“Everything’s going well,” he said. That was it. No elaborate descriptions of the wonderful future possibilities, the usual spate of self promotion with which he was ordinarily so generous. Just “everything’s going well,” and nothing else. The waitress had delivered a new glass of beer to his table, placing it carefully on a thin stack of napkins. He watched as the bubbles floated up from the pale yellow liquid, until they collided with the white cloud of foam at the top and could proceed no farther.
I knew for a fact he had spent hundreds of dollars Á¢€” possibly thousands Á¢€” trying to secure interest in his band. He waited for the clubs to call, to put up the smoke signal for their imminent arrival, rather than the demeaning process of proving their worth to the manager who just needed some bodies to occupy time before the headliner. Equally disheartening was when he did get the show and that manager plunked a stack of tickets in his hands. This wasn’t gratis. This was basic business. You want the show? You sell the tickets. You’ll probably be selling to people you know, who would already be supporting you, no new faces. No new fans. No way to rise.
The calls didn’t come. He waited for labels to say yes. It didn’t happen. How long had this machine been in operation? Ten years? Fifteen? At this point, he would have been happy for a sign of simple traction, but even that was apparently denied. It could be imagined that, at one time in history, the rejection letter was commonplace. He never received a rejection letter. Maybe a postcard from an independent label just stating his demo had arrived at their doorstep if he was lucky, but in almost 90% of his mailings, his parcels appeared to have vanished from sight. The etiquette of the basic “no thank you” was a long-passed pleasantry. If he had received one, he probably would have stapled it to the rehearsal studio wall, a curio to fan the fire in the belly.
There was a commotion over by the bathrooms. The doors had no locks, a deterrent to keep some of the shadier patrons from going in to roll a joint. It was also a practicality: if someone passed out in the john, there would be no need to break in. By the same token, it became critical that potential urinal users knock on the door as a warning to current urinal users. In this instance, one did not offer the other such a courtesy, and epithets were quickly — and loudly — passed around. The bartender didn’t hesitate to shout over them, “Knock that shit off or I’ll throw you both out, goddammit!” Over by our table was a zone of silence, a conversation waiting to happen but not allowed to live. He took a sip of his beer. The foam began to collapse.
I’ve known a lot of people in bands over the years, and one thing is consistent among those who hang in for a while: there is a confidence that, no matter how long the road, success waits at the end. All the practice and every cent that was paid would be rewarded. It is an assurance built in small part on trust in one’s craft, but in many ways, it’s a form of masochism. His band was tight. They played with fury and precision. He wasn’t staking everything on a delusion, although that might have been easier on the psyche if he had. If deep down he didn’t feel he had “it,” he’d have been less confused when no one wanted “it.”
Two tables over, three brothers sat gnawing on hot wings, dipping the spicy chicken bits into tiny wells of bleu cheese dressing. Two of the brothers hit the third with a barrage of questions like, “Is the nursery ready for the baby?” and “Are you excited?” and “Have you had any sleep in the last two days?” The college football game was over and Rutgers managed to win. It wasn’t a spectacular year for them; not like their sterling 2006-07 semester season, when everyone was excited about the Scarlet Knights Á¢€” not just in New Jersey, but all across the country. Everyone loves a winner. Everyone tolerates the average.
Another thing many of these dreamers of musical dreams create, when trying to cope with that dream unfulfilled, is a litany of excuses: some valid, some not. It is obvious that the music industry, and its long-held business model, has changed. The Internet and its free exchange of data has made it easier than ever before to present one’s wares to the world. With minimal expenditure, a song or two — acceptable bait — could be presented to a possible new audience. E-commerce offered them a shot at more music, for a price. The two-way nature of Pandora’s Box fell into fashion: entire albums could be swiped for free. The advertising value of a gift MP3 fell to zero. Also, the same opportunity offered to one fledgling performer was open to all, regardless of commitment or inherent quality or worthiness. New bands and artists escaped one crowd, only to find themselves trapped among another.
Then there were the demographics. Certain stars pulled certain audiences and formulas began appearing. The most prominent performers grew younger and younger while their personae became more sexualized and risquÁƒ©. The psychological speculation that the majority of pop music celebrity had degenerated into an insidious, latent form of pedophilia appeared overly dramatic, but not so much so that it could be denied outright; nor could it be denied that if these new acts didn’t fit into that criteria, they weren’t wanted.
He didn’t mention any of these as he sipped on his beer, the head having abated and flattened some time ago. There was a basketball game on the big plasma screen behind the bar. The patrons whooped as the Nets flubbed another jump shot, the ball suddenly in the possession of the L.A. Lakers. Glasses clanked. Emptied bottles landed with ringing thuds into garbage cans behind the taps.
He was oblivious to all of it as he watched the liquid in his own glass. The impediment that kept the bubbles from rising to the top was gone, but by now, so were the bubbles.