“I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It’s just so fuckin’ heroic.” ― George Carlin
A couple of months ago I saw a video on Ted Talk of “Amanda Palmer: The Art of Asking”. The video had been circulating among many of my peers just as SXSW was beginning here in Austin. It was the subject of a number of discussions I encountered that week and in the couple of weeks that followed. Here’s a link: . The issue she’s addressing in her presentation, in the coming years, is going to be true for everyone who is creating original intellectual property.
It’s obvious to me that Amanda Palmer is a driven, compassionate, smart, savvy and thoughtful woman. Everyone I know found her talk inspiring and at the same time a little distressing, because most of us understand that Amanda Palmer has a confidence and self-assuredness that few of us possess. As I watched her talk I knew, (like so many of my peers) I couldn’t do what she’s done. Not because I lack the savvy, or even the talent, but because I simply don’t have that kind of personality.
From the conversations I had with other musicians I think many people walked away thinking, “She has an amazing story. I wish I could do that but I don’t know how” Which leads me to believe that perhaps they missed the point. Part of why Amanda Palmer has achieved what she has (and make no mistake, it is truly remarkable) is she is absolutely clear with herself about what she really wants.
She said, “Everyone is asking the wrong question. Everyone is asking how can we get people to pay for music?” For her the right question was “How do we let people pay for music?” She’s right. We are asking the wrong question. But I’m going to take it a step a further because the question she came up with was the right question for her. It may or may not be the right question for you.
I think there are two questions. The first question is “What do you really want?” If you can answer that question honestly then you’ll come up with the right question for you; and just as importantly, hopefully come up with a creative solution to that question. As I watched and listened to her I realized that our obsession with “making a living from our music” is a goal we’ve been fed; but it may not be what we really want.
Because of how the music business has been structured for the past fifty years or so, many of us may incorporate the myth that we have only succeeded professionally, and we are only truly validated as artists, if we are able to make a living specifically from our music. The fact that that’s no longer a particularly realistic goal doesn’t change the power that myth has to convince us it is achievable.
Bare in mind the over arching structures in place within the music business have a lot to gain from you believing in that myth; because the engine (as least to my eyes) that is driving the vast majority of dollars circulating in the music business is not the [artists], music itself anymore, but all the services that are being creating that musicians are being asked to pay for. CD duplicators, recording studios, pay to play competitions, on line music distributors, graphic designers, tons of web base services, i.e., mailing list services, gig finding services, data configuration services, web review services, web design services, crowd funding services, web-radio placement services, social networking services, as well as conventional PR and radio promotion services, and let us not forget the almighty music conferences. All, or none of which may be worth your investment. Which keeps bringing me back to the same question, what do you really want?
They’ll lead you to believe that you have to do these things (go to conferences, pay for premium web base services, crowd fund your next project), if you want a viable career because they will tell you [for example] it demonstrates you’re dedicated and serious about your work.
I’d argue, the only thing that demonstrates you’re dedicated and serious about your work is finding viable, financially sound solutions, that allow you to keep doing it and SXSW, Folk Alliance, CMJ, Kickstarter, Sonicbids, and using premium based web services may or may not have anything to do with that equation. It all depends on what you really want?
If you want to be a viable, national, touring singer-songwriter (like say, Ryan Bigham) there’s a good chance Folk Alliance can’t help you with that. If you want to be a relatively obscure, singer-songwriter and make a modest [read: poor] living touring house concerts then Folk Alliance probably can help you with that. If you want to be a major pop star there’s a good chance Sonicbid’s can’t help you with that.
Perhaps you’d be better served to hit the L.A. party circuit [read: network] in search of TV and movie cameos, and music placement. Ultimately, you’d still need to look for a major label. Major labels do still exist and they are still responsible for the majority of national and international acts that most of us have heard of; though they’re not particularly interested in finding the next Wilco or Radiohead. They’re looking for the next Justin Timberlake, Green Day, Beyonce, or Keith Urban. So don’t go there if you can’t produce for the masses like that. Those folks are all great at what they do and I doubt any of them ever used any of the “pay to play” DIY services I’ve mentioned.
As inconvenient as it may be, there’s no formula to success and there is no one left to impress. There is no one trajectory that will guarantee you that your approach will get you where you want to go. You could copy what Amanda Palmer did step by step and never garner more than $1000 via crowd funding, if it’s not really the right platform for you. And I’ll remind you crowd funding is not going to work for everyone and that doesn’t mean you suck or you’re doomed.
My primary concern with Crowd funding is that it may fund a project but ultimately, the model keeps the majority of artists still starving, even after they’ve managed to raise tens of thousands of dollars to make a CD. I think this is because it’s still fashioned on the same myth; that enough exposure for an artist, through project creation somehow, magically produces financially viable careers but I’m not really sure that’s true anymore.
If I thought I could raise 1.2 million dollars via crowd funding I’d work my ass off to do it; because with that kind of cash anyone could sustain a career and Amanda Palmer did work her ass off. But the majority of artist that I know (personally) who successfully raised anywhere between, $5000-$25,000 also worked their asses off. Once, the CD’s were made, and all the copies and incentives were delivered to their supporters, all of them (without exception) were right back where they started financially. They were also, for the most part, exhausted and left to figure out how, or if, they were going to be able to afford to tour. Let alone put out another CD.
My point is not to dismiss crowd funding but to recognize its only one solution to one problem and it will work remarkably well for a certain percentage of artists. However, if it’s not a platform that’s going to work for you, don’t despair and don’t waste your energy trying to make it work for you. There are other solutions and you will find them if you keep exploring the possibilities.
Years ago I had a friend named Michael Nesbit. Michael was and still is a wonderful singer-songwriter. Michael also had a talent for making Etch-A-Sketch art. He made really wonderful and elaborate pictures with Etch-A-Sketches and he started selling them at his shows. It got to where during his shows there was a like a ‘gallery’ of his Etch-A-Sketch pieces all set up around the room and the audience members could buy them when the show was over and people did buy them.
Was he really “making a living from his music” in a way, kinda-sorta, but not really; which begs the question does it matter? Does it make his accomplishment somehow less miraculous? It was just a fabulously creative solution to the problem of being a broke-ass, touring folk singer. That’s what I’m talking about. Michael’s approach required that he abandon the myth of “making a living from his music” and embrace the solution of making a living with his music. Granted it doesn’t have the profit margin of say, your own clothing or fragrance line but it was a viable solution to an immediate problem, which is pretty amazing when you think about it.
Crowd funding is one kind of solution. Patronism.com is another kind of solution; product line development is another kind of solution. Like what Michael did or another example; Kinky Friedman recently launched his ‘Man in Black Tequila’. If you’ve seen him perform lately he sets a bottle of it on the stage right next to him when he plays, [where] his tequila is prominently featured all night long. He’s using his music to sell his tequila (not the other way around). As a result, I’d venture to guess he doesn’t give a damn whether or not anyone is paying .99 cents a download for his music.
All my life I thought what I really wanted was to ‘make a living from my music’. Some years I have, some years I haven’t. I realize now, what I want, (and what I always wanted) is a life style that affords me the time, and freedom, to create my music and put it into the world. No where in that sentence can you find the words, ”make a living from my music”. Now, (after how many years?), I have finally answered the first question.
For me, the answer to the first question, what do you really want? Is a lifestyle; then what are the models that can afford me that lifestyle? [There is my second question.] Then it came to me, Surfers! Yes, Surfers. Those folks obsessed with catching the perfect wave. The vast majority of [hardcore surfers] have structured they’re lives so that they have the time and freedom to surf. Some open surf board shops. Some make surf boards. Some offer surfing lessons and some work their asses off six month a year and take the other six months off to surf and the list goes on. Ultimately, they fashion their lives around doing what they love, with absolutely no presumption they will ever make a living as professional surfers. They are serious and dedicated about surfing and they prove it by living it.
We as artists are going to have to figure out what works for us; and each one of us may come up with completely different approaches. It just comes down to being able to ask yourself what you really want. If you can answer that specifically, and honestly, you’ll find the right question for you, and hopefully a solution. As for me, well, I just dusted off my bikini and I’m heading to the beach, because I’m on the look out now, in search of the perfect wave.