More ruminating on being an artist in the new environment

The Reality of the New Music Business

I agree with some of this, and definitely agree with the author’s sense of annoyance with the gung-ho gimme-everything-for-nothing attitude that a lot of people seem to have nowdays, claiming that music is so very important to them and their lives, but then sneering, laughing, and treating musicians like uppity bootlickers when the idea is put forth that they might oh, pay for it. I also get ticked off at the way that the gimme-gimme crowd seems to feel that since labels used to stick it to artists so badly, that it’s okay if they stick it to artists as well because at least they’re not megacorps or something. Labels try to crush pirates, pirates try to undo labels … and somehow both of them are happy to put a boot in the face of the people who actually make the art.

But it also prompted a few other thoughts in my head as well.

First, I’m really having a hard time sympathizing with the assumption that any artist or musician would of course want to quit their day job and do their art full-time. Yes, it would be nice. I would certainly like to do that. But I don’t think that’s a specifically artistic angst. I think I just want to hit the lottery and be able to sit around and do what I want all day, just like a tone-deaf person who might want to sit around and play online poker all day, or gossip, page through catalogues, and sip coffee.

I think there’s a problem by which artists assume that their natural desire to be rich enough to not have to work or worry about money is related to their artistic identity. It’s not. And they relate it to their marketability and to their dedication to their art: if they were really passionate about their art, they’d chuck it all and “go for it,” whatever that means. Risk financial destitution or something. Would you imagine anyone with any sanity chucking their day jobs to follow their passion to play online poker 24/7?

So I think one thing that artists should do is acknowledge that, in many cases, there just is no need to quit your day job, nor to do so and use your muse as an excuse. Have a career, something that gives you some fulfillment outside of music or art and that pays the bills. Big bonus if it comes with health insurance and time off. Don’t automatically assume that you have to do it full-time and use it to keep a roof over your head. And don’t assume that you aren’t a real or legitimate artist, or you’re not really “committed” to your art or something unless you do it full-time.

It will be hard to balance your free time. You’ll be working at your job or working at your art, and yes you will feel an unpleasant sense of duality. News flash: that will never go away even if you become a full-time artist. Full-time artists do not do art full-time. They are self-employed business owners. They fill out paperwork, fax things, plan, strategize. They spend most of their time doing this. So if you’re going to be torn between the flute and the fax anyway, why not make a comfortable living in the bargain?

It will also help you turn aside the demands that people will make on you to do things for nothing. If you don’t have to make your living from your art, you can’t be manipulated by your own fear. For me, trained by an early childhood of financial tension, that’s a big thing. I don’t have to worry about how to reply to anyone telling me they won’t pay me but I’ll get “great exposure!” I can just say no and move on.

It’s worth noting that this model of “don’t quit your day job” pretty much rules out the touring-n-tshirts thing completely.

And don’t forget, there are ways to make a living at your art that have nothing to do with getting on Billboard. Take a look at my blogroll for some examples. All highly trained musicians, some running themselves as a business. None of them will be hawking McDonalds any time soon.

Also, if you’re going to go New Tech, you really do have to do it all the way. You can’t embrace the new music environment and still expect to use the old milestones to calibrate your success. Go online completely. Pursue your niche. If you are going online, you must relinquish all the old meatspace milestones — no more counting yourself as having “made it” if you’re on MTV or have a gold record.

In fact, no more thinking of “making it” at all. There is no such thing. There never was — even during the heyday of the label industry. I can use people like Annie Lennox and Steve Perry as examples, both brilliant contemporary artists whose names will go down as major bright spots in 20th century music. Both were booted off their labels when they hit middle age. Having “made it” didn’t insulate them from the slings and arrows. Thankfully, they were both successful at a level that few to no other human beings have ever been, and at a level to which no artist can or should compare themselves. This enabled them to keep full bellies and roofs over their heads. But it did not keep them from losing their jobs as musicians.

You cannot fantasize about being Steve Perry or Annie Lennox anymore. Or Paul McCartney. Or Stevie Wonder. Today’s kids won’t be of course — but they will be fantasizing about someone with a limousine, a private jet, and a ubiquitous face, of that I am sure. Quadzillions of the jet-setters’ own contemporaries never achieved that level of fame, and their own eye-searing brilliance is a big part of what made such insane fame possible for them. Chances are, we are not at that level. Even if we are, we will not achieve that level of fame.

But it doesn’t mean we can’t achieve a level of success and even comfort. It may involve a day career. It may (will) involve a far narrower and more precise definition of success that doesn’t come close to the mythical idea of “making it.”

You just have to detach yourself completely from the old-school milestones of success.

It may be easier for me to conceive of this not only because I have a day career, but because I also write some of the least “cool” and “edgy” music in the known universe. Like I said, it’s 21st century salon music. I have no plans of being on a lunchbox any time soon. I’ve never imagined that I would ever be a working musician in my life, I do not plan to be one, and I do not want to be one. So my idea of what constitutes “making it” as a musician is far freer of visions of selling out a stadium and having gold chains, chicks, and limousines than your average younger person looking to break in and break out.

You really do have to be much more sober, much more tenacious, and much more realistic about what “success” means nowdays. You must be prepared to go it alone and do most things yourself. You must be stable enough to tell people no when they try to take advantage of you, and to tell people yes when you think it might enable you to distinguish yourself from the competition in unanticipated ways.

God, I sound like a middle-aged person. Well, I am. While I get royally pissed off at the entitlement attitude of talent-free brats who want everything now, for nothing wah-wah-wah, I also really don’t think it’s a good idea to aim for anything much more complicated than to ensure one’s financial and life stability and then to simply make art. Then, and only then, do you try to find ways to get it into the world. New tools can help you do that, but keep your head down and don’t compare yourself to the people who have Made It. Either they did that in a system that no longer exists, or they didn’t actually Make It at all but only look as if they did from your rose-colored eyeballs.