How do we define “success” in the bluegrass music business? We certainly can’t do it by the standards used in the mass market music world, where success is considered to have been achieved when you own your own airplane and can no longer appear in public places. In other words, you’re a success when your lifestyle has become lavish but almost impossible to manage, at least without an entourage, which is also almost impossible to manage.
We aim a little lower in our world. As a general rule, if you’re playing bluegrass music for “a living” and your income is near or above the poverty line, you’ve pretty much made it.
Others have more specific measurements, though: Some feel that the acquisition of a bus, even if you can’t really afford its upkeep, is the true measure of bluegrass success (in the country music world, by the way, a minimum of three buses are required for the success classification to even be considered). Some would say that you’ve truly arrived on the day you stop playing gigs where there’s an all-you-can-eat buffet. Others gauge success by the number of pages in your contract, how many figures are in your asking price, or whether your latest project is being released on LP (or that new “8-track” all the kids are so excited about). There’s clearly a wide range of opinion about this.
If you’re a professional traveling bluegrass musician, I would define success very simply: you just need to be making enough money to stay one step ahead of your own fussiness. What I mean is that as you gradually get just a little more high-maintenance every year, and try to take steps to improve your travel conditions, you need to be earning enough to satisfy those higher standards.
You may think that musicians who become just a little spoiled got that way because they were exposed initially to a higher comfort level, and they decided it should then always be that way. To some extent this is true: you don’t really know what flying first class is like until you get seated there one day, and the next time you’re back in coach, the seats seem just a little more cramped than they were.
We’re capable of getting fussy all on our own, though. It creeps up on us without our even realizing it, and then we discover that once we hit our mid-40s or so, we can no longer travel the way we did when we were 20.
I started playing on the road when I was 18, and at that time I was fine sleeping in a sleeping bag on the ground behind a Bosnian truckstop (and did, seriously). Today, I’d at least want a mattress pad underneath me. Some of this is purely physical: when we’re 18, we can sleep in almost any environment, from a staircase to the floor of a car, or not sleep at all. 30 years or so later, if the pillow isn’t quite right we’re stiff for days, sometimes with an accompanying headache. And, if we don’t meet that bluegrass musician standard of a full 3 hours of sleep, we get pretty crabby the next day, too.
What this means is that if you’re still making the same money per gig you were when you were 18, I’d be willing to bet that you’re now losing money playing music.
Fussiness can be taken to extremes, though, too, and it’s good to look at how you got there, just in case you might be able to dial it back just a little. I blame two things: getting married and staying single. In order to remain a flexible road musician, it’s best avoid both of these states.
Married people can get caught up in their domestic bliss, and once they’ve set up their household exactly to their liking, the road can seem pretty rough. You find yourself trying to make everything seem as comfortable as it is at home. It starts with bringing your own coffee-making supplies with you. Then you start becoming aware of sheet thread counts. Eventually nothing will satisfy you unless you’re magically floating down the highway in a 3-bedroom ranch-style home, with remote-controlled recliner, and eating food that’s exactly like it is at home. Next you start doing dangerous things like driving 20 hours straight by yourself so you can sleep in your own bed (it’s also remote-controlled). Whatever your own impression of the road is, the one thing we can all agree on is that it’s not like home.
Meanwhile, people who stay single too long have the problem of having the freedom to indulge their growing eccentricities. They go ahead and eat an entire peach-mango cheesecake with a shot of bourbon for dinner, while binge-watching Season 3 of Leave it to Beaver (I’ve only done this once, I promise), and there’s no one there to suggest that it’s just a little weird. Soon, when you’re back on the road, you’ll demand the freedom to live exactly like you normally would, except now you’re in the company of three or four other people who are definitely less tolerant than the aging and easygoing dog you usually answer to.
Once you’ve gotten to a place in your career where you can make rock star-like demands in your contract rider (“Green room must be supplied with extra sharp N.Y. State cheddar cheese, with unflavored Triscuits, and one case of Ale-8-1 imported from Winchester, KY”), you’re free to be as fussy as you like, as long as there are people who will accommodate you. But, if you find you’ve developed champagne travel tastes while you still have beer fame level (and you’re still making Diet RC Cola performance fees), you may be able to take a look at how you got that way, and perhaps try to recapture some of that sleeping-bag-at-a-scary-truckstop spirit of your youth.
Or you could just try to make more money.
Next week, we’ll have a quiz to rate your own road fussiness.