Last week, I was one of 18 people inducted in to the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame Class of 2014. I’ve been asked repeatedly what it means to me, in the time leading up to the induction gala, and in the days following it. I’m humbled, greatly, by the honor. But reflecting on the induction, I realize that what stands out about all of this has absolutely nothing to do with me.
As the mantra penned on all of the publicity materials surrounding this year’s induction said, “It’s about the music.”
If you visit the hall’s website and click on the “Inductees A-Z” tab, you’ll be directed to a list that, should you desire to print it out, totals 10 pages of small type. The names on that list tell the story of Buffalo’s musical culture. Taking it all in at once suggests that it’s not about the individual names so much as it is about the passion for music those names represent. All of these people dedicated their lives to performing, writing, celebrating, producing or helping to publicize music in Buffalo and its surrounding environs. What’s telling is the fact that most of them are not famous, are not names that would be recognized outside of the region. And yet, their contributions to the area’s culture are considerable.
Why do they do it? Because, as the mantra makes plain, it’s about the music.
Perhaps you’ve seen this joke kicking around Facebook: “Two guys were walking down the street ... one was destitute ... the other was a guitar player as well.”
It’s funny and, generally speaking, true. But it’s also revelatory, because it speaks to the idea that music is, or should be, a calling more than simply a vocation. Of the 10 pages worth of names on the inductee list, it’s quite likely that the majority of them did not get into music solely to make a buck, or even to become famous, necessarily. (We should probably discount Rick James in this discussion – he was always going to be famous, and his autobiography made it plain that he was not at all averse to getting rich in the process, either, bless his heart.)
These ideas were running through my brain over the weekend when I was at a casino reviewing a show and, afterward, strolled across the gaming floor where an incredibly well-dressed cover band was playing on an elevated stage above a bar full of patrons who were, for the most part, ignoring it. The band was playing the hits of the day – yes, Pharrell’s “Happy” was one of them – in a tight and professional manner. These types of casino bookings are well known to be high-paying gigs. So the band was being abundantly remunerated for the privilege of being ignored by the crowd.
There’s nothing wrong with this. Cover bands are part of every healthy music scene. They make people happy, even if they’re not happy to be playing “Happy.” They tend to be made up of highly skilled musicians.
But I would rather play music I love, that I feel passionate about, for no money, than play music that I don’t care about, for good money. (Of course, I have a day job. So perhaps my thoughts on this topic have far less meaning.)
When you’re scanning the list of inductees since the Hall’s first active year in 1983 you are likely to note many of the people did what they believed in, and didn’t stop doing it just because big money and bigger fame didn’t happen to come their way. Most of them were and are “lifers” – musicians for whom, to paraphrase a weathered Keith Richards quote, the only way out of a life in music is in a 6-by-6 pine box.
I moved to Buffalo 25 years ago because of the music. While studying at SUNY Fredonia, I met musicians from Buffalo, I traveled to Buffalo for concerts at the old Aud, and finally, I started frequenting Buffalo because I found the local music scene to be vibrant, buzzing, full of talented people who performed with the commitment of the true zealot. Music drew me here, and music convinced me to stay. It’s not the only art form contributing to our rich cultural fabric, but it is certainly one of the major ones.
In the time since, I’ve been blessed to be enmeshed in a music community that has always struggled. I say blessed, because it is through this struggle that the great character of the people who make up this scene is both revealed and celebrated.
It’s easy to continue to play music when you are consistently rewarded for doing so, when the good gigs flow like wine, when the money is decent, and the industry is smiling on you. Or so I’m told by friends who live in Los Angeles. (Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week. And then some.)
In seriousness, it’s the endurance through tough times, against both logic and tall odds, often against the wishes of family and a sometimes indifferent public, with a bad back that makes it tough to lug your amp in the back door, through the kitchen and onto the cramped stage, and the whipping wind and gusts of snow that greet you at the end of the night as you load your gear out, only to find you were given a parking ticket. These, the things that try musicians’ souls and make them think they should have listened to their mother and gotten a real job, are the very measure of commitment and integrity.
Buffalo is growing, rebounding from decades of at best stasis and at worst near-collapse. It’s an incredibly exciting thing to witness. Will this growth spill over into the music scene? Will Buffalo ever be a New York, Los Angeles or Austin? Who knows? Whatever happens, you will always be able to find dedicated and talented musicians here, whether they’re working for great pay or a bar tab. Because they know it’s about the music.