In most sectors, the hopefuls give up early. So why do musicians stick it out?
A harsh reckoning of abilities happens early in most careers or pursuits, such as sport. But in the music industry, it’s not so straightforward
Hands full: For every Adele that makes it to the top, there are 99 artist who are never heard from again. Photograph: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
I’ve been thinking about the dreamers again because there are still a lot of them out there. When it comes to attracting the wild and the innocent, there’s no other game in town like the music business.
In sport, by comparison, the reckoning happens earlier in the day. The wannabes and gonna-bes rarely get far enough down the road to harm themselves or anyone else. It’s much the same in other disciplines and sectors: you either have the smarts to make the cut or you don’t. Simple.
With music, though, it’s different. You can keep on trucking as long as the dream persists. It takes years for reality to set in and for people to realise that the jig is up and they really should have chosen something else if they wanted to make a living from it. There can only be one Ed Sheeran or Adele or Christine & The Queens for a reason.
The volume of dreamers who come over the hill never lessens. I’ve lost count of the number who’ve come this way, talked large, threw the necessary shapes and failed to make the cut, leaving only a whiff of what-might-have-been in their wake. Yes, many of these seemed to be set for success. Most had already passed the early tests and had built up a decent head of steam with labels, promoters, media hawkers and the like, yet the vast majority failed to connect.
To be fair to the dreamers (and observers), most shone for a moment or two. There’d be a track here or a gig there which made them stand out . We’d pass their name to other talent scouts and scene watchers and wait for them to flourish. But 99 times out of 100, it didn’t work out. Cue bewilderment, anger, regret, confusion and resignation – and that’s on this side of the fence
There are boxes of the music these acts created now gathering dust in attics and basements and warehouses and landfills worldwide. The combined cash spent on getting them match-fit and business-ready would probably pay for water charges, Garda reform, new hospitals and have enough left over to give hard-pressed TDs a 10 per cent raise.
Tech-led disruption has accelerated and accentuated this trend rather than alleviate it. About 15 years ago, many acts and musicians used to think that technology would do away with the gatekeepers and they’d live happily ever after as a result. While tech did obliterate entry-level filter roles, it went on to nix everything else in its path while it was at it. If gigonomics were bad then, they’re brutal now.
Yet people keep coming onto the pitch to have a go. Musicians still persevere with the notion that the big hit is around the corner if only the stars would align and radio DJs would play their tunes and festivals would pay them in cash rather than beer. They’d be better off buying a scratch card, to be honest, if that’s what they’re after. Just because you can play the guitar doesn’t mean that music owes you a living.
The dreamers, though, keep on coming. Part of you wants to stop them before it all gets too unpleasant, but they’re adults for the most part so they should know what they’re doing.
But we’re optimists in this corner, so there’s also a part of us which wants these acts to have a good go of it. You still want them to come along and shake things up. You still want them to dream big about what might be. That and write some bloody great songs.