“It’s A Long Way to the Top If You Wanna Rock and Roll.”

“Got to pay your dues/ If you want to sing the blues/ And you know it don’t come easy.” — R. Starkey.

As I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions, I was born in Nashville, spent my first thirteen years (less six weeks) there, and returned for large portions of my summers until I was 21. My friends and I were in bands pretty much from elementary school on, and all of us still do music in one form or another. I can say the same of the people I hung with in high school and a lot of the folks I knew in undergrad and my first trip through grad school.

Now of all those people, only one does music as his sole means of support. He’s still based in Nashville, and music has not only been his living, it’s meant he’s had a taste of stardom-by-proxy, as he spent a few years in Gretchen “Redneck Woman” Wilson’s band at the height of her career. As for the rest of us, we plug away, weekend warriors, bar banders, and some for whom it’s something close to a second job.

I’d like to gather all those people together, go to New York City, and beat the hell out of Abner and Harper Willis. These two brothers, ages 22 and 25 respectively, are the core of Two Lights, an unsigned indie band, and the authors of one of the more irritating things I’ve read in a while — and remember, I read e-mails in academia.

The brothers have authored a piece for Time, in which they kvetch about how expensive it is to be them — although since Abner is finishing up at NYU (which ain’t cheap) and Harper works part-time as a freelance writer, they seem able (in Dorothy Parker’s words) to keep body and soul apart.

They itemize their (and their parents’) expenses (training since childhood, gear, rehearsal space, performing travel, promo, etc.) and announce they’ve spent about 100 grand chasing their dream of rock stardom. I think my favorite part of their list is this bit:

Living in New York City. Our cousin Abby lives in Atlanta in a house — a house! — with a couple of friends. They pay a third of what we pay for our combined living spaces. New York is absurdly expensive — but the band’s future demands that we live here rather than, say, our hometown in Maine. All told, we estimate that decision costs us an extra $1000 a month. Cost to date: $18,000.

Isn’t that precious? The band’s future demands that they live in an obscenely expensive location — Heaven knows they couldn’t possibly launch a music career from someplace like Iowa or Nebraska or Georgia or Michigan.

But even more charming is their explanation of how easy it used to be to achieve stardom (ellipses in original):

Once upon a time, the suits at the record labels funded the enterprise. Your band would play local clubs in a major city, make a buzz, and an A&R (artists and repertory) guy would sign you and write you a blank check. …These days, you have to build your own following first: Produce music, and prove you can sell it. Then maybe someone will kick in some cash. …Meanwhile, you have to pay your own way.

At this point, the guys with whom I grew up are either laughing hysterically or booking flights to NYC to join in the curbstomping. Had I only known how easy rock stardom was when I was playing in toilets in Lexington, KY and Cincinnati, I’d be typing this from my Gulfstream while singing duets with hookers and eating scrambled eggs off of Wayne Newton’s chest (the drugs would have addled me by now). But alas, my friends and I didn’t know just how good we had it.

Ah, well. As the saying goes, “To be beautiful, one must suffer.” Stay beautiful, Willis brothers.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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6 Responses to “It’s A Long Way to the Top If You Wanna Rock and Roll.”

  1. Dee says:

    Must admit, I’d have turned a SLIGHT profit had I never started drinking…now at a slight loss or breaking even – but if you’re looking at the financial end of things, I’ve spared SO MANY copays to psychiatrists/psychologists using music as therapy, plus ladies who have bought me dinners, dates, and even groceries due to being a musician…so why am I considering pursuing ORIGINAL music now? Just stupid, I suppose 😀

  2. Jeff says:

    This article recalls the “how much of a bubble do you live in?” quiz you mentioned a few days ago, and does a better job of making its point. These kids are from Maine’s most affluent town (their parents bought them an effin’ mandolin!); one of them has a four-year degree from NYU (cost: $80,000); they have the cashflow necessary to pay promoters to send out email blasts on their behalf; they have the ear of Fortune 500 ad reps; and they’re writing for Time magazine…and yet they cast themselves as outsiders because life isn’t all champagne fountains and engraved dressing-room signs? Congratulations to them for confirming a pile of stereotypes about their generation.

  3. Alex Groves says:

    I think Jeff pretty much said most of what needs to be said. I don’t buy the idea that being successful is all luck. I genuinely do believe that intelligent musicians who have talent AND the ability to market themselves (quite the rarity) can earn at least some humble success without just being in the right place at the right time. Their explanation of how easy things used to be is pretty hilarious considering the fact that back in those good old days before things got tough there was no cheap internet marketing, there was no digital retail for an artist to sell their own music, and the expense of a home studio would have rendered it impossible for 99.9% of musicians, and many listeners at that time dared to make the outrageous demand that the band actually be GOOD.

  4. Jeff says:

    Here’s more, based on a few minutes on Google: In addition to both of them attending $20,000/year NYU, they’re both alumni of a $20,000/year Maine prep school. Their dad used to be a finance columnist for Money magazine; one of his current writing clients is Time, which may explain how the brothers landed this piece, and how the one brother, at 23, is writing for the Dow Jones newsletter and other Wall Street publications.

    With their wealth and social capital, these kids aren’t “broke.” They’re almost-one-percenters playing at being broke.

  5. Dara says:

    These people totally deserve the major labels.

    “Once upon a time, the suits at the record labels funded the enterprise. Your band would play local clubs in a major city, make a buzz, and an A&R (artists and repertory) guy would sign you and write you a blank check.”

    …that would be an advance against earnings and would drive you bankrupt. Wow. What’s the word I’m looking for here? Oh right: NO.

    The best part is how they’re trying to break into an industry model that exists to fuck you. But I talked about some of that here:



  6. nightfly says:

    I’m no musician… but I’m playing the world’s saddest tune on the world’s smallest violin, just for them.

    Hey kids – how about pursuing a hobby because you enjoy it? Or living in a place you like? How’s about being honest and genuine and all that non-phony stuff that’s so important?

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