On The Road: The Minor Leagues

Drew Kennedy | July 27th, 2010

the-minor-leagues

If this were about baseball, I’d add, “Where Everyone Has a Shot,” to the title.

The game of baseball has seen its ups and downs. It’s pristine, slice of apple pie Americana reputation occasionally sullied by blemishes here and there, from the Black Sox Scandal of 1919 to the Steroid Era of the last decade. For the most part, however, the overall reputation of the game lies somewhere between a Norman Rockwell painting and a Chevrolet Bel Air—an undeniable part of our culture.

Of course there are those of you who probably haven’t thought of baseball in that way in quite some time. I completely understand. It’s easy to become disenchanted with a game that in simpler times was more idealistic and transparent—something to be proud of—rather than the game as it is today, controlled by deep pockets, its validity easily questioned with the rampant use of performance enhancing drugs.

The correlation between baseball and the music business is painfully obvious.

Part of our culture, once wholesome, something to be proud of, now run by and with deep pockets and performance enhancing technologies, et cetera. I won’t bore you (if I haven’t already) with a more in depth analysis than that.

As we look at the two industries today, despite all of their similarities in principle, somehow one seems to be thriving (even after the aforementioned black eye of the steroid era) and one is clearly crumbling.

There are a host of reasons why these two businesses, both of which deal in the semi-impossible natures of entertainment, are heading in opposite directions, but I like to focus on one in particular.

Let me first preface the remainder of this article with some personal statements: I love writing songs, and I love to travel. I love singing my songs for anyone who will listen. I have no desire to step into the Tim McGraw / Kenny Chesney realm of superstardom, nor do I think that I have the looks or the attitude for it. I do have a desire for those types of performers to record the songs that I write, and I do have a desire to be able to go into any club, anywhere in the country, and have 30-50 people show up to hear me play. I am happy with the troubadour lifestyle, and proud to bear its reputation and all that it implies.

Back to my nearly overdrawn baseball metaphor. I promise I’m wrapping it up.

Baseball bankrolls its minor league system. It knows, without a doubt, that a failure to cultivate its next generation of stars means a failure to thrive and profit. It knows that a failure to create stars that will be viable players in their game for 10 or more years is a failure to pass on the myth and mystery, the hope and wonder that the legacy of the game depends on. If the stars of today were only heralded as such for one season, after which they were never to be heard from again, part of the thing that makes the game so special would no longer exist. Names like Pujols, Utley, Jeter, and Halladay stand beside names like Ripken, Smith, Ryan, and Henderson. Those names stand beside Mays, Mantle, Young, and Aaron. Each generation has their list of stars, and while the argument is part of the fun, I think it’s safe to say that the great players of the game could survive and succeed in any era.

Now, I mean no disrespect with this little exercise in stream of consciousness composition. Someone asked me to write about life on the road, and here I am, two pages into it, and I haven’t even gotten to life on the road.

So I’ll cut to the chase. Baseball, as a business, will live for as long as it wants to live because it understands the importance of developing its talent. Music, as a business, has already lost its chance to survive as it once did.

You see, I bankroll the minor leagues of music. So does Robbie Fulks. So does Paul Thorn. So does Todd Snider. So does Walt Wilkins. We’re fully vested in our business, too, and we don’t expect some club to swoop in and call us up to the big leagues—all of our dreams realized, our debts forgiven, our streets made a little easier. We’re all an industry of one. Together, we weave a grand tapestry of song that fits somewhere in between the Rockwell and the Bel Air as well. We (and by we, I mean ALL of the musicians of the minor leagues, across all genres and levels of success) cover all aspects of life, love, loss, style, substance, and lack-thereof. And we do it on our own.

What’s life on the road like?

It’s pretty awesome, and it’s pretty horrible. The awesome usually outweighs the horrible ever so slightly, and so we come back for more.

What do I mean by that?

Life on the road is an old felt hat on the edge of a two foot high stage, or on the floor, or on a chair by the door, placed there in the hopes that it will magically attract enough dollar bills so that your travel expenses don’t consume your show pay in its entirety. It’s driving yourself 7 hours to a show, playing for 20 people, staying up with those 20 people a little later than you should, getting a few hours of sleep (on a couch, in a van, sometimes in a hotel if God wills it to be so) and then driving 5 ½ hours to do the same thing all over again, knowing full well that this cycle will repeat itself two or three more times before you make it back to the warmth and comfort of your own bed. It’s loading in and out and caring for your own gear. It’s finding the money to record your music, and then finding the money to mix your own recordings, and then finding the money to master your own mixes, and then finding the money to print up a few copies of your own masters to take with you to the next town. It’s figuring out how not to feel foolish selling someone a t-shirt with your name on it, after playing a show underneath a marquee with your name on it. It’s learning how to eat healthy on a budget along the highways and byways of this land (I don’t think anyone has actually figured this out yet). It’s knowing where the clean bathrooms are, which gas station is open at 4 AM, which stretch of the road to Wichita Falls has been, and will continue to be under construction for all of eternity, and what route you should take to avoid it. It’s putting your heart and soul passionately on the line, sacrificing all and leaving nothing in reserve, only to have a drunk guy sitting on the corner stool in a dive bar tell you how much better you’d be if you only knew how to play “Boys From Oklahoma.”

But then, life on the road is also a sunset behind violently dark clouds outside of a bar in a Wyoming town with a population of 100, where everyone clears out of the joint, yourself included, to spend a few minutes staring up at its wonder in the middle of your set. It’s an old man, who had a band in his youth, telling you that you write like his heroes once wrote, before they departed from this earth. It’s someone driving the same distance you drove to see your show when you thought that surely no person on earth remembered that you were still out there playing every night, and then singing along to all of your songs. It’s being welcomed into someone’s home for an excellently cooked meal. It’s being reminded that even though he has a huge house, expensive cars, and just got back from his place in Hawaii, he’d trade it all to be beholden to no man—to be truly a vehicle of ones soul and spirit. It’s a twenty in that ragged old felt hat of a tip jar. It’s hearing your song on the radio when you were nearly about to fall asleep behind the wheel, 500 miles into a 600 mile drive. It’s the essence of freedom.

So where does the music business as we know it have it wrong?

They’re missing out on those tiny little moments of aforementioned awesomeness that keeps us coming back for more because they’re also missing out on the struggles. Success will not find all of us. This is a peace you make with yourself very early on into this game. All you can do is put yourself into the best possible situation to welcome it if it should decide to grace you with its presence. Some of us will stick it out, success be damned, because we have to. Some of us will hang it up, knowing we gave it our best, and we will go out in search of the next chapter of our lives.

We’re each a Minor League of One. “Artist Development” has become a dirty word in the offices of the music business, but it lives on behind the wheels of the thousands of white vans that crisscross the landscapes of this country. We’re developing ourselves.

And if… actually, I don’t believe in the word “if.” Neither do any of those Minor Leagues of One that I’ve mentioned, nor do the thousands of names I didn’t mention. When success finds us (and I don’t mean superstardom, I mean success of the 30-50 people a night variety), we’ll be ready to embrace it with the tired arms of a heart worn traveler who has finally reached a destination that has forever seemed to be but a glint upon the horizon. We’ll have scores of songs to our name, a few thousand fans that love us, as we love them, and we’ll go to sleep peacefully, knowing that, for all of the troubles, it was well worth it.

Baseball as we know it will continue to develop its future, and it will continue to survive.

The music business as we know it, which has turned it’s back on those of us laboring individually for reasons that are more quantifiable in their minds, and less dependant upon those difficult-to-understand little words like “talent” and “substance” will continue to fall into disrepair.

And we continue to ask them, because we don’t really root for their failure—their healthy existence would help to ensure our healthy existence: Did ol’ Hank really do it this way?

I have a feeling that the Minor Leagues of One will be left standing to fend for ourselves, driving and playing for everyone who still loves to hear a good song, and who could care less what little logo adorns the back of the album that contains that song, just like we’re fending for ourselves right now. Big business will lose out to a thousand cottage industries because it lost sight of what it means to matter over the long haul, rather than the third quarter. I don’t know of any other industry that has gone in that direction… but then again, I don’t know of any other thing that would give me so much pride to be a part of.

And if one day I get to see Paul Thorn throw out the first pitch at a Cardinals game, well man, wouldn’t that just be the full circle that this article needs…

See you down the road.

  1. Mike Parker
    July 27, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    Thanks for this

  2. Zach
    July 27, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    Enjoyed this. Thanks, Drew.

  3. Larry Mofle
    July 27, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    Great article, Drew. The part you wrote about “Success will not find all of us. This is a peace you make with yourself very early on into this game. All you can do is put yourself into the best possible situation to welcome it if it should decide to grace you with its presence.” is poignantly true. Success is derived from within – be it completing a good song or getting on stage for the first time or doing a CD you are proud of. No one may know my name but I know I have been successful in ways that make me smile…

    And for those that DON’T know who Paul Thorn is, start buying his CD’s now…or even better, go to a show of his! I promise it won’t be the last one you will want to attend!

  4. nm
    July 27, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    Judging by the picture you’ve got up there, and the names you mention, there’s yet another way you’re just like baseball: no women on the team. Care to comment on that?

  5. Jon
    July 27, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    Chris Thile just threw out the first ball at a Cardinals – well, Cardinals-Cubs, and he’s a Cubs fan – game a couple of days ago.

    Thoughtful piece. But I wonder why one obvious difference – the persistence of a 50-year-old business model for baseball vs. the massive upheaval that widespread piracy has spearheaded for music – isn’t mentioned, and more importantly, I wonder why “the music business” seems to be used as a synonym for “the big music business.” The minor leagues of baseball – even the ones that aren’t funded by the major league teams – are best thought of as part of the business of baseball, and I think that it’s smart to think of the minor leagues of music as part of the business of music, too. I’m also curious as to whether you think the Minor Leagues of Band is qualitatively or just quantitatively different from the Minor Leagues of One.

    It’s learning how to eat healthy on a budget along the highways and byways of this land (I don’t think anyone has actually figured this out yet).

    Ice chests, hotel/motel rooms with refrigerators/microwaves and grocery store stops. It’s tough, but it can be done.

  6. Drew Kennedy
    July 27, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    You’re right NM– that wasn’t by design– like I said “Now, I mean no disrespect with this little exercise in stream of consciousness composition.”

    I think the women of this business have it even harder than the men do. They have my utmost respect.

  7. nm
    July 27, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    You might want to start being more conscious of women, then. Seeing as how that’s half the people in the world and all.

  8. Julia Hughan
    July 27, 2010 at 10:22 pm

    A great read. Thank you Drew.

  9. Steve Harvey
    July 28, 2010 at 12:37 am

    This seems like a really great article, but I find sports metaphors more confusing than the plot of INCEPTION.

  10. Drew Kennedy
    July 28, 2010 at 10:32 am

    Jon-

    To answer your questions, I think that baseball recognized something that was a cancer to their game and to their business model (that whole mystique of the game is something that is very real– they rely on the Rockwellian “America’s Pastime” quite a bit) and did an excellent job eliminating it. They took some heat in doing so (and maybe waited a little too long) but they figured out how to handle it by changing their testing policy, creating stiff penalties, etc.

    The music business showed a remarkable inability to recognize the problem, and then come up with a solution. Suing your consumers back to 1991 is not a solution.

    They’re two entirely different situations, I give you that, but nonetheless, they stand as examples of problem solving.

    And yes, I think it’s easy to infer that “the music business” is a synonym for “the big music business.” Thus the use of the phrase “cottage industries” at the end. I thought that was a given, considering that I’m not a household name, and I already stated that I was out there on my own.

    Sure, we independents are part of the business of music– we’re just not contributing to the Big music business, and probably never will. Unlike the guy in AA Reading, hoping to get called up to the Phillies, we don’t usually expect as much.

    As a former collegiate ball player myself, if someone offered me a roster spot on a minor league team, for minor league wages, I’d love to take it, and I’d take it for as long as they’d let me have it.

  11. Kelly
    July 28, 2010 at 11:25 am

    I’m not kidding, Drew. I really love you. I say that as a man, to another man, but I can’t lie. Good day, sir.

  12. Jon
    July 28, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    I just don’t think that the difference in the way baseball and the music industry handle talent development has anything to do with the latter’s failure to deal with its unique problem of massive piracy. At least in the country music end of it, the big change in talent development – where labels essentially abandoned the job and publishing companies started to pick it up – happened back in the mid-90s, before Napster was even a gleam in little Shawn Fanning’s eye. But the country music industry as a whole – labels, publishers, venues – is still doing pretty much what it always has.

    Sure, we independents are part of the business of music– we’re just not contributing to the Big music business, and probably never will. Unlike the guy in AA Reading, hoping to get called up to the Phillies, we don’t usually expect as much.

    Well, the numbers sure are different; if you figure the number of major league baseball roster slots vs. the total number of minor league players and then compare that to the number of major label artist roster slots vs. the total number of “minor league” musicians, it sure doesn’t work out in the latter’s favor. So lower expectations are realistic in ways that have nothing to do with problem solving, image, etc. – they’re purely playing the odds.

    But from where I sit, there’s less of a gulf between the Minor Leagues of One and the majors than you seem to see. Some of that’s probably because I look at things as a sideman and as a songwriter, not as a front man (whether solo or in front of a whole band). I have friends who’ve moved from the minors to the majors in songwriting; I have friends who’ve moved from the minors to the majors as session players and band members – and there is a considerable difference between an off-the-card demo session fee and scale, or between eating baloney sandwiches and staying 4 to a room at the Red Roof Inn and a $50 per diem with a suite of your own at the nicest hotel in town. The odds are certainly worse in country music than they are in baseball, but they’re not beyond hope by any means.

    Furthermore, there are things that the industry as a whole deals with that affect everyone in the industry, whether they’re major league stars or Minor Leagues of One. The fight for a performance royalty from digital transmissions (webcasts and satellite radio) was billed by its opponents as something that would help only the big labels and big stars, but it’s generated thousands of dollars in income for “little” ones, too – and if we succeed in getting a performance royalty from terrestrial radio, the same will hold true (at least to some extent) there. Programs that make it easier (or harder) for performing artists to cross international borders to work affect us all, big and little. In many important respects, there’s a continuum between the “lower” levels and the “higher” ones.

  13. Judy
    August 4, 2010 at 11:35 pm

    Nice heartfelt piece Drew. So much of what you shared can only be understood by those “condemned by the gods to write” as my artist explains it. Enjoyed the baseball comparison as well. I would imagine the desire to just play ball is probably what drives most of the players in either league; at first anyway. Maybe if we could find a way the bookies could make money off the music industry artist development wouldn’t be something we speak of in past tense and technology to prevent piracy would have been a higher priority before it was too late. Off course with odds like 95-1 for any reasonable success there wouldn’t be many making book! …just a thought.

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