It’s Not Me, It’s You. An Open Letter to the Music Business

I fell in love with music at the age of three when I passed a school and heard a choir singing. I knew then that singing was all I ever wanted to do. But then, at around the age of 18, give or take a year, I met you and everything changed. You killed that love.

Now, many years later, I can’t remember the last time I sang for pleasure. For a long time, I blamed music, or rather I blamed singing. Why was I given a voice when it’s brought me nothing but heartache? And for many years I didn’t sing at all. I did jobs I hated even more than I hated the machinations of the music business. But now, as one of the many repeating patterns of disappointment and inconvenience is repeating yet again, I finally realise it’s not me, it’s you.

You promised me so much, but always snatched the rug away at the last moment. Just like an abusive lover, you were eager and attentive at first. You told me I was special, that there was no one else like me. Oh, how glad you were to have met me. We could change each other’s lives.

But then you’d change. You’d stop calling every day. You’d find fault with everything I did. The songs you’d claimed to love somehow didn’t sound as good now the time had come for you to take the next step and invest. Dedication, practice and gigging improved my voice, so you couldn’t say anything negative about that, instead you made irrelevant excuses for your sudden cooling off: I was too old at 21, too young at 22; too blonde, not blonde enough; looked better as a redhead, a brunette; with a tan, without a tan; I should write all the songs myself, should write with someone else; until eventually I got sick of the same old stories and left.

Then, just when I think I’ve finally broken the pattern, you come back, cap in hand, promising it will be different this time, and you somehow manage to draw me back in with the same old sweet talk and false promises.

But this time it was different. I’d found something else. Something that wasn’t music, something that might even pay well eventually, but you just couldn’t let me have it.

You knew, in this age of home studios and online sales, that you couldn’t get your hands on my music, so you tried a different tack. You couldn’t take my music, but you could take my time. You knew you couldn’t get away with asking me to work for you for nothing,  so you lured me in with promises of upfront fees. I know you like us skinny, but even artists have to eat occasionally.

So  I cleared a space for you again. Set aside my precious things, because this time you’d taken hostages, and if I said no, the only ones hurt would be them. And me. Always me.

The artists will always suffer at your hands. Because to you the only word that matters is ‘Business’. Music will always be secondary. A tacked-on qualifier that sounds like the ringing of cash registers,  the only ‘music’ that brings you joy. A nebulous word that is as insubstantial as the fee that dissolves into the ether as soon as you get me hooked again.

As long as you hold the purse strings, artists will always be barefoot and pregnant. Because that’s how you like us. That’s how you live through us, suck out our souls, and bleed us dry of hope.

There are clearly lessons to be learned from my reliving certain situations again and again, but I’m damned if I know what they are. And until I learn them, I’m condemned to repeat them. I try to take ownership of the unfortunate outcomes of so many arrangements. I must be missing some vital element that makes me fall for the same lines and make the same mistakes in business again and again, but I can’t work out what I’m doing wrong other than to believe what I’m told and to expect to receive what I’ve been promised.

Should I really distrust people, blame all for the wrong-doings of some? Is it really naive to take people at their word? Should I doubt first, make others jump through hoops before giving up the goods? Or should I carry on as usual, treat people how I like to be treated, assume their word is their bond, assume them innocent until proven guilty? Is ethical behaviour really too much to expect?

Despite all evidence to the contrary, despite so many of us having bad experiences in the music business, I’d like to think it’s more incompetence than malice that makes bad things happen to good people. But then, maybe I am naive. Maybe the dollar signs in your eyes have blinded you to the harm you do to already fragile people. People who should be nurtured and cared for rather than exploited, used up and thrown in the trash.

Because that’s what keeps happening to me and thousands like me, over and over again until we believe the world – your world – has no place for us, and we give up on our dreams and settle for a life only half-lived, because it’s just too much to try to navigate the treacherous oceans of your world.

Maybe one day I will learn the lesson the Universe keeps trying to teach me, and either I’ll leave your world behind for good, or cultivate the tools to exist comfortably within it. And maybe I’m actually getting there, because this time, I’m pretty damn sure that it isn’t me, it’s you.

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By SJB