For Would-Be Rockers, the Only Music School You Need Is Tuition-Free
Originally published in Seattle Weekly
There are times when the best advice I can give an aspiring musician is to drop out of school immediately. I loved college myself, and I highly recommend it as a mind-broadening experience and an opportunity to squander your parents' money, but I can think of nothing less helpful to pursuing a career in music.
Fortune favors the bold, in rock music more than in any pursuit besides jazz dance and the Special Forces, and artistic inspiration is not something to take for granted or lump in with other more prosaic life goals. If you're writing songs and want to play your music for people and make records, it's not like applying for a job at a law firm--no experience is necessary. The music and technical programs offered by universities and art schools are great places to learn jazz chops, study orchestral music, or learn technical skills to work in broadcasting and television, but to be a rock singer, producer, manager, or booking agent, you need to get down on the street and start living it.
Many talented young people grow up with the tragic misconception that life is orderly and will proceed according to plan. They've practiced their scales, learned to play bass and drums, taught themselves to record, written some songs, and, in a career-minded leap of faith, enrolled in a music program at a reputable school. With such a well-thought-out plan, they think, it will surely be a matter of time before their dream opportunity presents itself--and if their dream is to write and perform interstitial music for KING 5 Sports or do production at a mega-church in Lynnwood, it probably will. But for most gigging musicians and songwriters, the idea that life is orderly or predictable is cruelly laughable. My own career is the sum of equal parts accident, dumb luck, devastating failure, cold beans, and standing around acting cool in complete ignorance. It has often been the case that I was the most ill-prepared musician in the room, sometimes even the worst musician in my own band. I've made a career not by being the best player, the best-prepared, or the best-known, but just by showing up.
For that kind of experience, there is no school. Music school is a place to stall, to keep the parents at bay, to put off making choices--just like law school, come to think of it, but music isn't like other careers. Writing songs and playing music are about being a part of your time, about being young and taking artistic risks that come from being only dimly aware of what lies ahead. If you want to make music, and you know even vaguely what you want, studying the damn thing is almost beside the point. You need to learn practical skills, like how to start a band in the first place, how to acquire instruments, record, network, book shows, and promote and manage yourself. These experiences trump the most comprehensive business degrees, without even needing to pronounce the name Thorstein Veblen.
No course will teach you how to find a practice space and piece together your first collection of shitty gear, because this is such a dismal and boring process that no one who's experienced it firsthand would ever want to relive it long enough to teach it. I remember thinking that finding a decent practice space must require knowledge of the darkest kind of sorcery, and I was right, primarily because there's no such thing as a decent practice space.
Colleges are businesses. They offer music-business classes because people sign up for them, but that doesn't mean taking Music Business 101 will teach you anything about the music business, or especially that getting a degree in music is in any way comparable to spending that same time practicing and gigging. I don't want to sound as if I'm dissing all music education, because if you want to play the sousaphone professionally, you should absolutely go to music school. Likewise if you want to play jazz, because music school is probably the only place you'll meet people who appreciate your interest in jazz. For a songwriter or pop musician, however, the best education you can get is by walking up to someone in a bar and asking them if they want to make out. Whether they say yes or no doesn't matter; you're already building material for your first album.
So why stall? Why not just drop out of school and start making out with strangers and being a genius? Well, being a musician is scary. From the outside looking in at the Seattle music scene, it seems like an insular world of snobby, fashionable, weird, and grotesque people who all know each other, and that can be freaky. It's the most common question I'm asked, usually phrased as a kind of complaining whine: "How can a person even break into the music scene? (Whimper.) Everyone already knows each other, and I'm not cool enough." Well, that's probably true. You probably aren't cool enough.
Getting "cool enough" is a paradoxical process of learning to be comfortable being uncool. To join any music scene, you have to spend some time feeling like an idiot and an amateur, standing on the sidelines, watching other shows, listening, learning. You start out not knowing anyone and no one knows you. You're absolutely certain you look like a creep, and you do, but you're going to school. Pretty soon you've seen some shows, you've been around, you've asked some people to make out, you've met some musicians, and you're in a band. It really is that simple--but first you have to drop out of school.
Believe me, you can always go back to college in your 30s when the whole band thing doesn't work out.