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You Want to be a Rock Star?

Jobs in any performance industry aren’t exactly “dime a dozen.”  Sure, anyone can strap on a guitar, put out a hat for tips in the park, and call him or herself a “musician.”  CD production can be done at home. is an instant audience.  But true success?  That’s harder to come by.  Achieving the status of “legend,” either bestowed by a hall of fame, an award, or the media–the ultimate challenge.

So you want to be a music legend.  (Or maybe it’s your kid who spends more time writing songs than doing science homework).  While there are often predictable paths which lead to many professions, becoming a music legend isn’t so easy.  If you study and pass certain exams, you can be a nurse or a teacher.  Hard work, study, and even luck makes no guarantees in the music industry.

What Makes a Music Legend?

Jackson Browne in Concert/Carol Berman

Jackson Browne in Concert/Carol Berman

There are some traits that all legends have in common.  Mark Wolfson has more than 3 decades in the music business, as a producer and a writer primarily.  He’s worked with artists including Smokey Robinson, Van Halen, and Talking Heads.  With all the people who have entered his studios, the legends stand out. “Now more than ever, someone who might be good at whatever they would accomplish are the people who are always going to stand out.  Someone like Jason Mraz,” he says.  “They’re driven in any form.  It becomes an inherent personality trait.  The more glutted the market is, the more they stand out.”

Being great musicians offer no guarantees.  Remember the 80s group, TOTO?  Extremely talented studio musicians, but legends? Not so much.  “They became a super-band out of the need for the record label to make it happen,” says Wolfson.

Jackson Browne has had it all–stories, longevity, prolific turnout, awards, consistent touring–but is he a legend?  It seems so random.

In fact, talent might have nothing to do with it.  “There are plenty incredibly, even supernaturally talented musicians who will never become legends,” says Robert Fink, Professor and Chair of UCLA’s Department of Musicology. “And there are musical legends who are not actually that musically talented–Ringo Starr?  Sid Vicious?  Flavor Flav?”

Who Gets to Decide Who’s a Music Legend?

According to Fink, legend status is often the result of coronation by the media more than consumers.  “Certainly it is possible to be a legend in your own time, if your story is archetypal enough,” he says.  “The turning moment would be the moment when someone “tells the tale” in a way that catches the attention of the public, and that “fixes” the artist’s story in a form that will last.”

Sounds a little depressing to me.  It’s the story, not the music.  What about controlling your destiny, working until you make it, die trying and all those positive messages that get people through the day?  In the music world, that’s just not realistic.

Wolfson sees a more linear progression–organizations like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bestow legend status.   DJs and websites keep artists in the spotlight.  And listeners and fans keeps it going further.

How Long Does it Take?

If you’re lucky, legend status can actually be observed before death.  Let’s face it, death, especially a tragic one, becomes a great story and adds to the mystique.  Take note, fans of Janis Joplin, Lynryd Skynrd, and Otis Redding.

But if you compare photos of the artists who sang in “We Are the World” from 1985 and “We Are the World” for Haiti 2010, what’s notable is that most of the singers in the older photo are still around, still singing, and still filling seats. Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen, to name a few of the soloists. (A side note: Barbra Streisand was asked by Quincy Jones to participate in 1985.  She turned it down and kicked herself for it.  So the second time, she jumped on.)  That’s not to say they’re all legends, and only time will tell about the new crew including Justin Bieber and Akon.  But with Autotune and technology smoothing out more rough spots, talent is more easily molded, manufactured, and helped along the way.

And Then There’s Life.

Truth is, optimistic or not, the odds of becoming a legend are slim.  You might win the lottery first.  But in real life, musicians find happiness and fulfillment anyway.  Just look at the rejects from American Idol, performers who had a leg up from the get-go.  Several find jobs on Broadway–Fantasia Barrino in The Color Purple, Tamyra Grey in Rent, and Constantine Maroulis was nominated for a Tony award in Rock of Ages.  Others fall into obscurity.

Scott Albert Johnson

Mississippi Musician Scott Albert Johnson/Susan Margaret Barrett

Scott Albert Johnson, a musician from Jackson, MS, pays the bills as a writer.  He’s earned degrees from Harvard and Columbia.  But if you ask the married father of three what he does for a living, “musician” is what he’ll say.  “You had better love it, to the extent that you can’t live without it, if you’re going to give it a go,” says Johnson.  “My main goal has always been to get my music to as wide an audience as possible, via recordings as well as live performances.  That goal has never changed and I don’t think it ever will. Thanks to the Internet and social media, I have been able to get fans and recognition all over the world despite very limited touring.”

Johnson released his album, “Umbrella Man” in 2007.  He’s not selling out stadiums, but he’s ok with that.  He’s shared stages with Rock and Roll Hall of Famer James Burton and Marty Stuart, who played in Johnny Cash’s band and is a gold solo recording artist.  These are the experiences which inspire and motivate him.  His second album is due

Legends of Tomorrow

We put our experts on the spot to identify current artists who have “legend” potential; the ones to watch.  Professor Fink’s money is on White Stripes’ frontman Jack White and Singer-songwriter Conor Oberst.  For women, for some reason, it’s a bit more difficult. “It is harder for women to become legends, but some stories are compelling, like, say Mariah Carey, who I would bet on over, say, Beyonce, who is beautiful and talented (ie, “diva”), but whose story is a little…bland,” says Fink.

Wolfson would agree, that the White Stripes are poised for long-standing greatness along with the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, The Shins, Foo Fighters and Green Day

Johnson names Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Louis Armstrong, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, and Bonnie Raitt in the “legend” category.  And his heroes might just fall into that category too: Sting, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, Pete Townshend, most of the Beatles.

Your chances of hitting it big?  Consider Johnson’s goals…which might not result in riches but will maintain sanity in an insane industry.  And they all stem from observing the legends he admires:
“They can (1) sing well, (2) play an instrument exceptionally well, and (3) write good, challenging songs that work on a lot of levels,” says Johnson.  “That’s what I strive for.”

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1 comment

1 ciaochowlinda { 04.24.10 at 11:09 pm }

Hi Carol – nice connecting with you again at the reunion today. Your blog is great – thought provoking. This post reminds me of what I always told my kids when they were contemplating their future careers – just like what Joseph Campbell said – “Follow Your Bliss.”