NEWS FROM THE WOODS

By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published January 31, 2003


"Why Do I Do It ?"


Musicians…. "Can't live with 'em, Can't live without 'em"

The other day, while mulling over my latest concerns about "Spilt Milk", the band I play in, it occurred to me that many good and worthwhile talented musicians get to the point where they just throw up his/her hands and say "This is just not worth the time and effort". There is a lot of pressure in maintaining a working band. Lack of decent wages and terrible hours, temperamental band mates, unscrupulous agents and managers, late nights and bad food, constant traveling and moving heavy equipment, diminished social and family life, long hours spent rehearsing, smoky bars and unsympathetic bar owners, unappreciative audiences…. The list goes on and on.

So I got to wondering…. Why DO I do it?

As a musician since 1964, I have played in many bands. But probably not as many as most practicing musicians. The reason? I stick it out as long as I can in any band I am in. My first band, The Vipers, taught me so much about the "brotherly" side of being in a band. We WERE a band of brothers, and it seems, in retrospect, that I have been searching for that same feeling of camaraderie ever since. Funny thing, though... it seems to progressively get harder to accomplish as the years go by. I don't know if it's just the way society has (de)evolved or if it's just what happens as one gets older. Maybe a little of both.

I can probably name the bands I have been a part of on two hands. Not bad for a player who's been at it for 38 years. The early ones were for fun and experience, all the while making my way through the labyrinth of musician stereotypes and the intricate personalities of players. A musician's ego is a two-edged sword. It's that ego that makes him go up on stage and perform in front of an audience every night. It's the same ego that can easily inflate his self worth beyond the point of reality. Most of us have more or less learned how to deal with our alter egos. I've met and played with musicians who stunk and thought they were great, and I've had the pleasure of sharing the stage and studio with truly gifted and talented performers who know their worth but don't make a big deal of it. I don't think I have EVER been in a band that wasn't comprised of players who were at least as good as I was, or better. It seems like such a waste of time. Besides, I have learned that if you play with people better than you, it will bring out the best in you. You tend to transcend your abilities, and in doing so, learn how to become a better player in the process.

The "middle years" of my playing experience was mostly with "serious" bands. We had an agenda. We were gunning for the Big Time. The coveted Record Contract was our prize. That meant original material and a high-energy stage performances like opening concerts for major label acts. Or, when working in the studio, I was doing important session work, which is always gratifying at the highest level of performance and experience. The stage was all flash and power (for a drummer). In the studio it was what you learn NOT to play that counts. It was the best of both worlds for me, and I learned a great deal about playing music and playing with other musicians.

Recently - the past fifteen years - I have finally had enough exposure to the Powers that Be in the music industry to learn what an awfully sordid and corrupt business this truly is. It's the musical equivalent of being sent to the front lines in Vietnam. It's a real wake up call to learn the hard way how tough the business is and how nearly impossible it is to get your foot in the door without representation. Having a great band, writing great songs, and looking professional on stage is really just a small part of the overall picture. Discouraged as a player, I even tried my luck at personal management, but couldn't get a record contract for a damn fine group of incredibly talented songwriters and players JUST because I was "too nice a guy". I didn't have that flair for ruthlessness that allows you to break through the crap and actually find someone who can make it happen on that level.

God knows I tried. I even went to California at my own expense and spent weeks out there for naught. Don't misunderstand me here. I spent the better part of four months writing letters, sending out tapes, bios, and press clippings to dozens of record labels. I followed up with phone calls to anyone who showed an interest in any of the projects that I was promoting. Finally, I set up "definite appointments" with half a dozen contacts in the industry. I made it clear that I was coming out there at my own expense in the hopes of getting some action for any one of the dozen projects I had produced here.

You can imagine what happened. I arrived in Hollywood and called my contacts to get some face-to-face, one on one feedback. All I got was "I'm sorry, but Mr. So-and-so is out for the day/week/month", or "Well, he was in a few hours ago but had to leave. Can you call back tomorrow?" And when I did… "Sorry, Mr. Ketchum, you JUST missed him. Try again tomorrow". And when I reminded them that I had spent the last few months setting up these important meeting, they just shrugged it off with one excuse after another. And let me tell you, the stuff I had was good. Really good. If they didn't like the band they surely would have liked the songs for perhaps one of their established artists. At least that's the way they acted over the long distance phone calls. But when I was there, in person………. Zip. Nada. Nothing. Zero. I only had one single contact in person with a record company rep. She met me for lunch and we talked for an hour. In that hour she pretty much set me straight on how things worked. She agreed that I had some very interesting and exciting music to offer, but without proper representation, it all amounted to what the business calls "unsolicited" material. In other words, unless someone WITHIN the loop brings your material to the table and represents it is "worthy", you will never get it heard in any of the right places.

Discouraged? You have no idea. I had spent literally thousands of dollars of my own money and God knows how much time just trying to get the industry to see the potential that resides here in these hills. All for nothing.

So, several years ago I came to the conclusion that trying for the big time isn't really what it's cracked up to be.

What to do now?

I guess I'm like my Mother. And aren't we all the product of our parent's heritage and genes when it gets down to it? My Mom was not "just" a player. She was an incredible entertainer. She could hold an audience in the palm of her hand and have her way with them. It was really something to watch. And I understood how it worked. I saw how she played an audience. So I guess I'm like her.... An entertainer. I suppose it was the entertainer in me that fueled my 12-year DJ career. It was that need to communicate with an audience. And being an entertainer means I HAVE to play. I thrive on that feedback you get from an appreciative audience.

So, while maintaining my business(es) here in the wasteland of live music, I have stubbornly kept at playing live. That stubborn streak has really been something, let me tell you. It was pure stubbornness that kept me pursuing a recording studio business in a place where one should not have been. When the banks all turned me down and every sane businessman in Mountain Home told me I was a damn fool for even trying it - my stubborn streak kept me going through it all, and what do you know - 25 years later I own and operate a successful audio and video production facility in the Heart of Nowhere!

Wow.

So I managed to somehow make it happen as far as my own personal ambitions and work ethic are concerned, but I'm really no better off as a player. I still struggle day to day and week to week trying to carve out a niche here for me and the band. My friend and compatriot Mark Rex have been working toward that goal for almost five years now. "Spilt Milk" has been together that long, even if the personnel has changed back and forth during that time. Currently we're down to basically just Mark and I. We've been auditioning bass players for the past year but for whatever reasons it just hasn't clicked. Some of the players were good, but we just didn't find that "band of Brothers" thing I was talking about. Maybe we expect too much.

About two months ago I was reacquainted with an old friend/bassist who's work I had always admired. Somehow we lost touch with each other through the years and then out of nowhere he pops up and I discover he lives no less than thirty minutes from my house! He's about as professional a bassist as I have ever played with. Actually he's a fantastic all-around musician but bass is his main axe. He has consented to be a "hired gun" for a few gigs to test the waters. Unfortunately the recent gigs we've played have not turned out all that great - through no fault of the band's - so the situations have not exactly been ideal even though we had a good time playing them. More importantly, he has other commitments with other playing situations so he is understandably reluctant to commit to more than being just a hired gun. He is of the same mindset and age to share some common feelings about that "band of Brothers" feeling, so there's always hope.

But sometimes I still wake up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep because the band is on my mind. I want more. I want better. I want even our cover tunes to stand out above the rest of the pack so even the least experienced audience will say "Wow! What a show!"

I suppose it may be asking too much, but Mark and I keep hoping.

Why do we keep hanging on The Dream?

Because we just HAVE to play……………


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