Michael Johnson Photo

Making "It"

THE SOLO PERFORMER: What "Making It" Means

Written by
Michael Johnson

What is the difference between an artist and a celebrity? How many light bulbs does it take to change a cowboy? Would you consider Steven Segall an actor? How about Arnold Schwarzenegger?

Sometimes I think Entertainment is the enemy of Art. Only rarely do you hear a song on the radio that has it all—one that, in addition to being charismatic, catchy, moving and memorable, is actually about something. Imagine!

Music has grown to be the principal cultural addiction in this country. We live now in the age of the short attention span—the constant climax of the quick edit video channel. There are more performers and writers and bands than ever before and yet how many songs on the radio right now can you get into? Three . . . four? (If you're on a roll.) Ever wonder why that is? Doesn't it seem like there used to be more?

I have a session player friend who believes that everybody stops somewhere along the line, culturally, musically. Maybe your grandfather stopped at Ray Conniff or Gogi Grant or Frankie Lane. After that, everything gets compared to that one artist, and you hear comments like "well, it ain't exactly Vic Damone but it's okay." Many performing songwriters have stopped somewhere around James Taylor or Joni Mitchell. You may or may not be able to hear those influences in their music, but nevertheless these artists have become a reference point, a standard of excellence. Have you stopped? Where? Who's your guru?

It's a strange world when your friends say something like "your music sounds so much better than most of that garbage they play on the radio," and despite their prejudice, you know they're right . . . yep, it's a strange world. My mom used to say, when I'd tell her that i was going to be on such and such national TV show, "so this is really IT, isn't it!" I'd always say, "yeah, Mom, this is IT." And I always thought that there actually was an "it." Well there isn't. What there is, in commercial music, is a continual struggle to seem to have made it. It's a scramble where image is everything and fame is defined not by what you do or who you are but by what they think you do and who they think you are.

It's hardly a secret that there's mostly a lot of crap on commercial radio, and not just these days either. The writers, studio players, producers, artists themselves, openly (offstage) talk about how schlocky it all is, that only the truest of die-hard fans is entertained by the majority of what they hear. They secretly harbor disdain for the faithful, regarding their own audiences as fanatics in need of a life. I know artists who feel that they just can't take a chance on cutting something a little deeper or sophisticated until they are more secure in their place in infamy. Trouble is, they never do feel secure. In defense of some, I also know that there are those artsists (and writers) who just "happen" to be commercial, to be right for the radio these days. In my opinion, all this unfortunately results in a playlist which, at any given time and in any given format, may be 75% tripe. There is always some good music out there, less very good music, and just a miniscule amount of greatness. And the hits just keep coming.

It's a sad truth that the best American music is not on the radio. It lives on in struggling clubs, on hard to find CDs, released on independent record labels, short radius broadcasting, and cult-like personal mailing list generated markets. Hard to find, worth the trouble. The losers are the listeners, cheated out of much that is genuine. If the public only knew what an endangered species real artists are they might be more inclinded to support them.

Many artists are able to combine good art and good entertainment in a career. One look at Loudon Wainright III or Michael Smith or Cheryl Wheeler (just to pick a few out of the air) will tell you that. Serious music is commercial entertainment to those who buy and are moved by it. I'm finding that as I continue as a performing, writing and recording artist, my artsy side has become a little less vague, indulgent and presumptuous, and that my commercial/entertainer side has gotten a little more substantive and relevant. A little. Art doesn't have to be so tight-assed precious and entertainment needn't be so cheesy. You got to do a little ham bonin' between tear jerkers.

Let it not be said that major label executives and high competition commercial radio programmers are patrons of the arts. (Hey, maybe this would be a good second career for Newt. He isn't one either!) The entertainment business is simply that, a business that sells entertainment. Nothing wrong in that of course, as long as you don't lose sight of the fact that you can get your little heart broke watching the powers-that-be stomp your brainchild. The Entertainment Business—you don't see the word "art" in there. Well, that's showbiz.

Not to cast stones in one direction without equal focus elsewhere. While there are undeniably some truly gifted virtuosos making big hit records, generally the term artist is loosely used in the context of commercial music. True, musical talent is one of the ingredients required; it's in there with timing, money, "the look," charisma, determination and ass wiggling. (In country music, having "cute buns" seems to be important.) There is value in being able to sing in tune, but frankly, that is a fixable problem in the studio, with the latest gear to improve intonation, etc after you've gone. Also important for an "artist" is a willingness to be directed. Don't misunderstand me—artists are not mindless pawns in the big band game (sign here, kid), more like actors willing to do what's required. Many are shrewd about the marketing of themselves as entities. Nothing wrong in that either. There are meetings with people about your look, there are people finding songs for you, band members, clothes, and what about your hair. There are even agencies to teach you how to do interviews.

In short, what appears to all the world to be your personal taste is a thing negotiated, sifted through, often submitted by "professionals," people with less to lose than their integrity, or yours. The final decisions are your own but, in a medium in which you're convinced you have to be famous in order to survive, the options you have to choose among can be pretty tacky. There will always be artists who wouldn't dream of letting their personal taste interfere with their ambitions.

It's not all roses for the celebs though. Recording artists don't make much money. As a non-writing artist, you get paid only when your version of that song is purchased. Period. And consider this: the record has to recoup its studio (and other) costs before you're eligible for any royalties at all. Also, labels always hold money back, in some part justifiably, in lieu of returns from distributors. Very often, artists make nothing at all from a song that has done very well on the charts. Artists make their money by performing. The publicity generated by the success of a record can help to raise your price and increase your demand, but don't expect to make a dime off of a record if you didn't write the song—it rarely happens.

Artists are expensive commodities. Big album budgets, endless whistle stop radio promotion campaigns, bands on retainer, buses, and subsidizing other road expenses are major investments on the part of the record labels and personal financiers—another reason not to expect them to be art lovers. Artists' careers are getting shorter all the time. Marketing you is so expensive that if you don't catch on quickly, you're Elvis—that is, you've left the building. Another Tex somebody. From who's who to who cares in a few months.

Trying to make "it" as a commercial writer is by far the safer tack. It is the lowly writer (and publisher), who actually stand to make the big bucks. The writer earns the money when the above mentioned artist's version is purchased, aired, performed on television—when the song is recorded by other artists, anywhere in the world (except, of course, China). The writer shares in the profits accrued in sheet music publications, background music in elevators and shopping centers and doctors' offices, in the cabaret license fees paid by club owners across the land for the right to allow entertainers to perform your song in their establishment. And it didn't cost anything to write that song.

Trying and failing at the big time as an artist can indeed damage your career. Artisting is very busy work—it can take years away from your writing, while you're chasing yourself around the industry, trying to get arrested. There is nothing less exciting to anyone than a great big near miss commersh bomb. (You can polish a turd.) If the music is only intended to glow in the dark and it has failed to do even that, you're left with nothing at worth hearing, and nothing to your credit.

My wife has a little frilly, sequined t-shirt that says "Stardumb," I had it made for her. She never wears it. I also have a sign over my desk that says, "Show business is like high school with money." Just to keep things in perspective. Commercial music, with all its promotional and marketing genius, brilliant musicianship and glittering presentation, still seems to be synonymous with artistic compromise.

Maybe entertainment is the enemy of art after all.

Performing Songwriter - Volume 2, Issue 12 - May/June 1995

More of Michael Johnson's Solo Performer columns