I walked into a conference room at my ad agency this afternoon, and John Roderick of The Long Winters was tuning up his guitar, ready to begin a short acoustic set. "You're just in time," he told me as heads turned to see who had just burst into the room, slightly out of breath from running the length of the ad agency.
It is not uncommon for ad agencies to host musicians—these days, anyway. Haven't you heard? Selling out is now called "recontextualization." Honestly, it's a very tricky thing. While I have great admiration for artists who refuse any commercial affiliation with their music, I also understand what a financially hopeless struggle being a musician can be. And if a hard-working band's survival hinges on one of their tracks playing as a Volkswagon Jetta corners a country road, I can live with that, especially knowing how much harder it is for the band to live with it.
So here's what happens: the artist arrives in hopes of drumming up some interest in licensing his music for an advertisement. (sigh) The advertisers, most of whom have never heard of this artist, get a free lunch and the much-coveted feeling of being exposed to something "cool" and "edgy." It's a necessary evil, I guess, and a nearly even exchange.
But it was a real crisis of heart against mind when I discovered that today this agency would be hosting John Roderick. I really love The Long Winters, so naturally I was excited to see a free, intimate show, and possibly say hello to Roderick afterwards. But this venue and the circumstances surrounding it flew in the face of all my expectations and desires. It was like seeing a sign that says "FREE CANDY," then noticing an arrow on the sign pointing down to an unopened bag of gummi worms floating in a toilet. They're still gummi worms—delicious gummi worms—and they're going to taste the way they always taste, but the presentation leaves something to be desired.
When John suggested playing an all-request set I didn't realize at first that he was making a joke. He didn't expect anyone to know his music and, apart from two or three of us, they didn't. But they were polite, and he was charming (I've gone on record saying The Long Winters have some of the best onstage banter I've ever heard, right alongside Guided By Voices, Robyn Hitchcock, and Big Black), introducing the song "It'll be a Breeze," by saying, "this song is about what it feels like to be in a coma. I think it'd be great for Twizzlers*." And I was able to request, and hear, "Cinnamon." It's unlikely I'd have that same honor at one of their concerts.
Sure, part of me felt like my request was a direct order, from the boss to the eager-to-please employee, but at some point you have to get over yourself, I guess. John was just trying to make a living—which can sting a bit sometimes—just as I am trying to make a living, and today we had to do that together, on opposite ends of the same conference room. I find myself complaining sometimes (well, a lot) about how I have to pay rent through means that are not ideal, but that is surely a perspective blackout on my part. When I think about how many truly difficult and potentially demoralizing jobs people endure every day, like selling batteries on a subway car, or selling sandwiches at a Subway restaurant, it's a bit easier to find comfort, knowing I have (and have made) choices. And today I got to hear "Cinnamon," by request.
*Brand name changed to protect the anonymity of this ad agency.