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The Musicians' Ten Commandments

This is chapter 10 from the book Swimming with Sharks a real-world guide to success (and failure) in the business of music by Bernadette Giacomazzo & Melissa Deskovic.

In writing this book, we’ve done extensive research. We’ve read books, magazines, and Internet articles until our fingers were laden with paper cuts and our eyes were sore with fatigue. We’ve chased down and spoken to rock stars, musicians, executives, lawyers, doctors, and everyone in between. We’ve questioned the answers and answered the questions, until this whole Swimming with Sharks concept became the equivalent of a graduate level philosophy class, taking a cue from the likes of Sarte, Nietzche, and Plato (if you don’t know who any of these people are, put this book down, go look them up, and don’t come back until you know the basics of what they taught!).

Regardless of who we’ve talked to, what we’ve read, what we’ve learned, or when it all happened, there were ten common themes that everyone said in some form or another. Not that we went to a mountaintop to get the information – or that we got the information from any Divine Source (unless, in the words of that old graffitum proclamation, you still think Eric Clapton is God) – but stone tablas and the parting of various bodies of water aside, here are the Musician’s Ten Commandments.

The short-term benefits are great, but the long-term consequences are disastrous. We’re not here to tell consenting adults what to do with their own bodies – we’ll leave that to the politicians in positions of power, and we don’t approve of that either – but we are here to say that if famous musicians (who probably know better than anyone else) are warning you away from excessive sex and drugs, it’s probably for a good reason.

Too many drugs – regardless of your poison of choice, whether it is legal like alcohol, prescribed like Vicodin, or illegal like cocaine – will hamper your ability to play music, get you fired from your job, cause inexpressible pain to your loved ones, jeopardize your freedom (as many states have enacted No Tolerance laws on drugs), and turn you into a blazing asshole. This is to say nothing of the disastrous effects it will have on your physical health – if you don’t think drugs make you look triple your age, we have four words for you: photo of Keith Richards.

(FYI, we love Keith, and The Rolling Stones, dearly – hell, his statement inspired the title of this book – and we’d sell our mothers into slavery for a chance to meet them, but let’s be fair: Keith Richards looks like he’s seen the Ninth Ring of Hell, and only barely lived to tell about it. Mick Jagger looks damn good, but Keith, not so much…)

If you, or a band member, are addicted to any sort of substance, and it has started to negatively impact your life (whether you already know it, or someone else has advised you of it), get help immediately. It is NOT cool to be a drunk/high blithering idiot; it is NOT cool to be so drunk/high that you cannot play onstage with your band, and it is DEFINITELY not cool to be a dead rock star (wannabe or otherwise). Yes, it may help your immediate record sales, but in the end, it would be infinitely cooler to have Elvis, Brian, Jimi, Janis, Jim, Andy, Kurt, and Layne back to play even one more song. Know your limits and abide by them, and if you are unable or unwilling do so, again, get help immediately. There are a series of help outlets available with just a little Google research, or contact your local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.

Likewise, too much sex – especially of the unprotected, promiscuous kind – will lead to a series of nasty infections and viruses, to say nothing of the emotional cavalcade that inevitably follows in its wake. In the end, you can sleep with whomever you want to, whenever you want to (and far be it from us to tell you otherwise, or speculate on the morality – if any – of such matters), but remember the following very important rules: always use protection (this is true whether or not you are monogamous, unless you’re trying to have a child – and most musicians aren’t – so use two or three forms of protection, if need be) and never have sex with a minor, someone who does not give consent, or someone who is incapacitated (i.e., too drunk, too high) and therefore incapable of giving proper consent. Also, though it isn’t required, it’s probably a good idea to avoid sexual contact with animals of another species.*

If your sexual behavior results in a pregnancy, it is your duty – whether you like it or not – to see to it that responsible measures are taken, whether that responsibility entails keeping the child, giving it up for adoption, or having an abortion. It’s not up to us to tell you what’s in your best interests – each case is unique – but if you do choose to keep the child, it is your duty to be absolutely sure that it is well cared for, both emotionally and financially (yes, this is possible even if you are a touring musician), and that the child’s best interests are always kept in mind.

We’ve gone over this so many times, but it bears repeating: either hire a lawyer with your best interests in mind, or risk losing everything you’ve ever worked for by signing a series of bad contracts and deals. If you don’t get it by now, you will never get it, and you deserve whatever comes to you as a result.

Extreme extenuating circumstances aside, your band should not be getting the reputation of being flaky, especially early on in your career. If someone in your family dies, or you crash the van on the way to the show and all the members are in the hospital, that’s excusable. If your lead singer woke up with his armpit hairs in a twist and is “emotionally traumatized,” or the guitarist has a fight with his girlfriend and she throws his clothes in the dumpster, that’s not excusable (shave your armpits and borrow clothes from the bassist, respectively).

Canceling an already-booked gig is bad business overall; besides, you never know who the club owner knows, and how fast you will be relegated to the bottom of the barrel. Double-booking a date also shows that you’re irresponsible – if you can’t keep track of your entire band’s dates, invest in a PDA (such as a PalmPilot©) and a traditional bound calendar/ledger (in case the PDA breaks or is stolen), and write down everything. Triple-check all of your dates and times before committing to any gig of any kind. If there’s even a potential conflict, don’t book the date.

If you’ve got it, invest it wisely. Don’t buy stupid stuff like Aston Martins and multi-million dollar homes with Olympic swimming pools and 24 karat gold gates (those things come with mortgages…very high mortgages with ridiculous interest rates, at that). Forget everything you’ve seen on MTV Cribs – that’s nothing but hype. Most of the stars you see on that show will eventually end up on MTV Foreclosures (now there’s a real “reality show”) when the funds start drying up but the extravagant spending habits continue unfettered by anything remotely resembling common sense.

Also, don’t start paying for “entourages” – if you have to pay people to be your friends, it goes without saying that they won’t be your friends when the funds start drying up. Tell your “friends” to buy their own beer, because they cannot drink on the band’s tab. Trust us – your true friends won’t mind.

Nothing sucks more than a musician who is self-centered, egotistical, and an overall jerk (whether naturally, or as a result of substance abuse and/or believing their own press). If you’ve got a band member with his head so far up his own ass that he can’t see anything past the end of his colon, give him a few reality checks. Humble him into reality – take him to a hospital and show him around the sick children’s ward, take him to a wildlife preserve and show him the injured animals, or take him to an open field and show him the vastness of the universe and how insignificant he really is in the grand scope of it all (because, really, when you consider the vastness of the universe, if you have a half-brain, you realize how insignificant you really are…and this is not a bad thing).

If word gets out that your band member (and, by extension, your band) is an egotistical jerk, your fan base will start to wither significantly. Yes, some people are willing to put up with insensitive behavior and overall assholery just for a good time and maybe a good lay, but those people have emotional problems that far exceed the scope of this book…as you will, inevitably, find out on your own if you don’t keep your ego in check.

Bernadette’s mother used to say, “Show me your friends, and I will tell you who you are,” and time has proven her right: if you surround yourself with assholes, whores, morons, psychotics, drug addicts, gold-diggers, and snobs, chances are you are not a “Little Prince” (no pun intended) among men.

Those are the people who remember you when you were just a skinny, pathetic little loser in your purple velvet pants and badly-bleached Caesar cut, handing out leaflets of your band in the pouring rain and blinding snow to people who threw them out in the garbage pail at the end of the block…and loved you anyway. Walter Winchell once wisely noted, “Be nice to the people you meet on the way up. You will meet them again on the way down.”

Nothing lasts forever – especially local rock stardom – and if you mistreat the people who cared for you most when you were down and out, or who helped advance your career without expecting or receiving anything in return (except a duodenal ulcer and a migraine headache), don’t expect them to come to your rescue when the groupies stop screaming your name and the label kicks you back to the curb from which you came. What goes around comes around – even if your faith (if you have any) doesn’t subscribe to the concept of Karma and/or Divine Retribution, be aware that you will only receive what you give; if you give out grief, expect nothing less in return.

One might argue that early hip-hop/rap music was based on “beef,” but the reality is, the “beef” was largely for entertainment purposes only. It was a friendly competition, and nothing more. Of course, things escalated to a critical point rather quickly once gangster rap became the new status quo, but it’s safe to say that the hip-hop community as a whole realized the negative effects of unnecessary feuds once The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur were unceremoniously murdered in a hail of gunfire.

Now, if the hip-hop/rap community caught onto this concept – and this community, by all accounts, is relatively new and young compared to the rock’n’roll community – why the hell can’t the rock’n’roll community catch on? In every genre of every generation, someone’s got to have a problem with someone else for no logical reason whatsoever. Some sandbox bullshit – some petty high school drama – has to happen, just to keep things interesting. Why? Even the emo bands – whom you would think wouldn’t have the energy, after whining about their parents and their girlfriends all day, to insult each other – have feuds with one another; recently, The Killers and The Bravery engaged in verbal barbs in the ever-watchful eye of the press (the results were humorous, to say the least – nothing quite beats seeing a bunch of guys in eyeliner and badly-dyed black hair engage in a verbal catfight that looks like something out of All My Children. Of course, let’s conveniently ignore the fact that both bands are on the same label, and were discovered by the same A&R representative…).

The bottom line is this: a level critique of another musician’s art (i.e., “perhaps they would be better if they tried this…”) is acceptable. Telling a musician, “Your music is not my cup of tea, but it was really nice playing with you – I enjoyed meeting you and I hope we can be friends,” is polite and kind, and inviting similar compliments in response. But getting onstage and announcing to your audience that the musicians you just played with are “pains in the ass” – or anything else of a similar insulting nature – is unprofessional, arrogant, rude, and just plain childish. It also won’t earn you the respect and support of that band’s fans, especially if they’re in greater numbers than your own fans.

If a fellow musician or band insults you, let it go. Don’t retort with an insult, no matter how richly they deserve it; let the insulting band wallow in their own chaos and misery. Eventually, one of two things will happen: either they will get over themselves and things can go back to normal, or they will start losing fans that won’t put up with their childish crap (face it – normal people cannot put up with any form of psychosis for an extended period of time) and they will break up.

This goes back to the whole “Karma/Divine Retribution” thing. Besides, doing things of this nature leaves you feeling crappy, overall, and this feeling will eventually bleed over into your music…and not in a good way.

We know a drummer who had a horribly failing marriage (he has since, thankfully, divorced) and took it out on everyone…and if that person had some level of affection towards him, his viciousness became even more pronounced (arguably, you can only hurt the people you love, but that’s hardly the point). This lousy attitude eventually bled over into his band’s live performance (not that his band -- for the record – was ever the epitome of kindness and grace, but when the most exuberant onstage member becomes the most reticent, everything else falls like a house of cards). All of the “before” and “after” pictures spoke volumes: the “before” shots showed him vaulting into the air, knocking over drum kits and amplifiers, with head wounds and other battle scars to prove it. The “after” shots – which is when the so-called ‘loving wife’ upped the ante from “bitch” to “blazing battleaxe gold-digger of a bitch” – showed him at a virtual standstill (Michelangelo’s David moved more than he did), old before his time, with his face twisted in a permanent scowl. Quite simply, it was the most heartbreaking thing anyone could possibly lay eyes on.

Yes, people suck sometimes – okay, they suck more often than not, especially in the music business – but though it’s easier said than done, try not to let them get to you. It doesn’t serve you or your band any good.

When the great Gods of Fame, Fortune, and Rock Stardom finally smile down upon us, it’s too easy to get caught up in all the trappings – all the beautiful women, all the VIP tables, and all the free drugs and booze and sex and paparazzi spreads. This is especially true if you’ve had to work your collective ass off to make a dent in the world, as we know it (and no, goddamnit, you don’t feel fine, thank you very much Mr. Stipe!). Remember, though, that the Gods giveth, and the Gods taketh away – what could be laid at your feet right now could be ripped away from you, without warning, tomorrow. It pays to have a healthy perspective on things – complete with a sense of humor – and to keep your priorities straight at all times. If “cocaine” takes higher priority over “child,” for example, your priorities are seriously out of order.

And the final Commandment, but by no means the least important one, is…

Remember in high school, when you had a crush on the most popular girl in school, but she wouldn’t give you the time of day because you wore thick glasses and a pocket protector? Then, one day, puberty kicked you in the ass, and suddenly you were Adonis Incarnate, and every girl in the school wanted to date and/or fuck you…including the popular chick who wouldn’t give you the time of day the year before. Giving you the benefit of hindsight, and the (perhaps erroneous) assumption that you’ve since moved on from the high school drama – did you think, for even half a minute, that the most popular girl (who was probably “popular” because she was willing to go further on the first date than any other girl in the class) was suddenly interested in you because she appreciated your mind?

Fast forward to today – you’re a musician now, and your band is trying to “make it.” Whether you want to believe it or not, the rules are the same as they were in high school…except this time, there’s no hall monitor to break up the fights, and no parents to slap you back into reality.

Consider this your Reality Slap – there are some people out there (and you will know who they are, in time, just by looking at them) who are only out to flatter you…and that flattery comes with a price. We went over this in The Boiling Bunny chapter, but let’s revisit this topic for a brief moment longer.

As best defined by the Urban Dictionary, a starfucker is someone who believes that a brief sexual encounter with someone who is famous (or has the potential to be famous) makes him or her equal to – or in greater standing than – the person with whom they’ve encountered. We’re not talking about the “supergroupies” that have made a name for themselves outside the realm of the musicians they once schtupped -- people like Bebe, Pamela, and Cynthia Plaster Caster are nearly non-existent today. This is a Brave New World, complete with the Internet, the gossip columns, and the Metal Sludge Gossip Board – in instant gratification times, starfuckers (who, if nothing else, are only out for instant gratification) shine like a diamond, which conveniently masks the soulless lumps of coal that they really are.

You know those stories of “I Had a One Night Stand With Harrison Ford” that currently litter your supermarket’s check-out aisle – the kind of stories that trashy tabloid magazines pay upwards of $10,000 to use? 99.9 times out of 100, those stories are written by starfuckers, and they always have some element of over-obsessive fawning within their paragraphs (and why is it, in each of these stories, the celebrity in question is always a virile, multi-orgasmic lover, capable of having marathon lovemaking sessions…even though a. Age, b. Excessive Drug Use, and/or C. Both indicate that to be an unlikelihood? Of course, it would be nice to think that Harrison Ford – just as an example – is a virile, multi-orgasmic lover…but since neither of us has had a bagel and schmear with Calista Flockhart lately, we’ll never find out the truth…).

You will meet a lot of these kinds of bottom-feeding vermin on your way to the top – make every effort to avoid them, because while it may seem “rock’n’roll” to be featured in one of the tabloid rags, you will begin to look at life a lot differently when your naked ass is plastered across a magazine with the caption, “Did He, Or Didn’t He Have Plastic Surgery?” And, if your seed should happen to generate offspring, you will begin to protect your privacy like the National Guard protects weapons-grade plutonium.

If you’re reading this book and you fall into the “starfucker” category, take note…there is a huge difference between your kind, and the true professionals in the business (i.e., the executives, the CEO’s, the women writing this book). Please do not think, for even half a second, that because our kind shows gentle deference to you (and your decoy friends), we somehow believe that you are of equal and/or greater caliber to us. In fact, quite the opposite – we know that you wouldn’t be there if the musicians in question weren’t reasonably attractive, reasonably wealthy, and reasonably famous – you are quite beneath us, and we are not afraid to make our opinions known if you push our buttons. Don’t even try to usurp our power, lest you be at the receiving end of one mighty hefty bitch-slap, either literal or metaphorical (as some have learned all too well, in recent times – the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, and a couple of us have been known to line our writing instruments with lethal neurotoxins from time to time).

By contrast, a sycophant is infinitely more dangerous. Unlike a starfucker – whose sole purpose is to sleep with the famous (or potentially famous) person in order to gain brief recognition – a sycophant often uses excessive flattery, clinginess, and toadyism to gain power. However, because musicians, by nature, tend to be fragile creatures with easily wounded egos, someone such as a sycophant can easily earn a position of power with the young and inexperienced musicians simply by always telling him what a wonderful band he has (even if the band has otherwise totally tanked).

Sycophants serve no other purpose except to inflate an already-inflated ego, and usurp power from the hands of the people in which it truly belongs. We wish we could tell you that every performance you ever have will be stadium-quality, but the truth of the matter is, you know – just as well as we do – that there are times that you are just going to suck. If you know your performance was less-than-stellar, yet you still have someone in your camp that perpetually tells you how great everything was/is, you have a sycophant on your hands. Get rid of him/her – immediately.

Like what you read so far? Buy Swimming with Sharks

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