Music, business (Part 3: The Reckoning)

A little while ago I was complaining to someone about my lack of success (in a long list of other things that were/are wrong with my life). In the course of this I mentioned offhandedly that I loved playing music, and she interrupted me:

Do you love it?”
“Yes,” I said. It seemed like a strange thing to ask.
“Well, isn’t that success?”

I chewed on that one for a while and finally had to conclude that no, that is not success. But it is happiness, even if only in brief, occasional little bursts.

At this advanced age, I’m unlikely to become an overnight (or any other kind of) sensation (although Robert Pollard was my age when Guided By Voices broke, so a guy can always dream).

But I have to ask, what is the absolute worst-case scenario? Probably something like: I have a minuscule audience and barely break even on my expenses. (I hope you will forgive me a moment of self-pity when I say that this is not drastically different from the actual scenario).

What then? It’s not like I would stop writing songs, recording or performing. I don’t think I would be able to even if I wanted to. (Whenever I do harbour the notion of abandoning it all, as in The Godfather III, just when I think I’m out, it pulls me back in).

It might seem self-evident, but the fact that my music doesn’t make business types see dollar signs when they hear it, and that it doesn’t fit into whatever the latest micro-trend might be, doesn’t have anything to do with the music itself.

As my brother, a wiser man than me, said in this interview, music is its own reward. It’s so easy to lose sight of that in an atmosphere where a few (very few!) artists’ genuine, hard-won success has filled the community with delusions of grandeur.

Truth is, there are only three kinds of people who can “make a living” in the music biz:
1. Trust fund kids
2. People who are comfortable with a quality of life one step above that of a homeless person
3. People who are really smart and serious about the business side of things.

If you, like me, are none of these, then it’s probably best to separate your artistic pursuits from business concerns.

I have a lot of respect and admiration for my more business-savvy friends. But the fact is that if I look at my own music career as a business, it is not a successful business. If I look at it as something that I do for its own sake, it actually seems worthwhile.

Earlier this year I was unexpectedly offered a job. It was kind of a no-brainer: being chronically broke is a lot less romantic in your late 30s than it is in your early 20s. I took the job, putting my dreams of rock glory on the back burner for the time being, going back to being a guy with a job who plays music for fun.

And strangely enough, I feel better about my music career already.

6 thoughts on “Music, business (Part 3: The Reckoning)”

    1. Perhaps I’m using the term “trust fund kid” a bit too broadly, but there are lots of rich kids in the rock world (and art world in general). Go to NYC sometime, it’s not so mythicial there! And even around here, there are lots of people who have no discernible source of income, but who can afford tons of expensive gear…. perhaps I should add a fourth category of “people who are comfortable carrying shitloads of debt”? That seems more like “perpetuating an illusion” than “making it,” but then it’s a fine line…

  1. Maybe SOME of them are rich (I invoke Verlaine again), but at the same time, I’ve always managed to fund whatever I needed to while making much less than friends who always complain about how broke they are.

    That said, reading Ian Mackaye’s accounts of working at an Ice Cream Shop and Pet Store to put out Minor Threat really resonated with me. Also, asking myself, “Put out a CD or food I won’t remember not having?”

  2. Hi WP!

    I am enjoying this series of blog entries you are writing about the business. Although making music or films is a lot more expensive than painting or writing books, hard financial questions face all working artists. How does one find that crucial balance of working enough to afford the tools of one’s unprofitable craft- be they instruments or brushes- while maintaining enough free time to actually practice the craft? Anytime I do a workshop or a conference presentation related to music or writing, someone in the audience asks me that.

    In answer to the quote from Exclaim in part one of this series- that if you’ve been at it for “10 years” and no success has come yet “maybe you suck” -I think of the financial concern outlined above. How much one is “at it” is affected by how much one can afford to focus solely on producing and promoting one’s craft.

    And terms like “afford” or “broke” are not the same from person to person. Matt, I don’t intend to roll my sleeves up and “start something,” because I do agree with a lot of what you are saying, but I want to point out that making a higher wage than someone doesn’t automatically mean you’re less broke. People have varying debt loads and responsibilities (children and other dependents, for example) that restrict how much of their income can be used on creative projects.

    1. That reminds me of Klaus Kinski in his (amazing) autobiography… further along in the book he’s complaining about his Hollywood mansion and servants, then says (I’m paraphrasing):
      “It’s exactly the same as when I was growing up penniless in East Berlin. Only the numbers have changed.”

    2. But seriously Maggie, I hear ya.
      I guess the thing is that you can either have time (when you don’t work) or money (when you do)….
      Also, I would be so honoured if you guys started an online fight on my site.

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