I Can Be Bought But I Can't Be Sold

by Mark Dvorak

While sipping black coffee this morning in the lobby of the Memphis Mariott, charging my laptop and charging my phone, it struck me that I may be different than many of you. I am certainly different than many of the conference people already milling around the atrium here at the Mariott, the site of the 2010 International Folk Music and Dance Alliance Conference. 

We arrived late last night, loaded in, and met Kate and Bill, from Duluth for a drink in the hotel bar. There we also met Dallas and Kim from, Texas, James from California, Randall from somewhere in America, and Stephen Lee from Madison and Sandy from Chicago, whose car had slid into a ditch on the drive down. Bunches of others I didn’t recognize congregated at the bar, at the pool table and in the corners. Amid laughter, tired faces, hand shaking and hugging, the selling game was already begun. 

Don’t get me wrong Your Honor, I’ve not got a thing against selling. With my left hand on the Holy Bible, I swear to God that I truly understand how Life is Selling and Selling is Life. I further understand that the market in our particular end of the performing arts is depressed and over saturated. Jobs are tight, business is slow and the competition for work is stiff. And rent is due on the first. 

Of course I am glad to meet new people in my line of work. And of course, I’m particularly glad to meet those who may be interested in hiring me. But the whole practice of turbo-selling oneself and presenting oneself as a packaged, marketable brand and making a positive impact while comparing apps on ones iPhone seemed silly to me at midnight in a hotel bar at the end of a long travel day. I had been bouncing around the back box of a Vista-Crusier RV for the last twelve hours, and was cranky and wrinkled and tired and cold. And I wanted to enjoy my overpriced glass of merlot without having to try to express my career plans for the next five-year term in the time span of a sound bite. There’s my presentation for the evening. Thank you.

At a similar, but smaller conference some years ago, I was witness to a conversation revolving around the concept of the elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is a marketing tool. It is a prepared thing to have ready to say should you find yourself riding an elevator with a person in your field who may be in the position to help you advance your career.

It goes like this. You’re riding up to the seventeenth floor on the hotel elevator, headed back to your room with a six-pack of beer and a bag of Doritos, hoping the cable service includes the History Channel. The elevator stops at the fifth floor and a fellow, prominent in your field, steps into the car, reads your name badge and says something like, “Oh you are so and so from Chicago. I’ve heard of you. What is it that you do?” A seasoned conference person is ever-ready to network and realizes he’s got exactly twelve floors to make the exchange memorable. His elevator pitch is already cocked and loaded, and he fires away, hopefully hitting the target and dutifully impressing said prominent individual. Perhaps the exchange will result in something like a lunch date to further discuss an opportunity or project. Or perhaps it will simply lead to hooking up later for darts in the hotel bar at the end of the day. More likely the encounter will provide some common basis for an another association down the road. Whatever the benefit, it beats watching the History Channel with a bag of Doritos and a beer.

So having a tool like a good elevator pitch is a useful thing. Those who are also hip to the latest technology and trends in their field seem to always hold some kind of advantage. This stuff supplies material that strangers can jib jab about while they get to know one another. Whatever. Learning to handle oneself well in front of prospective buyers is essential in any trade and those who learn to do it well, do well. Selling is Life and Life is Selling.

I’m just not every time comfortable carrying on in a manner that is so continually on the make. When a guy asks me what inning it is in the ball game, I don’t feel compelled to hand him a business card and my fee schedule. “Bottom of the sixth,” I say. “Two on, two out, Konerko up.” 

I do have an elevator pitch, by the way, and it’s a dandy. I didn’t come up with it at a strategic peer-group session at a professional conference, nor was it conceived as the product of a consultation with a career coach. It came about over time by watching collected, poised people ease into situations that are both social and professional. It was edited by witnessing other aggressive types yammer away at their career goals and resume building. It was polished further by observing still others doing their work in edgy anticipation. Yep, I’ve got a damn fine elevator pitch. And one of these years, I hope to corner Mr. Career Changer in a hotel elevator and lay it on him. He will be impressed.

A long, long time ago I had the privilege of meeting a man named Walter McGhee. Nobody called him Walter though. He was known the world over as Brownie. Brownie was a big man with an even bigger personality. He was a singer, guitarist and songwriter. For more than forty years he toured the globe with his partner Sonny Terry. Brownie was bright, articulate and talented. He was a hard thinker and a keen observer, a student of many things. Brownie was a one-of-a-kind. 

Don’t take it from me though, go look him up. Google him and search him out on iTunes. Find him singing and playing on YouTube. Give a listen to his Folkways stuff, and then go back and listen to his early recordings. Liner notes and internet web sites will tell you that Blind Boy Fuller was an early influence. But why not do something for yourself and go look up Blind Boy Fuller, and spend some time listening to him too? When you go back again to the early Brownie, see if you can detect the Fuller influence in Brownie’s guitar phrasing and in his singing. Go ahead and try. I’ll bet you can.

Now find some of Brownie’s last recordings - soulful, wise and beautiful. Brownie was around eighty years old by then and had lost something in his guitar chops. You can hear it if you listen. And if you are like me, something new and delightful emerges when some younger instrumentalist gets to play fire behind the vocals of the great Brownie McGhee. You can hear it in the strings, and you can hear it in his singing. I’ll bet you can.

So there I was on Brownie’s patio a long, long time ago. He had just dished out his favorite ice cream to his guests and magically, about eight little children from the neighborhood appeared from nowhere at the precise time. “They know that Brownie dishes ice cream at two o’clock,” he said smiling. Brownie had a beautiful smile.

We continued our visit over spoonfuls of butter-pecan. Brownie spoke while rolling a frosty glob around in his mouth. “Yes,” he said, “I played a lot of dates over the years. By myself and with Sonny. You know,” he continued, “I could always be bought, but I could never be sold.” 

During our brief visit, I remember Brownie often speaking in such philosophical riddles, and didn’t always know exactly what he meant. Gradually I became less concerned that it might show ignorance if I asked him to clarify something he had just said. It finally dawned on me that Brownie probably knew precisely how ignorant I was by watching me walk up the driveway. 

“What does that mean?” I asked, “I can be bought but I can’t be sold?” He was smiling again and watching the little ones with melted ice cream running down their faces and arms. “It means that if someone likes what I do and wants to invite me to their place to play, then I will be glad to come. And we will work out the details and arrangement. It means that I am not going to stand on a street corner and wave a big sign that says, ‘Hey everybody, come down and hire Brownie McGhee.’” He laughed and said it again, “I can be bought, but I can’t be sold.”

2.17.10

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