The Last Great Classless Occupation

NOTE: This blog was originally posted at BretAlexanderMusic.com

The Real GigInteresting week this was for me. I went to two shows in 3 days, which at this point in my highly responsible and scheduled existence is a rarity.

The first show was a club show at The Electric Factory in Philly. I took my daughter and her boyfriend down to see the bands All Time Low and Pierce The Veil. The other show I was working at: The first of several opening dates my band is playing with Bob Seger.

You always hear stories about how bad the music business is hurting because of illegal downloading, the Ipod, Spotify, Pandora, the shitty club scene, etc., etc. Apparently no one told the audiences at these shows that the music biz is on its death bed. Because what I saw was probably about 18,000 people ranging from 8 to 80 years old having the time of their lives.

So this week I want to talk a little bit about what makes this thing called popular music (and the people that play it) so damn hard to kill. This blog is a little random, so my apologies from the management. Hopefully everyone can follow. Here goes…

As a teenager, all my heroes were musicians. Mostly, that is still true. I don’t think I ever understood exactly why, but I am piecing it together over time. Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, John Lennon, Keith Richards, and Johnny Cash…….These were the guys I looked to for answers as a kid.

Looking back now, I have come to realize that being a musician is one of the last great classless occupations. When I say “classless” I don’t mean that in the context of someone having “no class”. I mean it in the sense that the working class was on equal footing with the wealthy in the music world. All the money on the Vegas strip could not buy you the ability to rock. Either you were cool or you sucked.

Most of these guys I looked up to came from nothing and out of nowhere. ANYONE could do it. And if you were a guy who came from absolutely nothing and fought your way to becoming John Lennon, well, then you were a guy I wanted to follow.

An old manager of mine used to say that being in a band was one of the last holdouts of the American Dream. One of the last places that an average Joe could go from being a complete shmuck to on top of the world in 6 months.

Later, as I would learn, the duality of such a person is extremely rare. It’s a guy connected to the street who also has access to the old boys club. There are not many of those types around.

For example, I believe Willie Nelson would be just as comfortable talking to a junkie lying in the gutter as he would be playing golf with the President of The United States. He’s a little bit of both those people. Not the same, but he could relate in both cases. How many people could you say that about? Do you think you could say the same about our elected officials in Congress? The guys who decide what happens to that junkie in the gutter? Probably not.

That kind of thing just doesn’t happen in other occupations. To be a successful musician, you don’t have to go to private school and you don’t have to go to medical school. Hell, you don’t have to go to school at all. If you can connect with an audience, you are in.

It doesn’t matter if you went to Berklee College of Music like John Mayer or if you were a high school dropout like Dave Grohl. All that matters is when your boots hit the boards of that stage, people sing along. Or when the needle hits the vinyl people listen.

When I’m doing a studio project, I don’t care what your father does for a living or what kind of car you drove here. I don’t care how eloquently you can talk about what you do. I don’t care where you went to college. I don’t care about what fancy gear you brought with you. What I care about is what happens when you step up to a microphone. And what I feel when I hear that. I believe that is the best way to approach making music because that is what the average person does when they listen. In the music business, at the end of the day the rich and poor alike are held to that standard. It is the great equalizer. And, conversely, it brings some unlikely people together.

I don’t need to look any farther than my own band to see this in action. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania. I was a factory worker’s kid who bought his first guitar with the money I saved from putting in hay at my uncle’s farm. I never knew anyone who had ever had a record deal. I didn’t know anyone who made their living being a musician. Hell, I barely knew anyone who had ever made a record, period. I just knew that was what I wanted to do. Our singer Pete was from an Italian family who grew up in the suburbs of northern New Jersey. Totally different background, but that is what he wanted to do too. Over 20 years and who knows how many records later we are still at it with no intentions of stopping.

I guess you could say all this is a bit of a romantic notion. That in the end the music we get to hear is determined by “who you know” and what gets “bought” by the powers that be.

That happens, yes. But from what I have seen over the years, you can buy your way up a top 40 chart (to a point) and you can buy a few moments of someone’s attention…. But you cannot buy their love. And love is why the greatest records of all time are still spinning.

You cannot buy love. Sound familiar?

If you could buy such things, all those viral videos on YouTube would be brought to you via Walmart, Best Buy, and The U.S. Government.

So, when I’m sitting in an arena watching Bob Seger crank out hit after hit and I look to my right and see two people with 40 years age difference between them singing every word, I have to be impressed with what old Bob has done with his life. You can’t buy that shit. And when the lead singer of Pierce The Veil yells into the microphone “How many people out there can say that music saved your life?” and I watch the doctors’ kids, the construction workers’ kids, the stock brokers’ kids, and the orphans all simultaneously erupt into applause, I have to say that the thing that meant so much to me as a kid is alive and well.

And new heroes are on the way.

Bret Alexander is the owner of Saturation Acres Recording Studio as well as the guitarist and chief songwriter for The Badlees. His “Real Gig” blog runs each Friday.

The Real Gig: A Musician’s Guide to the Universe by Bret Alexander. April 26, 2013.