Veteran musicians – among them, Patti Smith, Bob Mould and Jon Langford – dispense career advice (and a helluva lot more) to a younger generation of artists.
BY JASON GROSS
In movie or book sequels, a follow-up is rarely as good as the first one. But here, we included artists in the latest part of this series who were just as important and noteworthy as the artists in the first part, which appeared in issue #12 (and, later, in two online installments; links can be found a few paragraphs below).
Because we had such a huge response from artists, we had to split up the end result into multiple parts and also try our best to include a good diversity of styles and artists. So in this latest (and hopefully not final) part of this series, we’re proud to present some of the most noteworthy musicians around today, each of whom have their own distinct viewpoint on what a young, up-and-coming musician needs to know about the music world as they enter it. As before, this information isn’t just valuable to new musicians, but for fans, it also provides a window into the thinking and priorities of each of the artists who participated in this historic survey.
As before, with our web and print editions, we’ve tried an experiment that other publications might take to heart. The initial, edited-down responses appeared in the print editions first, to generate not only sales for that medium but also to whet readers’ appetites for the full-length response that you see here. In that way we hope to take advantage of both print and web so that they feed into and support each other.
We hope you enjoy this installment of the advice series. We’d also like to thank all of the artists who participated here for sharing their valuable thoughts with our readership. And for any other musicians out there, feel free to contact us with your own advice that you’d like to share. Readers and musicians, get in touch: BlurtMusiciansAdvice@gmail.com
Don’t miss our two special video interviews, below, with Peter Stampfel and Matthew Shipp. To read the original, edited version consult your favorite newsstand for issue number 13 of BLURT – or order it direct from the Blurt mailorder service. Additional reading:
Your work is really the only thing that matters and everything else is just applesauce. It’s all you have to care about, other than the friends that are close to you. Sometimes I hear people talking about, “Oh, my publisher was saying…” but don’t worry about your publisher or your agent—just be thinking about your own work all of the time. If you have a day job to support yourself, that’s fine as long as it helps get your work done — I worked in the Strand [bookstore] for a while myself.
BOB MOULD (Husker Du, Sugar)
Follow your muse. Make the music you want to hear. And if no one listens, make more music – even if no one else hears it.
JON LANGFORD (Mekons, Waco Brothers)
(laughs) I could be glib and all. ‘Become a doctor or a lawyer.’ There’s lots of different bits of advice I’d give. Tony Maimone (Pere Ubu) gave the Mekons a great bit of advice once, which was ‘get the money and don’t leave anything behind,’ which was extremely practical advice for touring. It’s the only thing you have to remember but we hadn’t worked that out at that point- it was about 10 years into our career.
Actually, I did talk to a bunch of high school students the other day and tried to explain to them what I’ve been doing for the last 33 years but it seemed to come down to… this manic need to do exactly what I wanted to do and really ignore most of the economic realities of the situation and just sort of flaunt them.
I think you gotta really wanna do it and we sort of slipped into it with the Mekons. We didn’t know this was gonna a 33 year career, or sort of career, hobby, obsession. We didn’t know what this was gonna be really. No one gave us any advice at all. Maybe you should just ignore any advice you get ’cause a lot of the advice you get will come from people who want you to be more normal and want to reign in and want you to follow the normal channels. Punk rock was interesting ’cause we actually didn’t think that there were any rules for you to do a band at that moment. I think that’s been a blast in much of the way that the Mekons behave- the things we take on and the processes that we commit to. They’re possibly misguided, suicidal, dangerous. It’s never really like ‘oh, this is what we really should have done…’ And also, no regrets. It’s not a career or a job. So do something you wanna do. If it doesn’t happen, don’t worry about it, just do something else. (laughs)
We’ve been crushed so many times by public apathy. It’s a little bit like that. I’ve got a six piece band that I’m taking on the road for this “Old Devils” album and it’s really costing me a fortune to do it. But I want to do it properly. Ain’t no frickin’ way it makes no economic sense at the moment. I’ve been lucky that I’ve got some gigs at festivals that’ll pay me good money but across the board with the music business at the moment, there’s a great lack of interest, it seems like. I mean for me, I put out a solo album and we get really nice reviews on blog pages but it’s almost like the mainstream press… We used to get the first Skull Orchid album reviewed in “Rolling Stone” and “Spin” and “Village Voice.” But there’s absolutely no possibility of me being reviewed in “Rolling Stone” today. I don’t even wanna be there- it’s like a freakin’ waxworks of old people who should have moved over a long time ago. (laughs) The old people who read that magazine makes me feel young – it’s brilliant.
I think the Internet allows more access and allegedly, more things can be written about and stuff. It seems like it’s made the mainstream media kind of (passé)… It’d be kind of hard for a band starting up today, unless you have a corporation behind you with a lot of money and a shit-hot publicist. But I wouldn’t go down that road. Carve your own records out of wood.
The Mekons kind of have a reputation so we attract a bit of interest and we have people who have been listening to us for a long time. But everyone’s under so much pressure. The clubs, the record labels. It’s like fighting a desperate rear-guard action to do what they do. It’s always been a bit of that way with the Mekons. That’s why I’m releasing an album next year with a 40-piece male boy’s choir, ’cause it makes so much economic sense! (laughs) That would be my advice- get yourself a choice.
Q: Ray Davies did that.
He re-recorded Kinks stuff with a choir but not a Welsh boys choir. Very different. I had the choir sing on the first Skull Orchid album and I got them to sing a bit on the new Mekons album as well and it sounds fantastic.
It’s pretty hard, trying to do this solo thing at the moment with a full band. It’s like… “I don’t know what I’m gonna do, it costs so much money to do all this.” Sometimes you just feel like packing it in but you won’t, will you? You just keep going, keep making art. That’s what you have to do. It’s unfortunate, that’s the curse- if you don’t have to do it, you don’t feel like you have to, then bugger the consequences and don’t do it in the first place. If you’re worried about whether you’re gonna be able to pay your rent, go get a proper job.
My best advice is ‘don’t!’ (laughs) If it were my kids, I would try to steer them away, mainly because these days, the ground rules change so quickly. Imagine you’re playing baseball and you’re up at bat and you hit a base hit. And you get up to first base and you look and the outfielder is still juggling the ball and you realize, ‘hey, I think I can make second’ and you start running. And then out of the blue comes some guy in full hockey uniform with a club and he just blams you in the head with his stick. And you say, ‘wait a second, I thought we were playing baseball.’ He says ‘no, we’re playing hockey now!’ And that’s kind of what it’s like because for the thirty years that I’ve been doing this professionally- each decade has had a different set of ground rules and they change every ten years or so. And these days, the ground rules change constantly. So I think it’s really hard to give advice to young musicians because the playing field’s just so different.
There’s some basics like ‘try to get an honest lawyer, try to get an honest manager, try to get a great booking agent, try to buy a van and try to keep your independence as much as possible, regarding your publishing, your creative output.’ Those are just the basics. But as far as how you do that these days, it’s so different. I think the YouTube phenomenon where some band makes a great video and posts it there and then gets 300,000 hits has more to do with the content of the video maybe than the song itself.
One big difference is, in the ’30’s, ’40’s and ’50’s even, you kind of had to earn the right to get into the recording studio, whether practicing or apprenticing in some big band or backing up some up some blues singer or some country singer and they’d be worked up into making your own records. Now, because of the nature of the system, anybody can make a record, anybody can Pro Tool the hell out of it, anybody can Auto-Tune it and anybody can be a star. And there’s no real apprenticeship, no real dues paying. If you don’t wanna go slug it out in the bars, you don’t have to.
So for me, I have no idea and people do ask me all the time. And I guess the overriding factor is… my attitude has always been, try to go, when it’s possible, where the love is, in terms of everything. I’ve always wanted to chart my own course. I tend to try to work with people, whether it’s musicians or club owners or booking agents or record labels, that kind of have an understanding of what I do. You wanna have people that will support you. For example, you could get a really big booking agent with a lot of leverage and let’s say you’re lucky enough to have a record out on a major label, your debut album, let’s say. And the label helps you get a powerful booking agency who then gets you better money than you would with a smaller booking agency because they can leverage… ‘yeah, we have Red Hot Chili Peppers and Foo Fighters, and here’s our new act, pay us $15,000.’ And so you go out and do a tour where you’re making $15,000 and you got the tour bus but nobody’s coming to your shows. Well, guess what? Because nobody’s coming to your shows, you’re not going to back to those clubs ever again. And if you wanna have a long term career, you have to work with people that understand what you do and aren’t going to shove you down other people’s throats. ‘Take my new kid act here! He’s great!’ And find a lawyer that loves what you do and find a manager that loves what you do and those are the people you work with. You find clubs that love you. And then you find clubs that just treat you like you’re an employee. As much as possible, try to work the clubs that love you. Sometimes it’s unavoidable- you gotta go work some place or work with people that just treat you like… ‘NEXT!’ But if you buy into that, your career’s gonna be a lot shorter.
Q: What about aesthetic advice?
Well, whatever I could say kind of sounds clichéd in that you try to play what you love. Depending on what type of music, I think that the music scene is so shattered now and so diverse, there’s no more aesthetic core, no gold standard to say “This is a great song! This is a crappy song!” There’s no objective. It’s all subjective. “I really like that song! I really like that songwriter!” And then you listen to it and you go “…really?” But it’s whatever it is- he or she’s cute, he or she is a great guitar player but it’s a crappy song with a great solo, you know, whatever it is. People are gonna to respond to things. It’s not like in the old days where you had a sort of Beatles, Bob Dylan gold standard. “OK, this is what a great song is!” (laughs) It’s just so subjective now that you gotta play what you love and whatever makes you happy.
People told me for 30 years, ‘play something else.’ (laughs) So then, you just get used to it. When my brother Phil and I started the Blasters and we really wanted to play Junior Parker songs and Howlin’ Wolf songs and Carl Perkins songs, people said “you’re not gonna get any work doing that. You’re not gonna go anywhere doing that.” And to some extent, they were right. And to the other extent, you have to create your reality and if you can work hard enough and if you’ve got luck on your side, then to some extent, you can. That’s what everybody does, that’s what Bob Dylan did, that’s what the Beatles did and to a lesser, lesser extent, that’s what we all try to do. It kind of goes back to keeping your independence to some extent. You look at the Grateful Dead and they’re a great business model to study. If you can get to a point where you can do what they did, maybe not to the financial scale, but where the Dead where able to make a studio album every eight years or so, but the live show was a certain thing and it had such cultural resonance that they could survive artistically but also survive very well financially. So there’s all these little ways of playing the game but the goal is to keep as much independence financially and independence of thought and creativity as you can.
When we (The Blasters) opened for Queen, we faced some really tough crowds. It’s a great thing for a band to get booed by 17,000 people because you realize pretty quickly ‘well, we’re either really bad or we’re really good!’ And it bonds you together. We always had this thing ‘if we really wanted to make big money, we wouldn’t play this kind of music.’ You do this kind of music because you love it and it’s a hard grind and you’ll survive and maybe Bob Dylan will like it and the guys from Queen will like it and you won’t have to pay to go to those shows. So you just try to stick to your guns. I think one of the big things for young people today is finding their guns because it’s so diverse, so many styles and so many ways to go. And it has become so much like the music industry maybe in the early ’60’s where the artists are basically disposable because there’s so many. In that period, everybody wanted to be a rock and roll star or teen singer. Because of the amount of people trying to do it, they were just disposable. So maybe at some point, there will be someone who is… I mean, there’s great bands out there but I think the audience itself tends to be musicians and for them, it tends to be disposable. You can see by the way that the product is treated now. I remember when I was a kid, when there was a new album by somebody, it was ‘God, you gotta go get that record!’ And the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction, not for everybody but for your basic music listening audience, it’s swung to the point to where ‘whatever…’
Maybe the good news is this- most of America in that period wasn’t buying good music in the 80’s. They were buying Kenny Rogers records and doing whatever else they do. So there was a minority of us that were going, ‘Hey, a new Minutemen record!’ There are artists now when they put out records, I get ’em and sit down and study ’em. That’s still going on and I know that there are kids that do that. You look at a lot of young acts and you know that they do that. But what happens is that the general population doesn’t take it that seriously anymore. It’s been corrupted now. When you have a masterpiece of American art like Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning,” which to me is up there with “Huckleberry Finn” and Edward Hopper, you have that pimping Viagra on TV, we don’t value it very much anymore. I just wish I had the publishing on that. (laughs)
BACHIR ATTIR (Master Musicians of Joujouka)
You know, for the beginning, for kids who want to be musicians, you have to open your heart to music and you have to have to have that love of the music. Then, this is the beginning and you have to have a dream and hopes to get through and you have to surround yourself with music. And this is how you can catch whatever kind of music you want- this is what I can say.
ALAN BISHOP (Sun City Girls, Abduction Records)
Unfortunately, due to overwhelming odds, I will assume this eager young musician is male. Specific musical details would be discussed depending on the circumstances but they are not important. What follows are the important issues:
– Lose the fear, get the confidence. Be a leader, not a follower.
– Forget about “thinking outside the box”, crush and completely destroy the box.
– Get interested in everything and do it now.
– Find another way other than music to make money and never depend on music to make you a living. Don’t become dependent upon others. Pull your own fucking weight. Don’t go into debt.
– Question everyone and everything and never allow anyone to push you away from your direction.
– You know little of the way the world works so get fucking busy and find out what you don’t know instead of thinking you already know it. There’s nothing more pathetic than a 20-something “know it all.” You’ve been fundamentally lied to since birth, so wake up.
– To attain any form of greatness, you must be able to risk all relationships you may encounter and place them immediately behind your work as a priority. So tell that pretty little girl that you are busy 24/7 and when you have time for her, you’ll call her. Repeat the last sentence twenty times every morning when you wake up for a year. On second thought, do it for the rest of your life.
– Speaking of risks, take them as much as possible until it becomes extremely comfortable to take them. That way, you’ll never have to take a risk again.
– Don’t give in to your peers. Most of your peers don’t know jack fuck about anything. Create your peers instead of settling for the peers you’ve been dealt. There are rarely more than a dozen people in any city who have a clue, therefore there are 12 people you need to know, so go find them. Most of the rest around you have been socially engineered to be fucking morons who will compete for your attention and energy, and how you handle these cretins will be key in determining your future.
– Never trust anyone in the music business, EVER.
– Forget about becoming “famous.” If you actually do something interesting and do it well and for long enough, then someday you’ll wake up and be infamous which is superior to becoming “famous.”
– Compose/write your own material, record everything you do and become organized.
– Be aggressive but not overtly aggressive.
– Don’t be an asshole, a thief or a junkie.
– Buy your own fucking cigarettes and don’t be a fucking leach.
– Become a master of drugs and alcohol; do not let them master you.
– Don’t be a flake. Show up on time, every time.
– Start traveling as soon as possible.
– When you think your plate is full, move to a bigger fucking kitchen and learn how to manage 100 plates simultaneously. The more you push yourself, the more you’ll be able to deal with, and when those around you begin more and more to resemble infants, you’ll have unlimited options.
And then the world will become your kitchen.
Now get to work.
What I would say to them is, ‘what is it really that you want to do?’ They must know that before they do what they want to do. If a young musician comes and approaches me, I could straighten him out and say that he has to show what makes him himself and that he can benefit from that. I think I would have to tell him the truth.
(Business Advice) My advice is that the music business now is not like before. Young musicians getting involved now will find it harder than when I was young and just getting involved in the business. If a record company wants to work with them, they’re going to want EVERYTHING. You should note that. For a young musician without a name, if a label decides to take him, then the first thing that they have to do is to promote him, market him and think about selling him. And anything that they do for him, they’re going to want back everything that they put in.
(Advice for songwriters) You have to be truthful and be able to defend your lyrics but you have to trust the artist who’s going to sing your song to do it the way that you would want it to be sung.
(Advice for singer/songwriters) If you wanna be a singer and at the same time, you want to write your own material, you have to be sure about the material that you’re writing. You gotta be writing something that someone is going to want to listen to and hear what you write and feel what you write. They could see a concept alone of what you write. And they know that what they feel, it can go places and someone might just listen to it and say that the song is good and your lyrics are right.
JAMES COTTON (Muddy Waters band)
The most particular thing you have to do is, you have to get into it and know what you’re doing, brother!
I think I learned that from Muddy Waters. He showed me a lot of stuff… You gotta know how to handle a band. You gotta know how to treat ’em right so you can keep ’em. You got to pay ’em good. You have to see to it and get ’em a job.
(On songwriting) Well, that depends on the individual. Some people can play and can’t write a tune. You gotta think about it. You gotta think about what you want it to sound like and if you write, you got to write it how you wanna write. You gotta think of the sound and the words you’re gonna say.
(Dealing with club owners and labels) The record people and club owners are two different people. Clubs… if you have a booking, you gotta know the guy who owns the club. You gotta contact with him and you gotta find what he’s like and what he wants to do. For record companies, I was shocked when I got to do work with labels when I was 15 years old. They said ‘you wanna do a record?’ So I said yeah and went and did it. Then I learned more.
I’d say, be careful first! (laughs) Get a contract that says what you want to do and what you want them (the label) to do.
HOLGER CZUKAY (Can)
Don’t trust (commercial) success! Your inner voice will tell you what’s going on. Just let it come through. A “music expert” (composer) kept telling me that I was untalented, becoming a creative composer when I tried to study with him in a music high school. This reminds me of the American composer John Cage who studied with twelve tone composer Arnold Schoenberg who thought that Cage was untalented. So, don’t lose confidence. You will succeed the one or the other way.
GEORGIA HUBLEY (Yo La Tengo)
It is always awkward (being asked this) because you feel like there’s a variety of things that people want out of being in a band or starting out. If you they want success, they’ve probably come to the wrong person! (laughs) I think in our case, we’re an unusual band and the success that we’ve had to the extent that we’ve had it, I think is sort of a little unusual so it’s hard to tell people ‘well, I started playing when I was in my last teens and here I am years and years later and I’m still at it.’ I think we’re very lucky that we keep doing this.
Basically what I tell people is just do what you want, even if it’s going to change, which it probably will. Just follow your instincts and not really worry about what think you’re supposed to do or what you think people want you to do. And that’s usually the best advice I can give people.
(Business advice) (laughs) That’s where I kind of politely bow out because I don’t think there is any answer to that question. It’s too broad a concept and it’s usually too sad a result.
BRETT GUREWITZ (Bad Religion)
The usual thing that I say is that if you really believe in yourself and you really have a passion for music, the best advice I could give, and this is what I did, is ‘just don’t give up.’ Just keep plugging at it. Devote yourself to it. Eventually, if it’s meant to happen for you, it’s going to happen for you.
The flipside of that (when I say ‘just don’t give up’) is, I think that it’s really important for a musician or an artist to define themselves, to figure out who they are and to define that through their art. I think it’s a big mistake to pursue music as a dilettante and say ‘well, I’ll try a little of this, I’ll try a little of that… If that doesn’t work, I’ll bounce over here, chase the latest trend…’ There’s no guarantees in music, just like there’s no guarantees in life and especially, there’s no guarantees in art. But, that’s all the more reason to figure out what you’re trying to say and what your unique voice is, and just REALLY stick to that. Be committed to it for a long time, for as long as it feels right.
I say that because that’s what I did. I started in a band when I was 16 years old. My band wasn’t the most popular band. We were an opening band. We were playing backyard parties. We were playing warehouse parties. Occasionally we’d get a gig at a real club. But we eventually became popular 10, 11 years later. And then that popularity only grew through the 90’s. And I guess what I found was we kept going the whole time really. And we kept getting better and better and working together as a band, becoming a band, becoming better writers, becoming better players. A lot of the really wonderful, great bands that were around when we started just dropped off. They just gave up, quit or moved on to other things. And maybe that’s great- a lot of them probably became chemists or school teachers and other things and became productive members of society, unlike us. (laughs) But the fact is, it took what it took.
It could also be said, ‘hey look man, you’re 40 years old and you haven’t made it yet so throw in the towel!’ (laughs) So I guess there’s a limit to this advice.
But I guess what I’m really saying is that it takes some time. I read a Malcolm Gladwell book recently where he said that it takes 10,000 hours to become truly great at everything. And the Beatles must have played together for 10,000 hours before they released their first single. So I really, truly believe there’s something to that. Being a young musician can mean a lot of different things. You can be a player or writer but you could also be a programmer. So whatever it is that you do, I think, be committed, be true to yourself and define yourself through your work.
DAVID HARRINGTON (Kronos Quartet)
To me, the most important thing is to listen to the music inside of yourself. A lot of times, people are looking for a job or validation or something from outside. And I think the first thing that one has to do is to be sure that you personally validate your own source of music. And I would encourage people to create their own opportunities. In fact, there’s a group that I’m advising right now and that’s what I told them the other day. Set up a series of concerts. Find a place that can be YOUR place. Do something that will define your work and invite all of your friends, invite your family, get an audience if you can. Go for it. I think basically that’s what I would say to someone.
I wouldn’t wait for somebody else to tell me I’m accomplished or pat me on the head. I’d go for it myself. In a way, you have to bend the world to your own vision, just a little bit. (laughs) As we all know, the world’s a pretty big place and it’s pretty inhospitable to musicians. So if you wait around for the world to come to you and for everything to be just right so that you can flourish under the most perfect of circumstances, it’s likely not going to happen. I think the best thing to do is to get out there, play the music you HAVE to play, that really lights your inner musical world up, and find a way of presenting that in the most vivid and bold way you can. You might be playing at a restaurant or you might be playing outdoors at a festival or fair, or you might be playing in a public school. There’s so many places that you might take your music but I would try to play every note in the best way I possibly could. It’s always like… if there’s a set of ears for you to play for, that set of ears can be magnetized. Whether that person is another young person like yourself or a much older person, the way that music works is that people tell their friends about the experiences they’ve had that mean the most to them. And if you’re going to do this for your life, be sure that every note that you play has as much of yourself in it as you can possibly place into the music. So that would be my advice.
I also think it’s important to know what’s possible to do or at least what other people have done so far- where they’ve done it, how they’re doing it. Get as much information as you can and then let your imagination go and find your own direction too.
The other thing is that music is a lifetime study. NOBODY can claim they even know a small fraction of the world of music. It’s just so vast. And so all we can really do is try to play the notes that feel best to us and try to make them as good as we can. Beyond that, that’s about all you can do really.
My advice? (laughs) Run away! Run away!
No… well, I get asked with some regularity and I usually just tell them, ‘just make it about the music.’ I think that’s the best advice I can give. Let music be the guide. To me, that’s always what it’s been about. I think it’s easy, especially when you’re young, to get side tracked by… business stuff and big ideas and so on. Just focusing on your own musical journey and learning how to play and learning how to write, if you’re going to be a writer, getting in a band, if that’s what you want to do. And just playing music, making music, let that be the focus. I think all that other stuff will just work out.
I’m thinking of my favorite Frank Zappa quote. He said one time ‘information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, wisdom is not truth, truth is not beauty, beauty is not love, love is not music, music is the best!’ In a roundabout way, I think he’s suggesting a similar kind of idea- music is about music. If that’s what you want to do, you just got to put 100% in to that.
I know that my adventure in music started with picking up the guitar when I was 11 and just learning the pop hits of the day. I wanted to be a songwriter so I just immediately started writing songs. My friends who wanted to be guitar players, they just started copping licks- Hendrix licks, Clapton licks, and then they had the good sense to take the trip back and figure out where those guys got those licks from. And I did the same thing with songwriters I admired- I discovered people like Bob Dylan and then I started listening to Woody Guthrie and then I started listening to all this folk music and the blues and American roots music. I kind of made a backwards trip and my kids did the same thing- when they hit the age of listening to radio, starting out with just whatever was on the radio and then they sort took the trip backwards too, to find the roots of music.