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Rushing to wait: Reflections on touring life

by Devender Sellars

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An at early age, independence and fresh rock music gave me — a disaffected and broody teen — a sense of identity and belonging. Music was the prism for the world, giving me a vision to see infinite possibilities of what I could do with my life.

I studiously played the guitar as a teen, and by the time I had finished college a band became the main focus in my life. From 2001-2005, I toured with a Greensboro-based band called Kudzu Wish. I was elbows deep in the guts of this self-started band — booking shows, writing songs, managing and moving forward with four good friends in that fabled existence as a touring musician.

The reality of the music business is stacked against even the best — musicians hundreds of times more talented than I could wish it to be, but still don’t “make it,” even in the DIY-centered sense. And this doesn’t even address the current state of a flooded and devalued market — so many people out there doing the exact same thing. Is playing music seriously a fool’s errand? And why take something that starts out as pure joy and try and take it onto a moneymaking path?

Touring with a band involves much more work and drudgery than most people expect. This is because it takes sacrificing all other aspects of life to the altar of the band’s schedule and priorities. Working as much as possible while staying home to save money, preparing to tour, writing and recording music. Starting out, this involves sleeping on random floors at night, making no money and being dismissed as just the latest wide-eyed white dudes to suck at a random club in a random town. For some, it never progresses past this point.

This is work in the way I imagine a pit crew must be hard work: months of planning, training and preparing, then waiting for that moment of intense and powerful release and focus of playing in front of a crowd. The touring life is a blur of movement in and out of clubs, bars, houses, crashing on floors, in campgrounds and parks. The moments of joy and partying spaced between dullness across a backdrop of constant Wal-Mart parking lots and dirty, rural truck stops. Rushing between towns and waiting to play.

There are so many elements that make a band tick: songwriting, lyricism, music arrangement, melodies, compatibility, booking, promoting, management, records, licensing, transportation, planning and so many others. It is no coincidence the same terminology is used in relationships — as in, “the band broke up.” The success, and the amount of time spent to create such things related to a band, has very little to do with music. Major investments in time, money and energy are just the tip of the iceberg. It takes a level of determination almost beyond reason.

Being a successful musician has many definitions. Is it the notoriety? Is it just money? Is it worth it when random people tell you they love your band? For me, even meeting the basics of budgeting and paying yourself are considered a success with such a life.

At the same time, playing music was a joy — confusion, dirtiness and all. The experience and camaraderie of being in a live band gave me much to relish. And being on the road was a wonderful time — from late-night Montreal speakeasies to crashing parties in Bloomington, Ind. to bizarre venues hidden in alleys in downtown LA, steps from skid row.

The experience of really following the dream helped me find my confidence in the world. Showed me how big it was, and how much can be accomplished with determined hard work and vision.

Being serious about playing music involves cultivating a dual mind: one side that is open to the myriad failures and successes in the face of incredible odds, and the other that truly believes in the pursuit. These were the ideas that kept me getting back in the van, and gave me a truly amazing experience.

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