The Realities of Fantasy: A Day With Jason Aldean
I spent the day with a platinum recording star and all I got was this way-too-realistic view of the music business.
You sell over a million records and still have to polish your own guitar? When did the music business become so damn business-like?
I guess the absence of a full-time staff guitar polisher is just one more example of the inevitable changes going on in every industry. Budgets have been cut. Committees have been formed. Expectations have escalated. But somewhere in there, that fantasy of being a megastar has given way to the reality of actually being one. Gone are the groupies with that take-me-on-your-tour-bus look in their eyes. Gone are the unrealistic demands so popular in the backstage riders of the 90s. (Record labels just don’t have the excess cash to warrant a pair of incremental hands to hand-deliver a whole roasted chicken mid-show to said rock star’s dressing room.) And gone are the spoiled brats of the stage.
On a recent trip to Chicago to push his sophomore album, “Relentless,” platinum-selling country singer Jason Aldean invited me to tag along as he hit TV and radio stations to do a very unrockstarlike thing called self-promotion. It gave me, and thus you, an unfiltered look at a day in the life of a rising star.
This kind of media blitz is a necessary evil. Especially in Chicago, where there are 800,000 country radio listeners and one of the biggest record-buying audiences in the country. But the promotional tour in my mind went something like this:
Management thinks the new album needs a splashy debut. Artist thinks new album speaks for itself. Management tells artist he must get out there and promote it, but they will make it easy on him and cater to his every whim.
And by cater, I mean food. Yet that was the first thing I noticed. Or rather, the lack of it. The day started at 6am, when the bus pulled in from another promotional stop in Dallas. Surely there would be a piping hot breakfast buffet on the bus. No? How about coffee, then? Again, no. Get your own across the street. All Aldean had that morning was a coffee from the Starbucks on Michigan Avenue. Maybe Mick Jagger was a breakfast-skipper, too. But still. Even a box of Krispy Kremes would have been fuel enough for the day ahead.
Next up was the lack of green room. Apparently, VIPs at WGN, Fox and WUSN are treated like common folk. There were no plush couches for lounging on while your minions perform the sound check. There were no plasma TVs to make the down time go by quickly. We waited in the hallways, by the employee bulletin boards and mailboxes and old metal filing cabinets. Hardly the setting for a man who’s sold more than a million records in just two years in the business. When your schedule’s full of more load-ins and soundchecks than actual performance time, having a nice place to hang would’ve made sense.
Not that Aldean ever complained. He seemed content with the grueling reality of it all. This is a man who sings about women smoking Pall Malls, buying beer at Amoco, praying that his crops will grow and saying “Screw you, man” to his boss. So if art imitates life, and his hillbilly streak runs deep, then it may just be in his nature to have low expectations of life as a star.
Even more than the absent creature comforts like food and a nice place to sit, what stunned me most was the sardine-like sleeping arrangements on the tour bus. “Yep. It’s like a submarine back here,” said Rich Redmond, Aldean’s drummer, of the 12 bunks on the bus.
Each one is only about 6′ X 3′ X 3′. To say they were claustrophobic doesn’t even come close to depicting the horrors of the back of the bus. (Come to think of it, that could explain why no groupies were hanging around. Where would they go to consummate their new relationships?)
But another cruel reality was how busy Aldean stayed with the business side of things. Huddled over a Blackberry throughout the day, he’d obsess with his people over the real-time sales figures coming in on the album. Artists used to get first-week numbers strictly on a need to know basis. As in, you need to know if they suck because you may get cut from the label. Or, you need to know if they’re good because you can start booking into bigger venues. Other than that, artists at this level rarely were consumed with numbers.
But a new era of music means a new kind of musician. One who’s half artist, half businessman. How that will affect the lyrics and melodies has yet to be seen. For now, Aldean seems to be straddling the line nicely. His music is an 80′s-rock-influenced country that works. His stage persona is that of a redneck with a chip on his shoulder. And his behind-the-scenes work ethic is what will set him apart from his primadonna brethren.
Someday, though, I do hope guys like Aldean will make a few more demands. Bigger bunks, some deli trays and yes,someone to polish his guitar for him. If we don’t have rock stars who act like rock stars, what will we fantasize about? And after selling 98,000 copies of “Relentless” the first week out, and debuting at #1, I’d say Aldean deserves to act like one.
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