What does a dust clogged C melody, a
disastrous audition, and a street full of broken milk bottles get you?
How about The Clash, Boy George, Culture
Club, Iggy Pop, and top ten chart success!
Not bad? Right?
Lots of fame and fortune?
Dedication, hard work, and lady luck might
get you a chance to nod hello to the first, but put one large hold on the second.
That’s according to John Barrow, in How NOT To Make It In The Pop World, a fascinating, insightful guide to the
magical, dream driven, roller coaster, shark filled world of rock n’ roll. How
against all odds, a young sax player’s dreams came true but with one large price.
Rehearsals in a closet with an elderly
neighbor pounding on paper thin walls, a lucky ad, life out of a suitcase,
topless dancers, adoring fans, broken marriages, shattered egos, agents
drenched in gold jewelry, hitting the big time playing a song that wasn’t quite
what it seemed to be, in a band that wasn’t quite what it seemed to be, with a
pay cheque that never was what it should be.
And that was only the beginning.
Although the first part of the book
provides a fascinating overview of the growing pains every musician goes through, the book’s real strengths are John’s hard-won
insights about the music business- and what a ruthless beast it can be. These
tips, about what to watch out for and why, should be considered mandatory
reading for every young musician aspiring for a career in the music industry.
"If it was all just about making music then
fine but when you are saddled with all the legal and contractual
technicalities, it gets as far removed from music as you could possibly
imagine….it’s enough to knock the creative stuffing out of any young aspiring
Which brings us to the core question in John’s book.
If, as John writes, "Music is 10% exhilaration and 90% utter disappointment", then what keeps one going?
What’s the gravitational pull?
What is it that causes one to swallow nerves and shyness, climb up on stage, into the spotlight, and say, "Here I
What keeps one playing 3 a.m. gigs for next to nothing, then reporting to that demanding, 8 a.m. job the next morning?
What makes one happy to be jammed shoulder to shoulder, equipment piled high on all sides, in a cheap, bitterly cold,
exhaust fume filled van?
What makes one willing to live in a brutally demanding way of
life, through all the twists and turns, the friendships and betrayals, with no guarantee of either success or even survival?
If it’s an ambition fueled by an appetite for money, success, and fame, that’s
fine. But that tells only part of the story.
If music is your lifeblood, if you are prepared to sacrifice everything for it, then
that impulse makes everything possible, including moments of transcendence that
can forever change a life. "I saw friends establish themselves in
well-paid jobs and enjoy the benefits of a regular pay cheque. During my time
in music, many of them slogged away in the same jobs, but have any of them
visited Oslo, San Sebastian, Vienna, or even Bannockburn? Money couldn’t pay the stunning times music has give to me."
It can be a magical world, where anything is possible, where one can rocket
from obscurity to international recognition overnight… and sometimes burn out
just as fast. "One moment you appear to be riding the crest of a wave, only to
have the rug pulled away from you, bringing you back down to earth with a
Musicians who want to soar from zero to the top have to be exceptionally resilient.
Failures and setbacks are part of the game, a necessary part of the learning
John has a unique perspective. He was in
the forefront of the ska, punk, and the "New Romantic” synth revolution in England during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s that triggered
"a sea change in the way music was played and recorded."
Out of those experiences, John shares
invaluable lessons on what it takes to get ahead.
"It’s not what you play but what you leave out that makes the difference”, goes to the heart of it.
How many players today, for example, are
familiar with the great jump blues and rock n’ roll sax players from the 1950’s
like Lee Allen and Joe Houston? They could take just two or three notes and
transform them into a sound so memorable that it seemed without limit.
Ultimately, perhaps the most important
factor of all is the producer, whose mix can take you to the stars or sink you
like a stone. "Sometimes you feel isolated and vulnerable in a studio with
headphones on having to peer at studio staff through the control room
window…Often you recorded your parts after waiting around for hours, so it was
difficult to inject life into it. After several takes, you started to worry and
a sort of paranoia set in. You could see the wagging tongues in the control
room but couldn’t hear a word they were saying.”
The common thread, underlying all of this, is financial survival. In 1979, at the fabled Hope and Anchor pub in Islington
London, one weekend’s lineup featured the breakout bands Madness, The Police,
and The Specials. Yet, each band was paid only 20 pounds. Throw in traveling
expenses etc., and bands soon were swimming in red ink. Even top flight acts
had to play provincial pubs to pay the bills; "…we were still a pretty high
profile band, still getting good service from the national music press, playing
large prestige venues to thousands of screaming girlies, yet we were all stony
broke. You only can live on adrenaline for so long; one thing is for sure, it
doesn’t pay the bills”.
Stage success doesn’t always translate into
financial success. John’s band opened for top acts like Culture Club, but:
"People assume that because you have graced the same stage as the star act, in
front of thousands, you must be reaping similar financial rewards. This is a
So, be ready to run. It’s a sad truth that
in today’s jazz world too many musicians still play for door money, still have
to drive cab to make ends meet. If you
want to survive as a musician, be prepared to play whatever you can whenever
and wherever you can.
In 1982, John Barrow’s group, the Swinging
Laurels hit the Number One on the English independent chart with their debut
release "Peace of Mind.” The group picked up national exposure on radio, television,
and the media. "Releasing a record is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes
to the promotion of the product, but you have to play the game if you are to
have a chance of competing in the market place.”
While attention and praise were rolling in,
John still had to run for every dollar. In addition to countless live play
dates, here’s a partial list of John’s hectic schedule, all powered by his
beloved 1962 Selmer Mark VI with nickel plated keys:
- Released the four track EP "A Taste of ... "
session on the Fun Boy Three hit "The Telephone Always”
- TV appearances including England’s number one music program, "Top of the Pops "
- Video produced Ultravox vocalist Midge Ure with appearances by: Bananarama, Madness, and Ultravox
- Session musician for 2-Tone Records
- Tracks on an album by Worldbackwards
- A session with chart toppers Musical Youth
- Work on the Fun Boy Three hit "Summertime”.
- Recordings with French act, 24hrs
- Live work with the band Team 23
- Supported chart acts, like Classix Nouveau.
Fun Boy Three
And you’d better understand that even if
you have written and played the greatest song in the world, if the person on
top decides to look in a different direction, no one may ever hear it. "One of
the major factors that convinced us to sign was that he was a real fan of the
band. Now we were faced with the prospect of a newcomer taking control of our
careers…from the beginning we formed the impression that he wasn’t a fan…One
lapse of judgment can cost and talent isn’t everything. A huge slice of good fortune
in needed to make it to the top, and without that element of luck, you’ve no
In the end, some critics may say that John
fell short. "Flirtations with the music industry doubtless cost me in a
financial sense…I persevered for as long as I could always telling myself ‘this
is the year’, unfortunately that year never materialized. I came so close so
But did he fall short? Signing with a major
label, chart success, television appearances on England's
number one music show, and sharing the stage with some of the world’s great
bands, would be called a wonderful career by many musicians.
More importantly, John reminds us that
before we criticize ourselves for what we could and should have done, let’s
first acknowledge what we’ve accomplished and experienced.
John’s great journey may not have resulted
in financial rewards, however, his dedication, perseverance, courage, and "that
lump of metal that I call my saxophone has been my passport to some
unforgettable experiences and capers. It helped me to achieve many of my
childhood dreams and for that I am very grateful... You see I believe 'If you
never try, you’ll never know what you are capable of'."
John Barrow's How NOT to Make It in the Pop World (diary of an almost has-been)