05/24/2013 06:12 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

5,178 Gigs: Living With Fame and Living Without It

With all the changes in popular music over the decades, the stereotypes about being a rock star have changed very little. My young guitar students totally buy into the Nickelback "Rockstar" vision, probably missing the irony. This 2005 song could be about the Byrds in the 1960s or Led Zeppelin in the 1970s.

So you want to be a rock and roll star? If you're young, energetic and unattached, I say you should go for it! Grab that brass ring. Reach for the stars. Don't surrender to cynicism or common sense.

But take some time to consider that fame does not always lead to a happy outcome in your personal or professional life. Your career plans should allow for the fact most people never become famous and those that do rarely stay on top for long. That being said, you can still live a full creative life and have a perfectly viable music career without ever achieving rock star status.

The bookshelves at Barnes & Noble groan under the weight of biographies about rock stars whose lives were ruined by fame. You can learn a lot from these cautionary tales, especially the insecurities that result from hitting the top at a very young age. The celebrity-industrial complex obsesses on your social life and your relationships rather than your work as a creative person.

You're famous for being famous, not your work as a creative person.

And let's be honest: the pressures of fame do not lead most musicians to do their best work. Your first album might consist of songs that were crafted over a number of years, perfected over countless performances in small clubs. The members of your band probably developed your sound in obscurity and isolation. You had only to please yourselves, your friends and your initial group of fans. If you were lucky enough to come up with a hit song, perhaps it was a quirky accident, unlikely to be repeated.

Once you are famous, there are demands to build on your initial success. How can you find the space and time to create something wonderful without thinking about all that is riding on it? Unless you are very strong-willed and prepared to fight for your vision, chances are you will recycle the ideas that have already worked for you. Or worse, you will follow someone else's advice about what is "commercial" and lose the very identity that built your fan base in the first place.

Record companies can rarely afford to give artists the time they need to fully develop their craft over several albums. And few artists are prepared to say "F**k You!" to their record company and walk away with their integrity intact.

So even if fame eludes you, recognize that it need not be a death sentence for your career. You may find that you create better music without it. In 2013, you can make a good argument that the traditional model of fame and fortune through a major label record deal is obsolete. Record companies may have outlived their usefulness. There are so many alternative ways to build an audience and connect with fans who remain loyal over many years and will support you as you perfect your musical vision. Perhaps you should strive for that sweet spot where you are just famous enough!

There were a few times with Suzanne and I came close to being famous. In 1990, our band Combo Limbo was selected as the "Best Unsigned Band" at the SKC/New York Music Awards. We were in the company of previous winners including Shawn Colvin. There was a big ceremony at the Beacon Theater. Lou Gramm of Foreigner gave us the award onstage. I vaguely recall giving a short speech about all the other struggling bands in New York, expecting that we were leaving that phase of our career behind. If only!


There were many reasons why our career failed to reach escape velocity after winning this award. Future posts will deal with much of this. The point is that there was a long career ahead of us after this brush with fame and 23 years later we're still in the hunt. It remains a struggle, but by now it's just standard operating procedure for us.

At age 57, I joke about not wanting to peak too early. Each year, we get to do a handful of shows in nice theatrical settings with professional sound and lighting. It makes me wonder what it would be like to play large venues regularly and get the kind of charge you can only get when you have a large house rocking with you.

Instead, I get the satisfaction of performing in more intimate settings where I can connect with nearly everyone in the audience. Often we perform for people who desperately need the emotional uplift that music can bring. It's feels great to see that my music makes a positive difference in their lives.

It's not fame. Maybe it's something better.
Here's my favorite song about being not-famous, courtesy of the Roches.