Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Success
There's no magic formula.
Hello, dear readers. Parker here.
Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of attending one of Andrew Bird’s annual Gezelligheid concerts at Fourth Presbyterian Church here in Chicago. Back when I was in college/right after graduating, I worked for Andrew’s manager (hi, Andrea!) as her assistant after my mentor Dave Lewis put in a good word for me. Oh, also, I used to draft Andrew’s newsletter, which ended up preparing me for what I do now, weirdly enough. Anyway, I’ve probably seen Andrew in concert maybe… 20-25 times, with each its own delightful and/or memorable1 experience.
In recent years, I’ve been using the occasion of the annual Gezelligheid (it’s a Dutch word that roughly translates to “coziness,” apparently) concerts to reflect on the year. I guess there’s something about sitting in a church pew that naturally triggers a bit of introspection in me.
In today’s newsletter, I think I’ll offer a few thoughts on success, and I’ll also include a few videos from the concert that I was able to sneakily snap during the show.
But before I get into that, here’s where I ask readers to please consider signing up for the newsletter. There’s a free version and a paid version. I aim to get 7% of all free subscribers upgraded to the paid version, which would put me in a safe position financially. If you’ve considered upgrading (or signing up for the first time), now is a great time to do that. Thanks! Okay, back to the newsletter.
If you’re unfamiliar with Andrew or his music, I think this 2009 New York Times preview of his album Noble Beast does a really great job of giving readers some insight into who he is, his path to success, and so on. Andrew’s Gezelligheid set contained a few cuts from that 2009 record (“Oh No” and “Tenuousness,” though the latter wasn’t listed on the setlist).
I worked Andrew’s merch table for the Hideout shows referenced in the article, and I also helped with various schedule-related things for the recording of his “Fitz & The Dizzyspells” music video (I’m hidden in the background of some of the shots; no, I won’t tell you which ones). I’d leave that job about six months later to pursue my own dreams — my college degree is in music business/talent management, but the industry had already veered so far off into the wilderness during my time in school that it felt damn near useless. Still, working for Andrea and witnessing Andrew’s talent and success up close was a great experience that I treasure to this day.
Here’s a video of Andrew playing “O Holy Night” during Friday’s concert:
I think one of the most important things I learned during my time in that job is that success doesn’t just magically follow as the result of smarts or talent. There’s work. There are often teams of people. There’s luck. I’ve long said that Andrew is the most talented person I’ve ever met — a wildly talented musician, a brilliant lyricist, a natural performer with a dedication to his craft — and he would have been all of that even if he never found the success that he eventually did.
From that 2009 Times article:
In his early 20s, Bird got the break that every aspiring musician hopes for: a young executive at Rykodisc, Andrea Troolin, dug his demo out of the slush pile and offered him a record contract. Bird organized a band — Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire — to back him, and they drove down to New Orleans to record their first album, “Thrills,” in five adrenaline-fueled days. They had a tiny budget, and Bird, who was obsessed with early American jazz at the time, insisted that they make the record the old-fashioned way — with everyone gathered around a single ribbon microphone, playing each song until they got it right, however late into the night they had to work.
Bird recorded two more albums with the Bowl of Fire. It can be hard to tell, listening to those records, that they are the work of the same artist who made “Noble Beast.” The songs zigzag wildly across Bird’s eclectic record collection. His subtle, lilting voice is rendered almost unrecognizable as he channels everything from raspy bluesmen to Berlin cabaret singers.
None of the Bowl of Fire’s records sold. The band’s tours became increasingly depressing affairs. “We’d roll into town, and there would be no posters advertising our show and no radio stations playing our songs,” Bird told me. “Forty people would show up, and we’d get paid $500, if we were lucky.”
I really enjoyed Andrew’s music with Bowl of Fire. And that music came into existence (as a recording, at least) because “a young executive … dug his demo out of the slush pile” — a truly lucky break… that still didn’t automatically catapult him to mainstream success. It took even more work and a few more lucky bounces for the world to get the chance to see this man, overflowing with talent and ambition, live up to his potential2. He’s earned every success he’s had, obviously, but that almost wasn’t enough.
Similarly, I recently went and saw Evann McIntosh, one of the other artists Andrea has been working with, when they played at Schuba’s. Is Evann going to make it big? I have no clue. Is Evann really talented, anyway? Absolutely, and whether they go on to become the most famous singer on the planet or fade into obscurity, that won’t change.
I just saw a quote from Jeff Bezos from a recent podcast appearance he did:
“I would love to see, you know, a trillion humans living in the solar system. If we had a trillion humans, we would have at any given time a thousand Mozarts and a thousand Einsteins…Our solar system would be full of life and intelligence and energy.”
You don’t need a trillion people to have “a thousand Mozarts and a thousand Einsteins,” though. The Mozarts and Einsteins are already out there, perhaps sitting in a “slush pile” somewhere like Andrew’s early demo was. That’s part of why the “we need to become a multi-planetary species!” stuff that Bezos and Elon Musk push irritates me. There’s so much talent here, so much potential here, so many people who simply are not getting their due already. I’m sure of it.
Here’s a video of Andrew playing “Scythian Empires” during Friday’s concert:
So why am I talking about success and talent and how the talented aren’t necessarily successful (but it’s great when they, like Andrew, are)? Well, for one, because I know that I’ve been guilty of judging myself based on my own perceived level of success. I’ve caught myself thinking that I was better than I actually was because of a lucky break (and I’ve had a few), and I’ve felt like a talentless failure other times when my work hasn’t led to the kind of outcomes I’d hoped for3. (To the extent that I can call my own career “successful,” I really do attribute a lot of it to luck.)
But I get messages from people every day. Messages from great writers who can’t build a following. Messages from talented commentators and analysts who just never connected with the kinds of outlets that could help them thrive. Messages from people with a keyboard and a passion. And so I’ve been thinking a lot about what I can do to try to use my platform to boost the voices of others. Maybe that means commissioning people to write freelance pieces for The Present Age, helping to put money in their pockets while getting their work out to larger audiences. Maybe that means more aggressively plugging the work of people I enjoy. I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but I want to do more. That’s one of the reasons I requested some reader feedback in a recent 2023 favorites post. (And if you have a favorite movie/book/newsletter/video game, etc., you want me to check out, please respond to that article — I opened the comments up to everyone.)
I just want to pay it forward a bit. I think we could all benefit from that. So much of what I see online, especially on social media, is just dunking. We all seem to spend significantly more time tearing people and things down than we spend building them up. I’m guilty of it, too. So in 2024, I’m planning on trying to write at least one “Here’s a really great piece of journalism that you should check out” article for every “Oh my god, did you see the garbage published by the Wall Street Journal today?” story. It’s a small shift, but one I hope can be used to draw attention to the good and not just highlight the bad.
In the meantime, I wish all of you a very cozy end to your year.
A video of Andrew playing “Fake Palindromes” during Friday’s concert:
The time he dropped his violin during “Fake Palindromes” at a performance at the Civic Opera House that ended with having to go get it emergency repaired in the northern suburbs was certainly memorable, but not exactly delightful. On the other hand, his 2008 concert in Millennium Park was an absolutely delightful experience.
Though, honestly, I think Andrew deserves to be even bigger than he is. He is just so, so, so good.
I worked at Media Matters during the 2020 presidential campaign. I’m really proud of the writing I did during that time, and I had hoped that as news organizations did their post-election hiring, places like the New York Times or Washington Post would reach out my way. My career goal had been to be a Times columnist, and I wrote a lot of thoughtful, on-target pieces during the election, including one published the morning after that predicted that Trump supporters would rally behind calls to “stop the steal” and try to block Biden from taking office. Surely, there’d be some interest from the legacy media organizations, right? Wrong. And that’s okay. It took me a long time to accept that this didn’t mean I was a terrible writer, just that I didn’t catch a lucky break. Since then, I put my energy into this newsletter, which has worked out okay so far.