John P. Strohm is an entertainment lawyer and former professional musician based in Nashville, Tennessee. During his musician years he played guitar and wrote songs for Blake Babies and played various instruments in the Lemonheads, while he dabbled in various aspects of the music business. These days he has a much better understanding of the music business, although he still occasionally dabbles in music.
I used to be a full-time musician, and now I’m a proud hobbyist musician. I work in music, and I can’t imagine my life without music front and center, but I’m actually much happier playing music without the pressures of trying to be “professional.” I’ve had to rethink some things and definitely check my ego to be able to do this, but it’s been worth it. Through being a hobbyist, I’ve managed to reconnect with why I got into it in the first place. I got into playing music because it’s fun.
Of course, as a kid I daydreamed about being a famous musician. Sort of like how I daydreamed about being a major league baseball player from my perch in right field on a local rec league team. I thought about it, but I didn’t think it would ever actually happen. Even after I moved to Boston from my hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, and started making music with Juliana Hatfield and Evan Dando in Blake Babies and the Lemonheads, it was still mostly for fun. I enjoyed playing music more than anything, and for years I worked crappy jobs and lived badly just to be able to keep going. But the goal wasn’t a career. The goal was to make something cool and to hang out with my friends, who were also making cool music.
I’m not exactly sure when I decided to make a “career” of music, but that would probably be the precise moment I started to take all the fun out of it. It probably coincided with getting a record deal or starting to get critical acclaim or bigger crowds at shows — trying to act all professional. It definitely coincided with the emergence of that musical style that came to be known as “alternative rock” becoming the flavor of the month on MTV in the early ’90s. I think everybody from the underground went a little bit crazy when we saw people like us on TV and it seemed possible to make millions and be no-bullshit huge. Then it started happening to people we knew — Evan, Kim Deal from the Breeders, J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr. Suddenly being underground “famous” while barely covering rent didn’t cut it. The idea of success, for a lot of us, crippled our creativity. It became a challenge to make hits.
Straight life sounded like death because it didn’t include the things I most enjoyed — or thought I enjoyed.
If you would have told me at age twenty-five that by my forties I’d be playing live a few times a year, raising three kids in the suburbs outside Nashville, Tennessee, and going to work in an office every day, I might have wanted to end it then and there. That would have sounded like crushing failure to me, because I had so much invested in “making it” in music, whatever that meant. I wasn’t really even chasing fame or trying to get rich by that point; I’d just convinced myself that there wasn’t anything else I could do. Straight life sounded like death because it didn’t include the things I most enjoyed — or thought I enjoyed. Then I actually had kids, made a family, found something other than music I liked to do — and I discovered joys I never knew in my work and in being a dad. But all the while, I mourned what I felt I’d lost.
I went through a deeply depressing period in the late ’90s during which I had to come to terms with the reality of my chosen “career.” There was a stretch when I couldn’t listen to alternative rock radio because it reminded me of so many disappointments — disappointments in my own career, but also disappointments with how the whole rock business had turned out. The underground I came from wasn’t so much about commerce; it was about community and creativity. In navigating those changes, music became a source of stress and anxiety. I began to measure the success of the shows I played against how many people paid to get in, not the quality of the music or on my own enjoyment. The thing I’d loved the most had become sort of joyless.
Throughout the 2000s, as my wife and I had kids and made a home in Birmingham, Alabama, and as I found my way in my law career, I continued to occasionally play shows. I felt some sense of obligation to keep a foot in the door of my former life. But playing shows meant keeping a band together, and if I only played once every few months, I couldn’t expect to be a priority to the best musicians in town. So every time I played, I had to teach people my songs, which meant more work than I had time to do. I didn’t particularly enjoy those shows, because, even though I’d stopped pursuing a career, I held on to the same misguided ideas about my own relevance. I was still mourning the death of my previous dreams.
Nobody saw me as a failure because my bands fell apart.
Eventually, I gave up trying to do music and it became a mostly private hobby. For a few years I hardly played at all. Then, I started picking around the house, and occasionally getting together to make music with friends reintroduced me to the joy of the act. When my law practice developed to the point of representing musicians who are far more successful than I ever was, I had to come to terms with my music career meaning more in my mind than it did objectively. People were curious about what I’d done before; some people were even impressed. But, in the end, nobody really cared, which came as some relief. Certainly nobody saw me as a failure because my bands fell apart.
When I started to get asked to play with people again, I devised a formula for when I’d be willing to play music in public, and it had nothing to do with accolades or career advancement. First and foremost, playing music had to be fun. And it can’t be a lot of work, which goes hand-in-hand with it being fun. Next, mostly as a concession to my penny-pinching wife, it has to not cost me much out of pocket. That’s right — I’m a hobbyist, and usually when I play out, it actually costs me money. So the standard is that it can’t cost me too much. As much as I’d like to hire session players every time I play in town, I can’t afford to pay six or seven hundred dollars for every show. And, finally, of course, it has to be good. Not because I need people to be impressed, but because — back to the top of the circle — if it isn’t good, it isn’t fun. I’m so grateful for my musician friends (hat tip to Stanton Edward, Courtney Jaye, Ken Coomer and many others) who have given me these opportunities here in Nashville.
The other day I sat in with an informal neighborhood cover band for a block party here in Franklin, Tennessee, where I live, and I checked every box on my list. It was super fun, it was within my skill set, it didn’t cost much (saved me the eight dollars I’d have paid for barbecue, in fact) and it sounded great.
Franklin is close to Nashville, so these sorts of things go a little differently than most suburban block parties. When my family moved here for my job, we chose a large suburban development that is a paradise for kids. When they do things like a Memorial Day block party here, it’s a huge function for hundreds of people with dozens working to make it happen. The band is a serious undertaking. The bandleader, Vic White, is a former pro keyboard player who works in finance and tours with an impressive and successful Journey tribute band that plays such things as cruise ships, fairs and sporting events. One of the guys in the band, Keith Landry, used to be in Toto. Others have had their own record deals. I’m not some sort of ringer among these players — I’m a specialist. Vic knows not to ask me to sit in on Steely Dan or Billy Joel songs, and it’s not necessarily a matter of taste or trying to be cool. Those songs are better left to the experts who can pull them off, with horn sections, arranged vocals, real percussion. I come in for the Heartland Rock portion, music that’s in my DNA. The radio jams of my childhood that got me into this mess in the first place.
I’m not going to take up golf or ham radio. Music is my hobby, and I’m proud.
This year, for my third appearance with the band in the past year, I challenged Vic — and, more than anyone, myself — by asking to sing “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen. Vic’s band can actually emulate the E-Street Band pretty well, so the rest was up to me. It took a lot of work to learn that one to the point of being able to more or less pull it off live — but that’s not the sort of “work” I avoid. The work I’m concerned about is, for example, driving out of town to play or making other people come to band practice. Sitting down with a record and learning something until it’s all the way there — that’s joyous in itself. The other songs I knew already (some Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac), songs I love and could hear every day. But “Thunder Road” for an occasional singer — that’s like a casual hiker deciding to climb Denali with a week to prepare.
OK, fair enough — that’s an exaggeration. But the point is, once I’d learned the song and stood up in front of that fantastic band just nailing it, that was joyous. The audience of people sitting in lawn chairs munching barbecue, the kids running around in front of the stage, that’s perfect too. It’s like being on the bandstand on the village green, making music for regular folks having a nice day out. And because it’s Franklin, some of those regular folks are pro musicians and producers and record company presidents. For me, however, there’s nothing but the joy of the moment, and in that sense I’m right back to where I started in high school with my first few times on stage. The thing itself was enough. No need for after-hangs or hoping to get signed or slaps on the back — just the buzz of pulling it off, losing myself in the moment.
I plan to make original music again someday for real, when I have time. I’ve written a bunch of songs I think are decent, and I’m starting to think about what a record would sound like. Songs keep coming, and I know if I don’t let people hear them, they’ll be lost to time. It’s important to me to get something done and get it out, but “getting it out” probably just means making it available to my friends and people I care about. It’s more about the process of writing, editing, demoing, recording and sharing than it is about trying to make money or getting people to care. But more important is that I plan to play.
I’m not going to take up golf or ham radio. Music is my hobby, and I’m proud. I’m finding people already who share my criteria for when to play, people with similar backgrounds to mine. And I’m already finding a day or two every month to do what I truly love. And for now, that’s enough. That and the occasional suburban block party so I don’t lose my edge.