This op-ed by the musician/Author Alina Simione speaks directly to the challenges facing all artists, musicians and writer today. I encourage you to read it.
The End of Quiet Music
By ALINA SIMONE
Published in the NY Times: September 25, 2013, 9:42 pm
Not long before my first album was released in 2005, I spent a summer in Russia interviewing small business owners. An American microfinance organization had sent me there to gather rosy statistics and uplifting stories about how their loans had improved the lives of this new crop of entrepreneurs.
Instead, I would arrive in some city with a recently gutted economy, only to have men and women selling knockoff jeans or fruit from Uzbekistan tell me the same thing: they missed the factory. That is, their old jobs working at some inefficient Soviet enterprise. They didn’t like the financial uncertainty of their new jobs or the longer hours. They missed being able to check out at the end of the day. Many of them were less happy with the work itself. I heard the same thing again and again: Not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur.
At the time, I felt confused — what was so bad about being your own boss? Their words only resonated with me years later, when I abandoned my music career.
The realities of forced entrepreneurship in the music business hit me when, in 2010, the label that released my previous two albums went bankrupt. By the time its Web site vanished without warning one day, I was already done recording a record. Rather than cast about for another struggling indie label, I decided to go the route of so many other bands and put the album out myself.
I had to keep costs low. This meant reaching out to college music stations and packaging every album and promo myself. It meant toggling between spreadsheets, managing a carousel of manufacturers and learning firsthand why my local post office scores a 1.5 on Yelp.
Critically, the album did well. More important, I felt it was my best musical effort. But after a year spent slumped at my computer — a year during which I wrote no new music — I decided it would be my last in the industry.
What I missed most about having a label wasn’t the monetary investment, but the right to be quiet, the insulation provided from incessant self-promotion. I was a singer, not a saleswoman. Not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur.
I am not so vain to think the music world will be any worse for my absence, or that my failure had nothing to do with the quality of my music, which is dark and sad and weird. But I’m not the only casualty of the new regime. And the rising body count will include artists with far more resonance than me.
My indie wasn’t run by Benz-driving executives but rather passionate music lovers who invested in art that moved them. This tier of the industry was pretty much knocked out by music piracy. Kickstarter, many seem to think, is its logical replacement. Now musicians can raise money to make an album from their fans (if the old model already made them famous) or from their friends and family (if not). What’s less discussed is how this mechanism naturally winnows out the artists who lack the ability, confidence or desire to publicly solicit donations.
A friend recently asked why I didn’t Kickstart a new album. “You’re friends with Amanda Palmer, for Christ sakes!” he wrote in a Facebook post. It’s true. I’ve known Amanda — who famously raised a record-breaking $1.2 million through Kickstarter to fund her last album — since middle school and she was the maid of honor at my wedding. Yet even Amanda — the social media queen of rock ‘n’ roll — has worried publicly about what the future will hold for the artists who refuse to roll up their sleeves and join the self-promotional melee — tweeting, fund-raising and “incentivizing fans” to run “jampaigns.” Most likely they’ll disappear, the reclusive artist replaced by one offering you a hoodie with her face on it.
For me, salvation came from an unexpected corner. Late one night, after playing a show, I came home to an e-mail from an editor at a publishing house. He’d heard my music on Pandora and bought my albums at the (now defunct) Virgin Megastore in Union Square. He had a question for me: Would I consider writing a book?
Two years later, my collection of essays was published. I did some freelance work for newspapers and published a second book, a novel. This year a university press commissioned another book. Without quite intending to, I’d transformed from a singer into a writer. And from my new vantage point, being quiet didn’t feel like a liability anymore. I could focus on honing my craft rather than doling out download codes.
Of course publishing is facing its own pressures, and the day may come when writers have no option but to become entrepreneurs, too. For now the center continues to hold; you can still write for a newspaper instead of founding your own.
But even if it doesn’t hold, there are other sectors writers can lean on for support. They can seek funding through fellowships or residencies, or teach writing at a university. These kinds of opportunities have helped a significant group of American artists carve out a middle-class living for themselves.
When I got my own first university teaching job, it struck me as odd that it was only by virtue of switching genres that I’d become eligible to help undergrads channel their creativity. I mean, is a Grammy-nominated songwriter any less qualified to teach creative writing than a poet who sold 500 copies of a chapbook? (No offense, poets.) Is the singer Chan Marshall — who announced that she had gone bankrupt last October — any less worthy of, say, a Guggenheim fellowship than commercially successful writers like Jonathan Franzen or Jennifer Egan?
I think it’s time to reconsider what kind of art is worthy of patronage. For the past 50 years or so, popular music hasn’t been enshrined next to “high brow” art forms like classical music, theater or poetry. Either it wasn’t viewed as good enough or it just didn’t seem necessary. If pop music’s aim was mass appeal, then let the market determine its worth, so the thinking went. But can we honestly tell ourselves that is still true? Today the airwaves are filled with critically acclaimed, structurally innovative and culturally relevant music. Music that can now be had for free.
Instead of helping these musicians, we tell them they just have to adapt to the new realities of the music economy. And short of embedding MP3s in toilet paper, they have. Bands have demonstrated remarkable creativity in trying to monetize whatever they can to make up for the inability to, er, monetize their music itself. They will come over and play Xbox 360 with you or personally record your outgoing voice mail message.
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. I can’t say if the world of music will be better or worse off if that happens, but it will certainly be a lot louder.
Alina Simone is the author of the essay collection “You Must Go and Win” and the novel “Note to Self.”