For professional musicians, obstacles to surviving and thriving can include public misperceptions, lack of connections and weekend warriors playing for fun and beer. Singer Diego Morales offers his take.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This Local Spins guest column is one of a series of essays giving a voice to West Michigan musicians on topics dear to their hearts — assessing the highs and lows of the music scene, in their own words. Their views are not necessarily those of Local Spins, but they deserve to be heard.
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The music scene is a tough nut to crack.
In most cases, on every level, it’s all about who you know and not so much about musical ability, talent or genius.
That holds true no matter where you are, West Michigan included.
The term “professional musician” raises eyebrows and sometimes even looks of discrimination when used outside of the realm of a gig setting where audiences will applaud and embrace proficient, entertaining players.
Stand in a different setting and tell people you’re a professional musician and they’ll smirk and ask if you have a “day job.” Or perhaps they’ll ask if you’re available for the next birthday party or free charity event that will provide great “exposure.”
My reply usually goes along the lines of: “If I were a janitor would you ask me to sweep your floor?”
Don’t get me wrong, everyone has that mechanic buddy or plumber or electrician who you’ll call and hit up for a favor. Pay them with pizza and beer and hang out. But you don’t normally approach a stranger and ask them to apply their trade for food, beverages and “exposure.”
So who’s to blame?
The general public doesn’t understand what it means to be an entertainer. Some can’t tell good entertainment from bad.
Of course, club owners and managers who are discerning and see the bigger picture recognize that quality entertainment helps build their business. But there are plenty of “musical enthusiasts” out there who come together with their buddies and bring in their gear (for which I’m sure they’ve paid handsomely) to rock out, slosh beer and have a great time living out their childhood dreams for the low, low price of whatever they’re willing to accept from a venue.
As a club owner or manager, how could you refuse?
So what if their attire isn’t very professional, so what if they have sound issues or play the same 30 songs over and over again for the three years they’ve been coming here? All that seems to matter is that it’s live entertainment and there are people in the seats.
But the minute patrons step into a place where the vibe is better, the band is better and the people who do know the difference are there having a good time, that could change.
ROOM FOR VARIETY, PROVIDED EVERYBODY PLAYS NICE AND SMART
That’s the just tip of the iceberg.
Consider the extremely talented individuals across West Michigan who have invested thousands of hours into their craft, those who maybe play an instrument that costs half or a third of what the hobbyist plays, those who are truly craftsmen and can offer a better quality of entertainment.
They may not be on the “inside” or “inner circle” with other musicians who control the booking of a room or several rooms, but they’re true professionals in the sense that they make their living at this, struggle and suffer because of those who may have connections or “day jobs” and are willing to work for next to nothing or for “exposure.”
So who’s to blame? The question still applies. Is it the hobbyist? The venue? The professional? The booker? No one in particular is to blame, yet collectively they’re all at fault.
The solution: Respect, consideration and value.
Three simple little things that mean so much. Allowing for variety (the spice of life) and a willingness to promote something or someone that also promotes your endeavor is the key. The West Michigan music scene is a microcosm of the universal paradox known as live entertainment.
That great keyboardist you heard last night in the not-so-great band needs to work, has bills to pay and a family to support. Meanwhile, his other band that’s better and more exciting doesn’t play as often because no one will pay them a decent wage. See the conundrum?
The fraternity of West Michigan musicians who support each other doesn’t benefit from a cut-throat environment. A crab-like mentality gets us nowhere. Be supportive, be part of the cycle of growth.
If you’re a professional, act like one, do your absolute best and behave. Be respectful. If you’re a venue, support the entertainment that will help support your business.
If you book shows, give people a chance. The good karma will be worth it.
If you’re a hobbyist, live out your childhood dreams and rock on – just don’t sell yourself short because that affects other bands, too.
Keep it live, keep it local, keep it going.
Most of all, keep it real.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Diego Morales of Holland is lead singer for The Soul Syndicate. He grew up in the challenging climate of Chicago, where he soaked up the music of iconic vocalists such as Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and others. The seven-piece vintage soul band he fronts plays regularly at Billy’s Lounge in Grand Rapids, with upcoming shows on Oct. 24 and Nov. 7. Morales is also a member of the band The Machines.