Sunday, October 22, 2006

So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star by Jacob Slichter

As drummer for Semisonic, Slichter experienced the full range of musical fortunes. The band had one of the biggest singles of 1998 ("Closing Time"), but their career quickly withered when they failed to produce another hit. Anyone who wants to know how the real world of rock & roll works must read this book.

As one would expect, Slichter describes getting a record deal, recording albums, shooting videos, and touring around the world. He also talks about how record label politics can affect a band's chances for success. But So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star is most illuminating when Slichter delves into aspects of the industry that the average fan doesn't think about: groveling for airplay before radio program directors, discovering the critical role of independent promoters (the modern, legal incarnation of payola), and learning how record companies minimize their risk -- practically every dollar spent on the band (including those payments to independent promoters) has to be earned back before the artists get paid a penny.

Slichter captures the exhilaration of being onstage in front of thousands of people along with the excitement of meeting and working with music legends like Carole King and the master of mastering, Bob Clearmountain. His description of touring is brilliantly written as a single day that shifts from venue to venue to illustrate the sameness of the routine. Finally, he recounts the painful unraveling of the band's prospects as their third album, Chemistry, fails to produce a hit.

Ironically, the book's only notable fault echoes Semisonic's -- timing. Much as Semisonic's clever pop rock was out of step with what was being played on the radio in their prime, So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star was published as the Internet was becoming an integral part of music promotion, particularly for new bands (Slichter's mention of the Internet is limited to discussion forums). It's a shame the band and the book didn't come later -- the Internet may have helped the band overcome the "handicap" of not fitting into a radio station format, and the book wouldn't have become instantly dated. Nevertheless, the book is a great description of most of the music industry; it's just missing the Internet element.

Despite that fault, So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star should be a required reality check for anyone who dreams of hitting the rock & roll jackpot.

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