One of the more difficult things about making music is the shape and form of the modern music industry. There are so many reasons why talented bands might develop a loyal and dedicated niche audience and never break through to larger success. At this point in time it almost seems fair to blame algorithms playing tastemaker for this. The way people discover and listen to music has changed dramatically over the past decade, as alt-weeklies and record stores have disappeared — making way for a sea of streaming. But not only has tastemaking and music “discovery” changed, but so too have the avenues for musicians to make a living. Streaming, in many ways, has merely rejiggered the industry apparatus to move money to big record labels, leaving mostly scraps for musicians. As such, small bands must tour relentlessly and hustle for “syncs” — a fancy way of saying ad placements. All the while, musicians — some of whom need to make a living more than others — must scramble for fewer resources.
Thus, the question that has been eating away at me for many years is: what is an ethical way to make music given these circumstances? How do you combat these changes when each effort to do so seems fleeting and insubstantial?
Answering these questions has been, for me, a journey and a process I’ve been working on for many years. In college, I played in bands that pined for conventional success. As I’ve grown older, marginally better at music, and philosophically turned inward, this center of gravity has shifted — from a place of knowing what I wanted from music (a “career”), to deciding I didn’t want that, and finally to a reality that just posed more questions. Given both the reality of bands that had stunting constraints — self-imposed (not wanting to “sell-out” or be complicit in systems I abhor) or actual (other priorities getting in the way) — I knew I had to actualize something different. But what?
As someone who is prone to over analyzing, thinking too much, and pondering relatively insubstantial decisions for way too long, deciding how to move forward with anything has never been easy. But another local musician — Jac Walsh of Dump Him — recently reminded me that I’m not the only one grappling with these questions. After chatting with Jac, I curled up under a blanket and read a 35-page interview with the D.C. rock band Priests, a band whose ethics and approach I’ve always admired. Reading the interview I was reminded what I wanted and what was missing: I want to grow creatively with other people, to feel like the band I play in am forging something collectively; to make the time to cultivate that together, which is easier said than done.
Still, what do my own musical micro-dramas have to do with the bigger industry cogs and wheels? When forces outside of your control tell you to want something you might not necessarily want — finding out what you do want can feel like a tiny act of resistance that you can build with others. It helps remind me what is important about doing things differently, about all of the lessons and ethics I’ve learned from the DIY scene: The importance about writing about bands who might not get coverage in other outlets (here in Basemental) or booking shows that might not exist elsewhere.
I still don’t know what’s held me back most musically. Probably some combination of skepticism and revulsion to the modern music business, lack of talent, self-imposed, and real restraints. That said, I feel like I had to name success to find it — on my own terms.
Will Meyer writes the Advocate’s biweekly Basemental column. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.