Life on the Ground (or How to survive a less than glorious music career)

Singer songwriter Patsy O'Brien tells it like it is...

Esteemed Dublin fiddle player Tommy Potts once commented that as soon as one accepts money for playing music, one is no longer an artist, but an art dealer.

I’ve watched as the above statement sent cold shivers through the bones of many a professional musician, and I’ve heard their frightened cries and pleas, like innocent men in the execution dock. ‘We have to make a living!’ they cry. ‘It’s a crap gig, but it pays the rent — it’s not what I really do,’ they plead. ‘I’m actually very good — I just play the rubbish for the tourists.’

I remember talking to a fine musician in Denmark about what I was up to at the time. ‘Oh,’ I shrugged, ‘I’m just playing the usual Van Morrison covers — all that crowd-pleasing rubbish,’ I explained apologetically. When he met me with a glare I didn’t understand. ‘How do you think Van would feel,’ he said, ‘if he heard you say that?’

My first response was that the Van in question probably wouldn’t bat a ray-ban, but that wasn’t the point my friend was making. The truth of the matter is that those songs were written to be played well, and although at the time my audience was losing the battle for my respect, it was still down to me to play the material well. If not for them, for me. I had made the decision to be a professional, so it was time to start acting like one.

And it’s worth it, if only for this:

‘What do you do?’

To which I reply ‘I’m a musician.’

‘No, but, what do you do for a living, I mean?’

To which I again reply, ‘I’m a musician,’ and watch their faces as they grapple with the facts.

Of course, It’s not easy being bombarded with requests for material that precariously straddles the line between nursery rhyme and speech impediment, but there is a magic word: NO. And if that doesn’t abate the masses, then congratulations, you’ll have to be creative.

I was once badgered and browbeaten beyond belief into performing a hoary old song that I’m sure even its composer was sorry he didn’t shoot at birth, but I decided to be creative about it and launched into a version of the song — I think I gave it a sort of swing/jazz feel, dominant sevenths and off-beats all over the place. That shut ‘em up. Not only did it shut ‘em up, but I enjoyed the stretch it offered, and the rest of the gig was played with an extra few drops of adrenaline to a slightly bewildered, and much more respectful audience.

I suppose I should clarify why I’m writing this at all. In essence, it’s been coming for a while, and it’s from hearing one too many ‘professional’ musician bemoaning their situation — ‘Bloody tourists, they just want to hear the same shite.’ THEY WOULDN’T HEAR IT IF YOU DIDN’T PLAY IT.

Here’s a couple of axioms for your perusal (I tend to live by these):

Generally speaking, people aren’t stupid, and if you play well, no matter what it is, those people recognise that.

YOU play the gig. Or put another way, what is played at the gig is YOUR choice. Use it as you see fit, just don’t blame anyone else for that choice.

And if, after all the efforts have been made, and all the playing ability, and positivity has been mustered, there is still some well meaning unfortunate who just won’t leave you alone until you ‘play sumptin’ we all know’, just direct them towards a television and quietly thank God for the stupefying effects of flickering light.

Of course, one can’t be naive. If you’re stuck in a room with a couple of hundred people who don’t care what you are doing, or worse still, the focus of their misguided affections, chances are you won’t enjoy yourself too much. But by playing well, and in so doing, get in some practice, then you’ve upheld your part of the deal, and if you can’t go home with a feeling of just reward, how about the feeling of a job well done, plus some practice time thrown in for good measure. You also go home with the wages. Tea bags don’t grow on trees. Neither do good musicians.

Published on 1 May 2001

Patsy O'Brien is a singer and songwriter. His CD, Admission, has recently been released.

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