I've listened to countless albums in my time, and one thing has become painfully clear to me: musicians have an unfortunate tendency to become disillusioned about "the business." I've heard countless tales of musicians getting screwed by their labels, or abandoned by critics, or just in general, finding the entire experience to be much more empty than they had hoped. It's one of the few things that makes me feel sort of happy I still can't play guitar to save my life.
One of the most memorable rants of this variety that I've heard is Reel Big Fish's single "Don't Start A Band." The content of this song is pretty much self-explanatory; it's a laundry list of every miserable thing about the business, and why you're better off not bothering. Frontman Aaron Barrett tears down every part of the rock n roll fantasy by telling us that "you won't get paid/and you won't get laid," and that "you will sign your life away and then your will be working for the man." Barrett makes the dream of being a rock n roll star feel like an utter sham.
Granted, the melody is extremely upbeat, with the song being a joyful blend of pop-punk and ska-punk, but that still isn't enough to hide the misery of the lyrics. You get the sense that Barrett is half-joking; that a band with a such devoted fan base, who had already been together for over a decade couldn't possibly be as bitter as the lyrics suggest. Still, it definitely feels like he's letting us in on some of his true feelings, that even for all the success Reel Big Fish had (and they are probably the most popular third wave ska band), years of dealing with brain dead music execs who value hits over art has left him embittered, and at times he wonders if he ever should've picked up a guitar in the first place.
That song is a cautionary tale, as is "Stay True," the final track off Thursday's 2011 album No Devolucion. This track was written with a more specific purpose in mind, as frontman Geoff Rickly wrote as a piece of advice for the post-hardcore group Touche Amore, who were proteges of Thursday's. Much like "Don't Start A Band" it is a warning about the dangers of being chewed up and spat out by the music industry.
That, however, is where the similarities end. While "Don't Start A Band" had an upbeat melody and offered no hope, "Stay True" has a dreary, funereal tone, but it's lyrics offer a bit of hope to the musicians Rickly is speaking to. Much like Barrett, he looks back on his time in the industry with regret, thinking of certain decisions that could've gone better. In the song's most poignant lyric, Rickly says "you remind of myself/before I lost my nerve." Rickly pleads to the young musicians to not make the same mistakes he did, and not compromise your art for anyone, be it critics,label execs, or even fans.
At first, the song title seems vague, and even trite - in the wrong hands, "stay true" could be just as much of a platitude as "be yourself," but the lyrics around it give it meaning. Rickly makes it clear that the concept of "staying true" isn't a tangible concept; it can't be defined by playing your music a certain way, or having a certain attitude at concerts; it simply comes from not allowing yourself to compromise your ideals, to make music only on your own terms. Barrett and Rickly offer the same warning about the perils of the industry, but while Barrett sees failure, disappointment, and selling out as inevitable, Rickly believes those influences can be fought off by sticking to your guns, and not allowing your vision to be ruined by the folks throwing money at you.
Unless I somehow learn to play three chords (I'd settle for one at this point!), I doubt I'll ever have the experiences that Thursday and Reel Big Fish have had, but I thought it was interesting to see similar perspectives offered in such different ways. Are the perils of the music industry unavoidable, or can they be fought off with enough conviction? It's a question that has no definitive answer, but it's also one that everyone who does start a band, and tries their best to stay true will be forced to ask themselves.