3.09.2007

The Death of a Dream

Music has always been my one great love. I never fantasized about marriage or kids – that would have been too easy. My daydreams were always limited to visions of rock stardom and large amounts of wealth. I believed my band and I would write sweeping, epic masterpieces and tour the world performing them. I would have a giant house, and buy giant houses for every member of my family. I would meet fascinating people, and they would find me fascinating. I would become that elusive, magical thing that I heard in every piece of music I loved. From the age of 8, that was the only thing my heart desired.

In retrospect, it’s possible to see how the dream was lost from the beginning. For one thing, I didn’t even like my own music. (My mom did, that seemed like enough.) For another, I hate performing live. I have the worst stage fright known to man, and shake like a Chihuahua when you put me in front of an audience. What kind of masochist wants to be a rock star when they hate being the center of attention? When I break it down, what was it exactly that I wanted?

Growing up, I was obsessed with the radio. My clock radio/cassette recorder and I spent many long hours together, me waiting breathlessly with my finger on the “record” button so I could capture my favorite song when it came on. When the song did finally enter my ears, I was transfixed and elated – I felt joined with something much bigger than myself. It was this feeling that drove me to dream so hard, not the love of performing. I wanted to become that feeling, for it to be permanently fixed in my heart and mind. Believing anything outside of myself would make this possible was perhaps my first mistake.

When it finally dawned on me that my life-long dream of becoming a famous songwriter was not going to come to fruition, I went to bed. Not for the night, but for 3 weeks. I was heartbroken. All around me I saw people succeeding with their music, and it made me miserable. Why couldn’t I have my dream when it seemed to happen to people all the time?

Later on I would tell my therapist that I equated music with God. Somewhere in my 8-year-old mind, I connected my musical heros with that great mysterious power. Call it God, or divinity or whatever, but that is what I was pining for all along.

I think this is true of everyone. Whether your prevailing desire is love, success, money or fame, the underlying hunger is to be deeply connected with something. Regardless of life’s circumstances, this connection is possible. The trick is that it isn’t something you can chase after. What’s the point in chasing something that is with you all along?

So the dream is forced to take new shape, and the path becomes something a little more obscure. For some people it’s religion or meditation. For others it’s immersion in a hobby or a sport. For me, my great joy (and still sometimes sorrow) remains music. Whatever the thing that brings stillness or awareness to your mind, the ultimate goal is complete acceptance of every waking moment.

I’ve since accepted that it was not my fate to become a rock star, or to be obscenely wealthy. Instead, my fortune is a series of small revelations in the department of personal evolution. Instead of the trappings of fame and fortune, I have managed to gain some wisdom. And if wisdom leads me to a greater peace and happiness, then absolutely nothing has been lost.

3.08.2007

Checkered Taxi?

I am a musician, and I shamelessly want people to like my music. But if I have to try and start one more band or pass out one more flyer, I am going to hang myself.

Two years ago I recorded a CD with very high hopes. Anyone who has ever tried to promote their own music knows what a frustrating endeavor it can be. And if you have a strong distaste for rejection, you are going to become discouraged very fast. In my case, that is exactly what happened.

Once my CD was complete, I naively thought all I had to do was move to Los Angeles, form a band, play some shows, develop a following, and attract label attention. The rest would be history. So that’s what I did. But my band mates needed to be paid, the venues were disappointed in our small draw, CDs weren't selling and I was running out of money fast. It didn't help that I was getting a parking ticket every other day.

Call it a lack of perseverance, but after a year in LA "chasing my dream" I threw in the towel. There's nothing like following your bliss to make you really depressed. Feeling defeated, I moved back to San Diego.

I thought, 'there has got to be an easier way to do this'. This line of thinking led me to find Taxi, "The World's Leading Independent A&R Company." I was skeptical, but it didn't take much convincing.

I went to their website and read the listings placed by major labels, program directors and management companies:

"Amazingly talented SINGER-SONGWRITERS are being sought by the Program Director of a remarkably influential L.A. radio station..."

"SINGER-SONGWRITER/AAA ARTISTS are wanted by an LA-based Management Firm. They want to find talented artists ready to be shopped to indie/major labels."

At least a dozen of them were looking for me exactly. ME! I read the 'success' stories with hope in my heart. Bands getting signed, musicians getting publishing deals, songs placed in TV and Film. Drooling a little I thought, oh, they’d totally play my music on “House”. This should be a piece of cake. I'll go back to my day job. Hey Taxi, let me know when I can put in my two-weeks notice, I'll be ready.

So I paid the membership fee and started submitting my songs to these listings. I was furious to find out that not only did I have to pay for my membership, but then I had to fork over five whopping dollars for EVERY song I submitted. And if I wanted to submit online, I had to go to Broadjam.com and pay yet again to have my music hosted.

With Dawson's Creek in my peripheral, I sighed, accepted, and got out my credit card. At the very least, I thought, it will be nice to get the reviews from industry professionals.

The first time my music was "returned" (read: REJECTED), I cried. Proof, I thought, that my music just wasn't good enough. The accompanying review read roughly like this:
"The lyrics are too vague."

"You aren't giving the listener enough detail to really draw them in to the song."

"The harmonic progressions and the melodic choices at times are awkward and interrupt the song flow."

"Be careful about trying to be too heady musically."

Then came the anger. Who are these effing people anyway? I'm an ARTIST! They obviously know nothing about my ART! I learned right away that these "screeners" were not my friends.

And then I got my first "forward". It read roughly like this:
"Your vocal here Rachel is strong, engaging, seductive and haunting...all at the same time."

"Nice effort. Specifics in the verse lyrics really do create a nice sense of imagery."

"For the right situation or project, these songs can be a nice fit. It's a forward!"

Wait, maybe these folks aren't so bad after all? But then I was returned again, then forwarded, then returned. I grew a thicker skin, and waited for my reward. It never came.

It has been almost two years since I joined Taxi, and I have been forwarded about 20 times. Each time I'm forwarded, I have a rekindled hope for my floundering dream. Every time I read: “Congratulations Rachel! Your songs were forwarded to..." I still get excited. But a little less every time.

The last time I was forwarded I decided to contact the label. I know this is frowned upon, but I was starting to feel very suspicious. How come I haven't received a single phone call from these supposed "forwards"?

I contacted this particular label. I sent them a little note saying something like, "Hey, my music was just forwarded to you via Taxi, I hope to hear from you."

I got a note back that gave me the impression that they had not even solicited Taxi for artists, and that additionally my music was "not really what we are looking for."

The little wheels in my head starting turning. Are my "forwards" really being heard by anyone? Am I being scammed by Taxi?

So I sent Taxi a letter that said, in so many words, what the hell is the deal?

A couple weeks later, and to my surprise, I got a letter from Michael Laskow, president and CEO of Taxi. In it, he gave me a brief explanation of the forwarding process, the time it takes and the many levels of people involved. He said, "But I admit, that from the member's perspective (and that's the only one that counts), it looks like we're not forwarding your material." Yeah, it does look like that.

But the letter was enough, in my mind, to effectively exonerate Taxi of any foul play. The letter concluded by inviting me to Taxi headquarters to investigate for myself. No computer, filing cabinet or database, I was told, would be off limits to me.

Hey, that's pretty cool, I thought. But I believed him enough and was relatively satisfied by his explanation.

Then I read, "you can write about it for our newsletter." Because I like writing and road trips, I agreed to go. Besides, maybe there was something fishy going on. I told everyone I was going to LA to do some 'investigative journalism."

So I called Taxi, and Michael was on the phone within 30 seconds. The first thing I noticed about Michael is that he is well suited for his job. By that I mean he is charming and personable. I liked him right away. He made sure that I understood he was a family guy, and that he was on his way to a theme park with his kids. This made me suspicious. Only people with an agenda are this nice.

We agreed to meet the following Friday.

A nice woman from Taxi named Tina arranged for me and a friend of mine to stay at the local Marriot. My friend, Carly, and I drove up from San Diego late Thursday night, then drove to Taxi’s headquarters the next day.

We met Michael outside. He was smoking a cigarette, which is a great bonding agent, as it allows you to discuss the evils of smoking from one addict to another. We shook hands, smoked and chatted about quitting smoking. Then I put on my 'representing the starving artist' hat.

I told him how much it sucked to pay a membership fee only to get a negative critique from some nameless screener who maybe used to manage a hair metal band in the 80’s. OK, I didn't say that exactly, but that's what I meant. Michael understood, and he wanted me to understand that Taxi was not the bad guy, that they were working FOR the musician, not against them. This was the whole reason I was there. Apparently a lot of complaints similar to mine had cropped up recently, and he wanted me to see the truth and spread the gospel.

Michael led Carly and I into a tidy brick building full of different businesses. My first impression of the Taxi offices was that they were nice - professional and clean, with just the right amount of rock-inspired art. It's hip, but not too hip, with the kind of clutter that says, "People work here." Nothing too fancy, but certainly not the bare-bulbs warehouse I had sometimes imagined. My second impression was that I did not get the creepy, 'this is a scam' vibe that I get when I meet a telemarketer. Everybody was nice, everybody was working, and nobody seemed “prepped” in anticipation of our arrival.

As we walked through the different rooms, Michael explained their function.
"The is the meeting room, this is the receiving room, this is the listening room." The listening room impressed me the most. It is a large room featuring a library-style row of about 20 listening stations. Several people sat in the stations, wearing headphones and jotting down little notes. If you go online to http://www.taxi.com/abouts/webcam.html you can actually see it for yourself on the "Live A&R Cam." Have no doubt; people ARE listening to your music.

But what are their qualifications? What makes these people eligible to decide if my music is going to the next level? I asked Michael, and he told me basically that not just anyone can be a screener. They have to have real "industry" experience, whether it's songwriting, producing, engineering or managing. And those that do qualify go through a rigorous training and screening process themselves. This training teaches the screener what to listen for, and what they are often listening for is the catchy song formula. Well no wonder, I thought. I don't write songs for their catchiness, I write them for their moodiness. This gave me much food for thought.

Indeed, nothing was off limits to us, and we could clearly see what looks like a legitimate operation in progress. People hustled about, doing their various jobs. Michael introduced us to many people, including a guy named Chris Baptiste, who has been with Taxi for eight years, and is currently Sr. Director of A&R. Clint McBay who is also a Sr. Director A&R joined us as well.

Chris, Michael and occasionally Clint sat with us for more than two hours, explaining in great detail the ins and outs of the entire process. We learned about everything from the listings database to the mailroom. I saw first-hand the way the listings come in, and the way they are sent to the screeners, complete with special instructions that say stuff like, "they are looking for a polished act," or "Music library wants radio-friendly ballads," or "No crap." By "no crap" they mean, be very selective. Some clients will say, "Let us hear it all. We want to find that gem in the rough." And then they are irritated to find themselves having to sift through the, uh, crap. That is why submissions are screened so rigorously.

One thing that was made very clear to us is just WHY it takes so long to hear from a label or publisher after it's been forwarded. Initially, it's because it can take up to a week of processing after you've been notified for the to be sent. There’s a lot more to that process than you think.

After that it comes down to something very simple: people in the music industry are busy. Nobody has time to waste. I get the distinct impression that these people don't even call their own mothers, let alone some songwriter who they may or may not be interested in. Simply stated, if you've been forwarded by Taxi, smile and forget about it. Not because it isn't going where they said it would, or because it won't be just what they were looking for. But because after your music leaves Taxi's hands it goes through a brand new process entirely, where it can very well sit in somebody's in-box for a year before it's listened to. And if they're not interested, you simply won't hear from them at all. So, seriously, let it go.

OK, let’s say you can’t let it go. It’s perfectly natural. So you contact the label and they have no idea what you’re talking about. That’s probably because the person you’re talking to is not the one who placed the listing. But now you’re pissed off and feeling swindled. So you contact them again and ask to speak to the person in charge. But they won’t call you back (because, like I said, these guys have no sense of urgency to return phone calls.) So now you’re really freaking out. You’re thinking, “My very future is in their hands and I must KNOW what’s GOING ON! Are they gonna sign me OR WHAT?!?” So you call again. And again. Apparently this happens all the time. Eventually, the person who placed the listing calls up Taxi and says, “We’re not running listings with you anymore. Your members are crazy.” I guess what I’m saying is that it just isn’t productive to contact these companies. For your own peace of mind, take up knitting or soccer and keep your mind in the present moment. Learn to trust that your music was delivered where it’s supposed to and let them come to you. I liken this situation to meeting someone you really like. Nobody wants to date a stalker.

When it was all said and done, I found that I'd had a good time. I left with a positive feeling, if only because I got to meet some very genuine people. The agenda I had imagined Michael would have was only to show me that, "We are not the enemy. We do what we say we do." And they do.

I think a lot of people are at the end of their dream by the time they get to Taxi. They are looking for that one last push after an endless stream of fruitless efforts. It can make the world feel like a very vicious and unwelcoming place. Once you've reached that point, it's easy to find evidence that the entire world is out to get you. The most important thing to remember is that there are a million avenues toward success. Do not think that Taxi is the only way, and give them the power to single-handedly crush your dream. Even in my advanced state of bitterness, I still believe there is a home out there for my music.

The bottom line is this:
Is Taxi legit? YES. But don't expect to get your money back if they don't think your music is ready for human consumption. Sometimes what you are paying for is just the critique (and two tickets to Taxi’s yearly convention). It IS possible to grow as a songwriter with Taxi's help, if you truly absorb and apply the reoccurring theme in their critiques. And I bet, for some people, that alone is worth the membership fee. It can be hard to accept, though, when you've worked hard at something, only to be told that it should have been done differently. If you are looking for validation that you are a musical genius, you are not going to get it from Taxi. Call your mother for that.

Will Taxi make you a rock star? It could happen. Will it earn you a royalty check? Maybe. But your chances of getting one as an experimental math-rock band are far less than if you're a spit-polished pop songwriter. But, as Michael said, even so-called 'alternative' bands have used the catchy song formula. You can be artsy or edgy and still be catchy. Regardless of the kind of music you play, if it's memorable, it can potentially put money in your pocket. If you're like me, you'll say, "This isn't about money. I'm an ARTIST!" Don't let anyone tell you otherwise, the music business is about money, not art.

The fact remains that if you want to succeed with your music (and by succeed I mean make money), you probably still have some flyers to pass out. There is no substitute for hard work, determination and real-world interaction (as opposed to sitting in front of the computer all day like I do, waiting for the email that will change your life).

As for me, I won't be quitting my day job any time soon.

Getting Over Getting Over It

There comes a time after every breakup, when you learn that the other person has started dating someone else. Unless the person you were formerly dating becomes a monk, this fact is practically inevitable.

So it should have come as no surprise to me when I learned that my recent ex-boyfriend had a new lady friend. I knew on some level that this would happen, but I was not prepared for the way it would make me feel. This person, who had shared his love and affection only with me, was now sharing it with somebody else.

This is a marvelous way to discover just how human you are. I don’t know what made me think that I was above jealousy, but it turns out I am not. When I heard the news that my ex was ‘seeing’ someone, I suddenly understood the term “jealous rage”. This rage manifested as a long bout of crying, followed by a frenzied attempt to distract myself with other things.

In the process of trying to distract myself, I was introduced to the friend of a friend. Where I could not fathom the idea of dating just a few short weeks earlier, I was suddenly open to the idea of meeting someone new. Discovering, after such a short time, that my ex had already “moved on” was the equivalent of shooting me out of a canon into the dating world. Oh, he’s dating? Fine, I’m dating too.

What I was not prepared for was the possibility that I would meet someone I really liked, and that things would progress at warp speed and land me square in the lap of yet another relationship. I’m not sure if this is good or bad.

On the one hand, it’s great; how can I complain about being in those dreamy early stages with someone, where everything is exciting and new? On the other hand, I probably could have benefited from a few months, or even years, by myself. Just as I was settling in for the long haul of single life, here comes Mr. Wonderful.

If there is one thing I have learned during all of this, it’s that people can absolutely not be replaced. I imagined that when I found someone new, I’d be blissfully ensconced in the prospect of new love, and that would be a panacea. Instead, I’ve discovered that there is no avoiding those relationship wounds that are still so fresh. New man or not, I still have to deal with some very scary emotions, and mourn the life that I knew.

So I find myself between two worlds; the shiny, new one and the old, comfortable one that I still miss. I often compare these worlds to each other, and wonder if I’m doing the right thing. Is it too soon for new love? Did I make mistakes with the old one? Do I need to spend a year alone? I don’t know. I can slap a bunch of labels on my situation and drive myself to misery, or I can embrace this life without reserve. The most interesting part is that happiness can scare you every bit as much as sadness. So what’s the point in struggling against any of it? The best thing I can remind myself is to “be here now.”

So the challenge is to stay in the present moment, and accept that things are unfolding exactly as they should be. Perhaps I will discover something completely unexpected – a happiness independent of any person or situation. One I can take with me anywhere.

Mission to the Void

My boyfriend and I recently broke up. We lived together in a big, beautiful house on a corner, near a park. Together we rescued a puppy, got ourselves a propane grill and enjoyed many hours of pay per view movies on his big screen TV. We shared all the comforts of life for four years.

Ultimately, we agreed that we were mismatched. It was the usual things – I’m a bad housekeeper, he is a republican, I am a dreamer, he is a realist, etc. So we called it quits. He bought a house and moved out. The dog and I stayed in the big, empty rental we shared until I found a tiny condo to live in.

The day I picked up the last of our debris and left the house empty was a very, very hard day. I stood in the kitchen, staring at the dust balls of our shared life, and cried. Not just a few tears, but all of them. I cried the way people cry at funerals, until my eyes were swollen and my head ached.

I cried because I couldn’t watch Oprah on his big screen TV, because my dog would no longer have a yard, because there was no one to ask “what’s for dinner?,’ and because I missed him. During moments like that, I find it impossible to remember exactly why we broke up. I tried to conjure up the feeling of irritation I get when he’s being annoying, but all I could feel was loss.

Breaking up is just not fun. It’s a death of sorts – the death of that enigmatic entity called “The Relationship”. But people break up every day - it’s not a tragedy. So why does it feel like one?

I once read that if you can conquer loneliness, you can conquer anything. As I unpack my belongings and try to squeeze them into my tiny condo, I begin to understand my mission, and accept it. The object of this mission is to become friends with that awful, aching feeling of being alone.

People stay in bad relationships for years to avoid this feeling. It’s like staring into a dark and endless abyss. You look into your own future and all you can see is a lifetime of Saturday nights reading, and people telling you to “join a club”.

I told a friend recently that I wanted to fall in love – with myself, so that I would never need another person to make me happy. That isn’t going to happen. Unfortunately, I’m a human being, and I’m never going to get over my desire to connect with other humans. But I can stop averting my eyes every time I feel empty. I can look directly into the void and see what it is I’ve been hiding from all these years. It’s like a mysterious old closet, piled high with the ghosts of everything I ever tried to avoid.

Here, with life stripped of all familiar distractions, is a beautiful opportunity to look into the face of the void, and make it a place of refuge. It’s a chance to be comfortable in silence, and know myself. I suspect that was the mission all along.

To Breed or Not to Breed

By my age, most people are married, or at least have a solid divorce under their belt. They also usually have children, mortgage payments and at least one good suit.

I am 34 and none of these things apply to me. It’s as if my adulthood has been indefinitely postponed, except for the fact that my body is starting to wear gravity like a light shawl, pulling on me gently. Before long it will be on me like a heavy winter jacket.

There are times when I feel bad for not having these “adult” things. Not because I want to have kids, or that I even need a good suit, but because I feel that I SHOULD. Wouldn’t it be more acceptable to have the trappings of family life by now? Toddlers that will grow up to be trusted companions? A 401K plan? A husband? Yeah, it’d be nice.

Or would it? When I was growing up, the only examples of family life I ever saw included a lot of unhappy adults who felt trapped. This is the model on which I base my life. Commit to nothing and you will never be stuck in a bad marriage or disappointed by divorce. You will never be that red-haired woman sitting at my parents’ kitchen table, crying after signing her divorce papers. I must have been about 10 or so when this friend of the family came over to share the news with us. She was smoking a cigarette, and when she leaned over to put her face in her hands, she singed a bit of her red hair. When I think about marriage, I don’t see a blissful union between two people. I see her.

As for having children, I am torn. I like the idea of having grown kids who bring their friends and spouses over, who fill the house with life and activity. But that’s the problem – I imagine grown kids, not little kids. When I think of small children, I imagine restless and shrieking animals who demand attention, and then later, money. As a kid myself, I never daydreamed about having my own family, or played with baby dolls while fantasizing about motherhood. To this day, I have trouble picturing it. And as for that “ticking biological clock” thing, I don’t hear it. Not even the slightest tick.

Sure, sometimes I see happy families portrayed on TV and feel a slight pull. And I know my ovaries have an expiration date on them, so if I’m going to spawn, I’d better do it soon. But that strong desire just isn’t there. Shouldn’t kids be something you desperately want, or even need?

I do think about adoption. There are plenty of kids who need a loving home already, without me filling the planet with more of my own. This idea appeals to me quite a bit more. But as it stands right now, I’m just not ready.

My mother says you are never “ready” for children. She also says it’s best to have them when you’re young, and still too na├»ve to understand all the myriad ways you can screw a child up. Having children at a young age also means you still have that exuberant, youthful energy it takes to chase them around. Seeing as I’ve never had a whole lot of energy, even as a youngster, that’s one more strike against me as a future parent.

Another strike against me is this telling fact: children, more often than not, really annoy me. I’m told that it’s different when they’re yours, that you’ll love them because they are a part of you. But when I go to the park and a half a dozen kids start chasing my dog while shouting and grabbing for her tail, it makes me wonder if I am completely unsuited for parenthood.

I can see my 80 year old grandmother, wringing her hands and making that “tsk tsk” sound she makes when she disapproves of something. I see her clutching her chest, groaning, “Oy,” as she imagines her granddaughter as a barren old maid. But I am not daunted by those outdated views. There are times when I feel the pressure to catch up to my married and pregnant peers, thinking “What a sad, grown woman I am, single and childless.” But then I look around. I know just as many people my age who are un-tethered, and make no apologies for it. It seems, as the generations evolve, that more and more people are choosing not to have children.

I recently read an article in a feminist magazine about childlessness as a sort of “movement”. Many women are angry and feel stigmatized by society for not being a parent. There is a sense that they have to “explain” their childless status to a society who looks upon them with judgment or pity. These women firmly embrace their decision and want the world to accept it, too. It made me realize that there are a lot of women choosing not to procreate, and that it’s ok.

Understand, I am not a baby-hater. I think being a mother is one of the great, noble callings in life. The only thing that makes me feel regret, is that I might not get to experience the true selflessness of being a parent. I worry that I won’t mature to full capacity, or that I will become increasingly selfish. But these reasons alone are not enough to inspire me to run out and find a donor.

I am open to the possibility that one day I will hear the ticking of the proverbial “biological clock.” If that happens, I will embrace the idea of raising a family of my own. For now, I pour all those unused nurturing instincts into my 9-pound dog and feel content.

narcissistic rambling

Due to the lack of Switchyard news, I have decided to use this blog as a resting home for various ramblings, articles and random photos. It will keep me off the streets.