Artist Versus Entrepreneur: Who Gets What?

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.

Link 1:

oxbow

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

Adalita $15,400

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.

(Look for yourself)

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.

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Link 2:

the-weeknd-4ee6928ad3a11

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)

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THE MIDDLE GROUND…IF THERE IS ANY?

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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.

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The Rest Is Banal Instruction

AKA THERE IS ONLY SO MUCH ADVICE

Forget good songs. Forget savvy business strategy. Forget the internet and all other media. Forget your training and your practise. Forget anthems and hard wrung passion. Forget your heart. Forget your enemies, lovers and memories. But remember this: what the best music does is deliver us from the mundanity of everyday life. That’s what music is. It’s boundary work. It’s the testing of our limits, always pushing at something. Music that doesn’t push at something doesn’t deliver us from the boring repetition of our lives. Music that doesn’t deliver us from that  pit is just sound. It’s not even noise. It’s no different from the chime of an elevator, only infinitely less useful. It’s garbage.

This avenue to escape ourselves is the sustenance that music can give us. We all need this sustenance and some of us can only find it in music. Everything beyond and around that sustenance is a condiment, that’s all. You can forget all the rest of it and still save a person with music. You can forget all the rest of it and still save yourself.

And that’s it.

The rest is banal instruction.

‘Just do it for the love of it, maaaan.’

‘Just do it because it’s your calling, maaaan.’

‘Never give up, maaaan.’

Fuck all of it.

You don’t need instruction. None of us do. Not if we all keep in mind how and why music works. Not if we always steer ourselves to those unknown places that music opens up. Not if we strive – always, to the point of exhaustion – to find the edges of our lives. And when we’re there we get the one golden reward there is in music: company. And we learn the most comforting lesson there is: you are not alone.

So my advice is to honour this over all of music’s condiments and distractions. As such you don’t need to be a professional or a celebrity to change the world around you. You only need to do as Kurt Vonnegut once suggested, to ‘create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.’ Who would want anything more beautiful out of life than that?

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Originally published in ‘The 360 Deal’ edited by Andrew Dubber. 

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Should I Do A Contemporary Music Degree?

AKA NO ONE CAN GIVE YOU ALL OF THE ANSWERS BUT…

Here’s how I think you should make this decision.

#1 See the degree for what it probably is.

This is a question I think about too, in reverse: ‘What are my students really getting out of a three year contemporary music degree?’

The music degree is an opportunity to focus. That’s all it really is.

There will be very few times in your professional / creative life in which you will have the opportunity to focus on anything like you will at university. At university, you will find a small sense of shelter. You can apply for funding, get your parents off your back, live cheaply in a share-house and spend your semesters thinking about and playing music and receiving training or some such. At the other end, you come out with a degree that says, ‘This person can complete an arts degree.’ This is a privilege. This is the sort of privilege other people don’t get.

Additionally, this opportunity can be extremely valuable. If you’re going into this with your eyes open, know this: this opportunity is what you’re paying for.

(And to be even clearer, even if your parents / government are footing the bill, you ARE paying for this. This is three years of your life, on top of HECS. There’s no do-over. The dress rehearsal is over. Welcome to quasi-adulthood.)

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You Are Never Just A Musician

AKA I WANNA BE DIVERSIFIED

The successful pop star has her hand in a half dozen different media and a half dozen different genres. Take Chrisina, she sings, dances, co-writes. She does philanthropic work, acts in film, endorses brands. She is a public face for hire and designs jewellery. She is not equally gifted at all these things but she gets by and she moves with the times. She rides the trends.

The successful indie band has its hand in half a dozen different media and half a dozen different sub-genres. Take Sonic Youth, the big kahuna. They sing and flop around onstage. They write songs, appear in film (documentaries, Last Days), endorse guitars and coffee. They maintain music labels and fashion labels, solo careers and various curation projects. They experiment. They move with the times. From no-wave to classic rock to grunge to classical / experimental to reissuing everything.

The successful local band has its hand in a few media and usually one genre. Pick any band you know personally. They sing, they perform, they write songs, appear on Youtube, self-release their albums (or have a friend do it) and maintain their often unrelated, increasingly professional day jobs, for money. The good ones do more than that: they book shows, books tours, take photos, blog, write, record, document, broadcast, inspire and encourage. They don’t – as rule – change with the times. Instead, they break-up and reappear as a new band.

The motivations are different but the activity is comparable.

Everyone rocks a diverse deal these days.

And that’s why ‘diversify’ is such a buzzword in industry: It works.

The focused pure authentic musician who only plays music is something that dumb white guys made up. It’s a bogus history with no real foundation. Forget this history.

If you play music, the question isn’t whether to diversify.

The question is: How well are you already doing it?

How To Be A Successful Musician: A Definitive Guide TM

AKA THERE ARE NO PATHWAYS TO SUCCESS, ENOUGH ALREADY

Last week while I was trying to decode why Spotify annoys musicians I mentioned something in the introduction of that post. I was just riffing, trying to make something boring seem less boring (a big part of what writers do) and this popped out:

“We live in a time where rock ’n’ roll does have a manual and that manual is the internet.”

And because I’m a wanker an academic, this idea that slipped out kept playing on my mind. If the internet is the manual, what does it teach us as musicians?

What are the core principles the internet has given us on how to achieve success as a musician?

I looked it up. 

The answer is horrible.

The 12 Steps To Becoming A Successful Musician by The Internet

#1 Write great/awesome/wonderful/talent-displaying songs.

#2 Develop a Unique Selling Proposition (USP) and make a plan.

#3 Build an appropriate relationship with a group of largely anonymous strangers via new media technologies. And adopt all technology early. Just in case.

#4 Leverage these relationships.

#5 Be consistent and convenient.

#6 Be flexible and adaptable to change.

#7 Be online 24/7 but play live shows all the time.

#8 Be entrepreneurial. Diversify your brand.

#9 Take note of all the advice of professional musicians that is available online 24/7.

#10 Never give up / repeat.

At Least The New Manual Is Up Front About It

It used to be that people didn’t learn this stuff from the internet. Instead, they learned it from rock mythology, the media and other musicians. And to be honest, the results weren’t much better. For my PhD thesis, I read a pile of rock biographies and looked at how people imagined it was that success was created.

It was lot less illuminating than the internet even:

The 6 Steps To Becoming A Successful Musician by Rock History

#1 Be born supernaturally talented.

#2 Form a band and struggle.

#3 Develop an audience and band solidarity through live touring.

#4 Sign to a recording label or acquire some sort of business angel. Or keep looking.

#5 Repeat steps 2-4 and never give up.

#6 Meanwhile, develop some sort of authenticating ‘outsider’ problem; almost always a narcotics habit or alcoholism. Although, a type of psychosis will also work.

Thesis:

Of course careful readers will have now worked out that the problem with all this is not that the answers are wrong. People have done those things and are now successful.

The problem is that the question is ass backwards and impossible.

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