It’s Not All Rock & Roll (2020)

*. At the beginning of the twenty-first century there was a sudden take-off in interest in televised talent shows, headlined by the Got Talent franchise created by Simon Cowell. I only ever watched one episode, and Cowell was one of the judges. I could understand the attraction the show had: you might see a star being born or enjoy wannabes having their dreams crushed. Anyway, in the episode I watched a dismissed contestant complained that he or she had talent and Cowell upbraided them, basically saying “So what?” The parking lot outside the audition studio was full of people with talent. The judges weren’t looking for talent, he said, they were looking for stars.
*. Commenting on the Got Talent phenomenon years ago, George Will opined that “American is lumpy with talent.” Stars are rarer. Watching It’s Not All Rock & Roll made me think of this. Dave Doughman is a musician who grew up outside of Dayton, Ohio but now finds himself residing in Hamburg, Germany, where he makes a living stacking shipping containers. Is he talented? On the evidence supplied in the film, I’d say he is. But when I was working the floor in an industrial concern doing work not dissimilar to Doughman’s twenty years ago there were at least three fellows on the same shift as me who had cut their own indie CDs. They were talented too.
*. Is Doughman a star? Or does he have star potential? That’s harder to answer. He has charisma (it would be hard to make a film like this work without it) and his resemblance to Borat gets him work as a model. So he’s a guy with feet in both worlds: a rocker and male model, and a divorced dad stuck in a blue-collar job, the sort of person for whom, as the recording industry cliché has it, “it just isn’t going to happen.”
*. At the very least we have to respect and even admire his persistence. He’s one of those people who were born to perform, going back to putting on backyard daredevil shows as a kid. As for his musical career, in his own words “the film is about how I’m not famous but that I’ve been still doing it for twenty years.” But he also says he doesn’t want to be rich and famous but only wants to be a working musician (that is, someone who goes on the road) and a good father.
*. Honourable goals, though they sound like coping. Still, it’s that coping that I think gives us something of real value.
*. As has been extensively chronicled — I recommend the books Culture Crash by Scott Timberg and The Death of the Artist by William Deresiewicz — the digital revolution has been a disaster for artists across the board. Even well-established visual artists, writers, filmmakers, and musicians have seen their ability to make a living wiped out. Then came the 2020 pandemic lockdown and what was a disaster turned into a catastrophe.
*. I find this background to be important, and it’s something I would have liked to have heard more about. But I don’t know if Doughman even owns a computer or if he has any online presence, and the film was made before COVID shut down all the bars we see him playing at. So while he’s a recognizable type in some ways, how representative is he of the working musician of the 2020s? And what are his survival strategies?
*. One way to cope is by living in a dream. This is something I think every artist has to indulge just to survive. Doughman talks about how he imagines a stadium of fans every time he takes the stage, likening himself at one point to a Method actor: “For me it’s always sold-out Madison Square Garden.” The reality is less glamorous, but what artist wants to settle for reality?
*. As with any documentary profile of this type we’re left to wonder at what isn’t said, or what voices aren’t heard. We see Doughman interacting with his son, but the kid’s mom isn’t in the picture. He always refers to his “band” — known as Swearing at Motorists — but it seems to only consist of himself and a series of drummers he’s gone through over the years. He admits at one point that he can be hard to work with, so I guess these drummers weren’t of the exploding Spın̈al Tap variety but either bailed or couldn’t keep up with Doughman’s continental drift. There’s also an unpleasant confrontation shown where Doughman gets in somebody’s face at one of his gigs, all of which made me think that despite all of his charm Doughman is not an easy person to get along with.
*. The plight of the “working artist” in the twenty-first century is a subject of immense importance, and It’s Not All Rock & Roll gives a valuable street-level perspective on it. Doughman’s eccentricity though might limit what it has to say about the larger problems facing the arts economy. This is a life it’s hard for me to even imagine. Some old advice, however, still has value for struggling artists everywhere: Learn a trade and don’t quit your day-job.

8 thoughts on “It’s Not All Rock & Roll (2020)

  1. film-authority.com

    You’ve doubled down on something that’s very now about this film; the virus has wiped out much of the indie scene, in music, films and elsewhere. Online ventures like Spotify trumpet the money the give to top artists, but I’m not seeing much evidence of an even spread. I wonder how much the virus has accelerated the decline in arts, music, film and so on…at least Dave has several sets of skills to fall back on. That’s quite a feat with the shipping containers!

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      I was in awe of some of the guys who did high-elevation forklift work when I was warehousing. I was no good at it at all.

      Yeah, I take it Doughman is more into the live experience, but the money for that was really drying up even before the pandemic. And when everything shut down it just seemed like things became even worse (for everyone: gallery shows, live theatre, cinemas, all flatlined).

      Spotify etc. just highlight the growing inequality. The vast majority of musicians don’t get any downloads at all! The only game in town is going viral, which is just a lottery.

      Reply
      1. film-authority.com

        I have interviewed several pop stars who ‘went viral’ and they all assured me it was a sham; a publicists creation to foster the illusion that it was a public groundswell of opinion that brought the artist to fame. I do know plenty of musicians who had hits in the 80’s and 90’s who are doing minimum wage and zero hours jobs now, because streaming has killed off their previous sources of income…the pandemic seems to have provided a perfect excuse to hasten the decline…although it also inspired me to delete my Spotify account…

      2. Alex Good Post author

        One of the things about going viral is it’s just a spark. You have to be able to run with it, and on the Internet that means doing a lot more work. It doesn’t get easier. For “creatives” who are making it happen I do respect the amount of time and effort they have to put into it. It’s more than a full-time job. I think most of what’s most successful is crap, but I do respect the effort.

  2. Bookstooge

    Outside of writing, and even that I consider a craft that you have to work at and it has rules, etc, I have a hard time feeling sympathy for “artists” of any stripe. I am not artistically inclined and so my thoughts and feelings don’t run that way. Also historically, “artist” has never been something you can make a living at. It’s been something that has been supported by rich individuals or an organization.
    The idea that anybody can make a living is just patently ridiculous and I’m glad you closed this review with that quote.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      I’m not as hard on artists. You could make a living, not get rich but make a living, out of doing a lot of work in the arts not so long ago. At least in my lifetime it was possible. But they’ve really taken a pounding from the Internet and more recently from COVID. And I think this is bad for everyone, not just artists. And you definitely need a back-up plan/source of alternate income today.

      Reply

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