Sustainability and the Not-So-Starving Artist

by Jason on July 7, 2009 · 8 comments

in Business, Thoughts

There is a fascinating discussion about sustainability and the arts going on over at Createquity, Ian David Moss’s blog. Trombonist Alex Rodriguez has some interesting thoughts on the subject and Dave Douglas has picked up the discussion as well. All this prompted me to reply, which gave rise to this post that has been brewing in my head for some time now.

Sustainability is an ever-constant battle for the working musician. How do we keep our “product” relevant and in demand? How do we grow our business, horizontally or vertically (great post about that on Sean Low’s blog)? How do we identify future customers and go out and get them? These are the questions I grapple with on a daily basis. I have answered them for myself by educating myself in things non-musical, like marketing, PR, sales and social networking. Since I started my business in 2001 I have spent as much time learning these things as I have on music. This has led me to treat my music career like any other career, which has served me very well. Have you answered these questions for yourself?

The central point of Moss’s argument seems to be this:

The Internet, by lowering the costs of distribution to negligible levels, has in fact democratized many aspects of participation in the arts as well as numerous other activities. But in opening up the gates to untold amateurs and semi-pros who had previously been shut out from public attention or supplemental income streams, it has simultaneously fostered an atmosphere of intense competition that makes it nearly impossible to succeed as a full-time professional.

While I agree that the internet has “democratized” many things, music making and distribution included, I don’t believe that this is necessarily making it “impossible to succeed as a full-time professional”, as Moss suggests. Here’s the response I posted on Douglas’ blog:

It is my experience that there always have been and always will be semi-pro musicians. In all my years of gigging I have encountered the booker who says that I should play the gig for tips and beer because there are plenty of people who will if I won’t. I’m sure we all have. So what I do is say no thanks and go find the folks Andrew [referencing Andrew Oliver’s response above mine] talks about who actually appreciate what I do and how I do it. They are out there. But it does take work to find them.

Which is where the non-musical skills come in. I often say that I’m not the best trumpet player in Seattle. Probably not even the 10th best. But I work more than most. Why? Because I know how to market and promote my services to those that want them. These skills, coupled with my musical skills, have gotten me to a SUSTAINABLE career as a working musician.

It’s all part-and-parcel of being a working musician in the 21st century. We need the musical skills, of course. But we also need to be band leaders, PR and marketing people, bookers, art directors, IT people, etc. And I find this quite exciting. I’d much rather have my fate in my own hands and control over my own destiny.

Moss seems to argue that sustainability is ultimately influenced by external factors such as the growth of the semi-pro population. I would counter that sustainability is up to us as artists. We must find our own way to the hearts and minds of those that will appreciate what we do. Don’t waste time trying to convince those that don’t get what you are doing. Rather, spend your time identifying those who will appreciate you and then go get ’em!

If you’ll permit me to quote myself one more time, here are some thoughts I left on Rodriguez’s blog:

I offer a service that is valuable, and I deserve to be compensated for that service. Sure, there are many in our society who don’t see art that way. No problem. I choose not to waste my time with those people, and go search out those that do value what I have to offer. And I tell you, as soon as I stopped trying to change people’s minds, those that were in agreement with me filled my life. Now I don’t really concern myself with the $50 gigs and the low-ball offers for my band. I just say “thanks but no thanks” and spend my time cultivating a client list that will fairly compensate me for my services. They are out there, even in TEC (this economic climate).

If you allow yourself to let go of what you perceive as the “lack of” situations in your artistic life and focus on the opportunities that are afforded us as modern artists you will find abundance. If I can do it so can you!

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrew Durkin July 7, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Thanks for this write-up, and for pointing to these other great posts, Jason. I really need to come back to this conversation when I have more time, but for the time being, the first thing occurred to me is to remark on the question of scale — if you’re in charge of your own career, nurturing all aspects of it, then you need not cast your audience net so wide as, say, the Beatles, or Miles Davis, or any of the other “big name” musical heroes most of us had growing up. That is, if you’re not paying fifty other people to manage your career, you can make this work with, as Kevin Kelly put it, “1000 true fans.” That’s the flip side of the frustration Moss cites.

Shawn Daley July 8, 2009 at 8:23 pm

Fantastic insight into building a sustainable / lasting career in this business. Whether or not “trying to convince those who don’t get what you’re doing” is rightful or a waste of time, it should never stop anyone from trying (assuming you have the time to do so). Anyone with their own brand, whether it be musician session work, a band, a recording facility or other service, should be happy to explain to anyone why they’re right for the job, and if you’re 150% behind what you do, and truly believe in your brand, it shouldn’t be a problem.

Getting them to listen shouldn’t be hard, but getting them to agree certainly can be. Thanks for a great post.

Rich Whiteley July 8, 2009 at 8:30 pm

Great post, glad I found your blog through Lefsetz. I’ll be following what you have to say. Cheers!

Twitter: 1WorkinMusician
July 8, 2009 at 8:33 pm

Thanks to all for stopping by! Glad you found me, and I welcome any and all comments. I’m trying to build a community of like-minded musicians here, so it’s great to have you all aboard.

Kai Weber
Twitter: fruehlingstag
July 9, 2009 at 1:27 pm

Just like Rich Whiteley, I found this blog two or three days ago, and it’s subscribed to in my feed-reader now. I’d like to become a customer as well, but my budget is a bit planned already, so I can’t say yet, when I’ll really transfer you my first little financial contribution for your music. We’ll just wait and see, ok?
Anyway, what I wanted to say: I’m not a musician, but certainly interested in all the matters concerning how artists can survive in nowadays world. I guess like many music lovers I have a past in illegal filesharing activities, but ethical (and I think also logical) considerations have led me back to actually buying music. It is so wonderful that nowadays it is so easy to directly communicate with artists via the internet, follow their thoughts on their blogs, and directly buy things from them, knowing that the labels and distribution systems wouldn’t eat up most of the money.
Actually, the topic of what nowadays’ artists can do to make a living was first coming to my full attention in the podcasts of pianist D.D. Jackson (unfortunately he quit doing these wonderful podcasts sometime in 2007 – but they’re still available from his website). Your blog is another wonderful piece on my road of perception. Thanks for that. Anyway, what I wanted to say is just: The surviving of artists is not only a matter of interest for the artists themselves, but also for the consumers of their art.

Twitter: 1WorkinMusician
July 10, 2009 at 12:27 pm

I’m glad you found me, Kai! I love reading DD Jackson’s thoughts. He used to write a column for Downbeat…not sure if he does anymore. He’s a creative cat all around.

And thanks so much for your support of the music. I’m always happy and gratified to meet the true music lovers in the world.

You can download a couple of my tracks for free at That should tide you over for a little while. 😉

Cory Huff July 25, 2009 at 8:42 am

I love this post Jason. I love hearing about artists who really seem to get it. There’s tons of work out there for us – we just have to have the drive to get past our myopia and see that we must develop skills to manage our careers.

For some reason, most artists seem to not get the message that they are entrepreneurs. Rarely is anyone going to hand us a 9 – 5 job with health insurance. We must develop those skills!

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: