From The Plastic Hallway

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.” -Hunter S. Thompson

On Sucking

October 20, 2015

“You can’t hurry love, no, you just have to wait” ~ Diana Ross 

 

BlueSuedeGroove was my full time job for two years after college, and was the springboard to my 20-years-so-far career in music.  We formed my sophomore year at Penn State, and one of the hallmarks of our shows in the early days was shittiness. Granted, that was not our intention.  Our intention was greatness, but we consistently fell short.  Well short.

 

In our early days, BSG was a jam cover band.  We hacked our way through Phish, Dave Matthews, Steve Miller Band, and Grateful Dead covers with all of the grace of a drunken obese retiree on ice skates.

 

We sucked, and we were lazy.  Instead of learning the more challenging parts of Phish tunes, we would smash multiple songs together in a medley so that we could play the simplest, and usually hookiest parts, of each tune – accidental genius.  Playing the hooks made us popular enough to stick around through several personnel changes in the first two years of our existence.  One local sound engineer was frustrated by our initial popularity and made it a point to tell us, both individually and collectively, how much he thought we sucked.  But, over time, we honed our craft, wrote some original music, and built a fan base that stuck with us as we made a humble effort to build our career through touring.  Eventually, we did get our act together and were successful regionally. We actually reunited earlier this year and are still a pretty good band.  If not great. 

 

Back to my point though – we were not a good band at first.  It took time, practice, and dedication to get better.  Our artistry needed time and work to develop.  Thankfully we were able to put in that work years ago, before every minute of every show could be captured by phones.  

 

Had the internet existed in it’s current form back then, it might have been good for my band.  Maybe we could have learned what the level of competition was, worked harder. Maybe we could have networked and submitted for more festival plays, more compelling tour opportunities, entered some contests.  Maybe we could have grown our fanbase more aggressively, especially once we had harnessed our sound and made a decent record.

 

Overall my feeling is probably not.  We just needed to suck for a while, and to work toward not sucking.  Dave Grohl added to this narrative with his position on reality TV singing shows: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/the-hot-button/dave-grohl-rants-its-destroying-the-next-generation-of-musicians/article11746664/

 

It takes time and hard work for an artist to uncover their voice, their identity, their unique perspective.  It certainly took my band a while.  It also took me a while.

 

After BSG, in 2003 I made a 7-song solo record produced by my long-time friend and client Matt Chiaravalle.  We had a blast making that record, and I felt good about my songs and my sound.  The record got a few decent early reviews, but then the Village Voice wrote “Jason Spiewak is a bitter, jaded, trite, watered-down, alterna-Billy Joel”.  That was the nicest thing they said in that review.  

 

“Fuck”, I thought.  "Maybe I suck.”  The reality is, in hindsight, that I didn’t suck but my songs weren’t quite there yet.  I had more work to do.

 

In November of 2011, a friend was kind enough to get me an audition to Bob Schneider’s vaunted Song Game: http://www.npr.org/2013/11/24/246755925/for-a-few-musicians-beating-songwriters-block-is-all-in-the-game

 

Without a hint of irony, the email came from Bob with simple instructions: “don’t suck”. My years of work paid a dividend at that point – my audition was successful, and I’ve been writing a song every week for nearly four years now.  I may suck at many things, but songwriting is not one of those things.

 

Today, creating compelling commercial music remains an art form in and of itself, and every artist worth listening to continues to challenge themselves in their art.  However, sometimes artistry isn’t there yet, needs more time to develop.  Or sometimes the music and/or the song, flat-out sucks. 

 

Too many acts suck, and then make the situation worse by uploading that sucky music to the internet.  And then hiring a producer to make a sucky record.  And then submitting that sucky record to labels, agencies, and managers.  And then hiring publicists and promoters to work their sucky record.  

 

Why?  What’s the rush?  What’s the hurry?   Making a record properly takes a long time. Attracting the attention of a label or manager or agent is hard work.  Hiring a proper professional team is expensive.  

 

Is the song ready?  Is the act ready?

 

For good ‘ol BlueSuedeGroove, it took 2+ years before we were ready to actually play a proper show without sucking.  We made three records, and with all due respect to our collective songwriting, there were maybe only two or three songs out of those 30+ tunes that were worth a damn at all. 

 

I don’t look back in regret at all – I’m bringing my experience to light because I have learned many valuable lessons from it.  The most important one being, songs come first. Everything else: label, manager, agent, press, radio, production, etc – comes second.  

 

- JLS

 

BlueSuedeGroove circa 1998:

 

 

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