Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind. – Dr. Seuss
July 2016 will mark the 3 year anniversary of our move to Nashville. When we first came here, I was terrified; terrified that I couldn’t cut it, that there were already too many fish in the pond, that I was too old and had missed my window of opportunity in the music industry. I have my wife and a couple of very good friends to thank for believing in me in those early days, because I sure as hell didn’t believe in myself. It’s helpful to have those people around you… that’s another blog for another time.
That’s not to say that those fears were not in some way justified. Nashville is, indeed, a very big pond – particularly for a guitar player. While there is no shortage of opportunities here, the number of “A-list” gigs is relatively small compared to the number of musicians who would love to have them. More people are moving here than ever before, which is both exciting and nerve wracking, given that the influx makes the industry even more competitive than it already is. There’s a saying around here that goes something like, “You better appreciate your gig and work hard at it, because if not there are a dozen guys who would gladly take it from you.”
So we musicians find ourselves doing everything we can to move toward the front of the pack. We build websites (I have two now), develop personal “brands” (I still don’t quite know exactly what this means, but I’m probably unwittingly guilty of it), buy stylish clothes (every single player I know has that tight fitting gray shirt from H&M), collect endorsement deals (don’t forget to hashtag), and post profusely on our social media (If one more of you posts a pic of a stage with the caption “office for the day” I’m going to slam your wiener in a car door) – all for the sake of appearing more professional or hirable than the next guy. To a degree, this level of competition is healthy, as it forces us to stay at the top of our game and not slack off or take our jobs for granted.
A popular satire account in Nashville recently posted the above meme with regards to Nashville musicians.
As with most of NSHBP’s posts, it falls in the “funny because it’s true” category. And who can blame us? The pervasive idea most often promoted in articles and advice columns seems to be to blend in; in other words, taper your image to suit the gig. Don’t stand out too much; just look cool enough to get your foot in the door. This translates musically as well: the vast majority of the music being produced in Nashville is being recorded by a relatively small number of studio players, and the job of the live band is to learn and replicate the parts written by the studio cats, not come up with original parts themselves. It’s a remarkably efficient system, to say the least.
So the end result is that a lot of us dress alike (stylish yet safe), sound alike (stick to the record, don’t venture too far), and tend to market ourselves in similar ways. I’ve spent the last couple of years doing this myself in hopes of assimilating into the culture and finding my way into good gigs. And it has worked! To a degree, anyway… except that lately I’ve been wondering if this sort of homogeneity might have negative long term effects for the musician community.
My fear is that if we all strive to conform to the same image instead of celebrating the things that make us unique and different, we inevitably foster a culture in which we all become interchangeable – and, thus, easily replaceable. On more than one occasion, I’ve spoken to musicians who had been mistreated or wronged in some way by their artist, management, etc. Overwhelmingly, their response to the situation was, “I would have said something, but I didn’t want to get fired” or “I know they could replace me easily, so I didn’t fight it.”
This absolutely breaks my heart. None of us moved out here to chase our dreams only to end up in a workplace where we cannot be unique or stand up for ourselves for fear of being replaced.
At this point in my life/career, I’m starting to question the notion that we should aim to be a good fit for any and all gigs. There’s nothing wrong with being versatile, but not even the best players in the world would fit in anywhere. Derek Trucks would be a terrible candidate for Pantera. Angus Young probably wouldn’t be the best guy for Coldplay. However, they are so uniquely perfect for their respective gigs that it would be difficult to imagine those bands without them. That’s the kind of player I aspire to be: not merely a good fit for any gig, but the perfect fit for the right gig.
So my hope for myself going forward – and for anyone else out there still trying to find their place: reject the notion that you need to change to be accepted. God made you unique. To reject that is to settle for less than that for which you were intended. Steve Vai has a quote that I absolutely love – “Find what you’re best at and exaggerate it.” In other words, don’t cover up the parts of you that make you unique… amplify them!
You are not replaceable. Stop acting like it. Stop believing it. Stop living in fear. If you’ve been mistreated, stand up for yourself. You’ve been given a gift that is unique to you. I think if we all recognize our worth, it’ll be better for all of us in the long run – and make for an even more vibrant community here.