So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star
By Jacob Slichter (Broadway Books)
by Brian Varney
Part band-bio (Slichter was the drummer for Semisonic) and part music-biz expose, So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star has the potential to appeal to several distinct groups of people. The business goings-on behind the music interest me more and more as I get older, so it was this aspect of the book that grabbed my interest. Because Semisonic was essentially a major label one-hit wonder, I more or less expected an expansion of the ideas first presented in Steve Albini’s infamously poisonous piece about the perils of being on a major label entitled “The Problem With Music” (aka “Some of Your Friends Are Already This Fucked”). And, to a certain extent, this is what I got. Slichter is basically a funny, good-natured guy, nowhere near as cantankerous as Albini, so he’s not quite as angry or hateful, but he’s saying a lot of the same things. He takes us through the band’s entire tenure on MCA, and it becomes very apparent early in the book that the band will never pay back their “recoupable debt” to the label – this includes things like advances, recording budget, promotional costs, and consulting fees to independent radio promoters (a legal form of payola which is essential to getting your song played on the radio). Semisonic’s first album, Great Divide, was considered a flop and did not get airplay even though they spent something like $500,000 in “consulting fees” trying to get added to playlists. And this amount, of course, goes towards the recoupable debt and is paid back to the record label out of the band’s share of the album sales (which, as Slichter also explains, is only somewhere between $.50 to $1 out of the average album’s $15 retail price). He goes into more detail than this, but even with this simplified explanation, it seems pretty obvious that the chances of selling enough records to actually begin making money off of sales is not very high.
Mixed in amongst all of this shop-talk is the story of Semisonic. There are stories about the band’s beginnings, their rise to fame, thanks to the smash single “Closing Time,” and appearances on TV shows and at festivals, with requisite tales about the thrill of rising stardom and the drudgery of life on the road. This may not seem terribly interesting to those who aren’t Semisonic fans, but Slichter is funny and a good storyteller, so you may find yourself wrapped up in the band’s story anyway. I’ve never heard a Semisonic song and, based on the descriptions of the band’s sound, I don’t think I’d like them very much, but I enjoyed this book the whole way through. My favorite anecdote, and the one that best sums up Slichter’s self-effacing attitude towards his tenuous position as a rock star, takes place in an airport. Upon exiting his flight, Slichter sees two people pointing at him and approaching with a camera. Steeling himself for a request for a photo and maybe an autograph, Slichter reminds himself to be nice since fame is a privilege. “Would you mind?” one of them asks before handing Slichter the camera and standing back to pose with his friend. “It’s the red button on top.” It’s straight out of This Is Spinal Tap, but it really happened, and if there’s a story that better reflects the transitory nature of celebrity and the silliness of it all, I can’t remember it.
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