A Backup Singer Backs Out of the Business
I met Shelby Dalton at an amusement park last week. We were on the Tilt-a-Whirl when I vomited on a twelve year old girl. Shelby, the third person in the Whirliecar, came to the rescue; she calmed the girl down and spirited me off to the funhouse before the parents were able to have me arrested.
Hands on knees and breathing heavy we exchanged names and careers. There, in the mirror labyrinth, Shelby began telling me her life story: for three years she toured with Up With People as a dancer and singer. She was kicked out for “not being up enough.” She then spent a couple years touring with such revered pop acts as Richard Marx and Mike + the Mechanics.
“You know how, after about their fifth album, famous musicians decide that they need three black women singing back-up? I was one of those three women.” When she turned thirty-six she quit the scene and moved to Denver where she writes and records songs very few people ever hear. I got her number and promised her a full interview.
Two days later, we meet on her porch, which has a shimmering view of the mountains. The temperature has dropped from unbearable to merely sweltering. Shelby sits on a chair across from me, flattens her skirt against her knees and we begin discussing the essentially points of her How to Work Your Ass off, Make No Money, and Go NOWHERE in the Music Business But Still Get Free Beer Plan.
Strapping Danforth: What exactly do you want to tell the kids about music business?
Shelby Dalton: First off, music and business don't mix. “Music business” is like “Carrot philosophy”; philosophy and carrots shouldn't be in the same sentence.
SD: Perhaps music and business SHOULDN'T be, but they HAVE to be mentioned in the same sentence.
SD: What do you know about music? You play?
SD: No. Um, I know bands need money to buy instruments. I know recording a CD costs money. Advertising costs money. A van costs money. Maintaining a web site costs money. Music needs money. That's a fact.
SD: That might be a fact, but this is the truth: people need to eat to live. Food ain't free. So people buy food. Then they eat it. Nobody ever said he deserves money for stuffing a peanut butter sandwich in his face. Nobody calls dinner the “food business.” Musicians need to play music ‘cause if they don't, they aren't musicians. So they buy instruments. Then they play music. Who says I deserve to get paid just because I bought a microphone and yap into it? That's what I have a day job for, so I can pay for food and microphones.
SD: But it takes so much time to become a proficient musician…Don't they—you--deserve compensation?
SD: It takes a long time to make love right too, but I never ask for money afterward. People think bands and musicians are under some cosmic contract that says they deserve money just for existing. I never seen that contract.
SD: What if there's money to be made? For instance, are you saying bands should not accept money to perform in a club that stands to make hundreds of dollars off their labors?
SD: I got news for you. Clubs don't make hundreds of dollars on every show. You know why venues always try to screw bands? It's because they're as desperate as the band. This is not always the case. Sometimes a band convinces a club to give it TOO much money. Even the sorriest band can get a guarantee if they have a good snake-oil salesman running the show. And, yes, sometimes a club willingly takes advantage of a naïve band. Every once in a great long time it works out to everyone's mutual benefit. But that's the worst scenario of all. Pretend with me that a band makes three hundred dollars for a show and the club makes six hundred. That sounds pretty fair right? Ain't that how it should be?
SD: It ain't. You forgot about the audience. They get screwed. The band gets paid, the club gets paid and the audience has to pay twice. They pay the the club for the beer and they pay the band for the cover.
SD: But they get drunk and get to see a show. Quid pro quo.
SD: The band gets to PLAY a show. I've played a lot of shows in my life and I've seen lots of shows. It's a lot more satisfying to be on stage than to be in the audience. After some of my bad shows I used to want to give money back to the crowd. Never did. Now I don't play anymore and I fell less guilty. Anyway, I have a solution. The only way to make things fair is to take the club out of the equation. Play parties. A band plays a party as a favor to the host. The host thinks they're doing the band a favor by inviting the band to play. Boom! Nobody expects any money. Underage people can get into a party, no problem. There's no cover. No one has to pay for booze unless they want to and even then there aren't the jacked-up prices you see in a bar and you don't have to tip. Plus, the band always gets to drink for free and there's no closing time. In addition to that--
SD: Brilliant. Attention all bands! Stop playing at the Lion's Lair, the Tavern, the Aggie, the Bluebird--
SD: It's more than that. There's lots of musicians out there who can't play those places you just named. Do the Lions Lair ever host a turntablist? What was the last local hip hop act that played downtown? Name three bars that feature jazz...or metal. And don't forget really really horrible bands. Where they gonna play? The vast majority of acts fit into a definable category: rock, funk, funkrock, jamrock, jamfunk, jamfunkrock. Once you stray outside, there's no place that will have you. So play a party. Every band or performer has at least one friend willing to throw a bash for them. It's real easy for a DJ to set up in a living room. Move the furniture, turn on the black light and it's a dance club. Basements are built for bands. And there's nothing like a barbeque party with the band in the back yard. The cops always get called and everyone has a good old time.
SD: This is what you do now, play parties?
SD: Yes. Absolutely. I have a core of friends and we host and play parties all year long. Everyone has a chance to perform, the crowd pays attention, there are no jerks yelling at the soundman. It's wonderful. So much variety. New people are always coming into the mix. And I never have to play a show just for money again.
SD: You're happy about that?
SD: Yes. Playing for money is torture. It makes me sick just thinking about all those nights going, “Oooooooo,” during “The Living Years”. Now I do my own thing on my own terms and Mike + the Mechanics are playing state fairs.
SD: No matter how to sugar-coat it, it sounds to me like you failed as a professional musician and now you're trying to justify your long, slow decline into complete obscurity.
SD: Nice try, Pukeboy. I'm absolutely content. What I'm giving you is a recipe for contentment. Bands break up over money more often that over creative problems. If they stop trying to make money then it won't be an issue. You know what? You ALL gonna break up. None of you will make any money. I never see a real band make any money. You? No. Never happened. Those pop stars—Michael Jackson and them--they're not real. (I know ‘cause I've seen ‘em.) Just like being Michael Jordan isn't a real goal to any twenty year old playing basketball in the park.
SD: You're telling bands not to try.
SD: I'm not telling bands to do anything. I'm suggesting that bands re-examine the landscape of the music world and stop lying to themselves. If your goal is to be a pop star, I suggest you change your goal. You're not gonna make it.
SD: Ludicrous. The development--the evolution--of music depends on kids with youthful naiveté and unjustified confidence. Without the dream of a gold record, they're gonna give up.
SD: True youthful naiveté isn't inspired by dreams of gold records and Grammies. It come from hormones. Speaking of hormones, do you realize what kind of emotional damage you did to that little girl when you puked on her?
SD: Vomit cleans up. She'll get over it.
[The sun sets. Exit Strapping.]
--Strapping Danforth, July, 2002