Trust me, I get it. The artist career can often seem very hard and confusing, regardless of genre. Even if your talents come naturally, or you have a vault of cash at your disposal, nothing is guaranteed. Oh, your uncle’s best friend’s wife’s nephew is in the industry…so you’re good, right? Nope. None of it guarantees anything. There is no criteria for success in this realm. No formal education pre-reqs, no checklist of skillsets, no amount of money that assures anything more than a quick bump. It always comes down to the work.
I really get it. I also get that you probably already know this and are someone who puts in the work, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this. It’s so damn frustrating! For a lot of us, it’s not about working more as much as it is about catching a break – that stroke of luck; to finally be able to show up at the right place and right time. I feel that. All you really need is a shot and you are certain you can overdeliver. Sound familiar?
Suffice it to say, it is a thought shared by many…everyone, in fact. I know plenty of people who are amazingly talented and well-deserving of their shot, but it just hasn’t arrived in the mail yet. No one’s come a-knockin’. I also seem to know plenty of people who may have had their shot too soon in their development phase, spoiling their first impression. Point is, there seems to be a lot, if not too much, emphasis and importance on this ‘shot’. Is this really the only path to take for making a living in the arts; this gamble?
You don’t have to search far, at least in American culture, to find where this idea is coming from. Just turn on the TV. Talent competitions left and right prop up the idea of ‘getting a shot’ as a crux to get anxious participants to perform, and viewers glued to their sets. So many art-based movies have something to do with following the protagonist’s aspirational journey to perform for sold out audiences; flowers on the stage, getting the acclaim they so rightfully deserve (more like desperately crave), only to jolt back to reality in their beat up apartment, with loud neighbors, cars honking, while the screen has become noticeably more grayscale. It’s pretty easy to detect how much the media likes to (ab)use society’s fixation on performers getting their big break.
When I put it like that, it all sounds like a load of BS. It really pulls the curtain back on the whole thing, huh? Yes…pun intended. We performers, can so easily fall into what I like to call the “dance monkey” trap. Our “tamers” (insert industry professional here) take full advantage of us for nothing more than a banana (a ‘big break’). Sure, we might be a popular monkey one day; a crowd favorite, if you will, but it will ultimately force us into dependency to our tamer with little to no control of our artistic direction. We’ll perform the same routine until the crowd is no longer amused. By then, out tamer will drop us on the concrete & turn their attention to the next cash-crop primate. In real terms of the music industry, only 0.2% of acts signed to a major label manage to avoid getting dropped from that label in the process of fulfilling their contract. It’s all one big cyclical circus act. Poor monkeys.
So, is there another way? Can we cut off this cycle, and go be a money-making monkey elsewhere? Indeed I believe we can. But it takes a real paradigm change. No longer can we have ANY dependency on anybody with a banana to give. We must go find, but more importantly grow, our own. Alright. I’ve definitely white-knuckled that analogy to a powder. Let’s get back to homosapien(sapien) rhetoric.
We artists have been given gifts. Sure, one can say that gift is our talent, but I’d argue it’s more our courage. We all looked at stability in a 9-5, med school, or taking over the family business and said, “…nah.” So brave… But for real, that takes a lot of guts. The only problem, at least from what I’ve noticed, is that so many of these brave soldiers have no idea what they’re getting themselves into. So many talented musicians are wrapped up in chasing bananas; practicing their instruments until they’re transposing songs into Cb minor, or churning out more music than there are South Park episodes. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of it. In fact, I get a bit jealous over that work ethic. The reality is however, without a real game plan, it only makes you into a more appealing monkey to attract the next opportunistic tamer. How much more entertaining do you need to become before you can start gaining an audience and making money on your own?
I know you’ve heard the expression, “run it like a business.” I’ve heard it for years, but have only recently begun to understand it. The only thing that prevented me from understanding it was my own hubris and unwillingness to focus on anything but the music and improving my talent. The sad truth is that talent ≠ success. The sobering reality is, and will remain, that in order to make your art a career, you need to make money. If we choose not to be a dancing monkey for someone else, we must construct our own stage, our own system, our own business. If we don’t, we’ll remain a dancing monkey with a “will work for food” sign, floating around to the next (if any) interested tamers.
There are tons of ways to make money in this industry, with more creative ideas being born each day from artists who once felt how you feel; how we all feel. I’ll leave some resources below to get the ball rolling. But before I wrap up this monkey analogy once and for all, it will serve us well to linger on this idea as long as we can. To break out of the ruthless circus act, we must build something substantial of our own. To make it any industry you need to make money. If you take a step back with me, there is no difference in selling music than in selling shoes, tires, insurance, or cleaning services. They all boil down to the same principles. It’s all the same shop-building with a different product placed in the front window. Art is not special in terms of how to monetize off it. What is special about art is how much closer to our audiences we can become. The advantage of an artist in these terms is how much value we can bring to our fans and admirers. You can love a product, but you can adore an artist.
So to the artists formerly named ‘Struggling’, I implore you to rethink and reshape your artistic approach to do the most important thing an artist should be doing, making their career sustainable on their own terms. We are no longer forced to cross our fingers for a lucky break, or wish upon a star that you run into Pharrell at Starbucks. You don’t need anybody, or at least anyone to promise to ‘make you a star.’ You are more than a dancing monkey. You’re a human. You are an artist. You have everything you need to build your own brand, your own show, without anyone else pulling the strings.
Want to discover more information on how to get started on building your artist business? Check out my other For Artists posts on this blog for popular topics, as well as some links below to some of my favorite resources pertaining to the successful independent artist.
Any comments? Questions? Backhanded compliments? Please feel free to share your thoughts below. We want to extend this indie artist community so we can continue to change the game for good. Join in and share your journey, as we all share our own. We’re in this together. Until next time.
Recommended Sites & Resources: