Column: [Can't Make A Living] – Perseverance Pt.2: Accidental Flaming Lips
Putting your music “out there” is simultaneously the most humbling and narcissistic action you can take and it’s ripe with responsibility.
It’s selfless (almost masochistic) because you’re allowing the public to judge your art (and you). It’s also narcissistic because you’re making the presumption that you are “good or even great” or at least worthy of our consideration and (maybe) praise.
I don’t care how you do it: handing out cassettes to friends, using tools like Bandcamp, Tumblr, and Soundcloud, playing club shows or a concert at Massey Hall, getting a record deal, whatever; when you make your music public you must be ready to face the feedback.
So why do it at all? Most people’s automatic response is “for the exposure.” More to the point, without exposure an artist cannot find and connect to an audience, and an artist requires an audience.
If you are still here, you might be thinking, “but I’ve been trying to gain an audience, Dean, and it’s very hard.”
Yes, yes it is. And if you are like me, you’ve read a lot of books and watched a lot of documentaries about your favourite bands. Being a “studio guy” for about a decade I’ve had the opportunity to meet and chat with a lot of musicians (some modestly successful and a few hugely famous). Hidden between the lines of most of these artist’s stories is a common secret ingredient: perseverance.
To the average person an artist’s journey to success may seem very short, maybe even overnight; but in reality, the journey is almost always long and hard – fraught with setbacks and revelations. This brings me to my first example:
THE FLAMING LIPS have been making their weirdly beautiful music since 1983 but it wasn’t until the summer of 1993 (six albums in) that they had their big break with, “She Don’t Use Jelly”. It was The Lips’ first radio hit and it’s still their highest charting single to date. It propelled them from a 30-something band that slept on floors and toured in vans to an international phenomenon complete with a dazzling show on par with PINK FLOYD.
In 1999 they would release a highly influential record, The Soft Bulletin (NME magazine’s Album of the Year), but not before losing a key band member and going through some major creative restructuring. But then again, restructuring is what the Lips had been doing all along.
In their bios, The Lips have often characterized their success as “the accidental recording career” but I believe that’s just a spin – chance had very little to do with it. The truth is, they just wouldn’t quit.
Under the leadership of singer Wayne Coyne, the band has been charting new courses throughout their career – adding and dropping members and making bold musical statements on the way. The progression from Oh, My Gawd (1987) and Hit to Death in the Future Head (1992) is simply mind-blowing.
In the “anything can happen” era of the early 1990s, it wasn’t unusual to see a band like THE FLAMING LIPS suddenly catch the fancy of a fickle public hungry for anything new, but what makes the Lips unique is their ability to sustain interest and still remain true to their weird vision.
A big part of The Lips phenomenon is their perceived caché by both the industry and their audience. Even before their breakout in 1993, they were seen as veterans of an underground post-punk scene (resulting in a major-label singing in 1990) and when they released the difficult four-disk experimental album Zaireeka (1997) – that’s four disks meant to be played simultaneously on four systems – fans and insiders alike saw them as bold and innovative and stuck with them.
I don’t think just any band can release a record like Zaireeka out of the gate, especially on a major label – that takes serious clout. The Lips’ longevity – their perseverance – played a major role in developing that clout. They are here and who they are because they survived; I can think of another similar example: RADIOHEAD (known as ON A FRIDAY when they formed in 1985).
If you haven’t seen it, I recommend you rent THE FLAMING LIPS documentary The Fearless Freaks (2005) (directed by long-time band video collaborator and award-winning documentary director Bradley Beesly).
Next Up >> Perseverance Part 3: Bob’s the Teacher