I’ve Never Once Went to Work for The Man

The alt-country band Old 97's came out with a song a few years ago titled “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive”. The premise of the song is that when one has a nontraditional career such as rock star, the general public tends to gloss over the fact that hard work and struggle, the day to day ins and outs of boring logistics, interpersonal conflicts and working it out between collaborators often takes up 90% of the day to day experience. The live shows, album releases and music videos are just a brief glimpse into a profession that’s pretty fucking difficult and as the band’s singer Rhett Miller highlights throughout the song, pretty fucking boring sometimes(“Some nights our shows were a triumph of rock/although some nights I might have been checking the clock”). This does not take away from the passion and deep love of one’s craft, but it highlights the fact that these magical moments do not occur in a vacuum.

The first time I heard the song, I was immediately drawn in because it seemed to be a product of the modern world we live in where most people’s normal everyday moments are shared on social media all throughout their day. Everyone is encouraged to make the most mundane and normal of activities seem interesting and fun. I’m incredibly guilty of this. I’m sure most people are sick of seeing pictures online of my 1 year old. We’ve been conditioned to make sure we’re always putting our best foot forward online and making every activity seem life affirming. This is in contrast to the 1970s and 1980s, when arena rock bands with gigantically produced sound sold millions of records and were seen as Gods among men. There was no normalcy for stars. Now bands are posting Facebook live videos of themselves hanging out on the tour bus when it breaks down. Our favorite artists are posting Instagrams of themselves eating breakfast, reminding us on a daily basis that they’re human, just like us. The Gods have become mere men.

It’s kind of the opposite with regards to presentation in comparison to an Andy Warhol art film entitled “Sleep”, which Warhol made of his close friend sleeping for 5 hours and 20 minutes. Our online lives tend to leave out the most boring activities(or at least try to make them as interesting as possible), and frankly, for good reason. No one really needs to watch us sleep, but who knows, it could become a thing. We’re constantly actively curating our lives at this point and the online perception of them. At some point in this, we all have become a bit of actors.

Getting back to the song for a second. One of the most poignant lines in the song is when Rhett Miller belts out “and I might butt heads with the guys in my band/but I never once went to work for the man”. It’s a touching and honest moment, because it really highlights the difference between corporate jobs and nontraditional jobs. A big reason why nontraditional jobs, despite the hardships that come with them(and sometimes lack of security), have such long lasting appeal with the American public is that they are resistance to corporate homogeneity that seems to grind all creativity out of people. You might only get the tip of the iceberg with social media, but at least there’s a tip and at least there’s an iceberg. The alternative is a calm sea that just seems to endlessly drag on day after day.

There’s a value in these mundane moments being slightly manufactured to provide content that entertains people and connects with people. It makes us all seem human at least, and I’d argue, that’s one of the main functions of the artist. But it’s also probably humbling to those we once treated as Gods. We’re all growing through this new time together where the democratization of everything has led to us all being equal in our mundanity. Who knows where this great experiment will end up.

On a nearly daily basis, I get told by people that my career is a dream career. I’m not a rock star. Not even close. I work in the craft beer industry, and like the image painted by Rhett in the song, people get to see the 5–10% successes and think that that’s 100% of the job. I put on large festivals. I taste beer sometimes before noon. I get to educate people and connect on a deep human level, although at the end of the day, it’s just beer. But it’s wroth mentioning that most of my day to day minutia is actually pretty boring. I answer endless emails all day long, respond to endless phone calls, and often am piecing together permits, contracts, and endless boring legal stuff that no beer drinker really cares about. They just want the beer, they just want the experience, and in the end, they want the story behind it. They want that 5%.

To maintain credibility and creativity, there has to be a balance between proper practice and constantly escaping your comfort zone. Corporate America is one big comfort zone. Nontraditional careers make you constantly reach for something new, never satisfied with status quo for too long. You might get to be a star for 5% of the time when the boring stuff is done for the day, but that’s a hell of a lot better than being a cog in a faceless machine that just churns along endlessly.

Like Rhett references in the song, I’ve never really worked in a safe and secure environment. In fact, working in beer is the safest job I’ve ever had. I mean that in the sense that the industry continues to grow and grow. No one knows where the ceiling is, we just know it’s coming at some point. It is not safe in the traditional sense of the word, but there is a certain amount of security in knowing people always want a fresh and tasty beer at the end of a long day. In other words, the demand is always there. That’s where the safety is. But I push myself on nearly a daily basis to figure out new ways to breath life into what I’m doing, because I know it might not last forever.

One of the things that drew me to the industry is a sense of rugged individualism, similar to what you find in artists and musicians. Brewers, good brewers, can be artists. Owners and operators who take risks and build the industry and shape the direction of where it’s going are not traditional in any sense of the word. You don’t win much credibility in this industry by constantly playing it safe. There’s a certain mix of wild and crazy, yet professionalism is also needed. That is a rare blend of human chemistry and takes the right type of person, but I couldn’t imagine doing anything different currently. Like bands that are successful, it’s not just talent, it’s not just hard work, it’s not just professionalism and grit, it’s a combination of it all. And it’s a constant willingness to push yourself outside of your comfort zone and learn new things.

Back to the line in the song about never having gone to work for the man. I’ve worked for the man before, but usually for only brief periods of time. It sucks. I have a streak of rejecting authority in me that makes me never take “the man” too seriously because I realize at the end of the day, most of the man’s ideas suck. The man’s ideas appeal to the lowest common denominator. We should all want to be stars in our own rights.

Some days I wish I could shut off this part of my brain which resists authority in this way, and sees my current path as the only path. Some days I think well, if I was just more willing to be more grateful for the small things, be more eager to accept the boring, and more willing to ride that calm sea, maybe things would be easier. But that feeling never lasts for too long. I’m thankful we’re entering an era where Rhett Miller can write a song about some of the boredom associated with being a rock star, yet still be a rock star and still have fun. I’m thankful we’re entering an era where there is at times semi-stability in doing things that are not traditional. I’m thankful with democratization of art and ideas, we’re all becoming little stars, rather than just a few big stars. And I’m most thankful that I haven’t had to go work for the man.