Your Backstage Pass to Life as a Local Musician

It’s easy to romanticize the lives of musicians. As a Michigan teenager, I would read Creem and Rolling Stone and Circus and Crawdaddy like scripture from a holy text, wide-eyed and slack-jawed at the carnivalized truth being programmed into my largely empty head. I saw acts like Queen, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Elton John, and Aerosmith blow into Detroit, ask how we, as a city, were doing that night, then play through an industrial fog of pot smoke before blowing right back out, headed for the next urban center, the next party, the next adoring crowd, the next adventure of titanic (and often Titanic) proportions. They were bigger than life, and thus, by flawed logic, better than life.

Illustration by Joe Wilson

With my early ’80s arrival in Cincinnati, my rosy shades were painted black. A few months as publicity manager for Bogart’s revealed the wealth of unpleasantry that happens behind the curtain at the other end of the rock and roll spectrum. But along the way, I became acquainted with some local bands and made friends with some who became local musical celebrities—John Curley, David Rhodes Brown, Rob Fetters, Ric Hickey, Chuck Cleaver. Through their struggles, the dots that these artists had to connect in order to establish themselves in the elusive “bigger picture” were brought into focus: get friends to show up at your gigs, get them to bring their friends, grow a fan base, play bigger bars, maybe nab an opening slot for a national act on its way up (or on its way down), hit the studio to record some of your pithy and insightful original songs, get some local airplay, sell 1,000 copies of your release (or have 500 in your garage perpetually), play out of town, catch the attention of a touring band, and hitch along to see the wider world. Lather, rinse, repeat, and keep a sharp eye out for the brass ring offered by a record label.

It wasn’t easy or glamorous, but merely the cost of living a rock star lifestyle in Cincinnati. I witnessed a few who managed to snag one or two of those brass rings along the way: Afghan Whigs, Walk the Moon, Heartless Bastards, The National, Wussy. A few even stuck around town. Most did not.

Parts of that “success” construct still exist in the evolution of the local band, though the internet and various technological and social advances have made the label side of the equation fairly irrelevant. And while there are very few radio programmers slotting local music these days, that’s OK too; post a song on Bandcamp or YouTube and you’re likely to get more listens than you could generate from radio play or bar patronage.

The point is that, from back in the day to right bloody now, local musicians have never been able to afford the luxury of idealism. They have real bills to pay, real problems to solve, real pain to assuage, and, in some cases, real families to support. For a fair majority of them, that’s meant taking on a real job to offset the abject poverty of life in a van with a band, while simultaneously shoehorning all of the necessary aspects of their musical lives—writing, practicing, gigging, recording, promoting, hustling—into their daily/weekly/monthly routines. The fortunate ones have found a way to fold their musical ambitions into full-time jobs by opening studios and becoming producers. Others seek employment that will accommodate their erratic hours and schedules. But for most, it’s just something they make time for, with the occasional bar tab to boot.

My Cincinnati backstage reality check ultimately supplanted my idealized notions of a musician’s existence, replacing them with an enormous respect for the dedication these folks devote to the nuts and bolts of their lives, and the astonishing amount of passion they channel into pursuing their creative callings. The idea of anyone working that hard to maintain a semi-normal lifestyle just to keep their literal and metaphorical van chugging toward a dream that may never fully come true—it’s almost, well, romantic.

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