Empty liquor bottles and beer cans scattered across the floor. Unfamiliar faces surround you on the king size bed. Some are slumped over the couches in your master suite, snoring as if they could sleep through the next century. You smell the alcohol in your breath. The radio plays softly on the nightstand where, thankfully, your wallet and ID still remain. Your eyes open wider and your senses come to life when details of the night come back in flashes of bright lights and cheering crowds. Reality hits you when you pick up your cell phone and see the words “SOLD OUT” in a message from your tour manager. Your jaw drops and you get out of the bed and wobble to the window. A pang of sadness weighs on your heart as you open the curtains to let in the early morning sun. To make it big was all you had ever dreamed of, but after all those years, you begin to question if it was really worth it.
Whether we want to admit it or not, there is a tiny part of so many of us that desires fame and fortune. As far back as I can remember, all I ever wanted to be was a singer. I would practice as often as I could, sometimes for hours each day or as long as my voice would go without breaking. Just to sing would be enough, but to imagine I could make money and gain an audience didn’t sound too shabby either. Music is in our blood and for some of us, we simply cannot live without it, so we strive to make it a living. For most, it remains a dream, and for the lucky few, it becomes a reality. So, for those of us who stare at the ceiling and dream of a life that could be, what is that reality really like?
Making it big.
Throughout my work as a band manager, I have been present at the beginning and the end of music careers. I have had many discussions with bands and artists ranging from small local bands to rock legends. They all share a similar beginning.
Competition is tough, especially these days when talent just isn’t enough and originality is everything. I once had a band send me a firework in the mail. When I set it off, it exploded into colorful streamers and tons of tiny pictures of the band members’ faces. Inside the firework was a flash drive with the band’s demo. Pretty flashy gimmick, I told myself, but unfortunately, they still didn’t make the lineup.
Climbing the ladder
We are exposed to so many shows that glamorize overnight success, but this is rare. Success might happen quicker for some than for others and in many different ways. Many artists are in the business for decades before making it on the radio or opening for bigger bands. Some never make it to where they can afford to quit their day job. The one thing that is always said is to keep on keeping on. Persistence is key. Never give up. Play as often and anywhere you can. These days, social media is everything. Expand your fan base. Meet other bands and help each other out. Get as many contacts as you can. After all, it’s been said that it’s all about who you know, right? Sure, that’s a part of success, but you have to have the goods and know how to market yourself. Want that record label? Send them your demo and proof that you have fans out there. Remember though, rejection will happen more often than success. Rejection also comes in many forms, but what happens if you find yourself higher and higher on the billing and getting offered more money than you can imagine spending? You just might have made it big!
Party like a rockstar.
So you made it big! Time to celebrate… a lot. Other bands invite you to their after show parties. Groupies follow you around like you’re ice cream on a hot summer day. Sex is at the snap of your finger and the party only starts when you walk in. Limitless beer, liquor, and drugs surround you. Five star hotels and first class transportation await you. Your new buddies ask you how you like the life so far and you respond with a wide grin.
The Wear and Tear
After a few years, winters in the studio and summers on tour, you feel exhaustion catching up to you. Partying after every show just doesn’t seem as appealing as it used to, but you do it anyway because you are young and in the prime of your career.
Time goes by and the market changes demand fast in this industry. Maybe a few years later, you hit a bump in the road. New bands are taking over the charts, your album sales decline, and social media followers cease. It seems that no matter how hard you hit the studio or how many gigs you book, your career seems to stand still. You begin to feel invisible amongst the people who used to fill your arenas and concert halls, cheering wildly for your guitar solo.
Depression hits and you hit the bottle harder. I worked with a band who replaced the singer due to health problems resulting from alcoholism and it’s not a stretch of the imagination to wonder if drugs were also involved. One potential artist hadn’t toured for years to recover from alcoholism. Sure, he survived rehab, but his voice didn’t. His career went downhill from there. By the time he got back in the game, it was too late. Promoters didn’t want to book him because audiences didn’t want to spend money on an artist who could no longer sing, plus, the demand changed. If you aren’t there to do the job, someone else will.
Drugs, sex, and alcohol may be glorious, but they could end your career if you’re not careful. No matter how good you are or how close you are to your band mates, you are replaceable. I have heard stories from bands about how some of their own members have been fired and replaced due to addiction. We also hear more often than not, the sad news of a beloved artist even dying from addiction.
So much freedom, right? Wrong.
In this business, it is almost impossible to succeed without a team. The bands that I work with have a large crew and production team, plus a tour manager to make sure everything runs smoothly. They also have a manager who makes the big decisions for the band as well as an agent who is necessary to find the band gigs and get them the highest offer possible. These players also take a nice cut of the money.
Sounds like a good deal, but make no mistakes. Read every word of every contract before signing. It might even be smart to hire a lawyer. Ask questions and learn the ropes of the business even if that’s not your area. In this business, you’re owned, so it is vital to make sure you are owned by people you can trust and who care about your well-being.
I met an artist whose peak was in the late 80s. She had hits that are making her money to this day and are still being played on radio stations all over the world. I asked myself why such a famous artist was as attainable as she was. The problem, I quickly realized after meeting her manager, was how she had been managed throughout the years. Bands are only as successful as their team wants them to be. They need to be managed properly and when that fails, so does the artist’s career no matter how much success they had experienced.
The money is rushing in, filling your bank account to the rim, but be careful. So many people who run into fast money end up broke or even in debt shortly after. Know how to manage your money and if you don’t, learn. Remember that most bands have their peak, but it doesn’t stay that way forever. Don’t expect that money to keep coming unless you learn how to grow it.
Tours aren’t all fun and games. There is a lot of down time, time you might wish you could spend with loved ones. If only you could take all that spare time, save it in a time bank, and use it for when you’re home, but we don’t have that kind of power. Tours are 10% show and 90% work. Okay, maybe squeeze in an extra 2% for partying, but don’t get the wrong idea. This lifestyle requires hours and hours of traveling, preparation, and hard work just for a couple of hours on stage.
All those sacrifices.
I met a rising band backstage at one of their nearby shows to discuss business. My goal was to convince them to perform at our venue at the end of the summer. This would require them to extend their tour period for one week. Sounds simple, right? Not exactly. They would have had to find connecting gigs to make the extra week worth it. The problems were endless such as the amount of work it takes to organize all the details with the promoters, traveling, production, and getting the entire team on board to name a few. The real problem, I soon realized during our conversation, was that the band didn’t want to be away from their families any longer than they needed to. One band member began telling me about his four month old daughter and how difficult it was to be away from her. Another band mate pulled out pictures of his three kids and went on and on about each of them with a glow in his eyes as if he couldn’t wait to see them again. I began to understand that it was less about the money and more about these indestructible rockstars being actual human beings. In the end, the amount of sacrifices weren’t worth any amount of money.
The party years wear out and you meet someone significant, but you’re too deep into your lifestyle to be able to settle down. Some partners aren’t strong enough to deal with that life, so keeping a long-term partner can be a challenge as is staying faithful.
Some artists can’t keep a steady relationship with such a lifestyle. Break ups happen more often than new songs are written. Performing at a bar every night when you could be on a date is one sacrifice many artists have to make unless you get lucky. They also have to postpone the idea of a family or even owning a home. They’re too busy on the road trying to make their dreams come true and let’s face it, this lifestyle requires a running car and the ability to adjust to a different atmosphere every night.
Practice is crucial and it doesn’t end once you’ve made it. I’ve seen bands stumble miserably through sound checks just to find out that they haven’t practiced together in months. Just because you’ve made it big, doesn’t mean you’re allowed to sound like garage garbage. Your fan base still wants you to deliver your best and your best requires hours and hours of practice daily or weekly at the least.
Nobody wants to be a sellout, but if you want to remain in the spotlight, you might also have to sacrifice your style, whether that’s music, clothing, marketing, etc. Times change and so does the market. What you’ve been used to playing for the past ten years just doesn’t make the cut anymore. Maybe your fan base wants a little more techno or more of a pop sound in your music. Maybe you should get new stage costumes. Stay updated and stay modern or you’ll risk being pulled off the wagon by rising stars who have just what the market wants.
There is an upside.
Of course, the rockstar life has its perks. If you are careful, the money will last a lifetime and hopefully generations to come. You’ll never be out of a job if you play your cards right. The connections you make along the way will bring you to other avenues if you decide that this life is just not for you anymore.
With my experience in this business and having spoken to several artists who started out in local bands, make sure this is what you want.
It’s so easy to see the colorful parts of this life. If performing and creating music is your dream, you have to ask yourself some serious questions. Am I willing to put in the work? Do I thoroughly understand what I’m getting into? Can I handle the sacrifices? Is this really my passion? Do I have a good team on my side? If your answer was no to any of those questions, ask yourself why and get clear. If your answer was yes to all of those questions, then welcome to the beginning of your rockstar life!