Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Feed Your Soul

Time and time again, I've gotten the devastating news that another indie artist has bitten the euphemistic dust. They've given up on their dream of being a professional creative due to lack of support, burnout, or some other unfortunate nail in the coffin of their hope. Then, they've continued to be taunted by the sounds of the blatantly untalented 1-hit wonders and viral internet sensations who make mockeries of the craft, only to be rewarded by society's ever increasing acceptance of bullshit. How did this happen? Will it happen to me? How can I keep from becoming a sad statistic in the record book of fallen artists?

I, like many indie artists, stressed myself to tears over the waxing demand and waning payoff from my own career as an indie music maker. In the good ol' days, from about 2007 to 2010, I was getting all kinds of support. Fans enjoyed my stage performances, they bought my music, and I was having fun. As time went on, performing became less fun, so I did it less. People expressed the desire to see me perform, yet they wouldn't come to shows unless they were free. Venue owners would request that I perform at their venues, but always had a reason for why they couldn't pay me. I was burnt out and frustrated. I started to view my "supporters" as freeloaders: they loved me as long as I was giving free goods. I was loosing the fight with my chosen career path and began to think, "maybe being a professional artist isn't for me" or even worse, "my art is crap *depressed face*"

I felt exploited by venues, disgusted by the social music "scene," and my cynicism certainly overshadowed my talent. I continued to accept what I thought were the consequences of becoming a professional artist: go out into the world and coon for a couple hours at a time for peanuts in hopes of "contributing my talents to the greater community." Apparently, I "had a gift" and didn't want it to "go to waste" because if I didn't use it, I'd lose it, right? At least that's what the people who wanted to see me perform for free would say.

Struggling to keep the music alive, I began to lose the very thing that gave me a reason to live: my creativity. The "Indie Artist To Do Lists" I found in books and on the internet were impossible. It seemed as though the only way to make a living doing music was to be likeable, pleasant, social, excitable, and all the other goofy shit that I was not. What happened to just making good music and selling it to people who like listening to music? Why all of a sudden do I need a fucking street team, bumper stickers, and T-shirts? Not only do I have to make good music, but I have to be a fashion designer and community outreach correspondent? "Fuck that" became my life mantra.

Exhausted and bewildered, I took a step back and realized an even larger problem: I hated being an artist. I certainly wasn't excited about it. As could be expected, it was harder to get others excited about that shit. Simply due to lack of inspiration, my art became crap! I had realized my greatest fear and music career nihilism set in. From my perspective, I'd hit rock bottom so I could either bury my head in the sand or look up. I would've suffocated had I buried my head, so I decided to look up. When I looked up, I saw other creatives just like me running around making non-crappy art while enjoying life, despite similar challenges. They encouraged me and shared ideas. I discovered that good singer/songwriters don't allow others to exploit them after all. Good singer/songwriters use their gifts and talents in ways that feed their souls. Imagine that! I should be making art toward my own benefit. A completely selfish, yet brilliant idea! 

I can hear the critics now, "Artists shouldn't be selfish. Artists are instruments of God. Artists should give. What about the community. Arrogance is bad. Pride before the fall. What about the messages you're sending? What about the children? What about integrity? Blaahh Blaaaaaahh Blaaaaaaaaaaaaaah." Leave it to people with regular paychecks to criticize an artist and they will absolutely accept the challenge.
Title of my future book.

"But what about you? Remember when you would sit in your room for hours and just write incredible songs with fun lyrics and no audience? Remember when friends would come over and you'd be making music because that's just what you do? Remember how you got your nickname...people thought you were weird, but they loved you anyway? You were making art for yourself. Moreover, you were excited about what you were doing. And when people heard the finished product, they felt that excitement too. It wasn't pristine or perfected and you didn't care because you were happy," said the voice inside myself to myself. I remembered and re-connected with the fun that got me into this business in the first place. The fun of me being me and it just happening as a musical phenomenon.

Oh yeah...money. Gotta make money. Well, once the music started flowing again, the money started trickling in. I learned that making a living in music didn't have to be the result of dancing like a monkey while pimps and sex offenders looked on in opportunistic amazement. Making a living in music had to do with understanding music publishing and finding a strategy that worked for me.

I took an inventory of who I really was and what I really wanted. The questions I asked myself were simple, but the answers I gave had to be honest and not based on anything I'd ever heard anyone else say or suggest. That was the hard part. I had to shut off all the noise and listen to my heart. Here are some questions that helped me to hone in on where the money was gonna come from and how I could prevent unhappiness... which is the real root of all evil:

1. Why do I make art? Answering this question is essentially the guide post that keeps us in the game. Our answers can be as ridiculous or unrealistic as they need to be. We're not pitching a new product to a potential buyer. We're tapping into our values and reasons for living. I don't worry about "how?" when answering this question. It's none of my business how. How can take care of itself. So why do I make art? In short, to save the universe.

2. Where do I like to spend my time? This question allows us to understand where we will physically be making art. If I'm not making music in a place where I like spending time, I'm not gonna make music I like.

3. Where does my art fit? If we make music that fits better with video games, independent films, or in elevators, perhaps we should target these media for our marketing. Never underestimate the amount of money there is to be made in non-traditional media. I'd bet you can't name the artist who wrote that Prius commercial theme song. I'd also bet that she doesn't care that you can't.

5. Who do I want to work with? Collaborating is a great way to keep the juices flowing. Just make sure to be fair on the splits. Everybody has the right to make money that reflects their contribution to a project. Collaborating also helps you to get out of your own head and into somebody else's, which can be a lifesaver at times.

6. How do I define success? This can be the hardest question to answer. The normal American response is "money." But for artists, money just isn't always enough. Many artists have admitted to wanting love, connection, happiness, peace, power, fame, isolation, sex, respect, or to prove to their dad that they're not a failure. But whatever your definition of success is, make sure it's SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Reachable, and Time specific. For example, if you're making art for love, make sure you have a SMART way to know that you've gotten it. Otherwise, you'll be all fucked up reaching for something that you actually had to cultivate within yourself. I know this from experience. What about fame? If you want fame, then you have to do things that famous people do. If not, then you don't. Making money in the art industry and being famous in the art industry are 2 completely different things. Don't believe me? Ask James Brown. Again, find a SMART way to define fame and you'll know when you've achieved it.

In order for me to be happy, I have to be making art when I want the way I want. And if I'm making art on my own terms, my energy is flowing better, I'm making more money, and I don't get burnt out. And you know what? That's all up to me. No one can give it to me and no one can take it away. It is my soul and I must feed it. That's nobody's responsibility but mine. As long as I'm feeding my soul and doing what I love as a creative, my creativity won't bite the dust and that's really all I need to know. 


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