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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Whitney Houston and the death of my own childhood music business fantasy

Today, Whitney Houston died. When I heard the news, I cried. Tears poured down my face. I had to sit and think why this affected me so much. Was it that she was famous? Was it because she was such a talented singer? Was it because she was relatively young (48)? Was it because I liked her music? I'd say it was all of these, but more importantly her death, and leading up to her death, her unquestionable demise as a pop star, including her drug addiction problems, represented an unspoken distaste I have for the music business.

Who me? I distaste the music business? Yes. I acquiesce to my true feelings here. If little Whitney ended up a teacher, or a bank teller, or some mundane, ordinary nine to five worker girl, I strongly believe she would be alive today. Fame killed her. The music business, and what it does to stars, killed her. These are strong sentiments and I'm putting the blame on a machine that rises these talented artists to famous "stardom", only to then be chewed up and spat out by the same hand that fed them. It's disgusting.

I was eighteen when I fell in love with Whitney Houston's first album, and I knew every line to every songs. In fact, I would sing along with her in my living room. She was my vocal teacher. She was my idol. She was the epitome of everything I wanted for myself as a singer. I wanted her life. It was Whitney who drew me to New York first, then Los Angeles, to wanting to work in the music business, to wanting a record deal, and to make music videos. It was Whitney, signed to Sony Records, who inspired me to walk down Madison Avenue in New York, when I was 21, and walk into the Sony Columbia Records lobby and dream of my future. It was Whitney's music that encouraged me to write songs with soul and feel, and lyrics about love and "dancing with somebody."

And it was Whitney that lost my faith in the whole fame making machine that the music business is a culprit of, like all entertainment businesses.

Being in the spotlight has its stress: you are put on a pedestal by fans and industry around the world; you are expected to be something that is an illusion; you make money, you lose money; you marry other celebrities (because they relate to what you're going through), and you lose marriages; you fall victim to the party life, the fast life, the drug and alcohol life; you get dropped by the label that made you a star; and when you're lying on the ground trying to get back up, no one is there to pick up the pieces. It's a lonely, cruel life.

Now, I'm not going to speculate as to why Houston died, but I know that she had a tumultuous personal life, with her marriage to Bobby Brown, and subsequent drug addiction issues. But more recently, she seemed to be making a "come back" (whatever that means, 'cause I don't know one artist that stops creating and then "comes back". We're always moving forward, you just don't always see it on TV). But I know the powers that be in the biz weren't able to elevate her to the status she once had. It's a tough barometer to climb back to, having been the number one superstar singer in the world. It's a tough ask to try and be normal in a very un-normal world.

So, I was really sad because in a way Whitney Houston's death is like a mini death of my own youth expectations and assumptions I had about what the music business could deliver me. It represented the death of my own childhood music business fantasy.

I have already realized that the only way to succeed in this "business" is to define success on your own terms, as I have done. I created my own record company, Warrior Girl Music, and released music the way I want people to hear it. I've been in charge of my own destiny, so much so I've written two books about it and speak on it at music conferences. I've been the rebel. I've been the "Indie Queen". I've been told I wouldn't be "mainstream" because I have been the rebel, and defiantly Indie. Well, I don't know if I chose to be Indie. I wanted a record deal. I wanted a big fat record deal that gave me all the fame and fortune I needed. But that didn't come along (and I learned that wasn't my fault or lack of talent but I could have easily been in therapy thinking it was all my fault). No, the music business changed as I was growing as an artist, to the point where there was no choice BUT to do it myself, unless I was going to be left on the sidelines.

I decided I didn't want to play hard ball, or dress like a slut, or demean my music choices, to fit into "someone else's" idea. I decided that I didn't want to spend my life pitching songs for a possible deal (that were going to 18 year olds even though I was only 28, but still already too old), but INSTEAD just get out there and DO IT. So i DID it. I didn't waste time waiting. I recorded my albums, and toured THE WORLD, on my dime, mind you, but under my creative control. I've had a BLAST these last 12 years doing just that. MY WAY.

And just when I thought, hey I could use a record company, I started to see the economy and the music business shifting so much so that what I WAS DOING, pioneering on the Internet and running my own label, was THE BEST way, and now everyone is following what I have been doing. Wow. A Pioneer in a new movement called "ARTIST ENTERPRENEURSHIP". Who would have thought?!

I even canceled my membership to the Grammys as I have my own definition of music success.

But.... somewhere in my heart I secretly hung on to the notion that maybe, just maybe, one can be successful authentically in the music business. That maybe talent and hard work does pay off, and that people do come along and help you "make it" and share your music to the world, the right way, without any negative attachments. So I always thought, yeah maybe I could still be signed to that big label, who will take care of me and give me all the things I need and then I don't have to work so hard on my own and all will be well...

But Whitney's death today reminded me that that is not true.

And while there are glimmers of that (Adele seems pretty level headed at age 22, at the top of her game but who knows how her business affairs are going...), I fear that.... really..., like I've witnessed all along...., "making it big time" has it's price.

A huge price to pay.

A personal price. The notion that even after "playing the game", and doing business with the devil; even after writing, recording and performing your songs with heart; and even after managing all the people and vampires who suck off your energy,... the personal price could be just too much to bare.

Perhaps I'm not cut out to win a Grammy or be number one on the radio station you're listening to right now. But I know that I'm talented. I know that my music is real. I know I am a kick ass live performer on stage. I know that I make the best business judgements I can.  I don't get caught up in the glamour business, or the fame business, (because that's what it is now... it's just a "fashion business" this music business.) I no longer do deals with vampires and devils in the business (and yes, I have in the past for how would I have learned my lessons?)  I make a humble, modest living, I live authentically, and I work hard to express who I am. I can go to sleep at night knowing that I rolled up my sleeves today and put in some good work, hopefully to provide change and joy to the world.

I don't want to pay the personal price. But I do want to share my creativity to the world. I don't want something for nothing. I am willing to work for my results. But I do know I need a modicum of that "fame" stuff so that the music can be heard. So where do we find that balance? How can we live authentically and yet be empowered immensely?

I can only trust in the warrior in me to be the self-empowered, enlightened, giving person; attentive of the snakes, and attracting the good spirits, in this quest called self-expression.

It's a balance, and an acknowledgement of deep, hard truths, that I am learning to accept. (It's so easy to want to continue to believe in that childhood fantasy.) But as I continue to believe in my own path, I know I've made the right choice: to live and create authentically.

I think I'm finally growing up.

~ gilli moon
polymedia artist and expressionist.


  1. Anonymous7:51 AM

    Your post touched me deeply. At 54, it is WAY too late for me to make a living at music. I have a different career, so in a way I am glad I don't have to. But, what if I had had the courage to try it when I was 18 and in the best band in the Rocky Mountain town I grew up in? Would I have had what it took to make it? Would I have been willing to sacrifice all, move to SoCal and start over? What if I had "made it"? Would my life have become as messed up as so many as you alluded to? Who knows. And now I will never know.

    I do know that I have a good life and a wonderful wife, and children that have caused me severe heartburn, but I love them nonetheless. Maybe none of THAT would have happened had I taken the chance...

    But at the end of this little diatribe, I have come to the realization that now, at 54, (soon to be 55), I need to get some of these songs that are rattling around in my gourd down on tape. Burn 100 CDs. Give them to friends and relatives and maybe sell 7 of them on CD Baby. And then I will have done it.

    Thanks Gilli. And, by the way, Come back to Austin someday. I miss you.

    Arlin Hall

  2. Gilli - this blog, about how the music industry has changed, is insightful. I share many of your thoughts and opinions on the monster it has become - trading quality of talent and material for quantity of profit, and brushing off its role in the corruption of young artists when the shine fades away from the "star".

    For the longest time, I thought my path was supposed to lead to the "Industry". I am so thankful, in hindsight, that it led me elsewhere. I never would have been able to compromise my integrity, artistic or otherwise, for Hollywood success anyway. ;)

    Thank you, lovely and talented and always working hard, Lady!