Making It

The best hair in the entire state of TexasSo 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.

10 thoughts on “Making It”

  1. I read this article with interest, not because I’m a LL fan but because after a paragraph or two it seemed like an interesting article about an interesting person. I share some of your thought about how LL became a recording artist, but I don’t have any answers to the question you end with. This is a real problem for music lovers and our society. Thanks for pointing the article out to those who might not have caught it.

    — GM

  2. I’ll go a step further and remove any doubt that no, the current music industry does not (at the major-label level) have the necessary maturity and willingness to let an act like Lyle Lovett, Randy Newman, T-Bone Burnett, or even arguably Elvis Costello grow and flourish at a level of sales beneath that of a Britney or Xtina. Each time they’re at bat, they assiduously feel the need to swing for the fences, instead of hitting singles (pardon the pun) or doubles consistently.

  3. I think there are 2 options to keep music diverse and fresh: Fire-bomb BMG, or if terrorist activity isn’t your bag, I think the answer is: don’t worry about it.

    Music has now is no nearer homogenization as it was 20 years ago. There are enough people who care enough about music to ensure that – with a little effort the good stuff can be found. Top-40 has never been a bastion of good music, and quite frankly I enjoy the fact that I can catch really good acts at small venues and enjoy their music without suffering the ignorant opinions of the masses.

    From a musicians’ vantage point, I’m sure they wish that there was a well paying outlet for their efforts. But, sadly, that isn’t they work in. All we can do is support them as much as possible.

  4. First off, thanks for writing about Lyle – I love that guy. Second, thanks for an interesting piece expanding on this month’s New Yorker article.

    Truly sad that a talent such as LL’s would probably have such a hard time sustaining a career in today’s sad music market.

  5. good article. you forgot the number “two” though.he’s a one of a kind talent and a monster songwriter. a couple of little things that most musicians ain’t got.

  6. This article definitely has some merit, but ignores some key points:

    1) With the advent of computer-based recording, recording costs have gotten WAY cheaper. Lovett could have probably made that 30,000 dollar recording for under 5,000 nowadays.

    2) Having a “large band” makes it harder to tour – I guarantee if Lovett were touring solo with a guitar and one sound guy/roadie, he woulnd’t take 5-6 nights to start making money.

    I’m not a fan of the state of the music biz, but it is worth noting that everything isn’t harder than “the old days”….


  7. Ok, true. But, a big part of his “live show” is the pageantry of the Large Band. While I would pay just as much to see him with an acoustic, and a sideman or two, the Large Band is unique and I’m glad he’s willing to shell out for their expenses 5 nights a week.

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