All day I thought about the questions I would ask MC Lars and Mega Ran, two of my favorite rappers. I had already contacted both via social media and requested an interview, and both were game despite some obvious barriers (noise, crowd, other fans, merch sales). I thought, fruitlessly, about the interview questions at work, during the long drive to LA, and in line for admission, drinks, img_0183and finally merch and chatting. I observed Lars and Ran, the way they spent a lot of time on each fan. My interviews would be just fine, so long as I had some good questions to ask.

If the Lord works in mysterious ways, then praise ‘im for sending the guy, holding a minibottle of liquor, who asked me, “Man, do you need a drink?”

I gave him a look that, well, adequately transmitted my confusion.

He said, with an honest smile, “I was in front of you in line to get in, and you haven’t smiled once.”

I stammered my way out of the conversation. I didn’t need any more convincing to drop the whole interview idea. Thankfully, Lars and Ran were gracious, and I had the opportunity to tell both how much I enjoyed their latest albums. Lars asked me about my career and was genuinely interested. He also remembered when I showed him my MA thesis, which had a verse of one of his songs as the epigraph. Ran not only remembered my review of his album RNDM; he said it was his favorite review. When I tweeted that he dug the review (not wanting to presume too much), he replied to the world that it was his favorite. In dropping the Important Blogger façade, I got way more than I gave, way more than I expected.

Here’s an uncomfortable confession: writing for Mockingbird is a gift that was first extended to me last year, but I have spent more time constructing elaborate, self-aggrandizing concepts than I have writing. As a result, more and more time has separated my contributions. This has generally made me miserable, not fulfilled. I am not saying that I need to write only out of pure, spiritual abandonment. Ambition accompanies any writing project that I undertake. I am saying, however, that the gift turned to greed in the hours before the Lars + Ran show. I wanted something from them so I could improve my nerdcore-hip-hop creds and my blogging creds and my future famous writer of America creds.

My error is magnified when I consider the gift economy that now powers indie music. I primarily use Apple Music–a platform that famously tried to cheapskate artists until Taylor Swift tweeted a “oh, hell no”–to power my headphone habit. Even with payment in full, Apple Music barely pays indie artists; as Ran rapped about a similar service, “But how’s an artist supposed to pull rent / when Spotify can’t even give him a full cent?” (“Same as It Ever Was”). Indie artists cobble together their income from modest streaming and purchase royalties, ASCAP checks, patron donations (eg, IndieGoGo, Kickstarter, Patreon), and merch sales. In fact, the actual recorded music can be a wash in order to rack up merch receipts:

Frontalot is in the tee-shirt business
MC Lars is in the tee-shirt business
Look at us, we’re in the tee-shirt business
I thought we were musicians, what is this? (“Captains of Industry”/“Black and Yellow T-Shirts”)

All of this is to say: the actual music is a gift. The performance itself might be a gift, too, depending on the venue payout. I receive something that contributes to my happiness from the many artists I listen to—mostly, for free. Yet for hours before the concert I had so looked forward to, I was scheming to get something more from Lars and Ran. So I repent, and I give thanks for the voice of God spoken to me by a fellow concert-goer offering me a drink to just loosen up.