Every once in awhile, when I’m scheduled to write a column for Christian Musician, I have an email exchange with my friend (and CM publisher) Bruce Adolph. Sometimes it’s about deadlines, other times it’s about the content of that month’s offering. With this issue, it was “Bruce, I’m having trouble with ideas. I’m still trying but…”
He replied back in his usual calming and reassuring manner (I want to be like that when I grow up) that everything would be just fine and he sent along some questions as possible topics. The one that stood out is the basis of this month’s musings and, perhaps, one of the thorniest things I’ve addressed in print. He simply asked me, “How did you overcome any record company let downs over the years?” Note that he didn’t ask if I had any let downs. The question rightly assumes that I did, but I suspect it could be asked of virtually anybody who has recorded more than one or two albums over the course of a life in music.
First, I should clarify that I don’t know that there’s really been much “overcoming” in my history, but if we interpret that to mean “how did you get past,” then I suppose I have a little to say. Please keep in mind that, other than a wonderful earlier-this-century association with Steve Bell and Dave Zeglinski’s Signpost Music, I’ve pretty much been label-less since 1997, which means that if my remarks seem like a well preserved copy of a 20-year-old newspaper, take what you can and discard the rest.
I’ve pretty much been label-less since 1997, which means that if my remarks seem like a well preserved copy of a 20-year-old newspaper, take what you can and discard the rest.
Of course I know that labels still exist (duh) but the Music Business I came up with is mostly extinct or radically altered enough as to be unrecognizable. I expect some things never change and that cross-collateralization/recoupment is still the order of the day. You probably still need an experienced and competent entertainment attorney to walk you through the minefield that’s thinly disguised as the boilerplate draft of a record company contract. But now instead of your publishing being part-and-parcel of your deal, you can sign what’s called a 360-Deal where the Record Company has a share in almost everything you do, whether they directly have a hand in it or not. Some swear by it, others just swear at it.
As a young man, I longed after a deal. It was my destiny. It was a good part of why anyone persisted in making music. In the case of “Christian” record companies, the deals were strikingly similar to mainstream companies but for the fact that we called each other “brother” and expected better of each other. My rookie mistake, oft-repeated, was the belief that “they” could advance my career in ways that they were either not set up to do or that were not available to me. You can sign with the largest, most capable record company on God’s green Earth, but the true issue is always what they will actually do for you as well as what they expect from you.
I didn’t understand record-deal math. I couldn’t understand the disparity between how a company positioned different artists of seemingly equal footing on the roster. I came to feel as though I underwhelmed them a good deal of the time. I know painfully now that sometimes when you overproject your own neediness, you wind up fueling your own self-fulfilling apocalyptic prophecy. Whether ultimately accurate or not, Music Business folk have a keen sense of “winners” and “losers”. Leading with my woe-is-me, Eeyore-persona certainly didn’t scream, “Spend your cash and time on me!” to my colleagues. I should hasten to add that a lot of record company associates still managed to work around my weaknesses and did a lot of good for me in ways that I could’ve never done for myself. (Phillip Sandifer of Urgent Records releasing “Songs from Bright Avenue” might be the grandest out-on-a-limb record company move I’ve ever benefited from.) Without some of that goodwill covering my first six albums, God only knows what job I’d be doing now without a guitar in my hands.
Although the current DIY (do-it-yourself) aesthetic avails guys like me of opportunities not dreamed of just fifteen or twenty years ago. The fact that almost anybody can do this is both the good news and the bad news. Good news because I can still do the thing I love so much, bad news because there is so much “noise” and competition, it’s hard to distinguish yourself from the gazillion people who are only a short-attention-span-click away from wherever you might be online. It used to be that whatever a Nashville guy in a suit thought was the standard as to whether or not I got to make records. Now, as Seth Godin suggests, aside from the work itself, a major part of my task is to find and serve my tribe: the loyal band of people who still care about what I do. My dreams of being Jackson Browne’s famous younger musical brother are but a distant high-school-crush memory now.
Do I have my moments where I still feel insecure, overly-competitive, entitled, etc. Oh Good Lord, yes. Just ask my wife. But I do my best to control and tamp down these dead-man-walking traits. I try to take the long view that if I don’t need to be justified by a record company then I also don’t have to accept their pink slip when they’re no longer in roster-love with me. Still, with all of the lunacy (my own and others), I had a unique and rare opportunity to get a shot at my lifelong dream. And even though it didn’t go the way I thought, it did enable me to last long enough to be able to transition into the new era I find myself in.
I may have mentioned in a previous column something I’ll cite again. We, who are Christians and musicians, are involved in an enterprise that has two things pushing and pulling on us at the same time. What we do, by definition demands attention. “Hey, look at me.” But it also demands our awareness of the dynamic Jesus puts into play in Luke 14:7-11. To paraphrase, He suggests that you sit in the humble seat and let your host advance you to the more honorable seat. Perhaps “host” could be extrapolated to mean the Lord Himself, or even the audience that pays you their attention and, occasionally, their money. Or to offer a different word picture … you can angle for a seat upgrade at the boarding gate but you can’t just get on the plane and sit in first class on your own.
…you can angle for a seat upgrade at the boarding gate but you can’t just get on the plane and sit in first class on your own.
There is no doubt that there was a period in my life where “making it” was the big dream and the focus. “I’ll be the most benevolent and sensitive of CCM Stars, Lord. I’ll use my power and influence wisely and compassionately for the Kingdom.” But unless I get to have some sort of “Tony Bennett-Style Comeback” where the kids take a liking to me even though I’m a cultural relic from a time long, long ago, “modest” is likely to be the descriptor of my achievements for the duration. Sure, sometimes I feel disappointed. But less about being disappointed with others and more about being disappointed with myself. Did I keep faith with my calling and gifts given? Did I keep faith with Him? Part of the reason I still want to do this as long as I can is the still-elusive notion of finally doing it right.
There’s a part of me that thinks, as I reread the preceding paragraphs, “Bennett, this is just you on the eternal quest for the ‘Attaboy’. Most people would love to have the chances you’ve had and would probably do a much better job with them.” I’d be less than candid if I didn’t at least run that up the flagpole as a possibility. I’ve half-jokingly and half-seriously said for many years that there are lots of people much more qualified to be “Bob Bennett” than I am.
But what I hope to mostly communicate is a reminder that disappointments in people and institutions, even ruthless self-disappointments, are all part of the trade off we deal with because we get to do something few people ever get to do. People who work on a loading dock all day long go home sore from work. If they have aches and pains, why not us? Why would we, as Christians and as musicians, be exempt from sometimes being sore at the end of a workday (or Work Sunday Morning)?
Obviously, the only shot we have to “get past” any of it is to keep our eyes on Him Who is Faithful. The One who knows all the secrets, blind spots, and eccentricities that both inform and sometimes hinder our abilities. The One who will listen to us even when we’re wrong and spoiled and quite undeserving. The One who promises to finish the thing that He is started: the salvation of our very souls in this life and the life to come. He is the Overcomer. May He bind up our wounds, both real and imagined, plainly seen or exaggerated, and keep us close to His heart. And teach us how to keep Him close to our hearts in Spirit and in Truth.