It's easy to understand why people aspire to make a living playing or composing music. All it takes is Justin Bieber and his mom realizing that he was just as good a singer as most American Idol contestants, and boom, there's the inspiration for a career as a pop star.
But what about the thousands of people who work in music-related jobs that don't involve performance? Did they see roadies lugging heavy drum kits or a music blogger writing listicles for minimum wage, and think, That's all I've ever wanted?
As David Herman's character once pointed out in Office Space, it's bullshit to assume that people invariably seek out the jobs they'd enjoy most because if that were true, "there would be no janitors." Jobs in the music industry definitely have their perks, but they often lack the glamor of those on stage. Even still, people aspire to be managers and engineers from a young age, and break their backs to get there.
For me, it was a case of discovering something that I both enjoyed and excelled at. While applying to New York University, my long-shot school, I found an essay prompt that asked me to write about a piece of art that inspired me. So I ran with it. I had never had the opportunity to write about such modern, historically irrelevant artifacts as the Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Unlike the rest of my college application process, it was fun. After reading it, I still remember my dad saying, "If you get in, it's not because of your grades. It's because of this." Today, I consider myself a music journalist, which was the end goal of my years at NYU.
Three years in, I'm just a sapling in this world of doing-music-related-jobs-but-not-playing-music. To better understand where this vast workforce comes from, as well as reinforce my own sanity, I reached out to five veterans whose resumés spread across various sectors of "the industry": an audio engineer, a tour manager, a producer, a roadie, and a music critic.
All of them are over 60 and have spent the majority of their adult lives recording, overseeing, organizing, or commenting upon popular music. Some started off as musicians, some were inspired by tour documentaries, some by sexist bosses. As told to me via phone and email, here are their music industry origin stories.
The following has been edited for clarity and legnth.
Susan Rogers, former audio engineer for Prince; Professor at Berklee College of Music
Like a lot of kids, I had parents who wanted me to take music lessons. I took a couple of years of piano lessons, but I was not good at it. It was nothing compared to the reward that came from listening to records. Like a lot of engineers, I was born to be a music-listener, not a music-maker.
I loved James Brown, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, and Al Green, and I've pondered where these innate preferences come from. I worked for Prince for many years, and he used to refer to it as "the street that you live on," and that just means the music that calls to you. As a little kid, soul music made me go, Yeah, that's right. That works for me!
Whenever I had an album that had a picture of the studio on the back, I would just stare at that. I didn't imagine myself as a player. I would stare at the engineer, and not knowing anything about engineers, something inside me thought, That'd be good, I think I'd like that.
At 21, I moved to Hollywood with a friend and tried to get in the business, but there weren't that many women who were engineers. So I found a circuitous route. I became an audio maintenance tech, self-taught in audio processing and electronics. I learned to read schematics. I got a job as a trainee with a company. And I learned to repair consoles and tape machines. That led me to my big break.
In the Summer of 1983, I heard that Prince was seeking a technician. An ex-boyfriend found out about the job and called me up saying, "Your dream job is waiting for you. How would you like to be Prince's audio engineer?" It literally was the biggest dream of my life, I couldn't have asked for anything better. So I went to his management, and they interviewed me, and they hired me. I was well-qualified, I'd been in the business five years at this point, had been trained by highly respected people, and the most important factor: Prince and I listened to the same music growing up. I knew Sylvester, and I knew The Gap Band, and I knew all the members of Parliament-Funkadelic. I lived on his street.
David Libert, former tour manager for Alice Cooper; former manager for Parliament-Funkadelic, The Runaways, Living Colour
I used to hang out with some guys in my hometown of Patterson, New Jersey, and sing in the parking lot of a restaurant, basically because it seemed like a good way to meet girls. But we soon realized that we were pretty good at it, so we started to take it seriously and formed a band called The Happenings. That's when I realized, Let's give it a shot.
Patterson is very close to New York City, so I would go into New York to the Brill Building, and all of those places on Broadway looking for work. If it was a publisher, I was a writer; if it was in a production company, I was in a band; if it was a record company, I was in a band—you know, whatever it had to be. We were able to nail down a record contract, and so that's how I professionally got into the music business.
I became The Happenings' manager after we got rid of a manager who was a mess, and I realized that there was a far more retentive quality in being a manager than in being a Happening. I realized I could do this, and just learn as much as I could, and do as much as I could to get experience under my belt. It wasn't like a lightbulb went off in my mind, I just sort of morphed into that, and it happened to pay off.
When I left the band, I did some local stuff, booking bands in clubs on Long Island, then I became Rare Earth's tour manager, and then I became Alice Cooper's tour manager under the tutelage of Cooper's manager Shep Gordon, and I learned a lot. It gave me the education I would need to open up my own agency and represent Parliament-Funkadelic, Bootsy's Rubber Band, The Runaways, and several other acts, and then become a manager for George Clinton, Vanilla Fudge, Living Colour, and Sheila E. after that.
I don't know many other musicians who went on to manage, for some reason. I think most of them found their way to record companies, which was more closely related to the creative aspect of the industry. But I still got creative opportunities—I sang in the background of many Alice Cooper tracks and played piano or keyboards on some recordings. I never left music completely, but it didn't become my primary source of income, that's for sure.
Gail Davies, singer; songwriter; producer
I knew at an early age that I wanted to be a singer. I was born into a musical family [the daughter of country singer Tex Dickerson and sister of songwriter Ron Davies] and never had any other aspirations. It was always a given that I would make my living as a singer and later in my life as a songwriter.
After graduating high school, I moved to Los Angeles and eventually went to work at A&M Records as a session singer. Beyond that, A&M became my music school. Once I was invited to sit in on a John Lennon recording session, and sitting at the board between him and Phil Spector was one of the most exciting things that happened to me at that job. Inspired, I decided to get involved with music beyond just singing.
I was trained as a record producer by [engineer/producer] Henry Lewy at A&M, who just pulled me aside one day and said, "You know, Gail, you've got great ears. I think you could be a producer." I started writing songs, bought a guitar at a pawn shop, and eventually signed a publishing deal with EMI.
A few years later, I moved to Nashville and made my first solo record, but I had a very bad experience with the guy who produced it. During a recording session with my band, he told me, "I don't know that these guys want a woman telling them what to do." You know, it was Nashville, 1977. I decided I would never work with another producer, and I never have.
There weren't any female producers at the time I arrived in Nashville, and it was very discouraging. I was able to watch people like Carole King and Joni Mitchell producing their own music, so when I moved to Nashville, it was a bit daunting to see how few women were involved in the creative side of the business.
Jan Michael Alejandro, former road crew for David Bowie, Jackson Browne, Todd Rundgren, Blondie; owner of Jan-Al Road & Touring Cases
What really made me want to go on the road was seeing [tour documentary] Mad Dogs & Englishmen in a Palm Springs drive-in when I was in high school. Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, and all of them were going from place to place in an old turbo prop tour plane, and I was like, OK… I think I want to do that. That would have to be the time that I first realized that I wanted to join the circus.
A year or two later I made my way to San Francisco and got a job as a night janitor at a rehearsal studio. Eventually, I was able to work [at the studio] as a driver. I ended up driving, then dispatching, then running the studios.
The clients were people I used to listen to— Tower of Power, The Doobie Brothers, Santana, Country Joe & The Fish— so of course I loved that. I just learned as much as I could, and I already played piano, so I knew a bunch about music. One day, the guy that hired me goes, "You know, you have a lot of skills. You should learn a whole bunch more and tell some of these people coming through that you'd like to go on the road."
I eventually moved back to LA, and was pretty much out of work when I got a call from David Bowie's people, these were guys who taught me a few things back in the studio before they started working for Bowie. They remembered me, and they asked if I wanted to meet them in Toronto and work for Iggy Pop, who was on tour with Bowie, playing piano for him. So went I went to Toronto, met them, and started from there. I worked for David for three years, did the Heroes tour, and I got all of these great gigs afterward—Todd Rundgren, Jackson Browne, Blondie.
After that, my wife and I started a touring case company, and it's still going 34 years later. Right now, we're doing work for the Stones, Lady Gaga, and Coldplay. I still get the calls, which is nice.
Joel Selvin, San Francisco Chronicle music columnist 1972-2009; author
I dropped out of Berkeley High School and went to work as a copy boy for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1967. Very shortly after starting work there, I discovered that I could get on the guest list at the Fillmore Auditorium by virtue of my employment at the newspaper. That's when I decided to go into the music business.
Music was all I knew about, all I wanted to write about. I had no interest in talking to cops, or people whose families were just murdered, or sports, or finance. No, I envisioned myself writing about rock bands for a daily newspaper.
Then there was the final nail in the coffin. I went to university and I started working for the college newspaper, and that's when the free records started arriving in the mail. Then I was done. At that young age, I had pretty much achieved all of my professional aspirations, and it was just a matter of playing out the cards to see what happened next. But free shows and free records—what more did I want? Those were like shots of morphine to the gut. A little dough, too? Hey.
It wasn't all perks, but there wasn't much work involved. The hard part was when you had to go to a show you knew you weren't going to like, and also staying reasonably un-hungover enough to perform some literary composition the following morning. That was what passed for hard work.
Did I ever think of being in a band or being in the industry? Oh good god, no. I was doing exactly what I wanted—going to the concerts, hanging around with a pad and pencil, and being the guy that wrote the smart-ass review in the paper the next day.
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