and wanted to play a few seconds of our song about him as a joke. My share of the check from that joke is greater than all the download royalties we ever earned for our entire catalog since 2005.
Sometimes the urge to write music again is so strong my hands shake, but the idea of holding an album and it just sitting there unlistened to by anyone but a few friends is just too depressing. The dream of rock and roll just isn’t there to sustain the effort needed to do more. It’s like a dirty limousine or Numbers with the lights on. Reality killed rock and roll dead, at least for me.