This song doesn’t have much to do with the following post, but I like it a lot.
Playing music in public is a hard thing to do. It’s no wonder to me that so many famous musicians go out of their minds or are felled by various addictions. The amount of anxiety generated by putting your heart on display for others to do with as they will is staggering, particularly because most others are just as willing to mock to you as to listen to you, and in all honesty, the musical contents of your heart will usually fall on only half-listening ears.
This is unfortunate in and of itself because the world needs more people to make music, not less, but it is compounded by the fact that the worst audience to play to is the one audience who really should know better: other musicians.
You see, there is an unspoken fact that all musicians know but very rarely say out loud: we all talk shit about each other.
I’m not supposed to say that. We’re not supposed to admit it, but if you are in a band I guarantee you, you have talked shit about other bands and you probably do it more often than you realize.
I would like to say that no bands deserve it, that respect should always be given to anyone who is willing to perform in public. To a certain degree I do believe this. But over the years I have seen some acts that were so truly terrible that some mild negative chatter was the best they could hope for.
This, however, is almost never the case. Most bands do not suck. It takes a particular sort of effort to assemble four people in a room who have each taken the time to learn their instrument (which as any beginner will tell you is no mean feat) and then put their talent together and create something truly terrible.
It does happen, but it is rare.
Equally rare, though, is a truly amazing act. An act with impeccable musicianship, a commanding stage presence, meaningful lyrics, and the other thousand subtle things that go into making a band great.
What most bands that I have heard – and played in! – are is pretty good. Some strengths, some weaknesses. The energy is off the charts but the notes are sloppy. The singer is on it but the band is elsewhere. The musicianship is unbelievable but the song is just ok. There are an endless number of permutations of the strengths and weaknesses of an act.
We musicians all know this, and we hate it. This is what drives us to create. We can do it better, say what we have to say more powerfully. Move people.
We want to be the best.
Unfortunately – actually fortunately because this is what gives music its beauty – you cannot be the “best” musician.
If I could race the fastest sprinters in the world in the fifty yard dash and beat them all, it would be safe to say that I was the fastest man in the world. (Although only in the fifty yard dash and only on that particular day.)
By what metric would you judge the best guitarist or singer or songwriter?
Stevie Wonder in all likelihood cannot sing opera. Does this make him anything other than one of the greatest singers of the past century? Of course not. Just like the fact that the band who is on before you is a little shaky on something your band is good at makes them suck.
You’ll never hear anything if you are judging the other band instead of just listening to them.
So why do we do it? I would argue that we do it because of insecurity and jealousy.
I wrote earlier that it is hard to put your heart on display for other people.
Let me reiterate that point. It is exceptionally hard. You put a song together at home. Chords, melody, lyrics. You refine it. You practice it. You (hopefully) put as much of yourself into it as you can.
Then you go to play for people who are only half listening.
This would make the strongest person insecure. Because though you know deep down that people rarely listen to a band they don’t already know, and that their indifference is simply a manifestation of this fact, even deeper down you can’t help but wonder if they’re ignoring you because you are just terrible.
This leads quickly to insecurity.
Insecurity is a particularly bad state of mind because now you feel so weak and low that you will latch on to anything that will make you feel better. Praise is ideal but it rings hollow when you “know” deep down that you suck and that you are just being humored. (You’re wrong, but that doesn’t affect how you feel.)
If praise is unavailable or doesn’t suffice, the next best thing is shit-talking. If you are feeling insecure about something, you can help to alleviate that insecurity by comparing yourself to someone who is worse than you.
This totally works, by the way. That’s what makes it so insidious. You can absolutely feel better by putting other people down. That said, you can also make yourself feel better by shooting up with heroin. So maybe “feeling better” is not a good goal in and of itself.
So what do you do when the other band is better than you at the one thing that is most important to you as a performer? (This will vary from person to person but it is often just the number of people there to see you since that translates most easily into the number of people you’ll be able to move.)
When this happens, you get jealous. And if insecurity is a bad emotion to live with, it pales in comparison to the soul-wrenching awfulness that is jealousy. Jealousy is an emotion that precludes happiness, giving it no solid place to take root in your heart.
When you are jealous of someone you will simultaneously love them and despise them. You will focus only on their polar aspects: the ways in which they are your better and, as a way to compensate, the ways in which you are theirs.
So if you have a gig where no one is there to see you and the band after you comes on to a house that is suddenly packed and plays a great set, it can be hard to just listen and enjoy it. It’s much easier to find excuses for your own failings, even if none are required, and to find reasons the other act really isn’t all that great.
I freely, albeit sheepishly, admit that I have done it. I try not to, but it is hard to find the self confidence to watch someone better than you and enjoy it.
I don’t have a solution. (I feel like I say that a lot here.) The obvious thing to do would be to just admonish everyone to stop talking behind each other’s backs, and I don’t see that ever happening.
The best thing to do, I guess, is to try to remember that every act you see, no matter how well or poorly their show is going, is trying their best and is as insecure as you are. (This is a pretty good rule of thumb for interacting with people in day to day life too.)
Try to listen without judging. It may not be possible, but it’s worth a shot to try. And when you do judge, because ultimately I don’t know of a way to turn that part of the brain off, do so lovingly. Remember that, as I’ve written before, people are people, for better or worse, and that the band you are disparaging is just a band like yours, made up of people just like you.