Pop quiz. When Be Your Own Pet appeared on Conan O’Brien, did you a) watch and think, “Hey, that’s cool,” or b) call ’em sell-outs loud enough so everyone in the local section at Grimey’s heard? When The Pink Spiders turned up on MTV doing the backstroke in major-label bling, did you a) laugh and think, “Well, they’ve come a long way from the back room at Café Coco,” or b) mutter something about hype and pull up your hoodie?
Answer “b” to the above, and yeah, you sound like the typical scene hater—the one who complains that Band X started to suck when they moved up from The Muse to the Mercy Lounge, or when they mixed their new album so it doesn’t sound like it was recorded in their cousin’s dorm room. So let’s introduce a trick question. When The Features torpedoed their label deal by refusing to do a corporate-mandated Beatles cover for a commercial, did you think a) “Damn straight—stand up for artistic principle,” or b) “What a bunch of idiots, throwing away a deal every band in town would’ve killed for?”
Judging from The Features’ message board—which shut down under the weight of a flame war—there’s no obvious answer. Indie-rock hardliners congratulated them for maintaining their integrity. Others wondered what would have been so bad about hearing a cool band like The Features in a commercial. But that’s the problem. Once any local band gets so much as a taste of success, instead of next-level comforts, it’s next-level bullshit.
It’s nothing new. Win some fame beyond the immediate scene, and out come the knives. And in a scene as incestuous as Nashville’s, a little airplay or a label deal dredges up that age-old rock debate, as dusty as Lou Reed’s Honda. Is it possible to buy in without selling out—and is going commercial automatically a bad thing?
Everyone needs dough, and every artist craves validation. But the choices artists must make—often while maxing out credit cards and disappointing parents, and forgoing more stable jobs to get one step closer to a largely unreachable prize—are more difficult than outsiders understand. If you don’t know how complicated the music biz is, ask someone to explain how music publishing works. “It’s real simple,” they’ll begin. An hour later, your eyes are bleeding.
Consider too that despite the occasional big-by-local-standards leap, there’s still no guarantee of success for any of these bands. There’s a better chance they’ll fail, like thousands of others who’ve tasted the glory of battle only to fall directly on their mic stands. Ask someone to show you a standard record deal for a young artist. If you ever understand what’s being signed away, you’ll be thankful you’re making 8 bucks an hour someplace with health insurance.
Even so, the cred police whip out their badges when a band fights through the sludge to get rotation on MTV or the radio (OK, yes, arguably to join the ranks of more sludge). Out come the qualifiers. “I’m happy for the Pink Spiders, but obviously they make music for 15-year-olds.” Yeah, just like The Beatles, Buddy Holly and the Beach Boys. “Be Your Own Pet are good, but it’s obviously just about a hot girl.” Yeah, just like Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde. These are bad things?
A year ago, I wrote that if any of the rock acts hustling to break out of here fared well, it would be good news for Nashville’s scene. The crap flung faster than I could enjoy a post-deadline drink, but I still believe what I said. When rock bands make waves outside Nashville, it generates interest. Seeing Be Your Own Pet at Bonnaroo, The Pink Spiders on MTV or hearing rumors of a Kings of Leon stint opening for Pearl Jam this fall in Australia, is all reason for hope.
And hope, like haters, springs eternal. The Cheese Chronicles, Tommy Womack’s heartbreaking and hilarious tale of his band Government Cheese’s flirt with success, came out nearly 10 years ago and documents a struggle a decade earlier. Twenty years later, it’s disturbing how true this book still rings. At least one passage is familiar to every band I’ve ever known:
“Eventually it would be time to play. Maybe there would be people there already. Maybe not. Maybe we were in the mood to play. Maybe not. You might have woken up in a foul mood 200 miles away, and maybe it had been awhile since the Tomato Florentine soup and the free coffee refills, and maybe the cheap band beer was already making your head ache. Maybe the stage lights were on the same circuit as the PA, and everybody’s amp was humming, and every time you touched your guitar and microphone at the same time you got four million volts through you. Maybe you’re just not real famous yet.”
The message: you got off your ass and played anyway. For all the supposed glamour of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, I don’t envy the troops one bit. We’re the lucky ones—we don’t have the creative impulse gnawing away at us so that every minute spent in corporate tedium feels like a chance forever lost to court our muse. Be grateful for the rare Pet, Spider or Feature who dares to connect with a bigger audience, even if just to toss it away. Otherwise, we might as well start printing the bumper stickers: Nashville Rock: Just Not Real Famous Yet.