Ah, the music industry. Many a decent and rockin' band has been lured by the promise of its clarion call, only to be blown by the fickle winds of industry and dashed upon the rocks of unfulfilled expectation. Yet musicians continue to line up, forsaking careers with benefits or healthy interpersonal relationships for a chance grab at rock stardom. A scant few shall claw their way to the pinnacle, while the majority will be spit out the other end to careers at Guitar Center and 7-Eleven.
"Making a living off [music] is a sucker's game. The industry holds all the cards, so there's no reason to make exceptional deals," says longtime local scene veteran Mike Lucas, who knows a thing or two about not making a living from music. His résumé includes running Repent Records, home to a flock of bands you've probably never heard of, as well as contributing to various Bay Area "shtick" groups, all of whom were far more concerned with getting their kicks than getting paid. The most notable of Lucas' acts, the Phantom Surfers, have spent the entirety of their career cranking out lo-fi instrumental tunes and steadfastly refusing to "make it" in music, despite occasional overtures from the industry.
The Surfers' determination to remain outside the mainstream has nonetheless provided the group with serious insight into the general sliminess of the so-called biz. Culling 20 years' worth of collected wisdom and horror stories, the band, with Lucas as chief collaborator, has published Rock Stardom for Dumbshits. It's an insider's guide from the bottom on how to make it to the top — or, for that matter, on how to not make it at all, which is the overarching theme of the tome. Having developed a three-tiered system for success in rock 'n' roll, the Surfers' theory is simply this: If you can't get to Level Three (stardom), don't ever leave Level One (band for fun's sake) for Level Two (signed, working band).
Part how-to parody and part cautionary tale, Dumbshits serves as a satirical step-by-step action plan. It's a field guide for shaping a platinum-selling future, one that assumes you have absolutely no compunction about debasing yourself artistically and spiritually, and that you can persuade someone to loan you the $12.95 to purchase the book. While outlining the importance of such traditional starmaking criteria as creative mediocrity, lack of artistic integrity, drug usage, delusional thinking, and elastic ethics, the book also delves into the unseemly underside of the business. The Surfers detail the many solipsistic assholes and assorted jerks (A&R flunkies, managers, accountants, booking agents, etc.) they encountered on the path to the Promised Land. To wit:
Record labels: "Really, what [have] they done for us lately other than discover they could make money on rereleasing their back catalogue?"
Soundmen: "All have frustrated egos. If you gave them a recipe for chocolate chip cookies, they'd use shit instead of chips and call it 'being creative.'"
A&R people: "Less talent than soundmen. And they aren't even in charge of the trickery they sell."
Music journalists: "Living in the glow of their music heroes. And bitter, cuz there's no Level Three for critics."
If some truths can only be told in jest, than Rock Stardom for Dumbshits is hilarious to the point of painful, if only because it's an all-too-accurate account of the nature of the music business and the stupidity that it breeds at every level. And while the Surfers' book purports to offer everything you need to know to become a rock star, it ultimately makes you glad you aren't one.