A Snare Drum Saved My Life. No, really.
by Jordan Olsen, guitarist for Brothers Brimm
In 2006 I was really frustrated with music. By that time I was a guitarist of 12-years, I had released 5 albums in various projects, I had received glowing press, and had played hundreds of shows. But after I had the chance to pull back the curtain on the music industry and see how the machine worked, I nearly gave up music. I was so turned off by how fake the rise of "popular music" was that it shrouded my ability to enjoy listening to new music. Maybe you can relate to some of my experiences? If so, I’d love to read your comments below…
As a DJ and journalist I saw how the sausage was made
In the early 2000’s I was playing music in a successful local band. I was bright eyed and ambitious and wanted to take the world by storm. I lived and breathed music, so much so that when I got into college the only things that I wanted to study were broadcast and print media. I wanted to go into radio and music journalism. I wanted to eat, sleep, and breath music!
During my time in college I was ambitious. Before I was even a sophomore I was the general manager of our college radio station, and not too long after that I started a regional music magazine with my best friend.
For most of my early 20's I was completely submerged in "the music industry." I had radio promoters constantly after me to add new music. I had bands' managers and publicists constantly sending me CD's and swag hoping to capture my attention to write-up their bands. I had the attention of a lot of the music industry who wanted to pimp their music throughout Utah.
At first it was flattering. It was nice getting the attention of 'important' players in the music industry. I thought I was well on my way to earning a living working in the music.
But as time went on, these jobs allowed me to pull back the curtain and see how the sausage was made. I got a unique inside look at the way the music industry operated. I wish I could report it was all sunshine, but I’d be lying.
The reason I wanted to go into radio was to share my passion for new music with the masses. I dreamed of hopping on-air and being the conduit for listeners to discover cool new music. I believed good music would naturally rise through the ranks and the cream would settle on top.
Boy was I was naive. What I found instead was that radio is nothing more than a carefully crafted marketing game. There was an enormous amount of money sunk into getting bands to rise through the radio charts, and only bands who were signed to fat record deals with hefty promotion budgets ever got serious air-play.
Merit, creativity, and musicianship were never primary considerations when getting air-play. It all came down to which bands were signed to record labels who could sink BIG money into hiring the biggest radio promotion firms.
The bands who had the big money behind them... loads of air play.
The bands who were on smaller labels with smaller budgets... crickets.
And we tried at our radio station to change the system. We would constantly play those smaller bands with great music and put them in hot rotation. But our radio station was just a drop in the bucket. Without fail, the bands with the big budgets would rise the charts and would go on to greater success.
Bands with smaller promotion budgets – no matter how great their music was – couldn't get a break. They were stuck. And even though I wasn't in their bands, I developed a looming sense of hopelessness for those bands.
Radio was such a turn off for me that I moved away from broadcast and instead started a monthly music magazine with my best friend. I thought the printed word might be a better way to share music.
We started a really great magazine! We covered local, regional and mainstream touring bands. We printed show previews, concert reviews, in-depth interviews, CD reviews, etc. We ran around town with cameras strapped around our neck capturing the vibe of our music scene. It was a really great magazine.
But as the months wore on I found the business of print journalism wasn't that different from radio. No matter how good a band’s music or performance, it was nearly impossible for them to get national attention without a high-priced PR team.
I interviewed numerous bands who were doing all they could to spread the word on their music. But without huge money sunk into expensive publicists, these bands couldn't catch a break on the national scene.
Overall, I discovered that a band's success, popularity, and exposure almost universally had nothing to do with the quality of their music, musicianship, or performance. A band's success was almost completely dependent on money and backroom behind-the-scenes back-scratching.
Goodbye music industry. Hello self reflection.
By 2006 I threw in the towel on being a player in the music industry. I left radio and print journalism in my rear view mirror and never looked back.
I decided to put my focus back on my own music. If I was going to enjoy music again I had to try and do something authentic and honest without an eye on "making it." Instead wanted to focus on my own guitar playing and song writing.
Growing up in the 90's I was a child of alt-rock. Throughout my teenage years I really only had one source of music... X96. It was (is) the alternative rock station here in Salt Lake City. Throughout my formative years, X96 was my sole musical influence and subsequently became my inspiration for my own song writing.
So when I would play my guitar “alternative rock” is really all that came out of me.
Gah! All I wanted to do was get far away from the 'alternative indie rock' sound that I had been pimping on radio for years, but unfortunately this was the only style of music coming out of my hands. This was creating some internal dissonance to put it mildly. All I could hear in my own playing was the phoniness of the music industry I wanted nothing to do with anymore.
I needed a fresh start. I needed a new approach to music, but I didn’t even know what I was looking for.
Along Came A Stranger
Just as I was searching for a new musical path I had an interesting [albeit random] encounter with a stranger.
I was at coffee shop listening to some guitarists perform. While immersed in the acoustic sounds, dim lighting, and the smell of roasting coffee beans a stranger sitting close by struck up a conversation with me. He was a bass player and we got chatting and realized we had a lot in common.
We hit it off and talked about playing music together. After exchanging phone numbers he stood-up to leave and was on the way out the door when he turned to me and said, “Oh hey, here is a CD of some friends of mine in Chicago. They’re a band called Umphrey’s McGee. Give it a listen and let me know what you think.”
He handed me a burned CD with some hand writing in Sharpie.
Oddly, I never saw him again. He never called, and we never jammed. However, unbeknownst to me, that brief exchange was leading me toward a major fork on my life's road.
A Snare Drum Saved My Life
I had that stranger’s CD in my car for a few weeks. I never listened to it. It just sorta sat on my passenger seat looking at me – pleading with me to play it. But for weeks I never put it in my player.
On a cold snowy night in a grocery store parking lot I jumped in my car shivering. I started the engine and let the car idle while I waited for the defroster to warm-up and clear my foggy windshield.
I impatiently channel-hopped through the radio dial looking for something to listen to, but I ultimately turned it off. There didn’t seem to be anything worth listening to, and silence seemed like a better option.
For the moment the only sound I could hear was snow falling on my windows over the wurr of my car’s cold engine.
Then something caught my eye. I reached over and picked it up. It read “Umphrey’s McGee – Anchor Drops.” I remember thinking to myself, “What a ridiculous band name.” I almost put it down, but I decided to break the silence and give it a listen.
I opened the jewel case, removed the CD and loaded it in the player. I heard the hum of the disc starting to spin… and then…
A single snare drum hit.
Exploding through the silence in my car!
A single quarter note stroke that announced to the world something amazing was coming, and to pay attention… and that’s exactly what I did.
The promise that snare drum made didn’t disappoint. As I listened to those first few bars of the song “Plunger” my eyes widened, the hairs on my arms stood-up, and butterflies took flight in my stomach. What on earth was this sound!?
It was creativity! It was energy! It was the sound of a unified chunky guitar, bass, and piano riff. It was a funky back-beat intermixed with tom rolls and syncopated hits. It had the familiarity of a classic rock song that was swimming in a pool of broken musical rules. The musicianship was something I hadn’t heard before. They had total control over their instruments, but rather than mindlessly noodle with blazing speed they command their instruments to perform soulful melodic tasks and rhythmic feats I hadn’t witnessed before.
I sat alone in my idling car for the next 64 minutes (sorry global warming!) and listened to every track on the album. Each new song took me to new heights. Each song made me aware of everything I didn’t know about music.
I felt something I hadn’t felt in a very long time. It was inspiration. It was hope. It was excitement for a new musical genre. It was my jaded attitude toward music melting away – replaced by this new high.
It was exactly what I had been searching for! My musical life had been saved.
My Musical Transformation
Over the next couple of months I learned everything I could about Umphrey’s McGee. I watched every YouTube video and I bought every album. I explored every message board and followed every social media update.
Umphrey’s McGee opened my eyes to a whole new musical genre: Jam Music.
Umphrey’s lead me to discover and appreciate Phish. Phish lead me to Moe. Moe led me to Warren Haynes who lead me to The Allman Brothers, who lead me to Derrick Trucks, who led me to Medeski, Martin, and Wood, who lead me to Oz Noy… and on and on.
What I learned through these bands is that jam music is a genre that lives and dies by the integrity of every note played. It sweeps aside the pretense of the pop/rock infrastructure. It’s a genre that is immune to big-budget manipulation because if the music isn’t good enough it won’t be accepted. This was a far cry from what I experienced in radio and print.
Musical Renaissance: The Path to Brothers Brimm
My life has gone down a completely different (and wonderful) path that I never anticipated, and it was thanks to that snare drum. That single snare stroke was like an explosion in my soul which set my life’s trajectory on a new course.
Soon after discovering jam music, my guitar study & song writing kicked into hyper speed.
I was inspired to study harder than I ever had before. So much so that I enrolled in Berklee College of Music’s guitar program.
After years of guitar study I started teaching guitar. I later opened a music school where I work with numerous music teachers and have the pleasure of helping young minds discover their own passion for music.
In the summer of 2014 – after our students left for the night – some of us teachers started jamming the music school's practice room. Those teachers were John Chatelain, Chris Aguilar, and Nathan Chappel. Soon after we invited Ben Oloffson to play keys with us.
The result? We formed Brothers Brimm.
Brothers Brimm is the culmination of my musical renaissance and I’m really proud of the music we’re making.
For myself, as well as the other band members, Brothers Brimm is a vehicle for musical exploration and I really want you to explore it with us.
Thank you for being a listener and for making it all matter.
~ Brothers Brimm