How They Got Started
by Jim Bessman
You know the old showbiz joke, How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. Well, that's pretty much the case for any artist who started out a nobody and is now a major star. No matter what genre of music, everyone who is anyone started at the bottom and worked their way to the top, usually with a lot of hard work--and hard knocks--in between. Here are four case studies, if you will, using four major stars in four different kinds of music. Some you may know, some not, but they're all at the top of their chosen fields, and all offer keen insight into the means of getting there.
We'll start with the youngest--in terms of career length, if not age--and move to the more established, if lesser known to the mass market. We're also starting with the alternative rock genre, though Luscious Jackson's recent success is such that they're probably on the cusp of leaving the "alternative" for the "mainstream." Jill Cunniff, the group's vocalist/bassist, recalls that it all started with a "cheaply made but pretty interesting" demo tape.
"As I look back, it was kind of unusual sounding at the time," she says. "Mike Diamond of the Beastie Boys was an old friend, and he started his own label with Luscious Jackson. So I guess it's important to get into a music scene--because you'll meet people. Don't just send in a tape, but go to the clubs where the music you want to play is getting heard and where people in the music business meet each other. Actually, a lot of labels are looking for good stuff and quality artists--but be prepared to deal with criticism, not only from magazines but people at labels. And definitely don't send tapes blind to labels, because it's a waste of time. It's better to get in a good group of musicians and play in clubs and get a following. Maybe start your own label, like Ani DiFranco. But be prepared: Read some books about the music business, because there's so much to learn about the business side--and it's important to be savvy. And you need a really good entertainment lawyer: Don't approach a major corporation with a dinky family lawyer and a bad tape! But ultimately, artistic integrity does pay off."
Speaking of artistic integrity, Cunniff stresses that the most important thing, obviously, is "making something that's good, original, and finished--not putting in a bunch of crap or trying to get something out before it's ready."
Shifting over to country music, former fiddle champ Alison Krauss has become one of the most sought-after singers in any kind of music since exploding on the scene a few years ago, sweeping the Grammies and Country Music Awards because of her angelic vocals and her fiddle playing with her award-winning bluegrass band Union Station. Her older brother Viktor, by the way, plays upright bass in Lyle Lovett's band. "If either of us had any ability, our parents wanted to find it!," says Krauss, who grew up in Champaign, Illinois. "So they enrolled us in all art classes, sports, swimming, gymnastics, dance--everything. And we were so young at the time that we didn't think it wasn't cool! So I took music lessons for five years, and my parents took me to every concert in the park, to rehearsals for plays and operas, and I loved everything. I was taking classical violin, and mom heard about a country fair fiddle contest--and I loved that, too!"
"So my best advice is, make sure you're playing what you like to play--because you never know: You might be stuck playing it for a long time, and you don't want to burn yourself out by it becoming work. So play music you like, and don't sell out by doing something you don't like. It's even worth it to sacrifice whatever success you may have playing something you don't want to. We've done what we want to do musically the whole time, and it's been worth it--I can't imagine things would have been better by giving this up. And one other thing: Whatever kind of music you play, people will think that that's what you like--so it better be what you like!"
Now long before there was such a thing as "alternative music," there was pretty much the same thing--only it was called "new wave" back in the late '70s, when brilliant artists like England's Joe Jackson led the way. On his more recent albums, however, Jackson has gone back to his early classical piano training, though he also remembers when he was 16 in his coastal hometown of Portsmouth, "going around the pubs and restaurants and asking people if they wanted a piano player, until a couple people said, 'Why not?.' So I tuned it up and played it, usually in the corner, where it was just used for years for putting down drinks--and had all the ivories burned away with cigarette ends."
Having had his commercial ups and downs since to the point where he almost decided to quit the major labels entirely in favor of starting his own label like Ani DiFranco, his philosophy remains "to imagine that you completely and utterly fail, and then decide what you want to do anyway! What would you still want to do, even if you knew you would be a complete failure? Well, that's what you should do--and chances are it might be a success!"
The last and oldest role model for aspiring music artists happens to be my own mentor in many ways, which means he's really not that old, though Corky Siegel, a harmonica and piano master who still lives in his Chicago hometown, does go back to the '60s, when he led the legendary Siegel-Schwall Blues Band with the equally great guitarist Jim Schwall. Since I'm from Wisconsin, I used to see them a lot, and to this day, Siegel-Schwall was the most exciting band I ever saw. "The first professional gig Jim and I had was in the house band at Peppers Show Lounge, the blues club where Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon and Little Walter used to come in and sit in," recalls Siegel, who now leads a classical blues hybrid group, Chamber Blues, made up of himself, a percussionist, and four classical string players. "Then we auditioned at Big John's, where [the late, great blues bandleader] Paul Butterfield played, but he was going on the road more often and they needed someone to fill in. Then the labels started coming down, and we got signed within a few months of learning how to play!"
Here's where Siegel relates one of the most valuable lessons he's learned in his long career. "People think that when you sign your first recording contract that your career is just beginning--but in reality, it's just ending! Now I don't want to discourage anyone from pursuing a record deal or career in the music industry, but you need to be armed with the truth and the reality: don't put all your eggs in the basket of the recording industry, because that basket is full of holes! Keep most of your eggs in the basket of your art, and as long as you do that you can pursue the recording industry and if all the eggs fall through the bottom it won't be so devastating as it so often is to so many artists."
"I don't mean that you shouldn't pursue the recording industry, just remember that it all comes from your art. The recording industry has nothing to do whatsoever with where your artistic inspiration and excitement comes from--and where that is is what is most important!"Back to magazine