Saturday, February 20, 2016

Counting My Blessings #3: My Career

I didn't want to let another week go by without continuing to count my blessings. If you haven't read my previous two posts in this series, I encourage you to do so. In the first post, I talked about my immediate family and the wonderful upbringing I had, and in the second, I talked about Sharon and the love we've shared for so many years. This time, I want to talk about the fact that I received a great privilege that most people never get. I got to do what I love for a living.

They say that if you do what you love for a living, you never work a day in your life. That's not true, but that's what they say. Whoever THEY are. But it is true that when your passion is also your job, even the jobs you don't want to do are better than working in a job you hate. One part of my career that I've never particularly enjoyed is scoring. That is, creating printed music that musicians can read and play from. Whenever I would start on a scoring job that I was dreading, I would always think, "I could be working at Walmart right now." And I would immediately feel better about that scoring job. No offense to anyone who works at Walmart! But I could not be happy doing a job like that.

Almost all musicians, if they are serious, eventually come to a point where they have to decide whether to pursue music as a career, or do it as a hobby. Of course, talent and chops help when you're trying to make a living at it, but the main ingredients are desire and commitment. I always tell young musicians who think they want be professionals that if they can be happy doing anything else, anything at all, they should do that and play music as a hobby. Only those who can only be happy making music should try to do it full time. And they're the ones who will find a way to do it. I did, and so did several of my friends.

Just so you know, we're not talking about becoming rock stars or anything. Only a tiny percentage, the very lucky and committed, get to become successful with their original music. I'm just talking about making a living, which in this culture, constitutes success as a musician.

I'm going to try to shorten this as much as possible, but this is such a key part of who I am that I need to tell you about it. I've always known what I wanted to do with my life, for as long as I can remember. That's a blessing in itself. I've never been able to relate to people not knowing what they wanted to do. It's always been crystal clear to me. I was one of those kids who saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 and thought, "That's for me." I was in the third grade. I had just gotten my first transistor radio for Christmas, and my love affair with rock & roll began. That same year, I figured out that I could sing. I used to stand on a tree stump in the school yard and sing to the girls at recess. I discovered at a very early age that girls like singers!

I learned music on the trumpet, and played from fourth grade until I got to college. In college, I decided that it would be easier for me to excel as a singer than as a trumpet player. Trumpet requires actual practice. Being a singer made it much easier for me to coast on natural talent, which I've always been inclined to do.

I started writing songs my senior year in high school, and really focused on trying to become a songwriter in college. I formed my first band there, Joy Road, in 1976. We played on campus and at churches in the area, doing my original songs. This picture is of that band. Check out the hot chick in the front. I think she still has that top.

But after Sharon & I got married, it became clear that our band, then called Covenant, was not going to make it big in Kankakee, Illinois. So what did we do? Did we move to Nashville, where all the Christian labels are? No, we moved to Denver, Colorado, because we had been here on a college choir tour, and fell in love with the area. Nobody told me back then that if I wanted to make it big, I needed to be in Nashville or L.A. I didn't find that out until I was in my 30's, and had a life here, with a mortgage, car payment, and all of that good stuff.

News flash to any aspiring young music stars out there. Take your risks while you're young and unencumbered. Once you have "adult responsibilities," it becomes much more difficult to make the kind of commitment that's necessary. And it does take commitment and persistence. Most "overnight sensations" have really been at it for years, relentlessly sending out demos and bothering record labels until someone finally gave them a shot.

Also, and this is very important, if you're that type of person, make sure you marry someone who will support you through all the ups and downs. It's not a steady paycheck. Ladies especially, listen to me. If you are with a musician, not a hobbyist, but someone who must play music or die, DO NOT make them choose between you and music. You will lose. Music is a jealous mistress.

So for the next 10 years here in Denver, I worked at warehouse jobs and learned how to run an offset printing press. But I was miserable. Here I was with all of this musical talent and a college degree, working in blue collar jobs that I thought I was too good for. I was supposed to be a star! What was going on here? I finally reached a point where I had to let go of my dream. Make peace with it. I had to tell God, "Lord, if I never get a record deal, that's OK." But once I took that step, things started to happen.

I've always done home recording as a hobby, because as a singer, I always had sound equipment. In case you didn't know, that's how singers get in bands, by having a P.A. You might not be as good as someone else who auditioned, but if you have a sound system, you're in! It's like having a truck or a basement where the band can rehearse. Or like being a cute girl. They seem to get in with no trouble. But I digress. Because I had microphones, a mixer, and cables, I could record at home. I was always the guy at the party who had a tape he wanted to play. And it was almost always some silly joke recording, because I love comedy too. I love to make people laugh.

In 1986, I recorded a ridiculous 1950's do-wop style rendition of The Night Before Christmas. I know, right? I gave it to some local radio morning DJ's (Steven B & The Hawk, for those who may remember). They liked it, and played it all through that December. I wrote and produced another original novelty song for them after the Broncos' Super Bowl appearance that year called The Post Bronco Blues, and at that point, their program director called me and asked me to start doing song parodies for their show on a regular basis. That turned into a career writing and producing song parodies that has lasted to this day. Word of mouth spread, and I started sending out demos, and within a year, I had quit my job at the print shop and was recording music full time at home.

I have to take a pause here and thank my good friend Jerry Nelson for giving me a chance to work in his recording studio in 1986. He gave me an opportunity at a time when I needed it desperately. He and Bob Finnie taught me my way around a real recording studio. Jerry did many other acts of kindness for me in those days, and was a real mentor to me, musically and spiritually, for many years. Thank you Jerry, for all that you did for me! My career would not have happened the way it did without you. I owe you forever for that.

This brings up another instance of timing. When I recorded The Night Before Christmas and The Post Bronco Blues, I was working at Jerry's studio part time. I had to charge the radio station more than they could afford, then turn around and give the money to Jerry. I love Jerry, but not that much. So I started looking into recording equipment. As it turned out, relatively affordable multi-track recording equipment for home studios was just becoming available. Even two years earlier, such equipment did not exist. Timing.

I figured out that if I could sell one radio and one TV station on the idea of weekly Broncos song parodies during the upcoming season, I could make the payments on the equipment I needed. I already had a radio client, and the morning show had a guy from Channel 9 in Denver doing their sports (Steve Alvarez, for those who remember). He got me a meeting with the sports department there, and they were on board. They made little videos out of the songs. So my wife agreed to go ahead, and we took the leap of faith of refinancing our house and taking out a second mortgage. Not only was I able to make the payments, but within six months I was recording full time, making much better money than I ever did at the print shop.

Here's a question. Do you think any station, radio or TV, would have been interested if the Broncos had had a losing record the year before? Of course not. Timing again.

By the way, you don't need to take out a second on your house to have a home studio anymore. Now there are countless players out there with nothing but one keyboard, one guitar, one microphone, and a laptop. That's all you need these days.

Radio was not my only recording outlet, but it did provide me with many great opportunities. At the risk of making everyone out there hate me, one of the greatest perks of having a radio gig is free concert tickets. I've seen so many concerts for free that others paid big bucks for that it's ridiculous. That's been over for a few years now, since I lost KOA and KBPI here in Denver. Now I'm shocked at the price of concert tickets!

Another incredible privilege I got to experience from my career in radio was the fact that I worked for 850 KOA, the Broncos station, during the years that they won their first two Super Bowls. So I and my band got to play Broncos victory rallies at the old Mile High Stadium and Civic Center Park after both of those victories. Those are memories I'll cherish forever. When the Broncos won the Super Bowl this year, I wasn't in the band. But how many sports fans never live to see their favorite team win a championship? I've not only gotten to see my team win three, I got to be in the band for the celebration for the first two.

I'm going on way too long with this. I'm only up to 1998!

From 1991 to 2001 or so, I was a singer in wedding and event bands for a company called Moment's Notice. That led to many forgettable gigs, but also some very cool, memorable ones. I have to tell you about one in particular. I call it my Celine Dion story. Every professional singer I knew back then revered Celine, including me. She was easily the best singer in the world at that time. Maybe not your favorite, but in terms of sheer vocal chops, there was no one better.  By the way, in my opinion, that title now belongs to Adam Lambert. When Pepsi Center, where the Nuggets and Avalanche play, first opened, Celine Dion did the opening concert there, and I happened to be in the band for the after party on Club Level. As the girl singer for the gig, Jennifer Burnett and I walked into the arena, the security guard who escorted us told us that Celine and her husband Renee would be attending the party. This was 1999, and the Columbine massacre had just happened. So a bunch of the Columbine kids were invited to the concert and the after party, and Celine and Renee were there to donate proceeds from the concert to a Columbine fund.

When Celine and Renee arrived, we were told to stop playing for the ceremony, which took place right in front of the stage. During the presentation, the song That's What Friends Are For was mentioned a few times, so naturally, that was what we started with when we began playing again. We started the song as Celine kneeled for a photo shoot not two feet in front of Jennifer and me, facing away from us, along with the Columbine kids and a big check. When we got to the first big harmony part in that song, you know, "I'll be on your side forevermore," Celine turned around, looked right at us, and gave us a thumbs up and a big smile. We thought that was pretty cool! We got a thumbs up from Celine. That story will be told at both of our funerals, I'm sure. Right, Jennifer? What an incredible experience, and one that I'm very thankful for.

My song parodies for radio or my event singing career, however, have not been what I consider my greatest success as self-employed musician. In 1988, not long after I had set up my home studio, I was naturally looking for work, and went to Dale Vonseggen, then owner of One Way Street, Inc, who went to our church. One Way Street, now Creative Ministry Solutions, is the leading puppet ministry supplier in the world. Yes, I said puppet ministry. Churches put together puppet ministry teams, mostly made up of kids and teenagers with adult coaches and sponsors, and they perform skits and songs for children's ministry, as well as many other places. One of the products I've done for them over the years is a series of Christian song parody CD's for use with puppets. The series is called Righteous Pop Music, or RPM for short. There are 18 volumes of the RPM series so far. They're used on mission fields all over the world. If I have one legacy, professionally, RPM is it. That's what I'll be remembered for, and I'm convinced that most of those who greet me in Heaven will be ones who were impacted through that seemingly silly ministry.

Oh yeah, one of my parodies became a minor YouTube hit. Check out Bethlehemian Rhapsody.

But it hasn't been just parodies. I've also gotten to write many original songs for hire. I don't know if the Maxfund commercials are still running in Denver, but if you hear that jingle, that's me. Many times clients, both radio and church related, wanted original songs from me, and I always loved doing that. Though I've never had a hit record, I did become a published songwriter.

Unlike many musicians, I was fortunate enough to have a financially responsible wife who kept me from spending all our money on equipment. In order for me to make a purchase that big, I needed to show that I'd be able to pay for it with work. Perfectly understandable and responsible.

So because I was able to buy recording equipment to make a living, I was also able to use that equipment to put out my own original albums without having to pay for studio time. Remember, when I started, home studios were rare. If you were a singer who wanted to make an album, you had to go to a big studio and pay big bucks. My home studio allowed me to put out six albums of original music, at a very low cost. Which is a good thing, because I've never made any money from them!

The image at the top of this post is from my last album, a progressive rock compilation called High Road. All of my albums are available on my website, iTunes, Amazon MP3, and all of the major streaming services like Pandora and Spotify. #shamelessplug

In the 2000's, I started to have a real passion for leading worship. I know, it took me a while. I started to have this vision of a "classic rock church." A place where we could do music and worship every Sunday like we used to do on Biker Sunday every summer at Denver First Church. I put out a classic rock style worship album in 2009 called Set Free To Worship. But I had no place where I could lead worship in that style, on a regular basis, with a good band. But that dream got fulfilled too. In 2011, I put out on social media that I was looking for a part time worship leading position, not expecting anything other than a difficult position trying to corral volunteers in a small church. Instead, I was contacted by a friend at Hope Fellowship, a church in town with a pastor that wanted a classic rock style of worship, and the church paid to have a professional band. Not just the gig I needed financially, but my dream gig. That gig lasted for four years, and ended two months before my diagnosis. Timing.

If you wonder why I still believe in God after everything that's happened, wonder no longer. I don't believe in fate, but I do believe that a loving, personal God guides my path. I've had too many instances of serendipitous timing in my life to discount it.

I could go on forever, and I almost did. I'll conclude by simply saying this. If you can find some way to do what you love for a living, do whatever it takes to make it happen. You'll never regret it, even if you fail.

I've had a wonderful career, but it's winding down now. To read about the decline of my music career, and why I feel so strongly that God has other plans for me now, I invite you to read my next post, The Rest Of The Story.

No comments:

Post a Comment