The torturous travails of a troubadour

It’s tough being a musician; I?should know. Not from my own experiences mind you. I may be the only person who’s off-key renditions have gotten me kicked out of my own shower.

I would say roughly half of the friends in my life are somehow involved in creating and/or producing music. And between all the different shows, tours, hours and hours hacking away at albums and the inevitable schism between bandmates I’ve found that being a professional musician is hard work, and it almost never pays off.

Not for lack of skill or lack of effort; the “how” of being a successful musician is different.

The old method was that you started a band, a record executive drove by your garage while you were practicing, signed your band, gave you millions of dollars, you blow all the money on cocaine, get arrested for stabbing your bass player, return to your hometown, release a folk album, drop off the face of the Earth for 10 years, then get warmly remembered by VH1 after you’re found dead outside John Oates’ house.

But that familiar fairy tale is no longer the norm; the interwebs have seen to that.

Music, like any other form of media that can be pirated, is often pirated. Digital distribution lets you or your band release an album for next to nothing and, if people like it, they will steal it and give it to their friends while you continue to be the most melodic server at Burger King.

The problem with the old method is a single, fatal flaw: It requires you to sell your music to people that want to buy music.


Instead of selling CDs and digital downloads to concert-goers that all mysteriously forgot their wallet when asked to pay, yet have no problem ordering round after round of PBR, the modern musician needs to hit thier fan base right where it hurts; right in the TV show.

I had never heard of a band called TV on the Radio. Then I heard a song of theirs in an episode of “Breaking Bad.” Now I own all of their albums.

Did I pay for them?

I am not on trial here.

What’s that? Did you send one too many creepy fan letters to Neve Campbell in the 90s and now FOX rejects all of your mail outright? Did NBC say your music sounds too “enjoyable” for their network? Can’t find the address for The CW’s post office box?

Never fear, commercials are here.

Whether it’s Royal Caribbean using Iggy Pop’s acoustic Valentine to heroin use “Lust For Life” or Willie Nelson covering Coldplay’s “The Scientist” for Chipotle (naturally) using your song in a commercial is a lucrative way to tell your friends “You’re just jealous because I can make my half of the rent this month! I didn’t see you judging me when I brought home all those free burritos!”

But with TV shows and commercials hiring established talent it can be tough for an up and coming act to break through. So who plays a lot of music, doesn’t actually want to buy music, but has a lot of money, a need to for music AND almost zero sense of the value of a dollar?

Confused? You should be, because we’re talking about the United States federal government, particularly the part that tortures people.

Depending on who you ask either the CIA, the military, foreign operative working for the U.S. or the entirety of the Senate Intelligence Committee has been torturing people for years now.

I’m not here to debate the merits of torture (none), I am here to critique the soundtrack.

Amidst all the electro shock and repeated beatings that I guess we’re all OK with (… really?) it turns out we’ve been playing quite the soundtrack for these prisoners. The CIA, a staunch proponent of the “aging stepfather” approach to musical torture, plays a variety of loud aggressive music at prisoners for days on end, ensuring they don’t sleep and hate Van Halen.

Sure, it may sound like an insult to say that your music could be used as a torture device. But you would find yourself in good company since Pearl Jam, R.E.M., The Roots, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Bruce Springsteen have all had their songs tactically played by the CIA.

Ok, so there is a pedigree to being included in what people are honestly calling the Gitmo Playlist. But does it pay better than a commercial?

Just ask the industrial band Skinny Puppy. They found out that their music was being used for torture, so they did what any good band would do in that situation: They sued for royalties. $666,000 to be exact. The lawsuit was only recently filed, so there are really only three outcomes: They either win all the money they asked for, they win some of the money they asked for, or they just disappear.

So, musicians, next time you’re listening to your latest album for the 20th time today don’t think “why would anyone do this to themselves?” instead think “why don’t I do this TO someone else? And make a couple bucks in the process?”

Beats hocking CDs at a bar.