JOURNAL EXCERPT: Winter 2022 Guest Editor Margo Price’s Gold Star
Photo by Alysse Gafkjen
EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was the Screen Door — the final page — of the Winter 2022 issue of No Depression‘s quarterly journal. Margo Price served as the inaugural guest editor, writing this essay and helping conceptualize another feature story in the issue. Get the issue here or subscribe for a full year to support nonprofit music journalism.
“Writing is easy,” they said, “just open a vein and bleed on the page.” When I was young and I felt lost, angry, misunderstood, down and out, or lonely, I opened up my notebook and scribbled down my moods. I wrote short stories, memories, poems, dreams, and songs. I tried to put words to that intangible feeling of melancholy. Then one day, I picked up the guitar and I was instantly hooked. I loved the way a melody could either intensify the delivery or soften the blow of the message. I dreamed of being a musician and a writer.
What’s the difference between writing a song and a book? About 85,907 words and a lot of ambiguity. In my songs, I can cloak my feelings in metaphor and hidden meaning if I’m feeling too vulnerable. The process of writing my memoir, Maybe We’ll Make It, which came out in October (ND review), has left me feeling exposed. It’s like I’m standing naked inside my own dream and looking out into the audience but they’re all wearing clothes.
Some songs take time, but others happen lightning fast. The longer format of book writing made me absolutely manic and, at times, it consumed me entirely. I worked with an editor, but I did not have a ghost writer. It was an intense experience, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But it was the process that kept me spiritually fed and artistically fulfilled. It grew my abilities as a songwriter and it sustained me through the tough times, just like the process of writing songs or recording an album.
I’ve spent my life chasing the muse, and for that I have no regrets. Music is sacred; it’s spiritual, yet it gets defiled by greed like all pure things in this world. Sometimes I see artists that have stopped chasing the process; they only care about the rewards, accolades, and trophies. I can see it in their eyes and hear it in their work. I have to constantly remind myself to keep “music” and the “music industry” separated, because they truly are separate entities. On this lifelong quest to serve the song, I fell into the maze and hamster wheel that is the music business. I’m still reminded of this Hunter S. Thompson’s quote, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”
I see many of my peers struggling — emotionally, financially, spiritually. Addiction rates are high and recovery is hard without access to health insurance, doctors, or therapists. We glorify depression and hard living. We idolize pain and suffering and we tell artists that the struggle will make their art even better. If we have problems, we’re expected to solve it by pouring a little ethanol on it. I experimented with all of this and all it did was add fuel to the fire. I wonder what would happen if we gave artist grants in this country? What if we treated them like valuable members of society instead of like a side note or a burden?
Now, I hope I’m wrong on this next premonition, but think that in the coming decades, we may see the extinction of the indie artist. Streaming and big tech companies have made it nearly impossible for writers to survive on royalties without going out on the road to make money off live shows. And even on the road, it’s becoming impossible for many bands to break even or turn a profit. I’ve seen a number of established acts canceling tours because ticket sales aren’t what they used to be. Unless you’ve got an international summer hit or a bunch of placements in advertisements and movies, many musicians have to supplement their income with other forms of employment. Hell, I’m selling weed and edibles and writing books because in this day and age, it’s not enough to just make music for a living. If you wanna survive today, you’ve got to diversify! You want to stay relevant? You better keep constantly creating the #content.
I often think about a study I read about a group of children in a preschool classroom. First, they were given paints and paper and they were taught how to paint. They enjoyed it and simply got pleasure from the process of painting. Sometime later, the teachers began giving out intrinsic rewards for the paintings and the children were given gold stars after they painted a picture. The children treasured the stars and kept painting. Soon after, the teachers stopped giving the students gold stars for their paintings and eventually, without the reward, the children stopped painting altogether. Reading that broke my heart and made me think a lot about my own career trajectory. I remembered that when I first started making music, I felt like I couldn’t claim being a musician because I didn’t have a label deal and I didn’t earn my living doing it. But the truth is, if you write songs, you already are a songwriter and you don’t need anyone else to tell you that or give you some kind of gold star to solidify it. You play music? Great, you are a musician. Congrats!
I wish I had answers to some of these troubles floating around in my head, but I don’t. I would love to help more talented music makers, writers, and poets make an honest living doing what they love. Maybe someday the world will feel a sense of urgency in protecting the dreamers of the world. I wish civilization could find a way to nurture and preserve the things that are truly sacred, but we probably won’t. Being an indie artist is really just like being a small business trying to survive in the age of monopolies and corporations. The economy is down, the war rages on, women’s rights are challenged, the climate is rapidly changing, and the country is divided and under duress. But when I start to feel hopeless, there’s always that intangible gnawing that comes without warning and whispers in your ear, “Hey, maybe you should get out your notebook and try to write another song.”