I got one of those major confidence boosters in an e-mail the other day. Adam Exler, my last client at the Karma Frog studio, had passed on the CD I produced for him to one of his tennis students, a recent Grammy-winning producer/artist with a lot of highly respected cutting edge work to his credit, one of those heavy hitters who actually makes good music. Adam reported that:
"He said the CD is fantastic! He has it on loop in his car and has listened to the whole CD over twice already. He said the songs, production, vocals, arrangements are great...He said that he usually only likes the music he does, but was more than pleasantly surprised by this CD."
I felt very pleased reading that...this was, after all, the first album I recorded and mixed entirely on my own, as well as playing about 70% of the instruments, and to get that kind of praise (albeit indirectly) from a guy of that stature felt pretty cool. But after the initial reaction, I started to feel a little down about it.
It's just that I've gotten these kinds of props before. I've had all kinds of back-channel communication that has left me feeling validated, knowing that successful and talented people think I did good work, and benefiting from the self-confidence and trust in one's own judgment that that inspires. The problem, though, is that's usually all the real practical good it does. You acquire a sense that you're talented, that your ideas are sound, that you don't suck, and that enables you to move forward.
But the word, at least in my own experience, doesn't tend to spread. It's an idle thought that's there and gone. It's kind of like when NPR/Entertainment Weekly writer Ken Tucker -- a heavy hitter in his field for sure -- told the president of Big Deal that Cockeyed Ghost's "Disappear" (which I wrote) was the greatest driving song ever written. From a writer of that statute and taste, that was a wonderful thing to hear. Except that Tucker never told anybody else, never wrote about it or talked about it on air. So no one ever heard that opinion and I couldn't put it in the press kit. In fact, I don't think I've ever mentioned it anywhere other than this blog right now. What would have been the point? If I say it, it just sounds like I'm bragging on myself.
Now, yesterday the casino tribute gig -- the one I was complaining about last week where I had to work out a song from "Funny Girl" by ear -- came and went, and it was an exceedingly good time, other than having to get up at 7 a.m. to drive to San Bernardino. I was part of a four-piece pit band (along with the ubiquitous track) that backed a succession of tribute artist imitators who ranged from very good to spectacular. In the words of the bass player, "we got derailed a few times but there were no trainwrecks," and a good time was had by all. As for the nature of the gig itself, the quote of the week was the MC's acerbic recap of his own introduction from the stage: "Ladies and gentlemen, Rod STEWART! (pause) O-47. B-11."
Speaking of whom, the Rod Stewart imitator was awesome. For the first time I understood how good a tribute act could be -- the guy was all over the stage, a ball of energy, interacting with the crowd AND the band, looking and sounding so much like Rod the Mod that it really was like having the same experience (until we got offstage, where the incongruous Midwestern drawl of his speaking voice gave the game away).
The best thing about this gig for me was that I was surrounded by people that are working ALL the time, and for someone who's suffering through a slow summer, I was extremely happy to have an opportunity to show off what I could do and give away some cards. Quasi-Rod was highly complimentary about the band, singling me and the bass player out for praise, and in the dressing room he talked excitedly and at length about bringing us into his backing band to replace long-standing members who had decamped for better job prospects in the midwest.
So here's my point. You would think that, between getting props for my production and arrangement work from a Grammy award winning producer at the absolute top of the heap, and getting props for playing along to a track by a Rod Stewart imitator, I'd be more excited by the former than the latter.
But I'm not. Every artist who's been working for a long time knows that he or she may be just one good break, one high profile gig, one big shot of media exposure, from mass recognition. But the basic fact is most of us that are half-decent and have been around awhile have a collection of these "near misses" on our resumes. It's great for your ego and sometimes, it keeps you going a little longer. But 99% of the time, that big break that you know is possible doesn't come to pass, and unless this producer happens to need an apprentice or someone to do demo work for him (assuming he even computes that someone else produced the album), it will probably be the same in this case.
The good words from notRod, however, sound like they may lead to real, paying work. And that's the beauty of becoming a working musician first and an artist second. Knowing you're good, and that people think you're good, is wonderful. But you come to learn that translating that into a tangible payday is the real trick.