Recently a musician from Minnesota named Jess Larson published a list of 13 things she was “tired of hearing at the holiday dinner table.” Undoubtedly her list sparked both laughs and groans of recognition from the musicians (present company included) who have read it. But humor aside, the list does point to a clear disconnect that exists between professional musicians and the rest of the working world. No, they don’t understand us, but the reality is that for us to be understood, we must be willing to concede some ground. We won’t win any friends with the “artiste” card; the more seriously we take ourselves, the less seriously they will. As Joni Mitchell once said, “Heart and humor and humility…will lighten up your heavy load.” Following are my unsolicited (is there any other kind?) comments on Jess’s list – with the disclaimer that my goal is not to undermine her or her thoughts, many of which I’ve felt myself, but to elaborate on them and give my (again unsolicited) advice on how musicians can use them as jumping off points for civilized holiday conversation (read: peace talks.)
#1) “So, are you still doing that music thing?”
“So, are you still doing that [lawyer, doctor, accountant, stock broker] thing?” No, I’m not suggesting you be a smart ass, but feel free to think that. The reality, though, is that music is in the minority of careers in being something people also do for enjoyment. We can lecture them all they want about the time it takes to rehearse, book gigs, promote, practice, write, record, but many non-musicians see us getting paid for doing something fun. Perhaps they’re projecting their own regret about quitting their high school band or their dissatisfaction with their job.
#2) “When are we going to hear you on the radio?”
Perception is reality and for many people, visibility equals success. There’s no accurate response to this question; people who ask it are likely to just be trying to make conversation and aren’t looking for a lesson on the inner workings of the FCC.
#3) “Hey, my neighbor’s kid plays guitar, I think. Seriously, he’s really good. You should have him play with you.”
Short response: nodding and smiling will usually suffice in this situation. Long response: it’s another attempt at conversation; no matter what your job is, you are likely to have people try to make awkward small talk with you about it and draw some sort of connection between what you do and their life. Take it from me: the person who asks this question really doesn’t care if their neighbor’s kid plays guitar. If they press the issue, tell them you’d love to stay in touch but oh snap, you’re fresh out of business cards.
#4) “Sing something.”
If you are actually a singer, this isn’t an unreasonable request; busting out a brief “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” or “Please, Daddy, Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas” won’t kill you. If you (like me) are not a singer, use it as an opportunity to lighten up the mood with some self-deprecating humor: “Gee, I’d love to, but I’d hate to shatter Aunt Bethany’s lovely stemware.”
#5) “Did you hear the Nelsons’ daughter is getting married this summer? Maybe you could play at her wedding. I think they’re on a tight budget so that could just be your gift. BTW, do you think you’ll ever tie the knot? Are you seeing anyone?”
Second half first: musicians aren’t the only people who have to deal with meddlesome personal questions. First half second: I agree this is a sore point. The same wedding planners who wouldn’t think of asking caterers, florists, photographers or other vendors to provide free service expect that musicians–again, because their job is “fun”–to go pro bono. It’s unfair, of course, but it’s reality. You could diffuse the situation with more smart-ass humor: “That would be great! I’m looking forward to enjoying the open bar…which, of course, would be the bartender’s gift.” You could see it as another opportunity to practice the old nod-and-smile. You might also consider that, depending on the logistics of said wedding, substituting your services for a gift might be not be a bad choice. After all, how much are you supposed to spend on a gift? You’re certainly asking the wrong guy but I’d guess at least $100–and let’s be honest, we’ve all played gigs for less than that.
#6) “So, what else do you do for work? I mean, like, during the day.”
This is another cringe-inducer but it can be answered in multiple ways, ranging from the diplomatic to the smart ass. (I seem to be using that phrase a lot.) The former response might be: “Well, actually, though the audience only sees the performance, a lot of behind the scenes work must go into it, so my days are typically spent working on booking shows, coordinating rehearsals, practicing material, maintaining gear…” YAWN…let’s try the smart ass version. “Well, I spend my days collecting from my ho’s, ’cause I gots to get PAID from them bitches…”
#7) “Have you tried out for The Voice yet?”
As with hearing music on the radio, when it comes to success, people know what they know. “The Voice” is big and–right or wrong–it represents peoples’ idea of success in the music business. I’m sure you can come up with a better response than I did the last time I was asked this question, so I’ll leave it up to you.*
#8) “Did you hear that cousin Jason is going to be having a baby? when are you gonna get on that?”
Another question that you are likely to hear regardless of your occupation. Nod and smile, or tell them you tried but miscarried.
#9) “well, we should probably put the family reunion on the calendar now because Jessica always has her music stuff on the weekends.”
“We should probably put the family reunion on the calendar now, because [family member with real job] always has their work stuff between Monday and Friday.” No, you don’t have to say that, but look at it this way: if your family really does have to schedule events around your busy gig schedule, it means you’re probably doing something right.
#10) “Have you heard that new Katy Perry song? Why don’t you sing more Katy Perry?
Yes, you’re a misunderstood genius who would sooner die than lower themselves to singing Katy Perry, but your family doesn’t know that. This is an easy one to punt away: “Oh, that’s a good idea…I’ll tell my band at our next practice.” Another job for the nod-and-smile.
#11) “Hey, when you open for someone big you should tell me and I’ll come see ya.“
Again, just an attempt at conversation, but truthfully “opening for someone big” isn’t a bad goal for an indie artist.
#12) “Can you put me on the list?”
Hey, at least they want to come to your gig, right? Having a long guest list makes you look good to the venue.
#13) “Your life always seems so interesting and fun. I wish I had fewer responsibilities.”
I might not make any friends with this comment but generally speaking, non-musicians DO have more responsibilities than musicians. That’s not to say that being a musician isn’t hard work, of course it is. However, the majority of musicians piece together a living from multiple sources and thus don’t face the pressure that an office worker might face during downsizing or a major project. Seldom do musicians have make-or-break gigs, clients or sessions. Yeah, it may seem that way at the time, but the reality is that if a few gigs here and there fall through or students cancel lessons or a recording session doesn’t goes well, it won’t be the end of the world. Most musicians invest the most emotion, time and energy in their own music–the very thing that is less likely to pay the bills than students, wedding gigs and the like.
Musicians may not be like other people in most ways, but they do have some things in common. Almost all professionals–lawyers, doctors, teachers, cops–have to correct misconceptions held by others about their work. Everyone experiences stress or awkwardness during the holidays, or any time they’re forced to coexist with people with whom they may no longer have a meaningful connection. The coping mechanisms for them – humor, humility, nodding and smiling, and perhaps a nip or two of Jack Daniel’s – will work for us, too. Happy holidays, fellow musicians.
* When asked, I said, “I did, but they don’t let Jews on it.”