As a kid, I recall going to the department stores with mom and my siblings. It seemed like a mixed blessing. On one hand, we were out of the house, and not sentenced to a day of chores. On the other hand, we were doomed to a steel wire shopping cart prison cell if she discovered our hide-'n-seek game in the clothing racks. Stores like Goldblatts and Kmart were common shopping destinations, and their toy departments never seemed to lose their shiny and mystical powers that entranced us as we fantasy sword-played or floor tested the latest Hot Wheels release.
Now, as an adult, I realize how much money we didn't have. I realize how going to those stores was more window shopping, and less product buying. Mom knew that a frozen coke at the Kmart cafeteria in the back of the store would be reward enough for us kids to feel special. I've never asked her, but I imagine a day trip to the department store had as much to do with her necessary escape from the daily home grind, as it did with letting us kids have something to do.
Each store had a customer service area in the back where, occasionally, mom would disappear for a few minutes. I never understood what that customer service desk was about until later in my adolescence, when I would find myself handling a similar transaction.
The concept that you can almost buy something and call it your own, but not until you've paid for it over time, is nothing new. However, in our world today, I don't know that I can say the layaway plan has affected my life outside of paying interest loans for my home and car. But, for a pair of pants, shoes, a coffee pot or anything else that a department store offered at the time, layaway was the common practice used by mom for things she wanted to buy. It was both a matter of economics and budgeting, and a great deal of restraint and patience to wait for what you were able to touch and see in your own hands.
Layaway taught us kids the value of working hard to get what you wanted over time, instead of popping out a credit card and having instant gratification -- which is the way it has happened in the 40 years since those early days of childhood.
In a lot of ways, this venture of the music industry is a great comparison to the layaway plan, or the high-interest credit card plan.
Most artists in the past 15 to 20 years who have been hooked on their passion as a result of TV reality shows, like Star Search or American Idol, have been sucked into the universe of instant gratification with little time or patience to guide them. We have witnessed equal or perceived "lesser" talented artists be discovered right before our eyes on TV.
It's like the new fabric smell of a great pair of jeans, wafting into our minds while in that department store.
"I must have these," we exclaim as they dig into their wallet for a freed-up credit card.
I will admit that having been a singer my entire life, I recognize the powerful temptation that comes with seeing semi-talented artists release songs on the radio after having appeared on a reality show. It's been like the gold rush of 1849, and Klondike-destined miners are seeking their claim to fame and riches with a pick-axe and sifter.
Sadly, many of the well-intended artists in the music industry find themselves deep in debt and realizing they spent future-assumed funds on an item that was polished and propped up, high on display in the department store, only to enjoy it for a short time. They brought it home, showed it off to friends and family, used it to fill their time and attention, but never really took the time to fully appreciate what they were investing in. The thrill-seeking high of fame and potential fortune outweighed the reality: that it takes 98 percent of hard work and calendar pages to make that high sustain.
They forgot about the layaway option.
I drove by a shoe store in my small town and saw a huge sign on their building that boasted that they offered layaway plans. I thought to myself: "It's a pair of shoes. Seriously?" I suppose I could have questioned if the shoes had gold shoelaces, and were made from God's own personal herd of cattle to require them to offer a layaway plan. But, realizing that not every consumer has enough disposable income, or a credit card, for even a $30 pair of shoes reminded me how impatient I must be for the simplest things.
I've been spoiled. Shame on me.
I recently posted a video of Spencer auditioning at age 13 for a local music competition, and found it hard to fathom that it was already five years ago. He was so young. His voice was so high tenor. His body, so little, and his cheeks so chubby. His awkward, front-tooth grin reminded me of the music journey we've taken so far.
For us, it's been a layaway plan.
We have never had the money or network of industry contacts to launch Spencer. Plus, I don't believe he would have been ready to take on the work that I now realize is involved with sustaining a career in the music business. Maybe, equally realistic is the fact that while he had talent, knowing how to apply that talent in the music industry takes time and experience. Skill is the result of that time and experience. Patience is the greatest ingredient to sustaining a career when you strip away all the pretense and hype.
A mentor of Spencer's shared a story about his days as an Executive A&R at Sony. He explained how he had literally hundreds and hundreds of highly talented artists that walked through his door, or were shared across his desk in the form of demo after demo each year. Obviously, it would be mind-numbing to listen to band after band do their best "sound-alike" of whatever was hot in the past 12 months on the radio. Occasionally, he would hear a unique sound and talent, which would raise his eyebrow and put his team into action on reaching out to them.
So, after sifting through the masses of artists, hoping for their number to be called, he would finally have a handful they'd start to develop. It was in this process where they would truly realize the ones that would make it, versus those who were just fame and fortune seekers.
He explained it like this to Spencer one day in his office in Nashville.
"It wasn't their talent or desire that was scrutinized most. It was their tenacity."
He went on.
The flashing strobes of their stage show was cool, but me and my team were always more interested in watching them over time. How did they handle sleeping in a van when they couldn't afford a hotel? How did they handle performing in a venue where four people showed up to watch? How did the react when haters made their opinions highly public? How would they react when the label rejected their most ambitious work of art on an album because it would not sell?
He continued to share the not-so-fun side of being an artist -- addressing the tenacity and character of an artist more than their talent. It was during this conversation that I witnessed Spencer's eyes sparkle in a different way. For him, he knew that he had ability and some talent. He also knew he wasn't a prodigy. For Spencer, he came to understand that this mentor was talking about the layaway plan.
He would need to make payments toward a goal of having a career in the music industry. Payments that were issued over time, over rough periods where he had to scrape together couch-coins to make an effort. Spencer would have to grasp that, like most worthwhile things in life, Rome wasn't built in a day. However painful the journey of highs and lows has been at times, the love for that pair of jeans or remote control car he put on layaway would have to be so deep inside, that he would continue to make the trip to Kmart and drop off another payment.
His mentor simply said that they looked for artists who were willing to invest and stay committed when the worst of times came at them. They were, after all, going to invest alongside them, and it was highly important to know that they wouldn't jump ship after the first bad show or broken-down vehicle infused their life with an opportunity for patience. The label is a bank, and the bank doesn't care about anything but getting their investment back, and then some.
Tom Petty, one of my personal favorite artists of all time, wrote a song where the hook is simply: "The waiting is the hardest part." I wonder if he exercised his own personal journey in the music business into a clever song that most humans can relate to.
And, while Spencer continues to plot the path to a career in this industry, the people around him continue to remind him to keep grinding and working. Even when the final payment of a layaway yields a box filled with the item you set as a goal to obtain so long ago, another new item will reveal itself, and it will require a new installment of payments to achieve.
This is the life of an artist. Always reaching, never obtaining fully that which they can become.
As I sat in the shopping cart next to mom's purse with my legs dangling through the holes, I would watch her push me past aisle after aisle of stuff. And, in the checkout lane, where merchandisers plot their evil temptation plans the best, was a shelf lined with candy and gum.
From time to time, mom would distract me while she grabbed a Reese's or pack of Chicklets and pass them to the cashier in secret for a reward for my patience. Other times, she would hush my whines for a sugar high with warnings that dinner would be served soon, and she didn't want to ruin my appetite. Mom's are clever that way.
In the end, I learned that, sometimes, your patience will be rewarded, and sometimes your impatience results in nothing.