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July 2024
Vol. 23, No. 10

The Alchemy of Music

A Dead Room

by Astra KellyMarch 2024

So far, this column has been all about the magical and auspicious elements that come together to create musical moments and experiences, but what happens when it seems like nothing is aligning? It’s like those days we all have when things just don’t seem to be working out and we feel like maybe we just shouldn’t have left the house. It’s those times where you sit down to write a song and the creative process just isn’t flowing, so you stop frustrating yourself with trying, and choose to step away for now.

In particular, though, I’d like to touch upon what I have always felt as one of the most elusive aspects of being a working musician. It’s those times when you show up to play a packed house but somehow no one listens to the music. Thankfully, it’s rare, because even in a room full of patrons, there’s always at least a handful of folks that will appreciate and make up for the others. Of course we all want to play the shows where everyone is there to support us, but if a non-famous musician is making a living as a full-time artist, sometimes performances happen at a venue that is not expressly a music venue, which can be very beneficial for making new fans and experiencing spontaneous moments of musical connection and appreciation.

This is why it’s so disheartening to play for what I like to call a “dead room.” No matter what you do, what songs you play, how talented you are, how awesome your equipment is, and how loud you might turn things up, you just might as well be in your living room playing for your cat. I, for one, certainly don’t take these kinds of gigs personally. I like to use the metaphor of being a nice inviting fire and if no one wants to come in close to warm their soul, then that’s their loss.

The most baffling thing, however, is when connecting to the music isn’t a choice. When the “room is dead,” it’s like you’re invisible to the eyes and hearts of the people there… or rather they simply can’t see the possibility of tapping into the music because maybe they never have. Maybe music has no real value or importance in their lives. It’s just a voice on their phone or ambient noise at work; it’s something that can accompany a long drive or complement a dinner. It’s not a real person at the winery or brewery actually doing the thing in real time. It’s not an entertainer that the venue has so graciously hired to provide musical relief. When the music has nowhere to go and nothing to bounce off of, it seems like it just won’t ignite. It’s not a waste of a fire. It just didn’t really rage, and all those elements just get thrown back into the alchemical musical cauldron to be remixed and re-enlivened for next time.

I’ve known musicians that decide this working musician thing isn’t for them because of the this. Everything in this column is really just speculation, because I’ll never really understand the dead room phenomena. In my case, though, it’s not something that would deter me from the craft. It’s more just one of those things I don’t like about the job sometimes. I think if we are truly committed to making a living as a music artist, we have to learn to put our ego aside and embrace that we are in service to the world. Talent is an honor and most of us are incredibly grateful to make a living doing what we love. Touché.

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