Friday, December 12, 2008

Got Real?

"I always wanted to be a musician," the woman wearing the retail apron in the TV commercial says. She's referring to Rock Band, or Guitar hero, or some other video game that her family has discovered. "Now our family is always together!" another woman exclaims in delight as we see the living room "band" jamming in front of a TV. It's very gratifying to me, as a musician who has struggled for 40 years, to know that it's so much easier to play the guitar now that Wii has eliminated the need for practice.

Let's all stay home and be musicians! Why not? Should we be cynical just because MTV Games brought us Rock Band the video toy? I mean, wasn't it already obvious that MTV was for juvenile cretins who thought Beavis and Butthead were hysterical? Is it so terrible that MTV has now abandoned almost all content that features genuine music in it's programing and turned to home gaming?

I see a future where we each get our own TV network complete with a video game. We'll be able to broadcast ourselves and we'll be scheduled for 15 minutes of fame during which our network will link nationally with everyone else's network. Everyone will vote on whether your fame was worth watching, and you won't even have to do something special. You could maybe just scratch yourself in a funny way and be voted Funniest Scratcher.

In this era of Famous Me, I've noticed that there's quite a large crowd of talentless people trying to cram into the spotlight. Forgive me if I ponder for a moment whether the genuine and deserving talent runs the risk of being overlooked.

If this isn't bad enough, my friend Nathan Bell points out that we musicians face even more competition from Actors and other celebrities who have somehow decided that acting and celebrity-hood isn't enough, they must also be recording artists.

Nathan says, "...the music business is imploding and THESE people are touring, making cds, and eating up valuable payola while real musicians are learning the correct way to display their Wal-Mart name tag?"

This is a call for action friends. Stop the insanity. Don't give your kid Guitar Hero for Christmas, take him or her out to a few concerts instead. Don't watch Real Housewives of Orange County or Biggest Loser, read a good book. Don't buy a Kevin Costner CD, buy Nathan Bell's. Let's show them that "real" deserves some respect again-- real music, real TV programing (not low cost sensationalism), real movies, real concerts...

There's too much static, too many vapid distractions, too much splintering of the audience, too little call for serious art of any kind, too much attention given to shocking behavior, too much reward for titillating our prurient interests, too little pay for only having serious artistic talent.

Art requires nurturing (big investment), time (slow return on big investment), and commitment (hanging with it in spite of slow return on big investment). These are things that the entertainment industry doesn't believe in anymore. And it's no wonder. They've been encouraged, even pressured
by the consumer to deliver cheap disposable content, instant gratification, nearly free products (whether it be reality TV shows or a $15 per month subscription for unlimited mp3 downloads), and lowest-common-denominator content focused on sex appeal, sensationalism and violence. You can't have Dylan immediately and for free and in lingerie, folks, so there will never be another artist like him unless we change.

We have exactly the art and culture we deserve. This is what we wanted.

As for me; I'll continue to write this blog...I'll go out to hear live music...I'll still make records, not tracks (stay tuned for the new one)...I'll work very hard to write great songs that hopefully will move you...I'll play a real guitar on a real stage in front of real people who will leave the house to listen...I'll even come to your town so you don't have to drive too far...I'll post my music on the Internet so you can hear me easily...I'll give away some downloads even though this is my only job and I can always use the money...and...most importantly... I won't put you out of business.

Can I make it any more real for you?

copyright 2008 craig bickhardt


Anonymous said...

You are a masteful writer and you make me smile...And think...And your songs make me smile...And sometimes cry...
You are real.
Thank you Craig,

Anonymous said...


This is the line that gets me: "We have exactly the art and culture we deserve."

With all things that negatively effect us, unless we make a stand (Evil triumphs unless good men stand) they will continue to do so.

Some may say "Well it ain't that evil - it ain't that bad" but I get nauseous when exposed to the plethora of mindless crap - music, TV programming, gaming devices - thrust upon me and us. I have to shut down my on-line music research sometimes due to the mountains of vacuumous drivel.

Well I've made my stand: When it comes to the music, I rarely have live acts into the studio, one reason being that I got tired of the lack of mature song writing, (Yes, who am I to judge?) and now my preference is to source the material I feel best showcases talent, whether it be the writing, performance, the message, the vocal ability etc. All very subjective, but there will be hell to play otherwise.

Check this out for misdirection: If you're an Aussie musician, there is a possibility you can get an arts grant to make a CD. But from my understanding, you can't get a touring grant unless you have a CD. This is not logical to me. I write music and, yep folks, wouldn't it be nice to create a document that tells of the 'Life of Makk'?

But would it be better and logical first for me to tour, test, get heaps of feedback, rewrite, tour, test...and when people come up to me and say "Hey I like such-and-such" to a lot of my that time make a sale-able CD?

However, my preference is to fund my own expeditions - because that's real.

The Arts Grant Board logic has resulted in CD's that rattle around in the boots of many of our local artists - and I don't rotate those CD's on my program. And I am amazed how many other community radio jockeys pander to the trade in human want-to-be's.

This "want-to-be", narcissistic mentality is driven by the MTV's the-MySpaces-for-no-reason, the gaming world - all for mindless profit - a world we propagate unless we take snipper to it.

Crikey! if I see another famous actor balance on the new Wii thingy-whats-it I think I'll vomit. If you want to balance, if you want to exercise or play tennis PLAY TENNIS on a proper court...

I moved the 'live performance' out of the Radio into a local pub where we hold "Open Song Nights", not "open mic night", with the thinking "showcase your song, let's give you feed back". How many of the hundreds of singer/songwriters here in Perth do you think have bothered to take up the opportunity to get some feed back? None since inception.
That tells me something...and it confirms the mentality to a degree.

Anyway, I'm rambling again...

Thanks for posting another great blog Craig...if ya wanna post littler ones from time-to-time just to help us addicts with the withdrawal, it would be welcome.


chromehead said...

Thanks Steve, and thanks for these enlightening comments, Makk, well put. It all starts with a "personal stand" against these trends. No change is possible until enough people want to do something about it. Check this out from Bob Lefsetz :

"When was the last time you heard a song that was irresistible? THAT MEANT SOMETHING! I'm not talking about the little doggie in the window, or the bitches and ho's anthem that cracks you up. There used to be a culture around music,just like there's a culture around the iPhone. If you wanted to know what was going on, you bought a record. The acts were hipper than you. Not tools of the corporation, but independent thinkers. We were DRAWN TO THEM!... We don't have a theft problem. We've got a MUSIC problem. This business...used to be run by renegades, now it's controlled by major corporations, only interested in the bottom line... A great record can change your mood, can literally keep you
from committing suicide. Don't tell me it's the same as it always was. It was different in the
sixties and seventies. Sure, we wanted to go to the gig to hang out, but we NEEDED to hear the music. We NEEDED to be closer to the geniuses who made it."


Tim McMullen said...

Hey, Craig—
I like this rant. It reads more like a Dave Barry column than usual—the unrepentant sarcasm suits you (occasionally)—I mean, it always suits you when you choose to use it, but you only use it occasionally....

We just arrived home (12:30 am) from seeing J.D. Souther at McCabe's (LA's finest: great guitar store/weekend folk club—150 seats—great sound). His set ran nearly 2 1/2 hours, and it was absolutely marvelous. It was solo, acoustic, and although it was ostensibly in support of his brilliant new "jazz/country/world/folk" album, his clearly random and spontaneous set covered his entire career including several Eagles tunes and all of his albums.

The experience of live, intimate music and genuine, thoughtful, witty, and articulate discourse about the music and writing and politics and life experiences is incomparable. Neither Radio nor Television, not even video or audio recordings of live shows, can really capture the experience of being there for the audience or the artist. The readers of this blog probably already understand the power of a live show, but we do need to educate the rest of the public: our family, friends, and neighbors. Increasing an interest in live art, music, theatre, has the potential for creating more as well as more successful venues.

I have one suggestion, though. We need to cease to be lulled by the ironic falsehoods of newspeak. Let's unmask fraudulent language. Rather than accept words like "Collateral damage," let's speak the truth: it means "killing innocent civilians."

In the same vein, we must rename those absurdly trivial and contrived pseudo-entertainments for what they are: "Unreality" or "False Reality Shows." Maybe just "Faux Shows"? That has a certain ring.

Thanks for another wise and funny blog.

By the way, I can't wait to hear your new album! Keep us posted.

Joe NJ said...


The result of technological change and consolidation in the music business has meant less opportunity for pro writers to earn a living, less staff positions, and ultimately, less great songs. Who knows what generation changing songs would have been written had circumstances been different?

I don’t think the world will forever continue to accept music that is less than it should be. Record executives, like the auto industry executives, have lost sight of what’s important in the long run. Their focus has been on profits (and now survival) instead of what built their success in the first place, great songs.

I believe at some point there will be an explosive demand for great songs and there will be a shortage of writers with a knowledge of the craft and the ability to write those songs. To me, this means opportunity for those writers who keep the faith and continue to learn and respect the craft in spite of the current reality in the music business.


chromehead said...

Thank you Joe and Tim. Your comments give me some hope. I wish I could make it widely known that so many people come up to me after a show and say things like, "I haven't heard this kind of music in a long time. I don't go out much but I'm glad I did tonight." It must be a very dry landscape across America for those who experienced the music scene of the late 60s and early 70s. Those of us who remember shouldn't let it die.

Joe, the shortage of writers who know how to write a great song, or even what a great song is, is already upon us. Writers point to "great songs" that, for me, don't even hit the "better than average" mark. To hear this kind of mediocre song defended so vehemently makes me wonder if what's going on is simply the sabotage of standards. If you can't write a great one, you defend an average one, and maybe by lowering the bar your songs will have a shot. I first noticed this phenomenon in Nashville in the early 90s. My friend Jeff Pennig and I used to talk about it at our co-writing sessions. We watched the bar get lower and lower, it seemed, every month.

From 1965 to 1995 there was some general agreement among writers and artists that the radio sometimes played bad songs, but there were always a few great ones out there too. Now? Every couple of years a great one... Lefsetz is right. It HAS changed and don't tell me it HASN'T. Don't tell me we need to await the judgment of time to see if it's really as bad as I say it is. I don't need time. If you need time, you also need an education about what a great song is.

Anonymous said...

The final irony is that if most people spent as much time learning guitar as they spend playing guitar hero, they could be half decent REAL guitar players.

Guitar and all forms of music instruction is better than it's ever been. Where musicians in the fifties and sixties had to painstakingly listen to records to learn licks, today they are available to be manipulated at any speed and can be looped ad nauseum.

The OPPORTUNITY to become a good musician is better than it's ever been and the shortcuts are there, but there is still no substitute for serious practice and woodshedding and that seems to be what most people are reluctant to do. But those who are willing to work can and will be better than ever.

You're so right about the MUSIC problem versus the theft problem. I sincerely believe that people will pay for good music. Let's just hope the pendulum swings back towards something we can all value and be proud of.

It's hard being a gourment when the only food available seems to a quarter pounder with cheese.

Arlen Sanders

chromehead said...

Good point, Arlen, thanks!

One clarification-- the comment you refer to about music vs. theft was from Bob Lefsetz, although I couldn't agree with him more.

Bill said...

Your post reminded me very much of the book "Hello, I'm Special".

It's about how in today's age, there is a massive amount of money to be made helping people fit into mini-niches of celebrity where they get to feel famous, if even to a few people for a few minutes. And your Rock Band rant fits it perfectly.

I think you would enjoy it.

Z. Mulls said...

I can’t argue, and I don’t disagree, with anything here, but I can’t help feeling there’s a sad inevitability about it all. Format, to some extent, dictates content. Music Videos used to be cool and new, now they’re an afterthought; and only because cable created the niche for “music television” which demanded music in pictures.

I don’t suppose Mozart would have been terribly keen on the idea of his operas on phonograph records. “What an idea,” he would say, “Opera was meant to be experienced live, in a crowd of people, everyone gathering for the event – it’s not meant to be heard on a scratchy disc in your LIVING ROOM?” And yet, here we are.

Hollywood was frantic that television would kill the motion picture. And in a sense, it did. Once adults started sighing, “I’m tired, let’s not go out, let’s just stay in and watch TV” (and kids were still anxious to get out of the house and see other things), it was inevitable that movies would be made more for kids, and the thought-provoking dramas that marked the 1950s and 60s would eventually morph into special movies and series on HBO and SHOWTIME.

From 1930 to 1969 it was a great gig to write on Broadway. Some of the most popular songs in America started in Broadway shows, and there was a secondary market in sheet music, night clubs (like the Latin Casino, which is no more), original cast albums, movie soundtracks and television variety hours (remember those?).

Poets made money a few hundred years ago. People still wrote poetry, good stuff, but there’s very little call for it. It’s not quite the feather in one’s cap it once was.

I have to believe there will still be good music, and an audience for it, but will the audience be big enough for the musicians to make a living?

There are also more artists to eat up the same amount of pie. The same technology that allows untalented louts to pretend to play the guitar in Guitar Hero, has opened up avenues for truly talented musicians who before couldn’t afford studio time, recording costs or distribution venues – they can do it all themselves (record, mix, market) for not too much money. But that becomes a glut of pretty good, or very good, or quite good music out there, for the shrinking number of people who appreciate it.

It’s a depressing outlook, to be sure.

chromehead said...

Thanks Z, good points. The stay-at-home type of person is happier than ever with his options. But, on an optimistic note, my recent shows have been packed. Just the other night I echoed my comment about not buying Guitar Hero for your kid this Christmas, but rather, taking them to a few concerts. There was spontaneous applause and cheers from the whole crowd (about 100 people).

There are a lot more performing venues than there ever were in the 1960s and 70s. Even though MySpace has encouraged many wannabees to take a stab at their artistic skills and that has clouded the water, I have no doubt that some of us will still be able to make a living from our music. It will require a well-rounded effort, not just one type of endeavor.

Remember, too, that without patronage Mozart would not have survived in his day and age, whereas if he lived today he might actually be able to make a decent living. There's some cause for hope!

Anonymous said...


I very much agree with everything stated here. I will never own one or play one of the pretend guitars. (I give my own children real guitars).

Although, I can think of a scenario where these games might actually be good.

If this is the first exposure to playing an instrument that a child has - perhaps it will lead to something more.
I can recall at the age of 11 - watching the partridge family, standing in front of my TV with a tennis racket pretending I was David Cassidy. It made me want to play a real guitar.

I don't like the wii/playstation/xbox mentality of a game being more important than reality - but I view it the same as I view karaoke. I don't participate in either, but if someone who never thought about it before can find their own voice by doing so, I don't mind.
If it leads someone to pick up a real instrument because of a desire to make their own music and grow to be a good musician or writer, then it may be ok to keep around.

I also think that the current excitement about these faux instruments will slowly fade and be remembered as the fad it is. Remembered fondly - like those 8mm home movies of the kids singing Elvis songs into a hairbrush.

The people who think of these games as 'making music' are the same ones who buy whatever it is the box on the wall is selling them this week as they worry over how Paris is coping with her latest heartbreak.

Heck, I figure if they use the Wii to exercise, they wont ever see any of us play anyway.