The Old Light-bulb Joke

Posted on August 21, 2010


There’s a hundred or so that any musician can cough up in about a minute, it’s even become a band room ritual to turn down for a few minutes and pass them around the room. Did you hear this one?

How many Dead-Heads does it take to change a light-bulb?

Answer: 12,001

One roadie to change it, 2000 to record and take pictures of the event and 10,000 to follow it around until it burns out.

It might be a chuckle, and maybe you’re going to share that one with friends, but there’s something in that joke I hope you’ll take a look at. “10,000 to follow it around, 2000 to record the event.” It might be a joke on paper, but it’s a career in the books that will ultimately stand for eternity. Grateful Dead fans were about as devout as a any formidable religious sect could be. They faithfully followed the band, collected the music, memorized each beat, tone, harmony, vocal line and guitar chord. What more could a group ask for?

I’m more than sure there are a million tightly rolled and smoked reasons why Dead-Heads made the sacrificial journeys each tour, but why? A lifestyle? A purpose? Something to do with an otherwise meaningless existence?


A lot of Dead-Heads were active millionaires who simply enjoyed the music of a band that didn’t come out and try to break the mold. The Grateful Dead was consistent, album after album and performance after performance.  They created something that with time and effort, practice and skill, became a model for something that was guaranteed to sell and continue to sell – even after the band was over!

I remember a girl I worked with in a company called EMC in Massachusetts. The day Jerry Garcia died she had an emotional breakdown and demanded the day off. We had to give it to her; she couldn’t function. She honestly didn’t see how she was going to go on after that cataclysmic event. She was 19 years old. Even at 19, music that had been written decades before she was born was such a big catalyst to her existence; she couldn’t function while she dealt with the loss.

Looking at the bands of the 80’s, die-hards preach about the music that up and left them. The change in tide, the grunge era and how bands tried to keep up. Yeah, the Cherry Pie era of Warrant might seem a little light handed by today’s standards, but the band released an album shortly there-after that was so left field to what they had been doing, fans turned away. That’s just one of hundreds of artists who took that plunge.

I’m not saying that changing with the times is a bad choice, but staying true to what your fans ask of you is a sure way to keep sales, attendance and rating on the up and up. This all goes back to the passion I so often talk about. You became a musician because of the passion you had. It caused you to create the sound you do without effort – it’s YOU speaking through the music. Now that you have fans who love you for it, do you really want to become the next Japanese Boy band? Are your hundreds, or thousands of fans going to follow you over to tech beats and keyboard pad sounds?

What if Dr. Dre started singing opera? Do you think those albums would sell? Maybe for novelty sake, but it’s not a career move. He’s a passionate urban song developer – he wouldn’t make a move to something that would lose his audience, and neither should you.

Dabble, but don’t desert. You’re a rock musician; keep producing the rock for your fans. Make a blues album on the side; appear on someone else’s pop disc, your fans will collect it – so long as they keep getting from you what they want. The original passion you produced that attracted them in the first place.

Now, the passion. It’s not a business move, and I try over and over to get people to understand this. Your music, that made you the unsung hero, the local favorite – that’s you. Anyone can knock out a three-chord album tomorrow and sell it to a few hundred people who are just looking to spend eight bucks. That is a numbers game, and if a few numbers are what you’re after – great! Go get ‘em tiger. But those people won’t be watching you change a light-bulb and recording the event. They won’t be piling into mini-vans to drive to the next venue and for sure – they won’t be scouring the CD bins to find your former releases.

Here’s another one for you take with you.

A guy walks up to me and asks,  “What’s that cigar you’re smoking?”

I tell him, “It’s a Lady Ga-Ga.”

He says, “What’s a Lady Ga-Ga?”

I told him, “It’s a piece of shit with a band wrapped around it.”

Toke on that Lady Guy-Guy.

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