Saturday, November 25, 2017

Why Singers Get All the Attention

A friend who's super into music was observing the poor overall quality of singers. I explained to him that the entire situation resulted from a musicians' strike in the 1940's.

It's quite a story, though it's been almost completely forgotten. I'm a repository of such information, because, in my early twenties, I befriended many musicians in their 80s and 90s. So now, as I edge toward my 60's, I find myself full of forgotten lore.

With the advent of recordings in the first half of the 20th century, music was suddenly a big deal - center stage in the culture for the first time since the dawn of man. For all previous history, musicians were itinerant bums, traveling from town to town, putting out their hats, and barely getting by. A select few might get a symphony gig and teach in a conservatory, but that was the furthest one could rise - a lower-middle class existence in near-complete obscurity, working as a nameless servant for famous impresarios and conductors.

Suddenly, thanks to new technology, your playing could reach a wide enough audience to be commercially successful. Music became a huge business, and while, needless to say, musicians didn't see much of the money (which was intercepted much higher up in the food chain), they at least enjoyed very steady work. My nonagenarian friends would wag their heads, marveling about how everyone worked and worked, constantly and widely, for comparatively good money.

What's more, there was, finally, a pinnacle to shoot for. The top of the crop garnered success comparable to top artists in other arts, like painters or novelists. Stars like Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Harry James, Louis Armstrong, - so famous you even recognize their names today! - were all instrumentalists, and they supported an entire economy of lesser luminaries - the guys who were left wagging their heads in perplexed dismay forty years later.

At the height of all this, the musicians' union, flush with money and power, lost its mind and instituted a recording strike. All of a sudden, the red-hot pipeline of recorded music had no product to push, and capitalism abhors a vacuum. So the money guys looked to singers, who belonged to a different union, to fill in.

There had always been singers, of course. They'd tour with bands, but were far lesser creatures than their musician-leaders. Sinatra sat dutifully on a chair in front of the Dorsey and James bands, eagerly awaiting his few minutes of featured time while the trombonist and trumpeter (respectively) soaked up the serious adulation and made the real money.

Now, the story you'll hear literally everywhere is that Sinatra's career inevitably blew up as adoring fans demanded more and more of him, his fame inevitably eclipsing that of his former bosses left in the dust blowing their stodgy horns. But it wasn't inevitable. It was manufactured.

Singers were pushed very hard, and the public bought it. This was the moment when the execs, managers, agents, and other money people came to realize how generic the star slots were. Cultivate the right image and publicity, and you could throw just about anyone in there to serve as an instant profit center. So by the time the musicians strike ended, the scene had flipped and singers were the sensations. The execs liked singers because they tended to be dumb, malleable, and so obsessed with fame that you could lead them like lemmings. Instrumental musicians, on the other hand, are a whole other thing.

Becoming a top musician requires more training than doctors or lawyers. It's unbelievably hard to reach a point of real excellence (and professional-level consistency), so they tend to be shrewd, highly-motivated, and obsessed with silly irrelevancies like quality. If you're a recording executive, who would you rather anoint and exploit: those wily rascals or some skinny dude with a pleasant voice who, this time last year, was delivering packages or fixing bikes?

The music business never looked back. Instrumentalists were shoved into the shadows, the public stopped paying the least bit of attention to the band, and singers were everything. Every package deliverer and bike repairman imagined they could sing as good as the person on the radio....and they were often right. To this day, singers remain predominant, enjoying all the fuss, the billing, and the money while the saxophonist who spent 20 years mastering his craft at least gets to enjoy a doobee or two while practicing scales after his package delivery day job.

It's not entirely one-sided. In every era, some instrumentalist manages to claw his way to the top of the mountain. Herb Alpert, Herbie Mann, Chuck Mangione, Kenny G - guys like that*. Every single one of them is a pitiful example of shoddy musicianship. To the rest of us musicians, the message is very clear: our Masters let exactly one of us in the door at a time - the most scant-talented but dentally shiny - as a reminder of what our advanced skills and astute savvy are truly worth.

* - Chris Botti, the latest flavor, is actually solid, but he's not anything like the thing he's sold as being. He's a fine session player - good for playing pads and pops in a horn section on record dates - who's been weirdly (and successfully) marketed as a shiny/moody jazz/pop virtuoso/messiah. But at least the guy can play his horn.

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