The Musician Business

NOTE: This blog was originally posted at BretAlexanderMusic.com

The Real GigLast week, I was reminded of a story that, ironically, fits nicely into this week’s topic. I’ve told this one before, but since I’m getting older I figure I should start telling the same stories over and over again. Who am I to change the rules?

It was the mid 90’s and our band The Badlees were playing a radio station event. The gig went well, but that is of no consequence to the tale. What matters is what happened after the gig.

As any musician will tell you, the long periods of boredom on the road make you quite adept at finding ways to entertain yourself. Charlie Watts once said, “In my 45 years as a Rolling Stone, I played for 5 years and waited around for 40.” Most of the time there ain’t nothin’ going on.

Anyway, on this particular night our self entertaining spidey sense noticed that attached to the club was a bowling alley. And, lucky us, the door was open. So we went in and it didn’t take long until our singer came up with the bright idea of running down one of the lanes and flying Pete Rose style into the pins.

That was a great idea except for one small miscalculation: Them lanes is slippery.

He took off ok, but when he got in position for the final dive he slipped… and landed squarely on his chin about 20 feet from the pins.

Gutter ball. Blood everywhere.

Now that is funny but still not the story. Pete went to the hospital. Smelling of cheap beer, cigarettes, and regret, he held a bloody bar rag to his face. And he answered the nurse’s questions: Address? Emergency contact? Insurance? Allergies? Etc. etc.


The nurse looked up suspiciously. She glared down at the chart and muttered, “Unemployed”. Then she left our boy to his thoughts.

So… That’s this week’s story folks. And here is my take on that oh so popular stereotype:

I have worked with hundreds of musicians of all styles, shapes, and sizes. And way in the back of all their minds is this little voice that was put there not long after they started playing. That voice keeps saying, over and over, “What are you going to do when you grow up?”

Here’s the kicker kids: If you love playing music now, you’re not going to outgrow it. You ain’t never gonna grow up.

Get used to it. It’s ok. And here’s why…

I always say that, as a whole, the music business should now be called the musician business. Meaning, the biz has gone from being a retail focused business (i.e. selling CDs) to a service focused business (i.e. selling musicians).

So it’s more of a matter of “how can we use this guy’s talents” instead of “how can we sell this guy’s record.”

Now, people still sell CDs, downloads, vinyl, etc. Shit tons of them. But not too many people that call themselves vocational musicians make their living that way. Think of the music business as becoming like the book business. You will always have the Stephen Kings of the world who sell millions of units. But by and large most people who write books don’t make their living doing JUST that. They are professors, housewives, coaches, fitness instructors, and the like. Some sort of expert at something…who also writes books.

When I started producing records, almost every band I worked with talked incessantly about getting a record deal and “making it”. Now I almost never hear that discussion. And that, for me, is a welcome development.

The discussion has stopped because that paradigm is not what it once was. Not even close. Deals are so much fewer and farther between than they once were. And many of the bigger deals suck worse than ever from the artist’s vantage point.

Getting a big record deal is not a business plan. At least it is not a mission statement. It’s like buying scratch off lottery tickets as your retirement plan. It doesn’t make sense. I don’t want to hear people talk about it.

So without the fairy tale ending, musicians can get down to the business of doing what they should be doing: Using their talents. And now, that’s an accepted course of action. Basically, it’s the only course of action you can control.

Most of the heroes of our youth aren’t lying on a beach somewhere because they “made it”. They are teaching, playing shows, building instruments, producing, and engineering. AND…they still are making their own records.

They are working.

Because that is what those kind of people do. They make music happen. I see that as an honorable thing.

There are more predictably lucrative career paths. As my wife says, “The term ‘starving lawyer’ does not exist”. But I don’t care what the crusty old nurse puts on the charts. “Musician” is an occupation.

And ok, you might have to grow up a little. But tell that little voice in your head to zip it… once and for all.

To quote Van Morrison, “It’s too late to stop now.”


The Real GigBret Alexander is the owner of Saturation Acres Recording Studio as well as the guitarist and chief songwriter for The Badlees.

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