The Loneliness of the Long Distance Rocker

Can music still save your mortal soul?

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When I was fourteen years old I wanted to die. I felt doomed to be alone. My prospects for meaningful connection with other humans seemed bleak. I wasn’t consciously aware of my desire to end my life until one evening a switch flipped and I was done with this bullshit world. I drank poison and ate pills and spent the night in the hospital, surviving by the narrowest of margins. When I emerged into consciousness, waking up to my second act, I was singing a song. My delivery was mumbling and incoherent, to be sure, but it was a song nonetheless, specific and discrete.

From that point on, everything else, everything that wasn’t music, sloughed off. My dedication to my schoolwork disappeared as well as my athletic ambition, but so did my determination to end my own life. Writing songs was my way out, or rather back in—the act of creation made meaning where there had been none. And best of all, music brought with it a heretofore secret world of generous like-minded people who had also found meaning in the simple act of turning silence into songs.

I appeared in school talent shows to begin with, then I played between local bands at the clubs in the bohemian music district of Dallas known as Deep Ellum. All the while I was singing and strumming in parks and bedrooms and backyards. I engaged in good-natured arguments with fellow musicians over the meanings of songs, the hierarchies of greatest albums, and the elusive chords from our favorite tunes. In those pre-internet days we had to learn songs by ear, stopping and starting thinly stretched Maxell cassettes as we puzzled over the muddy transition from an A minor to an F.

The people in my local music scene were classmates, girlfriends, and older kids who’d attained a level of cool that didn’t even seem possible; and weirder still, they were all my friends. This world was dirty, impoverished, and occasionally dangerous but it was never lonely. You might not dig his or her music, but it was pretty rare to dislike a fellow musician.

We all knew there was a cutthroat cabal of music industry execs waiting on the top floor of a tower in Rockefeller Center, but we also knew that we were the good guys.

In the days of the old business model, there were successful predators at the top of the food chain, but the kids who made the music were hiding down in the bushes with our friends. The local model of music delivery, unlike the giant streaming info-combines that lord over today’s music world, had a strikingly flat hierarchy of striving characters: the club owners, record store clerks, college radio DJs, and rock critics who owed a thousand words to the local weekly. At closing time on any given night in the ’90s you could find any or all of these satellite scenesters mixed in among the proper musicians at the Art Bar in Dallas, behind Club Clearview. We all knew that there was a cutthroat cabal of music industry execs waiting on the top floor of a tower in Rockefeller Center to offer us a lopsided contract, but we also knew that we were the good guys, the proletariat to their bourgeoisie, the Rebel Alliance to their Empire. We had each other’s back. The worst thing we could be expected to do was steal a girlfriend from one of the Buck Pets or envy the Toadies their unexpected national radio play. Those were, as they say, the days.

The Talent Scouts are Bots

It’s all different now. My own observation of the current music industry is colored by my history with the extinct model. I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to come up in this world of SoundCloud rappers and Swedish hit factories churning out auto-tuned EDM or whatever. Believe me, I’m keenly aware that even these two meager examples must make me sound impossibly old. My point is that if I was a fourteen-year-old depressive nowadays, I’m not sure what would even draw me into the world of music to begin with. The ability to record oneself in a bedroom represents an impressive flash-forward advance in technology, but it also is profoundly isolating. For starters, it negates the very human necessity of convincing small-time investors to fund a session, or the simultaneously joyful and agonizing experience of collaborating with the requisite technicians to make such a recording happen. In short, it eliminates people from the equation. And more to the point, it eliminates all the good people from the equation.

You’ve still got the execs in the tower in Rockefeller Center—only now all the lower floors that used to house the junior execs and the young A&R kids are crammed with barbed wire and land mines. The Artists & Repertoire department has been replaced by a bot that alerts the label chief when an artist reaches a predetermined number of Twitter followers or Facebook likes. This sort of micro-market calculation was once anathema to creativity—it’s the origin of the old punk-rock contempt for “the suits” who moved product on the AM airwaves. Today, however, an obsessive attention to online clicks and listens is all that an independent artist can rely on to outfox the system. Writing a song might now be less important to your success than paying for a hundred thousand imaginary account holders to follow you on social media.

That’s a lot of followers! So why do you feel so lonely? This hyperindividualist model of market predation seems directly aimed at one of the true joys of making music: a genuine, collaborative dedication to craft for its own sake.

Even though my own career benefited tremendously from the last gasp budgets of the old model, I’m not grandfathered out of the cynicism engendered by this new cutthroat world. As the old (and abundantly flawed) avenues of income are closed off entirely, our new music delivery system reroutes the great majority of returns from music-making back to the corporations.

Artists have never been good at maximizing the monetization of their work. And in the new money-challenged world of music, we’ve found ourselves cut out almost entirely. Even casual observers saw the shift from purchased music, which still managed to allot a small percentage of the profit to the artist, to music’s current state of literal worthlessness. Now the streaming services negotiate backroom deals with labels that dole out fees to artists in such minuscule sums that you would lose money by burning the gas it would require to drive to the bank to deposit the check in your account.

And the kids are listening on YouTube, a service that brilliantly shows advertisements before allowing the kids to consume their music. Does YouTube share the revenue generated by these commercials with the creators of the content? Does YouTube give the artists in question any say over whose ad might be attached to the art they created? Hell no. Why would they? They’re the Empire, remember? They’re just sitting in their dumbass Death Star counting their money.

It used to be that musicians could hope for the unexpected and sometimes tax-bracket elevating gift of mailbox money in the form of licensing fees paid by films, TV shows, and ad agencies. There’s a (perhaps apocryphal) old story about Nick Lowe, whose “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love & Understanding” was covered by some cheeseball on the soundtrack of the hit Hollywood movie The Bodyguard. In the story, Lowe (who’d recently been dumped by Warner Brothers, his longtime record label) stumbles out of his middle-class house in his bathrobe to retrieve the mail and discovers a check for a million dollars. A decade ago, a manager friend of mine who was haggling with an agency over a licensing fee told me he envisioned a future where instead of the company paying the artist to place the song in a commercial, it would work the other way around.

That’s our world now. In a post terrestrial radio era, music supervisors act as de facto A&R reps, and placement is one more thing artists are willing to give away pretty much for free.

When they’re feeling particularly ungenerous, the company will cut you out altogether. Google did that to me when they used the guitar riff from my song “Question” as the bed music in a commercial for one of the company’s crappy phones. Google hired an ad agency. The ad agency hired a jingle house, probably giving them “Question” as a reference track. Grateful for the work, some dude in a windowless room at the jingle house (probably himself another victim of the modern music biz; maybe he used to be in bands but was now trying to feed his kids by making innocuous instrumental music to go under Google ad voice-overs) re-recorded my riff, cleverly adding an extra note at the end of the progression—just enough to absolve his employer of any obligation to compensate me for having written the thing to begin with.

I did what any aggrieved artist should do when their work has been ripped off: I contacted my publishing company’s lawyers to threaten these digital brigands with a lawsuit. Within the ranks of the publishing company, it was unanimously agreed that we had Google over a barrel. But then they hired a musicologist who specialized in copyright infringement and he pointed out the almost imperceptible difference between the two recordings. His prediction was that it was possible but unlikely we could win in court. After my publishers sized up the odds of going against the great content leviathan, they advised me to drop the idea. I agreed reluctantly, and lost a few nights’ sleep thinking of how lucky the Nick Lowes of the world had been: here, some untold millions of ad viewers would be hearing a nearly note-for-note rendition of a song I wrote, and all I was getting in return was teeth-gnashing insomnia.

I considered making a video documenting the Google heist, featuring an A/B demonstration of the two versions of the song. I would certainly have prevailed in the court of public opinion at least. I could have told the story of how I’d written the song after spending a day in London falling in love with the woman I’d go on to marry, maybe show some pictures of our sweet kids that I’m busting my ass to feed in this barren new musical landscape. But in the end I didn’t want my career narrative to be overtaken by an Ahab-like quest for the leviathan’s unlikely destruction. I took a deep breath and let it go.

Battle of the Brands

There’s another less obvious casualty of the great digital enclosure of the music business: as Spotify, YouTube, Apple, Google, et al., hoover up nearly all the available profits, the people marooned on the production side of a revenue-starved business model are trapped in a perennial race to the bottom, just to get by. This means that even the best-intentioned people, who got into music for the best possible collaborative reasons, are forced to reposition themselves as small-time hustlers, whose younger selves would likely be appalled to encounter them in today’s always-be-closing mode.

This is far from an abstract proposition for me. When I was a kid, my grandmother introduced me to a local record storeowner she’d met in the little shopping center near her house. He must have seen some potential in my teenage flailing because he offered to manage me and eventually helped me put out my first little solo album. It was a sweet, heady time. I was learning so much, so quickly. The record itself reflects the larval stage of my development and I cherish it as one might a baby photo, but I don’t want it to be presented now alongside my adult work.

The A&R department has been replaced by a bot that alerts the label chief when an artist reaches a predetermined number of Twitter followers or Facebook likes.

Fast forward thirty years, and this same early backer is haranguing me to make the record available on Spotify—an arrangement that, in addition to once more placing my career narrative in someone else’s profit-hungry hands, wouldn’t even yield him a serious cash return for his efforts. (See the preceding two thousand words.) The vitriol of his emails arguing against my right to determine the availability of this recording I’d made thirty years earlier stunned me. He threatened to sue me, claiming in essence that I was taking food from the mouths of his (now grown) children. Mind you, this is an album from the sales of which I had never seen one cent. I’d never complained. It had never occurred to me. And here we were, suddenly enemies? My sweet little grandmother could never have foreseen this.

The only way to carry over a lucrative music career in the prevailing market conditions is to puff oneself into a mammoth brand of the Taylor Swift/Kanye/Beyonce ilk. Bands, as over-romanticized as they may be by the rockers of my own generation as fearless anarcho-syndicalist collectives, no longer occupy a viable perch in the music ecosystem. Many of the new ones taking root in this top-heavy scrum to market online product have been systematically drained of all recognizable human traits—autotuned inside and out. As a dad seeing my kids fall for an indistinguishable blob of well-coiffed brandoid bands and Disney graduates, I’m not at all shocked that amid their many fast-germinating aesthetic and creative ambitions, my own offspring have never seriously taken it into their heads to pick up an instrument or start a band. The craft of music has entirely succumbed to its marketed spectacle.

There are, to be sure, many healthy exceptions to this rule. In garages and basements and dorm rooms across the country and around the world, bands are forming this very minute. They are arguing over favorite songs, greatest albums, Stratocaster versus Telecaster, and inevitably which one of the members is going to have to switch from guitar to bass. These hopeful young dreamers give me hope.

But we also shouldn’t kid ourselves: they are exceptions. For every one of these fledgling anarcho-syndicalist collectives, there are a thousand or a million kids alone in their bedrooms staring at Protools screens wondering what they have to do to get the Swedish cabal to write a hit song for them. They download a file onto Bandcamp or YouTube, start logging the hits, and pray.

And oh my God, that sounds so lonely.

Music saved my life. And musicians. And club owners, record store clerks, college radio DJs, and rock critics who owed a thousand words to the local weekly. We were often reckless, short-sighted, and profligate, but we were all in this together. And now there’s no more this.

Rhett Miller is the lead singer of Old 97’s. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, McSweeney’s, Salon, and elsewhere.

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