AKA SOME ARTISTS CAN’T PROMOTE THEIR WORK
Last year, I was struck by two wildly different links I came across on the same day.
Via US noise-rock band Oxbow’s Facebook profile I was directed to an opinion piece by writer (and former musician) Alina Simone. Titled ‘The End of Quiet Music’ this was a nicely rendered argument for re-considering contemporary music as Art. Simone illustrates this with anecdotal evidence from her own music career: whilst making music, Simone always felt uncomfortable promoting it. After some dalliances with the new ‘realities of forced entrepreneurship in the music business’ she packed music in and became a writer of essays and novels.
As Simone sums it up, we need to consider people like her:
“We’ve placed the entire onus of changing-with-the-times on musicians, but why can’t the educational, cultural and governmental institutions that support the arts adapt as well, extending the same opportunities to those whose music provides the soundtrack to our lives? If they don’t, Darwinism will probably ensure that only the musical entrepreneurs survive.”
It’s a good argument.
There are a tonne of reasons why contemporary music should be thought of as part of the arts:
(1) Not everyone is an entrepreneur. Some people are terrible entrepreneurs and the world would be better off if they did something else. A significant number of musicians fit this profile. Wouldn’t you rather hear less from some desperate band?
(2) There are concrete barriers and market failures that confront some musicians. It can cost an Australian band $10,000 to $20,000 more than an American band to tour America, due to geography and visa restrictions.
(3) And the big one: It’s already happening in places like Australia. It’s here. Contemporary music is treated like part of the arts here. To a much lesser degree, yes, but it does gets funded by the same people who fund poetry and painting.
Here is a list of bands who have received Australia Council for the Arts funding in the last year or so:
Ball Park Music $20,000
Dead Letter Circus $15,000
The Smith Street Band $13,240 / $13,000
San Cisco $20,000
Sarah Blasko $20,000
Art Vs Science $20,000
Augie March $20,000
More than half of these acts are affiliated with major labels.
The music ‘industry’ is already partially under umbrella of the arts in Australia.
In Australia, contemporary music is art. All we’re really arguing about (if we’re arguing at all) is about capitalising that ‘a’ in ‘Art’ like it always is in opera and experimental music.
The second piece I saw last year (I wrote some of this ages ago) reached me through Buzzsonic. It was this flashy piece by Billboard Magazine on The Weeknd: How The Weeknd Went From Internet Mystery to Billboard 200 No. 2 by Reggie Ugwu.
On the surface, this piece tells a VERY different story to Simone’s. This article is about how a musician made it ‘big’ by doing virtually nothing:
What does it mean for an artist to succeed on his/her own terms in 2013? The Weeknd — the 23-year-old, famously elusive R&B singer born Abel Tesfaye — sold 95,000 copies of his major label debut album “Kiss Land” last week, according to Nielsen SoundScan — enough for a debut at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in a neck-and-neck race with country music star Keith Urban. “Kiss Land” trailed Urban’s “Fuse” for the number one spot by less than 3,000 albums. But unlike Urban, Tesfaye had no charting singles, or penetration at radio, and conceded to only one press interview — with Complex magazine in July — in support of the project.
In short, Tesfaye made music and let the internet and buzz do the heavy lifting. When he’d cemented in what he was doing (via free mixtapes) he went with Republic and they promoted ‘Kissland’ via ‘word of mouth, online and street-level marketing and a string of cinematic music videos.’ They didn’t throw endless amounts of cash at it. The artist didn’t take to social media every waking moment. Every individual step looks pretty savvy to me.
It’s all been built to scale up fairly organically, based on whether it should.
(That last word seems important)
THE MIDDLE GROUND…IF THERE IS ANY?
So where’s the middle ground between these two pieces?
It looks pretty clear to me:
The consumer market.
You can’t mess with this formula: Sell people what they want to buy.
This is often a difficult proposition for musicians because – in short – their product line is somewhat fixed. Most musicians can only sing, play, perform, write and entertain in a few specific ways. Most musicians can only make a fixed number and type of product. If you play guitar, you can’t release an album of violin jams, for example.
(Same goes for many other creative people, including writers. I couldn’t write romance fiction if my life depended on it. My idea of romance is this: my girlfriend and I eat pizza together, fully clothed, in a well lit room.)
This is not a problem Tresfaye has because people want music he makes. He doesn’t need to change anything up at the moment. He’s riding over ground opened up by EDM’s rise and rise, helped along by Drake. He has, despite this, maintained a cache of mystery. So he’s got everything on his side at the right time.
When has this ever not worked?
So here’s my problem: If I had to choose which one of these two artists (Alina Simone or Abel Tresfaye) is making ‘Art’, I’m going with The Weeknd.
I just am. Simone’s work is not art because she couldn’t promote it.
I don’t think the relationship between art and entrepreneurship is linear at all.
‘Entreprenurship’ is not about being a pest on social media. That’s a mistake proponents for and against make repeatedly. Tesfaye has been far more entrepreneurial than most, while keeping a fairly low profile.
‘Art’ is not about being an extrovert either. There are probably more photos of Alina online than Tresfaye.
Entreprenurship, innovation, creativity, all those buzzwords are all about the same thing when it comes to music or any other creative endeavour: it’s the art of telling your audience a new story about why they might like your stuff…
And then getting lucky with the rest of it aka having the right product-fit for the right moment.
It’s a brutal fucking business. Really crushing. But if you can tell the right story at the right time, the game is yours no matter how you choose to play it.