Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Dance of Fate: Success and Failure in Music Business and Music Life

I spent much of yesterday helping a friend move into a new place.  This friend is also the owner and manager of a mid-sized independent record label in Tokyo - I met him initially through my research and have spent a lot of time with him since. There were about a dozen people there to help, but since he'd also hired a super-efficient group of professional movers, there wasn't quite enough to keep everyone busy.  In the end, it was more than anything a group celebration of a new stage in the life of a man who was to various degrees friend, business associate, or boss to the rest of us.

The condo he was moving into with his fiance was pretty great by Tokyo standards, a three-story with space for a guest room, a room that will serve as the fiance's home office, a really nice kitchen, a ground-floor patio AND a second-floor balcony - and most important, room for the baby they'll be having in just a couple of months.  I also got to see the apartment they'd occupied for the previous five years, a small, cramped space that I could hardly believe had held the two of them and their dog.  The move was a moment of success, mostly paid for by the truly righteous work my friend does providing a place for artists outside of Japan's major-label system, putting on shows that attract thousands of people and festivals that attract tens of thousands.

I was reminded of a quite different celebration I went to a month or two ago.  Another friend of mine, a DJ and producer, held a release event for his latest EP.  It was in an obscure bar in Shibuya, not even really an event space, just barely big enough to hold the fifty to sixty people who showed up.  The release was a CD in a hand-stamped/painted sleeve.  It was a fun event, full of people who were friends with the star of the evening, and with each other, but who had basically no potential to make money from or through one another.  I talked to my friend after the event, and learned that the EP had been released in a miniscule run of 300, and also that he hadn't DJed or done any shows in the six months preceding.  He had, however, recently met a woman he was planing to marry, and said he was going to start looking for work more reliable than his current gig at an amusement park.  He knew that if he took a full-time job, he wouldn't be able to keep going with music consistently.  But he said that he had accomplished many things he wanted to (releasing an album or two, playing plenty of shows, working with other gifted musicians) and was ready to move on.  He struck me as genuinely happy.

I'm at a stage in my life where I inevitably think about success and the long arc of human life quite a bit, and the comparison between these two is fascinating, if not entirely illuminating.  They've arrived at similar stages of their lives in dramatically different shape.  One had built a small empire and was able to live comfortably.  He works incredibly hard, but is moving in a straight line that seems to lead only upward.  The other is about to go through a transition that promises to be both exciting and wrenching, as he tries to launch a sustainable career in his early thirties.

What's the difference between these two?  One reason it's an interesting comparison is that their musical interests are about equally accessible - not pop, but not noise, either - so we can eliminate that as a determiner of "success."  In many months of getting to know these two guys, the difference seems to be simply how hard and consistently they've worked, and how goal-oriented they've been.  From my friend the DJ/producer, I always got the sense that music occupied a vague space between hobby and ambition.  He was around people with an equally hazy vision.  On the other hand, the label head has had his priorities very much in order since he was in his late teens, when he skipped college to pursue music promotion.  In addition to working about sixty hours a week, he very much treats music as a business.

But there seem to have been tradeoffs, corollaries to these two men's different natures.  My friend the DJ is a profoundly warm person, generous and cheerful and relaxed.  He is surrounded by friends who like him for himself, many of whom enjoy making music with him, but as a communal rather than commercial activity.  The ties that bind them are personal and intimate. The label head, on the other hand, is surrounded almost entirely by people he works with.  Now, this is a million miles from the sad workaholism it might sound like - the reason he got into the music business in the first place was because he loved working with artists, with musicians, photographers, writers.  These are people with interesting personalities, and maybe we should all be so lucky as to enjoy the permeable boundaries between friendship and work that my friend does.  I certainly know I enjoy this in my own life - the relationship we share is exactly one of these business/friendships.  But I also know firsthand that there's a certain gnawing emptiness to it, a need to get outside of the circumference of the functional and be with other people purely for their own sake.  I sometimes sense that this label head has sacrificed more than might be immediately obvious - that the cost of making his own path has been a hypervigilance that separates him, every so slightly, from the rhythms of normal human social life.

There's no line here between good or bad, the right or wrong way to do things.  Both of these people have led incredibly rich lives, and done great services to the rest of their community and culture.  Certainly the more important distinction to be made from those who have not felt empowered to pursue their grand dreams, or those who were never lucky enough to have them in the first place.  Those are the people - arguably, the 'normal' people - who I truly can't understand.  But even within the realm of the creative, there is  a wide spectrum of approaches, ambitions, ideas, personalities . . . and we eventually find our way back to the most difficult question of all, that of will.  My friend the label head indulged in some very rare self-mythologizing last night, telling the brief story of his (entirely legal) entrepreneurialism as a teenager.  The money he made from this early dip into business let him buy the records that inspired him onto his current path.  None of what followed would have happened without  that early moment when some built-in impulse to buy low and sell high kicked in - but at the time it was with no goal in mind, something you could even call instinctual.  In turn, he's had a profound impact on hundreds, maybe thousands of Japanese kids by putting interesting music in their hands.

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