Wipe That Sad, Sad Feeling Away
The music industry is ruthlessly cutthroat. Ask anyone in music about the woulda, coulda, shoulda artists in their career, and most will have a list of names longer than their arm at the ready. For every pop song that spends multiple months in rotation on the radio, there are dozens of critically-acclaimed musical geniuses and forward-thinking groups that never see an ounce of the success they so clearly deserve.
I used to get mad about these things and swear I would become an agent of change. "When I have the money, I'd say, "I'll make the record the world needs to hear!"
Then, in my twenties, I did exactly that. I started a label with my friend Craig, and we released more than 30 albums. We pressed vinyl, made limited-run tapes, and set aside time weekly to make handwritten thank you notes to include in every order. We spent tens of thousands chasing our dream, and we had fun along the way, but we didn't change the world. All we did was introduce a few people to the next band or song that changed their life, and all we had to show for it was several thousand dollars in American Express credit card debt.
That's not a complaint. One of the best ways to survive in the music business is to recognize that your role in connecting someone with an artist or song has to be enough. It's not about fame, money, or followers. If you're going to do this, you have to do it for the sole purpose of making other people think or feel how you do about music. Anything after that is gravy.
On Sunday, February 20, I headed to Flint, Michigan, to witness the second coming of a band I believe should rule the world. Foxy Shazam has arguably been the most exciting group on Earth since its inception in the mid-2000s (with a slight exception for the six years the band spent on hiatus). Their music is bold and often cheeky take on big arena rock that feels like a cross between Queen and a carnival sideshow. The songs boast messages of hope and love despite the chaos surrounding us, and that same message is what the group hopes to deliver with their feverish live show.
I wasn't sure how I felt about the gig. The feeling of burnout is nothing new to me, but 2022 has been kicking my ass in a way few years can claim. Nothing exceptionally bad or awful has occurred, but the spark that precipitates every burst of creativity has been elusive. Ideas come and go, sometimes with the promise of birthing decent essays, but following through has felt like trudging uphill through molasses. My mind has even considered that my time with music and writing has passed, but here I am, trying to prove myself wrong yet again.
I hadn't seen Foxy perform in eight years, but I did spend a rainy afternoon on the outskirts of Cincinnati at frontman Eric Nally's beautiful home back in 2018. Eric was home during a rare break from his time touring with rapper Macklemore and wanted to promote a series of solo tracks he was in the midst of releasing. We spoke of shows and how neither of us could believe we'd made it to thirty while still working in music. "It's not what I thought it would be," Eric told me at the time, "but that's probably for the best. I don't want what the things I wanted when I was twenty, but the passion for the music is the same."
Standing among the sold-out crowd, I spotted several peers I hadn't seen since the start of the pandemic. These kinds of random show connections are expected, but that night, everything felt different. We weren't gathered to watch the hot new band or some artist whose legacy wasn't up for debate; Foxy Shazam is and always will be an underdog. Knowing they exist at all is something of an accomplishment, but going out of your way to see them—on a Sunday night nonetheless—is another level of commitment. You're either a diehard believer in the band, or you're an industry lifer who understands that playing sold-out shows to crowds ranging from 500–1200 is a best-case scenario for countless friends and contacts.
As someone once said, "as long as there are people in the crowd, the dream is alive and well."
Their identities are theirs to keep, but here's a sample of the people I interacted with at the gig:
- The thirty-something alternative musician whose breakout band broke up years ago, so they started better, albeit less successful, bands.
- The Music Business school dropout who worked their way through the stage crew hierarchy to oversee a midsize venue in a B-market city.
- The former scene kid turned morning radio DJ sacrificing their precious sleep schedule to see one of the few bands that still makes them feel alive.
- The former blogger who now works on the music business side while dreaming of a life with less structure.
- The non-industry adult professional whose teen fandom has managed to survive a decade longer than usual because they didn't try and convert their hobby into a career like the rest of us.
- The former industry professional who has since found peace and happiness in a more traditional work environment, but still daydreams about their wilder days.
- Twenty-somethings who were either too young or too naive to see Foxy Shazam at the height of their popularity and recognize the need to do so before it's too late.
A decade earlier, that same room would be filled with dozens of faces I recognized, at least in passing, from shows or social media. But that's the way things go in music. When you're young, everyone wants to be a part of the scene, and many take a shot at making a career out of their passion. We learn that every region has a scene and that every scene has the same type of dreamers, all of whom are vying for one of very few positions.
Of the more than 300 people who started pursuing a degree in Music Business alongside me, only a little more than 100 made it to graduation. Of those, less than 10 work in music today.
Of the more than 50 people who contributed to my music blog between 2008 and 2015, less than 5 work in music today.
The same can be said for any project or job I've held in music. With each year that passes, fewer people that I started with remain. Those who do are rarely seen, and it's usually for work if they are. That night in Flint was an exception. As I looked around, I was struck by the understanding that we are what's left of the dreamers. We are the true believers who are (maybe foolishly) still working to live in music or whatever nonsense we say to justify being overworked, underpaid, and perpetually tired. To quote Fall Out Boy, we are "the last of the real ones."
And if I feel the way I do after everything, I know they feel it too. We don't even have to ask because we both recognize the elephant in the room as the same one that follows us everywhere we go. We have dug our heels into the ground, clenched our fists, and told existence we are going to do with our lives as we please. Existence, in turn, continues not to give a single damn.
You don't need a reminder that the pandemic has made the monsters in our heads a bit scarier, but it's true, and I could see how recent years had taken a toll on my peers. Their brows carried the same worried expression I see in mine every morning, and I wanted nothing more than to congratulate them for keeping hope alive when so many others have not. We will probably never be famous or make a "40 under 40" list, but we are still here, and nobody can take that away from us.
On "Second Floor," a song from 2010, Foxy Shazam revels in finding themselves in this space. The hook makes it clear:
So long, to the second floor
It's been fun, but I don't belong
Up there with the industry
Up there with you wolves
Down here with the lower class
Down here with the idiots
Yeah I feel better now
I said I feel better now
On Sunday, February 20, The Machine Shop in Flint was the "down here," and yeah, I felt better there.
Halfway through Foxy Shazam's 19-song setlist, the band performed "Oh Lord," the lead single from their 2010 self-titled sophomore album. It's a track written for Nally's son, Julien, about life itself. The song was in steady rotation for years of my life, but like so many songs that define a moment in time, it faded as life kept on keeping on.
When the first chords rang out, I felt something shift within me. My mood was already elevated, but this was something else altogether. As the verse kicked off, the words came back to me in an instant, and when the chorus hit, the tears began to fall.
'Cause there is always a wrong to your right
And there will always be a war somewhere to fightAnd
God knows I've had some rough fucking years
Oh, oh, Lord, oh, Lord, keep on keeping on
Crying at concerts is a relatively new development in my life. Sad songs come and go, of course, but that's not the kind of crying I'm referring to here. I'm talking about that moment when the performance on stage connects with you in such a way that something inside you breaks. It's a necessary break, mind you, but that doesn't mean it hurts any less.
What Foxy Shazam tapped into does not matter nearly as much as the fact that it happened at all. I've spent months trying to clear the cobwebs myself, and I've turned to countless friends for support. Laura is my biggest champion, and even she recognizes that her support has limits when I'm at war with myself. I still don't have all the answers, but I've gained a deep appreciation for the things I know for certain. I am love, and I am loved. My best friend wants to spend all her time with me. Pretty much everything that can change inevitably will, but for right now, life is better than it's ever been.
A few songs later, the band played a series of tracks from their debut record. Laura loves this album almost as much as she enjoys recalling her early days in radio and her role in breaking the band. She was at my side the entire night. Knowing the importance of the material to her journey, I made a conscious effort to glance at her while the songs played. If I could capture the way a smile formed on her face, dear reader, I would, but there are some sights in this life that you cannot convey through conversation or essays.
Without communicating, we both let go of everything holding us back and began to dance. Our feet were unstoppable. Our joints disagreed. Laura didn't think about the sleep she'd lost by going to a concert hours away from home the night before her 6 a.m. radio show, and I stopped worrying about whether or not I had lost some metaphorical part of myself. For no less than ten minutes, the only thought either of us had was our complete surrender to the artistry of Foxy Shazam. We were fully present in the moment, which freed us from the worries of life outside the venue doors, and we became lighter as a result. Our souls felt a freedom that neither of us had felt in longer than we could remember, and Laura summarized the feeling perfectly when she exclaimed, "Tonight felt like the old days."
As we finished watching Foxy perform that night and wandered back into the cold Michigan night, I thought about what the version of myself who last saw the band in the early 2010s would think of who I am now. Some of those years were decidedly rough, but others were beautiful. The entire spectrum of human emotions has run through my body countless times since the last time Foxy Shazam and I shared the same space, but in an instant, none of that mattered. They are still the kids who wanted to take the world by storm, and I am still the kid who wanted to make that happen. As long as I still recognize that person and believe they'd recognize me, I think I can sleep at night.
Pardon My Mess (We're Just Getting Started)
I know the transition from the old newsletter platform to this one was less than smooth, but I appreciate your continuing support. Leaving the old platform was necessary for many reasons, but the simplest explanation is that the goals of Substack did not align with my own. I don't think they align with most creators, and that's OK.
The Wampus lives on a platform called Ghost now, and I think we'll remain here for the foreseeable future. I will expand what this newsletter does and offers, but the core content will remain the same.
I'm also considering a subscription option for anyone who wishes to support my writing. Consuming it is more than enough, of course, but hosting costs money, and anyone who wants to help with that is more than welcome to do so. THAT SAID, I won't prevent any free subscribers from accessing the content on this site. That seems silly.
No playlist this time, only Foxy Shazam.
In February, Foxy Shazam released their latest album, The Heart Behead You. Rather than create a playlist of my favorite Foxy songs, I suggest you spin this record instead. I don't know when Foxy will return to the road, but when they do—don't miss it.