So what does it take to be a musician? Take, of course, in the context of cash. While it could be argued that it requires very little—after all, instruments can be all manner of things, from structural plastic tubing to 55-gallon drums to simply a voice (or voices)—what about “making it” in the sense of having at least some national presence (admittedly a subjective thing, as being known nowadays tends to be a slippery phenomenon). That given as a start, then let’s move on to some interesting figures in this regard found in a profile of Lyle Lovett by Alec Wilkinson that appears in The New Yorker (March 1, 2004). Presumably, Lovett can be widely considered to be “national” figure, even though he is certainly at the fringes of things.
The first number is $30,000. That’s how much it cost Lovett to record 18 songs in the early/mid-1980s. It should be noted that he had to pay only for the studio time. The phrase “time is money” is certainly evident there in spades. Recognize that $30K back then represented more spendable income than it does now. Or said simply: That is one hell of a lot of scratch to be putting into something that is simply speculative. Like many people (then as now), Lovett the musician didn’t have a full-time or day job. He picked up work here and there; he pulled the money together so that he could go to Phoenix to record and to Nashville to (self-) promote. That’s dedication with a capital Dollar sign. Things turned out OK for Lovett. Of the songs recorded, 10 were used on his first album, Lyle Lovett, and the balance was used on the two follow-up releases, Pontiac and Lyle Lovett and His Large Band.
The second number is six. Early on in the piece Wilkinson observes, “Lovett tours assiduously.” Often with his Large Band. That’s “large” as in 16 people. Later in the piece, “assiduously” is paid off, as it becomes clear why Lovett isn’t sitting around on his ranch as much as he would probably prefer: Money. Wilkinson points out, “Lovett essentially plays five nights to break even, then makes his money on the sixth.” I am willing to bet that this isn’t a situation where the seventh, eighth, ninth, and all subsequent nights are red-eye gravy, that the cycle begins (almost) anew.
To be sure, there are the stars. The performers that even the likes of Forbes tracks. But by and large, there are those who are more akin to the Lovett situation: people who need to play five nights for their sixth or six for their seventh. Or who have day jobs that pay the rent. And there are still more who look at Lovett’s comfortable-but-marginal success with understandable envy, who have to scrimp and save in order to make their music. One of the consequences of the consolidation of the recording industry is that there is a decreasing opportunity for bands to have any sort of a paying career unless they (1) immediately get a hit or (2) have sustained high sales. The number of the bands falling into the second category is undoubtedly diminishing, as the recording companies trim their rosters for purposes of “efficiency.” After all, if Wal-Mart isn’t going to restock the artists in question, then the recording companies have no incentive to keep pressing discs.
So what does it take to be a musician? I submit that a Lyle Lovett couldn’t make it today, at least not to the extent that he has. To be sure, he’d probably be a musician, but one playing in much smaller venues and recording on a label that one would need to be assiduous to discover. A more fundamental question that we should all be concerned with is: What must we do to make sure that music survives that isn’t completely homogenized?
Lyle Lovett’s latest album, My Baby Don’t Tolerate, is available on Lost Highway.