I’ve always wondered if any artists out there were thinking carefully about the economic realities facing today’s creative community. Then I found Createquity, a great blog that discusses exactly those issues in a very smart and creative way. The author, Ian David Moss, is a recent graduate of the Yale School of Management as well as a musician and composer. His thoughts on the arts and sustainability are well worth reading; he also summarized some of his main points in a recent post:
The internet, while making it possible for more people than ever before to reach an audience and establish a public identity, may at the same time be making it harder for artists to make a full-time living from their work over the long term. Reconciling these two impacts might well be one of the major challenges of policymaking in the 21st century.
I can’t agree enough with this. As I mention in my bio, I recently moved to New Jersey from Oakland, CA, where I tried to make a go of it as a musician, and pretty much fell flat on my face. I learned a lot from the experience, however, and certainly gained a great appreciation for those out there who are working hard to pay the bills as artists. For all the celebration of “information wanting to be free” (thoroughly dismantled by Malcolm Gladwell here,) it doesn’t make sense that the only people making any money from an artist’s work are the people who sell the machines that play it. Every new way to promote yourself (are you following me on Twitter yet?) brings with it the fact that everyone else can, too.
Why am I writing about this? Because, even though I’m a part-time MA student, I’ve still got bills to pay! I’m very fortunate to be writing for jazz.com, but my other income — teaching Music Fundamentals at Rutgers — is wrapping up this week. I need to figure out what I’m going to do to support myself financially for the rest of the summer. And I know that, sadly, music is not somewhere that I can turn right now to supplement my income. In order to be able to pull off a steady revenue stream from music, I first would have to invest a TON of (non-compensated) energy into promoting myself, practicing, honing some tunes, recording a demo, etc. I do have some promising projects in the works (more on that soon, I hope!) but nothing that I can bank on in the short-term.
Of course, if being a great jazz trombonist was all that mattered to me, that wouldn’t be a problem. But that’s not all that matters. I have academic ambitions, writing work, teaching work, and an immediate need to pay rent and buy food. All of these other things attract time and attention. I believe that diversity of interest is a good thing, but the (lack of) economic reality makes it fitting music into that milieu a real challenge. What will probably happen is that I will find other non-musical work (anyone looking for an SAT tutor?) to supplement my income. This will leave me with less time and emotional energy to practice, which will make it even harder for me to effectively invest in my own musical life. This is the vicious cycle that I found in Oakland — one that led to me putting down the horn entirely after about a year.
So how can these trends be reversed? I wish I had all the answers; I don’t, but I do have a few thoughts:
- Reject the Myth of the Starving Artist.
When I lived in Oakland, I had this strange inner belief that I somehow deserved to not be making any money, that it’s what artists do. Obviously, I had to get past this in order to survive, but the cultural expectation (especially for young artists) still exists. It’s time for us to realize that 1) Yes, artists should make money from doing their job, just like everyone else and 2) No, you are not “selling out” if you do manage to find a way to earn money doing what you do. The false dichotomy of art and commerce is deeply ingrained in our society, and until it begins to erode, very little progress can be made for artists lower down on the food chain.
- Art is not merely a privilege for the wealthy.
This ties into the Myth of the Starving Artist, but is more insidious. More people need to be talking about the class divide that is emerging in the creative community. Moss is very blunt about this in his post, and I think more people need to be talking about this. Equality of opportunity must exist in the creative community; that struggle is as hard here as it has been anywhere else in our society. This trend concerns me more than anything else in today’s changing artistic landscape. The current educational models are not helping, nor are the “shadow networks” that exist in many artistic communities.
- Little by little, it adds up.
When I can achieve a baseline of practicing regularly, even if it’s just 30 minutes per day, five days per week, I can feel myself improving and I am more prepared when the unexpected gig comes my way. This serves me much better than trying to carve out a whole day to practice for six hours and then not touching the horn all week. Then, when I do have the energy to spend a bigger chunk of time with my music, the experience is much more rewarding.
- Other people matter. Find them.
Working with people who share my passion for music, even if we’re not playing, is awesome. The Jazz MA program has been a godsend in that I have been able to meet other people who love the music and can really play. As people begin to work across disciplines, lots of cool things emerge. I’ve only been here for six months and am already starting to see it happening.
That’s enough from me — please share your comments below if you have any other thoughts or experiences related to art and your economic livelihood. I’d also love to hear any practical tips for integrating an artistic livelihood with economic stability.