I think it would be cool if there were a superhero for musicians. A man to call on in our darkest hour. A man who could save us when the label drops our band or the club decides to cancel our gig last minute. A man to help pay the bills when business gets slow.
So, ok, let’s say this guy exists. Answer this question: What would be the symbol on his chest? Would it be a Treble Clef? Or maybe a bitchin’ Stratocaster? Or maybe a big Zildjian gong?
I know what I’d put on his chest. If it were up to me, it would be a comma (,).
The comma implies the word “and”. The comma means diversification. The comma is the worshiped symbol of the Jack Of All Trades. The comma is the symbol of the Renaissance man. A melting pot is full of commas. The comma can be a wing, an oar, or a sword ……. Depending on the day. It doesn’t matter if you are falling, drowning, or under attack. The comma will be the thing that saves your ass.
The comma means versatility and adaptability.
The more commas next to your name, the harder it is for the forces of evil to take you down.
Back in the day it was more about specialization. Singers sang the songs that other songwriters wrote and record label guys peddled these recordings to radio stations who in turn exposed consumers to it. Then the consumers went to a store and bought it from a guy who specialized in selling music. There were exceptions, but by and large the singer didn’t know much about the food chain after the singing was done.
Basically the same model as the entire Industrial Revolution. Break a task down in to small steps with each person completing his task over and over. In a lot of cases, Thing 1 didn’t have a clue what Thing 2 was doing in the next room. He didn’t care either.
But there was a difference between the music business and other industries using this model. In music, Thing 1 and Thing 2 got pretty damn famous. But they weren’t getting paid accordingly.
And they are still making movies about those stories.
Cut to Music Business 2015….. That model just doesn’t fly anymore. If all you can do is play, you are going to be spending a lot of time at home. As Captain Comma would tell you, it’s not about doing one thing now. The music business now is more like “The Musician Business”. The focus has gone from being a retail business to being a service business. In other words, it’s not just about selling a piece of plastic. It’s about using your talents. In as many ways as you can think of.
The ability to think of new ways to use your talent is a talent too.
And you need to write up the blueprints yourself. Yea, artist development needs to be another comma next to your name.
You need to be able to play, write, record, produce, perform, promote, design, teach, etc, etc……. The more commas, the better.
So as the need for one of your talents ebbs, the other will flow. You’ve diversified the portfolio of your skills. You will always be busy.
Over the summer I went to a farm auction. I sat there and watched the auctioneers go through this old farmer’s stuff, one piece at a time. This guy had tractors, tools, spinning wheels, honey spinners, lawn mowers, musical instruments, art, lathes, guns…….. you name it. This old guy could do it all. You know that when a tractor broke down, this guy didn’t call anyone. He fixed it. When he was hungry he didn’t call Dominoes. He went down in the cellar and pulled out a few jars of whatever that he had canned from his garden. A real Renaissance man.
If he were a working musician, I suspect this dude would have done just fine if he were out there trying to get gigs.
So, I think the power of the comma is pretty apparent by now. Versatility and diversification is the key.
But wait, there’s more…………
It isn’t just about itemizing your many talents. One talent doesn’t end where the other begins. They blend together and add a richness to what you do.
For example, if you are a guitarist try and put some time into learning how to properly play the bass. Not only will you work more, but you will learn a thing or two to bring back to your guitar playing. You’ll be playing on the other side of the beat. And that will require an adjustment in thinking. Those adjustments will affect how you play your main instrument in unexpected ways.
I have heard that the bassist Stanley Clarke spent a lot of time learning orchestral bassoon parts to push his playing in new ways. When someone asked Carlos Santana for his influences, he listed almost no guitar players. Almost all horn players.
Also, and perhaps most importantly, the comma also creeps into your art from non-musical sources. How many times have you read or watched a biography on someone, learned how they came up with whatever they were famous for, and found yourself saying “Of course, why didn’t I think of that?”
Probably you loved that’s person’s work without having any idea where it actually came from. Like loving the lyrics to a tune only to find that what you thought it was about was way off. Then once you know, it’s obvious. It’s right there in front of your face. This guy had a comma you didn’t know about.
Late in his life the painter Claude Monet developed cataracts. The paintings done while the cataracts affected his vision have a general reddish tone, which is characteristic of the vision of cataract victims. Perhaps the general public thought the red hue was an artistic statement. Really he was just painting what he saw.
The actor Anthony Hopkins is known to give his characters a trait that never appears in the film he is working on. For example, maybe his character is an Army vet that has PTSD. But it’s never formally covered in the film. But that trait will “inform” his performance in unexpected ways. Thus adding depth to the character.
In a musical context, say a drummer is playing on a session for a singer songwriter. But this drummer came from the South and cut his teeth playing drums in the church and in local soul groups. So when he does the session, there’s going to be a hint of Southern gospel and soul music in there. Although there wasn’t a trace of that when the songwriter sang the tune by himself.
This will be picked up subconsciously by the listener. The drummer was a good player. But he was also a Southerner, a Christian, and a lover of soul music. Those are his commas. It’s not just about the notes. These intangibles can be the difference between “like” and “love.”
A good producer can recognize these things and take full advantage of them.
The producer Daniel Lanois produced Bob Dylan’s “Time Out Of Mind” record. He started the recordings by getting together with a drummer and jamming to a bunch of old records that Bob had recommended. Daniel and the drummer would put on a record and play along……grooving along to the songs, adding their own bits, etc. All the while recording the whole thing. Then they would take away the original recording, leaving only the jamming. THEN they would cut up the best pieces of the jams into loops.
But the loops weren’t typically used in the songs. They were used as the “click tracks.” i.e. The band would listen to these loops as a tempo and groove reference while they played the actual songs.
So, the old song informed the jam that informed the loops that informed the playing that appeared on the actual recording. But neither the original song nor the jam was heard in the final product. Probably a lot of the players on the session had never even heard of the original songs they were jamming to. But the influence was felt.
A musical family tree.
Years ago when I was on tour in Washington D.C. my mother gave me a phone number to a relative of mine that lived in the area. She was my great aunt. To tell the truth, I didn’t even remember meeting her when I was small….. if I ever did. Anyway, this was my grandmother’s sister so I called her up and started talking. Within seconds I realized we had the same speech patterns and tone to our voices. We even had the same sense of humor. It was the first time I had ever talked to her. Something way back in time had informed us both. The family resemblance was obvious even over the phone.
Look at it this way. Your heritage is more than just genetics. Probably you have more in common with your ancestors than you think……… if you could only stand in the same room with them and realize it.
As far as how this applies to music, an “Irish, Polish, Native American, guitarist, mandolinist, singer, songwriter, producer, athlete, husband, father” sounds a lot more interesting than “guitar player.”
Don’t be afraid to use all of these things in your music.
Where you come from might be very different than where you end up. But the beginning is a big part of the end. That holds true for every step along the way, too.
So whether it be a personal trait or a musical skill, gather as many commas around you as you can. And don’t lose them.
You never know when you might have to pull a few of them out of a drawer to save the world.