Friday, September 20, 2013

Everything old is (horrifyingly) new again.

I teach.

I have bass students, vocal students, songwriting students, and students who are interested in combining these disciplines. I have students in Syracuse (where I live) and in Rochester (the city about an hour to the west), and I see those students once a week live-and-in-person. I also have and have had students in New York, California, Utah, Nevada, Rhode Island, Texas, Canada, England, and Finland, and I teach those students via Skype video chat software. I also co-coordinate a “rock camp”-style summer program for teen musicians.

Teaching is something that I used to do only occasionally when I was touring, then as a side-business when I worked for Warwick, but that has now become more and more of my main focus as a musician. It’s something I really enjoy and get a lot of fulfillment out of. Turns out I'm also pretty good at it!

But this post isn’t about how to teach a bass lesson -- it’s about an alarming trend I’m seeing among my teenage students.

I have taken to challenging younger musicians by asking them, very seriously, how they plan to make their dreams into reality in the digital age.

First, I explain to these students the idea of “business”... you know; the idea that one produces their means to live by providing a good or service and exchanging that good or service for something they need... or for money, with which to further exchange for those needed things. Most of them understand this already, smart cookies that they are.

Then, I ask them these questions:

-what’s the good or service you provide as a musician?
-what do you get for it when you exchange it with your customers?
-how will you make a living from it?

It’s always been important for aspiring musicians to understand these concepts, but never more so than now. After all -- this generation is the one that simply DOESN’T BELIEVE MUSIC SHOULD COST MONEY. And yet, a bunch of them still want to pursue music. I’ve been wondering if they just haven’t thought this through, or if they’ve figured something out that I haven’t. I am always waiting for some young mind to drop some profound statement on me that will make me “get it” in a way I’ve never considered.

(For those of you in your thirties and older, spare me the chatter. I KNOW that today's adults still have a sense of ethics that can be appealed to. I know you can convince them to pay for music if you can establish a connection with them. I'm talking about the next generation; the "Millenials"; your precious tween, teen, and twenty-something CHILDREN. They've already formed their values, and the results are in: as far as they are concerned, music will be free.)

This is not a pretty process. Some of the students have their bubbles burst as they do the math. I have watched as aspiring superstars are suddenly awoken from an innocent and beautiful dream, and I see genuine depression take its place.

Others are in denial -- what I mean is, students who tell me they have plans to attend college as music majors - to SPEND thousands of dollars to become better musicians - also have no problem telling me they don’t see how they could make enough money to live on through the goods/services they see themselves providing as musicians. The ensuing conversations are dead-ends: They STILL plan to go to college for music. The connection (or lack thereof) between effort and yield has still not been made.

(NOTE: I do have students who do not aspire to rock stardom. Some are interested in production-based, behind-the-scenes musical pursuits, a few want to move to a big city and freelance or join a union and try to play in pit orchestras... and these are actually pretty down-to-earth career options for today’s aspiring music pro.)

The biggest shock to me is that a few kids think they have a solution. Ready to hear it?

(If you’re a seasoned muso of my generation or the one before, prepare for a ‘facepalm moment’...)

They say they will simply “get enough exposure and build a big enough fan base to get signed”.


(jaw gaping)

Yeah. Not the profound statement I had in mind.

This presumption goes no further than that. There is no curiosity as to HOW these labels will generate the money that will surely perpetuate their careers... they will simply get noticed by the Great And Powerful Oz, and then Oz will provide, perhaps by magic. Forget the fact that these very students do not buy music themselves; they trust that somehow, a record label will transform their talent into dollars. Essentially: even though they are not the next Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, Ke$ha, or One Direction, they are going to buck the trends and MAKE IT ANYWAY.

That means it’s official: whatever my musician-brethren and I learned from the wreckage of the “rockstar” scam, we forgot to tell the kids. Because they are buying into the major-label myth, just like we did. Somehow, they think the three remaining major labels are honestly looking for cutting-edge talent, and that if they can just make enough waves for these companies to notice them, their careers are all but assured.

I have clenched and unclenched my eyebrows many, many times over the course of these discussions, trying to piece it together in my mind. These kids; none of them were born before 1995. They never lived in the world before Napster. When, just before the turn of the century, the legendary record industry of yore imploded spectacularly after four decades of non-stop expansion, many of these kids were just getting a firm grasp of English. Most were still in diapers. Some had just been born.

And so my righteous indignation over their naivete has given way to a realization:

It is actually MY job to teach them about this - to reveal the recent history of the music business to them so that they are not doomed to repeat it. Who else is going to do it? Their parents? Not likely. Even if a greater percentage of my generation was actually aware of the impact of file-sharing on our brave new world, I’ve already been stunned beyond belief by a shocking number of parents who know far less than their kids on any number of topics... or who are abusing too many SSRIs to notice what’s going on around them, in their kids’ lives or their own.

As I swim further into middle age, and the increasingly obvious truth that I can only keep music as my life’s focus as a teacher rather than a performer, I’m becoming aware of what my responsibilities are in this new capacity. What it means to be a music teacher today is not the same as what it meant to the people I learned from, and nobody has ‘written the book’ on what’s important to impart to students, or how to make that knowledge stick.

So here I go. Wish me luck -- after all, I'm in a position to wield influence over your children...

...if I can only convince them to listen.