Troubadours on the Margins 

Looking at the people who grease the wheels of fame

My grandmother has a beautiful, sixty-year-old set of Compton's encyclopedias in her give-away pile. It's exactly the kind of strange, expansively useless thing that I'm irresistibly drawn to, and I knew as soon as I set eyes on the books that I would spend my Christmas vacation trying to fit all of them into my carry-on bag.

Reading through the "M" volume, I learned that the bull moose is the mightiest of all deer, and that Moses shattered the Ten Commandments right after picking them up from God, and had to go back for a replacement set. And, more importantly, I learned that the sport of trying to make a living from music stretches all the way back to the Middle Ages. It's reassuring, somehow, to know that a venerable lineage of musical output connects the troubadours of King Clovis' court to today's meistersingers like Elton John and Lil' Bow Wow. But how strange to realize that, in 1,500 years, the lowly musical bard has come to claim a court all his own. In the modern era, we've (mostly) done away with monarchies, and instead look to singers (singers!) to feed the masses through the trickle-down economy of cash-generating hits. And the occasional noblesse oblige benefit concert.

I, for one, am thankful that musicians have improbably ascended to the ranks of royalty. Like the prince and princesses of yore, celebrity songwriters are inbred and egomaniacal enough to happily place themselves at the center of the universe. And we observers of the court get to enjoy both the music and the comedy that results from their hubris.

The downside of it, though, is that, in the hunger for news of the kings and queens of the scene, the more interesting stories of the music industry go untold. It's a truth long-savored by underground music heads, people whose tastes have left them so marginalized that the only joy they exact from mainstream music is avoiding it entirely.

Even underdog-backing alternative-music fans, though, have little clue about the thousands of people out there who make music their life's work without necessarily making music (or money). These are the unnoticed minions who stock bowling-alley jukeboxes and sell beat loops on eBay. They run karaoke nights in North Dakota and quietly make sure there's enough speed on Christian rock bands' tour buses.

They are the industry's anonymous maintenance workers, repackagers, and backstage fluffers. Following in the footsteps of the medieval troubadours, they are servants to the music, and essential vehicles of its dissemination.

For the next four Metronome Diaries, I'm going to poke around the periphery of the music industry, writing about jobs and lives that they don't tell you about in business school. As opposed to the typical focus of music pieces (about the band with a new CD out, or the singer coming through town on tour), the subjects of the next few columns are not trying to make sense of fame's roller-coaster ride. Instead, they are the people who keep the tracks greased and the safety harnesses fastened. They are also sometimes the people who, in their own quiet way, are working to derail the thing entirely.

Their perspectives on the music scene are essential -- their invisibility often affords them direct access to the hilarious, sad lives of the magazine stars. And their distance from the confusing dictates of public life also gives them a uniquely grounded view over the whole carnival.

And, besides, if my grandma's encyclopedias hold true, these are the people who will be running show business fifteen short centuries from now.

Next week: What to do with a band called Black Box Recorder: The travails of an in-flight music programmer.


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