Big House 1: So You Wanna Be . . .

Christian McShane, musician, producer, and impresario, will be writing a column every 2 months on how to build a career in music from the ground up. Here's the intro--come up on Christian digging the foundations . . .

Christian McShane

So I’m sitting at a radio station here in Minneapolis, waiting to go on the air, and I’ve got this endless loop going on in my head of David Byrne singing the lyrics to “Once in a Lifetime,”

“And you may ask yourself… well, how did I get here?”

Good question. Seems just like yesterday I remember hearing my first rock song (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” by The Tokens). Seems just like yesterday I was 4 years old – marveling at the shiny new plastic guitar my parents bought for me (a couple months later one of brothers accidentally sat on it and crushed it… I cried for hours). Seems just like yesterday I was making primitive flashpots with gunpowder and coffee cans that nearly blew the ceiling off an old country bar when my high school rock band played AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”. Seems just like yesterday I was backstage in New York, waiting to go onstage. Seems just like yesterday I was walking around Sundance Film Festival late at night when I looked over my right shoulder and saw Kevin Spacey ducking into a limo. They’re all milestones, and I have a lot of them. I feel fortunate. Very fortunate. But it hasn’t come easy. It’s been quite a learning process and I’m still learning. The learning should never stop.

I’m a farm kid. I love animals, the smell of fresh hay, dirt. Totally midwest. The farms are getting smaller and the factories are moving in fast. In my hometown, what was once rolling hills are now $100,000 homes and the plumes of exhaust. When I was a kid, I could run forever. Now there are the factories. The factories. It depresses me whenever I go home for the holidays. Earlier in my life, I tried to bilge it out of my system. I dreamed of being Godzilla. If I were Godzilla, I’d take my big lizard hands and choke all the factories. Then I’d breathe fire into the whole corporate structure. But after a while, I realized I’ll never be Godzilla. I’m just a kid, grown up – kicking and screaming the whole way.

And just like a kid, I had a dream and held on to it for whatever reason. When we were kids, my friends & I had all those lofty ideas, “I wanna be the president;” “I wanna be a doctor;” “I’m wanna be a lawyer.” I always said, “When I grow up, I wanna be a musician.” I just wanted to induce something different in people. I’ve always thought there was more to life than factories. When we turned 18, my friends turned to the factories. Factories don’t care who you are, but music will always be there for you. The factories killed my friend’s dreams; they went to mundane jobs at 7 am every morning, got married, had kids, woke up depressed in their mid-30s and wondered why. I found myself standing alone. I never grew up and I hope I never do.

Let me say right here that in no way do I consider myself a “star”. Nor do I consider myself to be an authority on how to make it in the music business. Let’s just get those fool ideas nipped in the bud. I’m just like you. I eat, breathe, bleed and do all sorts of dumb things from time to time. I just happen to have a dream that I’ve never lost sight of for better or worse. Everyone has a dream or a passion in life, don’t they? Mine just happens to be music. Along the way, I’ve busted my ass, tripped on my own ego too many times to count and most of all I’ve tried to learn from my mistakes the best I can. I don’t claim to know it all – the music business is a vast, often unforgiving and sometimes ugly landscape. But as this point in my life, I think I’ve picked up a thing or two.

Over the next year, I’ll be writing a column every other month about different aspects of “the business”. My hope is that you, the reader, may glean a glimmer or two of this thing that’s preoccupied the better part of the last 34 years of my life. And hopefully, my own “stumble, fall, get up and do it again” approach may be to your benefit. We’re going to build a house of music; as much information that I can cram into six writings under one roof.

So where do we begin? How about location? Where do we want to build our house? How about a nice, open space with tall trees and a little creek out back. Let’s start with perspective.

What’s your take on music? Where do you want to go – to live? What does “success” mean to you? This will be one of the most important axioms you’ll have to learn as you go – kind of like changing your yard around from time to time. Most of us may not say it, but we think, “I want to be a rock star!” or “I want to be adored by millions!” Well, that’s a nice thought; ego and big dreams are a part of building this house. However, you’ll be competing with a million or so others for this sacred position. If you have such high expectations from the beginning, I guarantee you’ll be miserable. You’ll never, ever be satisfied. That’s not music, that’s megalomania.

Plus, you’ll probably be one of the lucky ones to develop a serious drinking or drug problem. Too many musicians either burn themselves out or commit suicide for this reason alone. Be happy with where you are in your life; at least try. Remember, music is supposed to be fun. That’s why we started doing it in the first place. If it’s not fun, why bother? Find something else to do. Music isn’t supposed to kill you.

For all intents and purposes, let’s just say “success” is being able to play music for others on a wider scale — communicating on a different level to total strangers; getting your message across. There’s a lot to be said for being able to jump up on a stage and do what you do while gaining the respect and appreciation of an audience.

We’ll talk about money later, not now. You do have to eat, but music shouldn’t be about money. You’ll burn out quick if it is. Play music because it’s what you want to do, not because you think you’ll be the next [favorite star’s name here] It’s actually harder than you think. Too many people look at the end result instead of what it takes to get there. They want it all RIGHT NOW without doing any of the work. And what happens? They give up. It’s not fun anymore. I must say this again; be happy with where you are in life. Start small and learn from every resource available. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the same goes for our music house.

You’re about to do something that comes naturally to humans, yet very few (in the grand scheme of things) do.

It’s getting late and we’d better hurry off to hardware store. We’re going to need a lot of stuff to build our house.