It would seem that keyboardist Brandon Bush has “arrived.” He’s spending much of 2007 touring the country, playing every night to audiences of thirty and forty thousand. His band Train is taking a break, but he’s busy performing with the band Sugarland, as an opening act on country star Kenny Chesney’s summer tour. But like any serious musician, he’s always striving for more. Last year he took the Berkleemusic course “Film Scoring 101” and is currently enrolled in “Producing Music with Ableton Live.”
Bush first learned about Berkleemusic while on tour with his band Train. “Our drummer, Scott Underwood, was taking classes and basically making us all jealous on the bus that he was getting an education while we were doing nothing.” Underwood was taking “Producing Music with Ableton Live,” and when Bush downloaded the new version of the software, he decided to enroll as well. He’s only halfway through the course now, but he’s already reaping the benefits—though not in ways that one might expect.
“What I like about taking the courses online while I’m on the road is that it gives me something to focus on everyday…it gives me structure while I’m on this crazy schedule,” he says. “I feel like I’m learning the program in a very systematic way. Otherwise I wouldn’t take the time to understand all the menus and commands.” He already uses Ableton Live as part of his live rig on stage with Train, but in a very minimal way—using it to trigger soft synths and keyboard sounds. “I know there are a million things I can do with it and I just haven’t had the time to sit down and learn.”
Time is one thing that touring does offer—and lots of it. Bush calls it the “Death Hang. . . long periods of time that you are stuck in little concrete dressing room bunkers without anything specific to do but without resources you need to really do anything else…” He finds that the online course is a perfect complement, providing structure he finds critical for his creativity.
At home, structure comes easily: he has all the tools he needs and feels focused in his home studio. On the road, however, “You’re constantly battling for sleep, and food and comfort and these things are very distracting—so to find yourself in a creative space for the hour that you have it is a very difficult thing. Having the right tools is essential.” He sets up those “tools” every day in his dressing room: a laptop, portable speakers, keyboards, and now, a wireless connection to Berkleemusic.
The first weeks of the course were busy for him, as they came mid-tour, with extensive travel and a performance with Sugarland at the Country Music Television Video Awards. But that’s just par for the course; Bush is almost always on the road and with steadily declining record sales for major artists, touring has moved to the center stage for successful artists.
“My impression is that all through the ‘80s and ‘90s, people could sell a lot of records through getting radio play and didn’t have to rely on touring,” he said. “But now those record sales are declining year after year, and bands that didn’t have to tour as much now have to go find a way to do that.”
Bush finds it hard to believe that the music industry is suffering when he sees that night after night, Kenny Chesney continues to sell what he calls “a gazillion” tickets. “There’s a false sense that everything is dying on the vine… when in truth you just have to go prove that you can entertain people. If you can put people in seats, you can survive in this industry,” he said. In the country world, bands are not just surviving; they’re thriving, and they’re doing so on indie labels. “It’s very apparent that the system can work and the industry can survive—but under a different model,” he said.
Despite the persistent cries of an ailing record industry, it’s not looking like Bush’s touring schedule will slow down anytime soon. His challenge will be to remain inspired creatively, so he’s planning to take more courses. He’s considering Berkleemusic’s music business courses, more out of curiosity than for any specific professional benefits. “Every day out here I’m faced with the decline of old industry and the birth of new independent marketing,” he said. “I’m so intrigued by it. I’d love to get a more academic perspective on that while I’m also living it everyday.”
Taking courses will also help Bush tend to his personal priorities. “It helps me feel like I’m not suspending my life to go tour. That’s a constant challenge in this lifestyle. Instead of feeling like you have one life at home and then one life on the road, I’m really trying to integrate the two… That’s where the courses have been really helpful for me, because I do feel like I’m continuing to learn and follow my interests and develop as a person, instead of having to check out and live on the bus and play a show every night—which, while it’s incredible and I love doing it, it can be stifling because it’s so repetitive.”
He’s not complaining when he says that; he’s making a statement about what it means to be a true artist. “I used to listen to jazz musicians as I was learning about music and wonder if these guys sit down every day and think, ‘Wow I can do it, it’s great,’ or do they constantly feel like they’re not as good as the next guy? I think there’s a truth in that. Embracing the fact that this feeling will never go away is what allows you to be okay with the process. You have to get up everyday and realize that they’re not only technically better than you, but they’re also more successful … and be okay with that and realize you’ll get there.”Perhaps it’s his acceptance of the process that shows that he really has “arrived” as an artist. “I absolutely love what I get to do for a living, and I feel so grateful that I get to do this, but at the same time it’s a job and it will forever be a job,” he said. “It’s important to remember that whatever your goals are, when you get there you still have to work hard for it—not just sit back and smell the flowers.”