One of the many poorly-fitting hats I wear in my eclectic life is “Musician.” As a teenager, I played bass in a high school rock band that tried to evolve into a college rock band. Ever the information addict, I read books and magazines for pro musicians, talked to local pro musicians, and participated in musician Usenet groups and email listservs [youngsters, I’ll explain later], all with an eye on pocketing beer and ramen money by rocking through college with my closest friends.
Of course, there was no shortage of how-to info available; the record label-FM radio complex had been in place and unchanged for decades. Countless bands had played in bars, recorded demos, tried to get signed, gone on tour, and so on. Countless musicians had been chewed up and spit out by the system, with nothing to show for it but memories. The music business, I learned, was horribly corrupt, unfair, and exploitative. This article, “The Problem With Music” by producer Steve Albini was typed in, linked to, and emailed around countless times by older musicians trying to put The Fear into starry-eyed kids like me.
Yet, there was a sense of resigned understanding about it all. The system is horribly unfair, yes, and many talented acts never see a dime, even if they’re one of the 1% of the 1% of the 1% who cuts a hit record—but it’s unfair in ways everyone understands. If you play a bar gig, and you make people feel like dancing and drinking, you get more if gigs. You don’t, you don’t. Your recordings sell, you get to record more music. They don’t, you don’t. The correlation between what pulls in money and what’s artistically great is shaky at best, but for every dozen Ke$has, there’s a case like The Arcade Fire winning the Grammy for the Record Of The Year.
The upshot is that it’s practically impossible to set yourself up for life as a pop/rock musician. Getting lucky like that is more about being in the right place at the right time, and being what the market’s ready to consume, than it is about artistic or creative merit. In order to be a professional musician, you have to start on the bottom rung, look up the miles-high ladder with your eyes wide open, and choose to step on anyway. TOOL drummer Danny Carey gave the most honest, worthwhile advice about this I’ve ever read:
Q: How did tool get signed? Any ideas? How would you recommend getting signed?
A: If you are playing music to get signed, please do me, yourself, and the whole world a favor and quit right now. The last thing this world needs is more shit to filter through when we are looking for sincerity and inspiration in art forms. If you are playing in a band in your local scene and not developing a following, then you don't have a voice or a message that needs to be heard. That's not to say you should quit. You should just quit trying to please other people and play for yourself. Tool only played 7 gigs before the sharks were circling, looking for fresh meat to rob and exploit. The reason for this was every time we played, our friends went home and told their friends about the next gig, who told their friends about the next gig etc. until by the time we had done 5 shows, the clubs we were playing in were packed. You either have a chemistry that taps into the current or you don't. There is nothing wrong with playing heart felt music that is not trendy or popular but there is nothing worse than someone bastardizing or compromising their art for the sake of popularity and money.
This week, three of the biggest names in the sports blog world are stepping away from their primary projects. Dan Levy’s On the DL Podcast is sunsetting at show #555, Josh Zerkle won’t be running With Leather anymore, and Bethlehem Shoals is not just leaving seminal basketball blog/Socratic sports philosophy collective FreeDarko—he’s shutting the whole thing down. Yesterday’s On the DL Podcast featured both Zerkle and Shoals, and the discussions they have with Levy on the future of the industry is an hour’s worth of must-listen (if you care about that kind of stuff).
The sports blog world is in the midst of a huge transition. Just a few years ago, demand for online sports content was growing like crazy. Readers of the local paper’s sports section were going online, and finding a new world of opinion, analysis, and advanced statistics. Eyeballs swarmed around anything worth reading; the communities of popular blogs and forums served as a powerful social search engine for cool new blogs and forums. The result was something close to a meritocracy; the best writers kept the best blogs, and the best blogs drew the most traffic, and bloggers pretty much got paid by the traffic.
I started this blog right at the end of that happy, fertile period. I’ve written before about the “billionization” of the NFL, well, the millionization of sports blogs started shortly after I did. Blog networks started consolidating from the grass roots up; I joined what is now Big Lead Sports about six months in. Existing media powerhouses started acquiring from the top down. Recently, they started meeting in the middle, as when Fox Sports acquired Yardbarker. It’s no longer “media” and “online media,” it’s all the same thing—and, just as in music, creatives pulling the biggest total audience numbers are the creatives getting paid. As Spencer Hall said in FreeDarko’s goodbye post, “every successful revolution has to make the transition to governance,” and that’s exactly what’s happening here.
Levy and Shoals both cited their need to provide for their families as a primary factor for stepping away. They couldn’t continue to blog full-time unless it was providing a full-time income—and neither was attracting enough raw traffic to make that a reality. Unfortunately, people looking for awesome sports content are the ones who lose, just as music listeners everywhere lose when that cool indie bands’ members turn thirty-two and realize they’d like to have kids and own cars someday.
Even if none of these folks ever write or speak about sports again, there’s no doubt their current body of work will be remembered fondly for a long time, and their influences will continue to show in the way sports is written and talked about online. Having said that, each is already in the process of reinventing themselves, and I’m sure they’ll find a new, more sustainable role—either one that brings home the bacon, or one that can be played in free time and stolen moments.
As for me, don’t worry. This blog began when I already had a day job, a wife, and three kids. I explicitly set out to convert the time I always spent uselessly checking out football stuff on the Internet into creatively and productively checking out football stuff on the Internet. For that reason, I’ll never write as well or as frequently as I (or you) would like, and the site may never pull in big-money numbers. But I’ve been handsomely paid in new friends, great discussions, and incredible opportunities. It’s powerfully rewarding, and I don’t see it ending any time soon.
What happened to the musician thing? Well, our little band played a few open houses and talent shows, but after we moved out of our parents’ houses, we never found a rehearsal space. We’re all still incredibly close friends (the lead singer was even kind enough to marry me), but we stopped playing together . . . for the most part, stopped playing completely.
Then, a few years ago, our church’s praise band had need of a bass player. My old bass was just gathering dust, so why not? One thing led to another, and now I lead that band. Every week I get to play for the friendliest, most supportive audience any musician could ask for—and my kids think I’m the greatest bass player alive. Fame? No. Fortune? Definitely not. But satisfying? Absolutely.