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Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Musical Hierarchy Ladder


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Thanks to Steve Almond’s book Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, I’ve pondered my status as what Almond calls a “Drooling Fanatic.” Almond describes them as people “who walk around with songs ringing in our ears at all hours, who acquire albums compulsively, …and cannot resist telling other people – people frankly not that interested – what they should be listening to and why.”

This got me pondering. “Drooling Fanatics” or music geeks, have heads full of knowledge that no one else wants. They obsess about albums that no one else owns and blabber about bands no one has heard of. They may even play an instrument – although poorly enough that no one has ever paid money to hear them. However, this person may have made money as – horror of horrors, a music critic.

Even with all those strikes against them, the music geek is NOT the bottom of the barrel. But before railing on those who don’t even deserve the DF’s respect, let’s “oooh” and “aaah” at those on top of the musical hierarchy ladder. This ladder falls into four basic categories, which, in my true music geek nature, I will then subcategorize.


Those Who Create Music

The Star. Has had actual success making a living as a musician – and we’re not talking the weekly 7:00 Friday slot at some local pub while making one’s true living at a print shop. No, no. This is someone who can actually feed, clothe, and house him or herself based entirely on money made from playing music.

The Performer. Okay, these are the guys who still work at the print shop while moonlighting at that local pub. They’ve never made it big and probably never will, but they can boast to having done paying gigs, even if it all got blown on beer before the night was through (or the payment actually was beer).

The Instrumentalist. Whether by piano lessons that Mom insisted would build character or by noodling around on a guitar for hours while other high schoolers were going to football games and proms and generally pursuing some semblance of a social life, this person can play some kind of instrument in such a manner that another human being can actually identify what is being played.

The Singer. This isn’t as simple as the person who warbled in the shower or performed concerts to an audience comprised only of oneself in the bathroom mirror. No, this person pretty much has to be credentialed in some manner – they’ve had formal training, they can boast of getting a 1 at state, they were in a choir, something. Building up alcohol-inspired courage to get on stage at karaoke night on a bet does NOT qualify one as a singer.


Those Who Possess the Ability to Pass on Music

The Teacher. You know those piano lessons you took for three years from about age 8 to 11? This was your torturer, the person who made you do scales while you dreamed of being the next Elton John or Billy Joel. This was also that choir teacher in 10th grade who coached your way to state while you were forced to approximate Celine Dion with your vocal gymnastics.

The Scenester. This person not only knows who’s performing at every local dive in town, but they’ve been to all of them. They boast of number one status for some local band that is so local that anyone beyond a 25-mile radius has never heard of them. For that matter, most people within that radius don’t known anything of the band, either.

The DJ. This could be either a radio disc jockey or the turntable spinner at a dance club. These people probably began as scenesters and, most likely, are continuing to build that cred but now getting paid while they do it. I’m not sure the wedding DJ fits here, however. The person who thrusts “The Chicken Dance” on the world over and over has to suffer by dropping a few more notches on the musical hierarchy ladder.


Those Who Possess the Ability to Trivialize Music to Death

The Musicologist. This person may not be able to tell you the difference between a bass clef and a treble clef, but they will be able to dissect in great detail a bootleg of a 1995 Phish concert in which the band played a 15-minute rendition of “Split Open and Melt.”

The Collector. It’s all about the numbers, folks. While the musicologist may have 125 bootlegs of the Grateful Dead and little else, the Collector is more prone to boast of an album collection of at least four figures. This person has probably also made more than a few mix tapes over the years.

For sake of full disclosure, this is basically where I, your humble author, would fall. I have no musical ability or talent and can be dumbfounded by even the simplest of music theory discussions. I can, however, generally point out a CD or two in most friends’ and family members’ collections which I made for them. I also have more Marillion and Kevin Gilbert albums than most people you’ll ever meet. Who are they, you ask? Exactly.


Those Who Possess the Ability to Strip Music of All Enjoyment Whatsoever

The Critic. Likely a wannabe performer, instrumentalist, or singer. Almost definitely a scenester, musicologist and collector all rolled into one. However, the critic has destroyed any status any of these higher states might have afforded him by presuming, and pretentiously so, to have an opinion on music far greater than, well, anyone else’s. They relish in pointing out others’ poor tastes while touting the merits of their favorite indie-rock band flavor of the month. The worst kind of critic even gets paid to do this.

The music geek is generally a mix of the three elements above. Maybe this person has dabbled in teaching or even performing, thus lifting his or her status even higher. However, all credibility is gone and the music geek becomes the absolute bottom of the barrel if he or she should stoop so low as to become…

The Executive. The only person more loathed in the music world than a critic is the suit – the person paid the big bucks by some major record company to be a tastemaker. This generally means plugging into the next big thing which basically means finding what can best be marketed to a tween, teen, and/or adult market. If you are over 30, your musical dollar means nothing to the music exec, but the concert promoter will happily take your dough whenever your favorite geezer act trots its twenty-third trek across the United States in support of their eight-album discography – of which the last album was released six years ago.

Digital Haters. This is a special breed, generally a mix of the critic and the executive. This is NOT an assessment of those capable of lengthy rants about how much warmer and cleaner music sounds on LP; that’s more musicologist territory. Similarly, those independent record companies and music stores who still actually love music more than money are exempt from this category.

No, digital haters are those industry folks who continuously whine about how digital music is destroying the music industry. They rail on fans (or in the case of the RIAA, even sue them) for ruining the industry by picking and choosing only certain songs by artists (and often downloading them for free) instead of buying the long-overpriced album that the record companies shoved down people’s throats for so many years. Check your bank accounts – if your pockets are lined with money made from blockbuster albums forced on the public in the ‘90s, then hush. You “stole” a lot more money from fans than they’ve taken from you.


And on that happy note, we come to an end of this, no doubt, inspiring guide to those who pump music full of soul and those who suck it back out again. Worthy of note – I started this essay while midway through Almond’s Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life and later stumbled across his own chapter (“On the Varieites of Fanatical Experience”) which charts similar territory. Of course, you’ll have to shell out some bucks to read his opinion, while my musical brain droppings are, for now, still completely free. Someday, I too hope to reach the level of a Steve Almond where people willingly fork over their hard-earned cash for my musical opinions and observations. Beware – the world will probably come to an end shortly after.

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1 comment:

  1. "The Singer. This isn’t as simple as the person who warbled in the shower or performed concerts to an audience comprised only of oneself in the bathroom mirror. No, this person pretty much has to be credentialed in some manner – they’ve had formal training, they can boast of getting a 1 at state, they were in a choir, something. Building up alcohol-inspired courage to get on stage at karaoke night on a bet does NOT qualify one as a singer."
    .......VERY TRUE....Drunken pals can ruin the whole karaoke party..Karaoke is not serious singing but its "A" Class Entertainment and Should be restricted to genuine performers only !!!!

    ~ Karaoke Jockey India

    ReplyDelete