Music Machine

By Mike Vinopal

In some ways, I am the luckiest guy in this fair city of approximately three million. I have had the pleasure and the honor of playing my music on some of Chicago’s finest stages. I have gotten to relish in this electric feeling surrounded by various permutations of the incredibly talented friends I keep so close.

Several of these talented friends have even helped me to pull these compositions from the ether and splashed them with bits of their own soul. I have been able to hold these finished songs that started as a mere brain-seed, cradling them, feeling them give me the immense power required to let go of things holding me back in my own life. We created something together that didn’t exist before we made it and I think it makes us all feel lucky. To me, there is nothing more special than to put music on the wind, to fill the air surrounding you with melody, harmony and rhythm.

I play the notes out of my gut and sing the words up from my toes into the atmosphere and I am released. At that point, those words, those notes, those feelings become something new. Because they are not mine anymore. It’s our soul mixed up with everyone else’s. Connection. There are so many reasons I feel lucky to play my rock 'n' roll, my funk and soul, my roots and folk.  

But with it, as with everything, there are irritations, occasional conflict, and of course, the never-ending battle of self-doubt.

There are countless instances in which you are undervalued, talked over and lost in the vacuous white-noise din of the internet.

To pour your heart out on a stage can be a considerable act of bravery.  But sometimes while demonstrating such bravery, you look around to realize no one's there or maybe just a scattered few, all with glowing white rectangles projected on their downcast eyes, held captive by the scroll.

But I’d rather chalk those instances up to unusual rehearsals in public spaces. I’d rather savor the moments where you catch a stranger singing along to a song you’ve written or more subtly, when a person begins to be moved by the music—a sway, a rhythmic nod of the head. Or when folks go out of their way to tell you how much they enjoyed the show. I try to acknowledge these interactions, no matter how small. It helps balance out the bullshit.

“I would love to have your band at my venue. We’ll pay you a hundred bucks for playing four hours of music.”

Let’s do some math. There are six people in my band. One hundred dollars divided evenly for those six musicians is roughly sixteen dollars.  Sixteen dollars divided by four hours means getting paid approximately four dollars per hour, which doesn’t even factor in the hours put into writing, learning the tunes and rehearsing. As I said, undervalued.

Or even worse, “I have a gig for you. You’ll get some great exposure,” which is code for “You won’t be paid for this gig.”

There is also the less-than-glamorous element of finding your place. I’ve been super lucky to play at extremely beautiful big rooms in the city like House of Blues, Metro, Lincoln Hall, but these venues can be difficult to fill on your own. So you occasionally subject yourself to promoters whims, who more often than not mash together a lineup that is far from cohesive, stylistically. This can be both positive and negative. And you have to mindfully space out your concerts in those big rooms and find ways to effectively extend your reach. So you plug away to build a following where the people are… Smaller venues like bars, taverns, breweries, usually, wherever booze is found.

These smaller rooms are so special because there’s less separation between you and the people you are playing for. They are practically on the stage with you and your energies feed off one another. When you get a good balance of a rowdy crowd that is mostly attentive, well, that shit is a blast! People smiling, dancing and sweating together.  

But with bars and venues being inextricably linked, sometimes you get disheartened by the chatter, the patrons raising their voices to be heard over the music, to get phone numbers, to later decide if they want to take their clothes off in front of one another. To order rounds of shots, to complain about their day at work, or perhaps their mouths have simply become too lubricated with the sauce and they can no longer speak at a respectful volume. You get talked over. But you roll with it.

And goddamnit, I bleed for my performances. I give it everything I’ve got. I lay bare my chest. I’m at my most vulnerable. I lose myself in it and I do it proudly. I know I’m talented and that my songs are catchy, soulful, honest and well-written. I’d listen to my band’s music. And I think I’m engaging and impressive in my performances. But what does it take nowadays to blow someone away? To cut through? To stand out? There is no shortage of talent in the world and I am just one thirtysomething, white, bearded man who sings and plays guitar out of a million others.

Is it dancers? Stage show gimmicks? Visuals? A light show? Well-crafted original songs? A certain look? A certain sound? This is the silly shit you ask yourself because of the self-doubt I would say most artists struggle with, be it music or some other medium. From my experience, there is no template, no clearly defined path for achieving a more substantial and lasting success. Sometimes it’s just about who you know and being in the right place at the right time.

It’s a grinding machine but I do it for the love of music. And thankfully for people like me, the expression itself is gratifying. The music is like medicine and each performance, each composition, I find myself getting closer to clarity. It’s my release valve on all the bad shit we fill up with day to day. Pressure, stress, news, politics, drama, bullshit and tragedy. So I need music. It levels me out. Somedays it feels like the only thing I truly understand so I let the riffs come and dump my brain out in a notebook. Sometimes the song is already formed. Other times, some assembly is required. And I always feel better.

Sure it would be nice to be a rockstar traveling the world, playing music for my adoring fans with a crew that takes care of all the bullshit, and maybe someday I will be. But it’s also nice to know that no matter what, I always have music to make me feel better.