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New Rules for the Music Business

I launched my music career in 2006, after years of writing and performing just for fun. To my surprise and disappointment, I found that I had launched it to the strains of a funeral dirge. The Old Business was dead or dying, depending on who you asked. It was not yet clear whether there would be a New Business.

Thus, my business strategy for this past eight years has consisted mostly of guessing, experimenting, praying, and failing. Nobody I’ve met, no matter how experienced or successful, has had anything better than an informed guess about how to “make it” as an artist in the 21st century. It’s a strange and confusing new world.

However, thanks to some combination of luck, madness, and pigheadedness, I’ve been making a full-time living at this for about six years. And it’s starting to be kind of fun. I’m not saying I know what I’m doing, but I have ideas, and some people have asked me for advice. So what follows is my best guess at what the fuck is going on here. 

The Market and The Muse

A funny thing happened in the 20th century. Artists - known the world over to be fuzzy-headed, open-handed, penniless fools, with one eye on the sky and the other turned awkwardly inward – were forced to become businesspeople. And I don’t just mean that they had to handle money – I mean, they had to start thinking about markets.

Let me make clear for you how absurd this is. The difference between the concerns of pleasing a muse (which are largely abstract and unnameable), and the concerns of pleasing a market (which are largely concrete and quantifiable) are akin to the difference between a bird and a stone.  

When we serve the muse, we open ourselves up fearlessly to the woes and passions of the world, we experiment playfully and adventure boldly; we forfeit all allegiance to time, money, and external expectation. The poet Mary Oliver put it this way, “If I have a meeting with you at three o'clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.”

When we serve the market, we strive to make something “marketable”: ie: something that meets an identifiable need or demand, is understandable, and is most likely similar to something that came before it. We try to please the fans and the managers and label-heads, because they are providing the money. We cater, above all else, to time, money, and external expectation.

In short, the muse and the market are not just different, they are diametrically opposed. One asks us to proceed boldly, the other to proceed with caution.

But don’t despair, artists. That’s how it used to work. Then, the internet took everything we knew about markets, turned it upside down, shook it hard, and stole its lunch money.

New Rule #1: Create Ceaselessly

These days, instead of appealing to one big market, artists have the opportunity to appeal to any combination of an infinite number of small markets – which don’t even behave like markets, really, but like communities. Our work can reach these communities no matter where they are in the world, how old they are, or what radio station they listen to. And these communities are highly networked within and between each other.

In other words, there are now infinite markets, and infinite ways of marketing to them.

        Work ≠ money:

In the old business, every iteration of your work (every concert, CD, and photograph) could be expected to make you a fixed, knowable amount of money. Now that your work is being dumped into the bottomless maw of the internet, you can no longer count on it returning to you with a handful of cash.

A lot of artists aren’t ready to face this one, which is understandable. It’s devastating and terrifying to learn that the way you used to make money is not going to make you money anymore.

But let me state this clearly: the old world is not coming back. We can either learn to live in this one, or we can get a job.

Now, many of us have been lulled into believing that we already have a job. We do not. We have a calling. If you want to follow your calling, a steady paycheck is one of the many nice things that you’ll be asked to sacrifice.

That said, I believe that the problem of money is working itself out in some new and interesting ways. Fans don’t equal cash the way they once did (they don’t necessarily buy your records or go to your concerts, for example), but a fan is still a person who loves and values your work, and is probably willing to pay for it. Kickstarter, Patreon, and Bandcamp are a few of the models that allow us to experiment with turning fans into income, and I predict there will be many, many more in the coming years.

The trick is, they are not linear models. The more fans you have, the more money you can make - probably - but the ratio is not 1:1. The amount you get paid depends on lots of mushy, musey things, like how inspired your fans are, and how much they like you personally, and what they ate for breakfast.  

I happen to believe that good artists will always be able to make a living doing the thing they’re good at. Maybe not a great living, but a living. That said, I’ll get a job if I need to. I didn’t get into this for the money; and I’d wager that you didn’t either. Like Gillian Welch said, back in 2001 (AKA: the beginning of the end), “We’re gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay.”

      Two crazy masters:

So in the old business, the market was fairly bounded, and behaved in a somewhat predictable fashion. In the new business, it’s not, and it doesn’t.

We still have to cater to two masters (the market and the muse), but now, at least they are equally insane. They both require from us every ounce of boldness, passion and open-mindedness we can muster, and they both reward us in surprising and unpredictable ways.

We have to learn to treat our careers the way we treat our art: open ourselves up to mysterious forces, work fearlessly, and pray that we’ll be rewarded.

New Rule #2: Share Generously

I’m about to say something that’s gonna get me into trouble.

“Intellectual property” is an absurd concept that only a society of clueless, museless marketers could possibly conceive of. It’s an idea that serves markets, cripples muses, and is willfully ignorant of all of human history.

We are stealing from one another constantly and shamelessly, and that’s a blessed and beautiful thing. Every folk song is a mashup of all previous folk songs. Every film stands on the shoulders of all other films. Every sentence, poem and novel exists only for the creative gumption of all previous speakers of language, which is itself a collaborative invention of the entire human race. The whole history of human invention is characterized by a kind of joyful, infinite plagiarism.

Ideas are not commodities. They are made to be shared, not owned.  

That said, I do get the point. If somebody covered one of my songs and got it on the radio and made millions and didn’t pay me, I’d sue the bajeezus out of the motherfucker. If you’re going to turn my song into a commodity, I expect to paid as though it’s a commodity (even though deep in my heart, I know it’s not). 

BUT, if somebody covered one of my songs and put it on youtube, or wrote a song that was an homage to one of mine, or burned one of my CDs and gave it to a friend, or used a song of mine in their broke-ass indie film, I’d high five them. Why? Because there is a big difference between sharing someone else’s work and profiting off of someone else’s work. And it’s time for all of us to get real, real comfortable with the former.

(This, by the way, is why all of my music is released under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial License. Read about it!)

The old business was set up in such a way that pretty much every time somebody heard one of your songs, you could expect to get paid for it. The new business is not set up that way, and in my estimation, it’s not about to be. But at this point, I’m inclined not to mind. Remember: fans are worth money, just not in a linear way.  That means that I am downright celebratory about people sharing my work. I want my songs to go out there and make fans.

        How to Get Paid for Sharing:

I’d argue that the most effective way to rig this new system in our favor is to create as many opportunities as possible for our fans to pay us for what we do. I think most fans are willing to part with some money, as a show of gratitude for the work that moves them.

When it comes to asking for money, ask with humor, confidence, and a sense of abundance. Try to maintain the sense that what you’re offering is valuable and worthwhile. In other words, “Please buy my CD, which is not that great, so I can buy gas” is much less effective than “I made this album, and I think it’s beautiful, and I want you to have it. If you happen to have made some money, and you want me to have it, I think that’s beautiful too.”

Also, ask often, and in lots of different ways. My ‘asks’ range from the “donate” link at the bottom of this post, to Patreon and Kickstarter, to the pitch I do from the stage at every live show (where my CDs are available pay-what-you-please). For more on the ask, I recommend that you watch this video.

In other words, I don’t require anybody to pay me for any of the work I share. That said, I make it really easy and fun and warm-fuzzy-feeling for them to do so. This has been working for me for the past five years or so, and it works better all the time. I’d wager that if you’re committed, and passionate, and willing to apply a bit of your (abundant) creativity to this endeavor, it can work for you, too.

New Rule #3: Collaborate Selflessly

Back when there was one big multi-billion-dollar market, it made sense to get a little territorial. It made sense that artists talked shit about each other, got into public skirmishes, and were reticent to share their resources. They were competing for their little slice of a very big pie.

These days, however, there are infinite pies. That means that advocating for another artist’s work (or even just tolerating it) takes nothing away from your own work. It means that competition within the arts is outdated and counterproductive. It means that we have to take responsibility for our work, because our work lives or dies on its own merits. That’s true of everybody else’s work, too – regardless of our opinions about it (and we have many).

Furthermore, working with other artists grows both of our pies. Cross-promotion and collaboration are perhaps our very best shots at growing our fan base. Marketing dollars are getting less valuable all the time, but “social capital” is getting more valuable.

So here’s what I recommend: find artists you love (artistically and personally), and make something with them, or for them. Send them fan mail. Tell your fans about their records. Make them a casserole. If you need help, ask them. If they need help, give it to them. 

Furthermore, if you need help and they won’t provide it, be gracious. They are fighting their own battles and have their own reasons. Similarly, if somebody makes work you don’t like, or if somebody you don’t like has some success that seems unwarranted, let it slide. What’s more: applaud them. We are not competitors anymore, and we gain nothing by cutting each other down.

We are all engaged in the hard work of trying to make something beautiful in an often-ugly world. We wake up every day and fight the same demons - some external, most internal. Every scrap of encouragement we come across is infinitely valuable. We may be an introverted, neurotic, solitary bunch, but we need each other.

This is good business, but more than that, it’s good living. I don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to do this work if it means my heart has to shrivel up like a prune. I make music because music breaks me open to infinity and God and magic and all manner of foolish feelings. If that stops happening, I’ll quit. Until then, I plan to share those feelings with every artist who happens to incite them, and say THANK YOU to every one of my comrades who provides inspiration or encouragement or help or hope or humor (for example, The Wood Brothers, Devon Sproule, Milton, Anais Mitchell, Chris Kasper, Peter Mulvey, Vienna Teng, The Weepies, Seth Walker, Mark Erelli, Shovels & Rope, and David Torkanowsky. To name a few).

New Rule #4 (the most important rule): Be Grateful.

Keep this in mind at all times. It is a blessing to be a creative person. It is a luxury and a privilege to have a calling, to know what it is, and to have a shot at pursuing it. Fame and fortune are a completely ludicrous expectation, and we don’t deserve them. We don’t even deserve to live above the poverty line (at least, no more than anyone else does). 

Whatever bullshit, boring thing you have to do to make it work - be it hooking, tweeting, waiting tables, driving 60,000 miles a year - make peace with it. When you feel bitterness or disappointment nibbling at your heart, fend them off the way you always have: sing, play, and write. 

The world gave you your muse. It has already done right by you, and it owes you nothing else. 


So, let’s review.

The New Rules: 

1)        Create ceaselessly. Approach your career like another aspect of your art: it requires constant inspiration and experimentation, and provides unpredictable rewards.

2)         Share generously. As soon as it’s out of you, it belongs to the world. Write the song, record it, bless and release. Then, make it really, really easy for people who love it to give you money.

3)         Collaborate selflessly. Make friends with artists whose work you love. Make yourself available to them, and ask them for help. When they help or inspire you, be enthusiastically, vocally grateful. When they don’t, be gracious. Let your heart always be open to little birds who are the secrets of living (joyfully plagiarized from e. e. cummings). 

4)         Be Grateful. You are a lucky bastard, whether or not you ever sell a single record or ticket. When it’s not working the way you want it to, fall to your knees and give thanks for your ears and your muse and the infinite gifts of creating.

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The Importance of Practicing Heartbreak

I posted ‘Casual Love’ on this very blog a few months back, and that li’l essay has since gone out into the streets, playing its merry panpipe, and gathered a slew of new readers. In that post, I put forth the notion that romantic love is more common than we typically acknowledge, and that we might as well let the cat out of the bag. Most people who sent me feedback on that concept seem to be love-crazed, cuddle-happy sexpots, like myself. But a few of them are a bit more cautious, and have reservations about the idea of falling in love on the reg, and being bold/careless/stupid enough to admit it out loud. One of the more commonly cited reasons for their ambivalence is this: it might hurt.

As a professional investigator in the field, I can say this unequivocally: it does hurt. Falling in love means taking your thin-skinned little muffin heart out of its cushioned case, unwrapping its protective layers of fear, cynicism and irony, and shoving it unceremoniously into rush hour traffic. If you actually admit that you’ve fallen in love, things get worse. Even in the statistically unlikely scenario that it goes well (e.g.: the love is mutual and kind and fulfilling and long-lasting), your smooshy, gushy heart will not survive the ordeal unscathed. At risk of plagiarizing the Everly Brothers (or, God forbid, Nazareth): love hurts, folks. Like a motherfucker.

But before you burn your dance card, let me pose one question: what’s wrong with getting hurt? 

Love Ain’t Pretty

Instead of adding a warning label to the concept of ‘casual love’, to make the cautious more comfortable, I’m going to up the ante. Love is not necessarily serious or long lasting, and furthermore, it’s not there to make us happy. It’s there to make us grow.

When we love somebody, even casually or briefly, we give them the power to hurt us. Falling in love with someone means looking them in the eye, handing over your guileless, muffiny heart, and saying, “do your worst”. We do this because some part of us, despite our best attempts at logic, trusts them. I’d argue that we don’t trust our beloved not to hurt us; we trust them to hurt us in a way that we need to be hurt. Our hearts may strike us as foolish, illogical, and idiotic (heck, I dedicated a whole album to the subject), but they are geniuses at one thing: they know exactly what will make us grow, and they have no qualms about yanking us towards it.

This applies not just to thwarted love affairs, but to long-term, “successful” relationships (lovers, friends and family) as well. The people we love, no matter how well or carefully we love them, will inevitably hurt us. In the best-case scenario, they will only hurt us in small ways, and they will love us sweetly until we die peacefully in our sleep. In the infinitely more common scenario, they will hurt us profoundly; by way of betrayal, abandonment, or death - or simply by changing in a way we don’t understand. What’s worse? We will hurt them back.

In other words: being cautious does little to protect you from heartbreak. So why not be bold? 

Practice Makes Perfect

When we practice heartbreak, we get better at it. We gain confidence in our own ability to hurt and heal, which gives us the courage to stride into the world, with all its disappointment and cruelty and unsavory characters, and embrace it joyfully. We broaden our emotional horizons - venturing a little further into the dark, cobwebby corners of our souls, feeling things we’ve never felt before, expanding our understanding of ourselves and other people. When our hearts break, they break us open.

Eventually, we may even begin to enjoy it. Waking up heartbroken is like waking up after a day of unusually hard work: your heart, like any other muscle, gets sore with heavy use. After the first hundred-or-so times, you realize it’s the good kind of sore: the kind that tells you that you’re capable of more today than you were yesterday.

 The Heartbreak Challenge

So, dear readers, here’s my challenge. Go forth and get your heart broken. Wear that sweet, pathetic, fragile little guy outside your shirt, like a badge of honor, or a dare. Offer it guilelessly to the people you care for. Write a completely over-the-top love letter. Share your silliest, most embarrassing, and most unlikely desires, with the people who can grant them.

If that doesn’t do it, read the news - with feeling! Read about what’s happening in Ferguson, MO. Watch some of Robin Williams’ early stand up. Instead of processing the information like a well-informed robot, actually feel it. Feel your love for these people who have suffered and died, and feel your sadness for their loss. Let it in, and let it hurt.

Love and heartbreak drag us, kicking and screaming, out of our comfort zones, and into the vast open waters of human experience. Without that bittersweet kick in the pants, we would all stay safe at home in our easy chairs, and miss our chance to look up at the night sky, tear-stained and heart-sore, and thank our lucky stars.



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Casual Love

Friends, put on your flak jackets. It’s time to drop some honesty on yet another uncomfortable topic: love. We use the word “love” to mean a lot of things. Throughout this post I’ll be referring to the romantic kind of love, the kind that usually involves sexual attraction, AKA “falling in love”.

Love: The Shocking Truth  

The truth about love is: it happens. A lot. It happens at appropriate times (like, when you’re in a long-term relationship with someone great), and also inappropriate ones (like, when you meet somebody at a party and have a weirdly awesome conversation and then make out in a bathroom). Love is just not all that concerned with appropriateness.   

We have a mythology surrounding romantic love that says it’s a special, rare feeling, reserved for just a few people in your whole life. It says that love takes time to develop, and that the feelings you experience at the outset of a relationship are not love, but something else (“infatuation”, “a crush”, or my favorite, “twitterpation“ (see Bambi)). It also says that love is generally constant and reliable, and that falling in love is A MAJOR LIFE EVENT, about which SOMETHING MUST BE DONE!   

In summation, the plot of every romantic comedy: if you fall in love with somebody, you better go out and get ‘em - even if they’re already married and they don’t really like you and you’re their stepsister and you’re leaving for a six-year residency in Mongolia in the morning - because you’ll probably love them forever and you might not ever love anyone else.  We are so enamored with this idea that we tend to round some feelings up to love (when you first met the person you later married), and others down to not-love (your weekend fling with a Spanish dancer). The thing is, those experiences feel remarkably similar from the inside.

That Old Feeling

Love is a feeling. It’s hot and fluttery and tingly. I get it in my guts and chest and face. The feeling is accompanied by a series of enthusiastic thoughts, such as “This person is the greatest person ever”, “I wonder how I can make this person feel good”, and/or “I want to climb onto this person and put my face close to their face and smoosh my body onto their body.”   

I have felt this way, to varying degrees, towards probably a hundred different people. Actually, that’s a lie; it is way more. When I was a teenager, I felt it towards approximately three people per day. Lately, the torrent has slowed to once every month or three (I am a bit of a love-fiend, I know. I don’t think such frequency is average.) And I’m married!    

And speaking of being married, yes, I do experience this feeling towards my husband. It feels different now than it felt when we first met: softer, warmer, with more comfort and less urgency. But the love I have for my husband is surrounded by a bunch of other feelings and thoughts that are much rarer than love, in my experience. These include: a deep mutual understanding of and appreciation for each other’s personalities, values, and quirks (e.g.: he finds my love-fiendishness endearing); years of shared experience; a lot of conversations about the kind of future we’re aiming for; and plenty of similar tastes and preferences (e.g. New Orleans, humor, dogs, dark chocolate, Ray Charles, The Daily Show, preferred frequency of house cleaning/travel/sex).    

But underneath all that is the same feeling: love.   Instead of trying to deny it, or ignore it, or call it something different in each different situation, I want to call it like I feel it: I’m in love. I’m in love with my husband, several of my friends, most of the musicians who move me (including some who are dead, such as Chet Baker, who would sympathize), and a handful of people I hardly know but have had good conversations/dances/make out sessions with. I fall in love all the time.    

And really, it’s no big deal. It’s actually kind of fun, once you get used to it.  

I love you. NBD.

The kids today are having a casual sex revolution. “Hookup culture” is akin to “free love”, but with more condoms and fewer hallucinogens. And I’m for it! In case you haven’t heard, I like casual sex. It’s my observation that as casual sex becomes more acceptable behavior (for men and women), it lessens the shame and anxiety associated with the sex that people are having anyway (and have been having since the dawn of time, and are going to keep having). I’m thrilled that young people are beginning to feel they have the option of exploring sex, safely and consensually, outside of the boundaries of long-term commitment.    

But why not have the option of exploring love, too, with or without a side of commitment? If we can agree that our bodies are not inherently dangerous, can’t we do the same for our hearts?   

I suggest we take a page from the casual sex book here. Let’s lift some of the weighty grandiosity off the shoulders of love, and allow it to be what it is: a sweet, ephemeral, exciting feeling to experience and share.

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Imagine if you could say to a casual partner, “I love you. It’s no big deal. It doesn’t mean you’re The One, or even one of the ones. It doesn’t mean you have to love me back. It doesn’t mean we have to date, or marry, or even cuddle. It doesn’t mean we have to part ways dramatically in a flurry of tears and broken dishes. It doesn’t mean I’ll love you until I die, or that I’ll still love you next year, or tomorrow.”   

Then later, perhaps over brunch, you could tackle the question of whether there’s anything to do about it. All of the aforementioned - dating, marriage, cuddling, etc - are options, and there are an infinite number of other options (Skee ball, sailing around the world, double suicide). These are all things you can now choose or not choose, as two conscious, adult human beings. The important distinction is that none of them is implied just by saying the word “love”.  

The Point  

There are advantages to separating the wacky, butterflies-in-the-gut, unpredictable feeling of “love” from the ideally rational, cool-headed decisions and agreements of “commitment”. For one: love is just not a good enough reason to commit to somebody (trust me, I’ve tried). You need a few other ingredients: mutuality, compatibility, and availability, for starters.  

The big advantage for the lover

is that falling in love will feel less scary, life-threatening, and crazy-making. As long as love is theoretically reserved for people whom you want to date and possibly marry, falling in love will be confusing and dramatic. If we interpret this particular set of feelings and thoughts as an epic, life-changing event, we’ll have no choice but to get really, really attached to our beloved. We’ll throw a lot of expectations at them (“Love me back! Love me only! Love me forever!”), and feel hurt and resentful if the feeling is not mutual. We’ll imprint upon them like baby ducks, and resolve to stick with them through thick and thin, through hell or high water, through abuse and neglect and lies and bickering and frustration and mutually-assured destruction, whether or not it brings us (or anyone else) any kind of joy.   

The big advantage for the beloved

 is that being loved will feel less like an attack, and more like a gift. The little-discussed fact is that it’s super uncomfortable to be loved when the feeling is not mutual (see my song Please). So uncomfortable, in fact, that many of us would rather act like callous, cold-hearted assholes than be in the same room as the person who loves us. We panic, we get distant, we deny any interest or care for the other person, we stop returning their texts. But that’s not an aversion to love, or to the lover; it’s the attachment and expectation being hurled in our direction with such intensity. 

If love was casual, we could take it as a high compliment, say “thanks!”, and feel some warm fuzzies. We might also begin to feel some compassion for our lover (who, after all, has a stomach full of butterflies and can’t eat or sleep very well), which might allow us to make better and kinder decisions about how to respond.   

If love was casual, perhaps it wouldn’t collide into our sense of identity or our plans for the future at such high velocity. It wouldn’t feel so personal. If it’s not mutual, so what? If it doesn’t turn into a relationship, so what? I have feelings and desires all the time that go unsatisfied. Sometimes (okay, a lot of times), late at night, I want Chef’s Perfect Chocolate ice cream, but Creole Creamery closes at 10pm. Do I panic? Do I call Creole Creamery and leave a series of desperate messages? Do I curl into a ball and lament that without Chef’s Perfect Chocolate, I am a broken person who is not worthy of ice cream? 

No. I deal. I feel my feelings, whine a little if I need to, and go without. Like a grown-ass woman.  

And here’s my favorite part: if love is casual - not something rare and dramatic and potentially painful, but something common and easy and mutually enjoyable - we all get to feel more love, and share more love.   

Sounds lovely, right?   

   



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