I’ve been thinking about “long-tail” careers and the people who pursue them (myself included). For careers where there is no “average” success, “long-tail” describes the success curve distribution. Most musicians, artists, writers, and athletes are never going to get much in the way of fame or fortune, while a few extremely lucky and/or talented individuals are going to get the lion’s share of the rewards. So you don’t actually want to end up on the tail … you want to end up as high on the slope as possible (if fame and fortune are what you’re after).
My hypothesis is that the “rewards” of a successful long-tail career are mostly illusory. If you generate a NYT bestseller or Top 40 hit or get picked up by a big league sports team, then of course you get paid and get famous, but what you really get is the JOB of being a professional writer or musician or ball player. So you had better like the job itself; the day-in day-out nitty gritty of consistently performing at a high level.
About six years ago I fell into a long-tail career of being an electronic music DJ. I had co-produced an album (Jondi & Spesh – The Answer) and our label (Spundae) arranged a North America DJ tour to help promote it. The only problem was that I didn’t know how to beat-match (seamlessly mixing two songs together by adjusting the tempo and manually synchronizing the vinyl or CD’s). Beat-matching is no longer a required DJ skill (these days laptop DJ’s can let the computer beat-match for them) but back in 2004 it was a non-optional part of the skill set.
Spesh arranged a “DJ boot-camp.” For weeks he trained me in the mystical art of beat-matching. Imagine a kung-fu training montage, but instead Shaolin monks with swords and spears, think of two white dudes in a studio garage with Technics 1200’s and Pioneer CDJ’s, drinking lots of tea.
The boot-camp worked, more or less. At the end of training, my skills were not world class, but I could get away with mixing records in front of a nightclub crowd (and in most cases not clear the dance floor). During that tour, Spesh pulled more weight behind the turntables, but we played some good shows. Opening for James Zabiela at Circus in LA was especially fun. Amazingly, we were well-paid for these gigs, stayed in the best hotels, and were ferried about in limousines. Ridiculous!
You have to realize that most DJ’s “work their way up” with blood, sweat, and tears, and would kill to have the kind of opportunity that was handed to me. It would be like playing a game of pick-up basketball and getting offered a position on the Lakers, without even having to try out.
On top of this incredible luck, Spesh and I had the additional good fortune of already running our own successful electronic music event in San Francisco (Qoöl). Spesh, along with our talented residents and guests, had built up the crowd for years. Returning from that first tour, I had a resident DJ slot to step into, along with an enthusiastic home-town crowd. I took advantage of the opportunity, continued to improve my skills, and had a great time playing at our own party and at other parties around San Francisco. Spesh and I (well, mostly Spesh) organized a European tour, and we played at clubs in London, Bristol, Hamburg, Berlin, Eindhoven, and Oslo.
Jondi & Spesh were even voted among the top DJ’s in San Francisco from Nitevibe’s popular poll for several years running. For someone more comfortable in the studio behind a computer monitor than on a stage in front of a throbbing crowd, it was all somewhat unreal.
So, was I a DJ? I was acting like one, and externally I was doing all the things a professional electronic music DJ does. I was playing gigs, I was getting paid, I was writing and releasing dance tracks, I was listening to hundred of free promo tracks emailed to me every week by hopeful producers and labels, and (along with Spesh) I was running my own record label and weekly electronic music event. But I never really felt like a DJ. I had no problem with the label manager or music producer roles (and still enjoy those), but the DJ role never really clicked.
I had gotten a glimpse of what the next level of success looked like, and it didn’t appeal to me.
I don’t like airports. I don’t like sleep deprivation. I don’t like crowds. I don’t do blow or e or any drugs except the occasional nootropic. I’m happily married and don’t want to chase club girls around. I don’t adjust quickly to jet-lag. I don’t like hustling for gigs. And I don’t like listening to hundreds of bad dance tracks to find a few that I’ll feel good about playing out in front of hundreds of people.
In short, I’m ill-suited to handle any of the hardships of that career, or appreciate any of the rewards.
OK, that’s not altogether true. DJ’ing is REALLY FUN. There’s nothing like playing great music in front of a great crowd when you’re in the flow. But I’ve admitted to myself that I have no interest in “taking it to the next level” with that particular activity. In fact, I’m going to take an extended break to focus on writing fiction and writing music and running Loöq Records.
I suppose it’s possible that if I had a run of success in one of those other areas, I might get disillusioned with all the hard work involved. Maybe at that point I would run back to DJ’ing. But I think I’m better suited to these other paths, especially writing. I like working long hours in quiet solitude. I like creating characters and worlds. Revisions are difficult, but also satisfying.
I don’t know what the future will bring. I’m going to keep writing every day and do everything I can to become a professional writer. I would love to be able to write fiction for a living. If it means getting up at six am every morning and locking myself in a room until I’ve written 2000 words, so be it. That sounds like fun to me.