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Crowdfunding, Panhandling, and the Business of Creativity

I’m running another Kickstarter, and it’s been a rousing success. Yesterday, we met our first goal, in just one week! 

But I don’t want to lie to you, my friends. It’s also been annoying. It’s annoying to my fans (who I’ve been badgering every day for the past week), it’s annoying to my friends and family (who’ve gotten nothing from me but anxiety and terror for the past month), and I’ll admit it: it’s annoying to me, too.

It’s annoying because I really only care about music, not money. And it’s uncomfortable to ask people for money, over and over again! But I know that if I don’t find a way to care about money, and to get comfortable, at least for a few short weeks, I don’t get to make the music that I want to make. 

So, I find the parts that I care about. I care about my fans, for instance: I find them delightful, and kind, and funny. I am constantly moved to find that there are people out there, besides my immediate family, who want to hear (and pay for) my music. This seems impossible and hilarious to me; like learning that your pet rat has become famous on the internet. 

But when my focus begins to drift, I find it heartening to remember that I come from a noble lineage of beggars and thieves. In the broad arc of human history, music has rarely been an esteemed or profitable way of life.

It’s a wonderful way of life, though, if you happen to care only about music.

The History of the Music Industry 

Let’s have a brief recap.

Two hundred years ago, copyright was invented. A hundred years later, jukeboxes arrived. The copyright/jukebox combo made it possible for non-classical musicians and songwriters (henceforth known as “pop musicians”) to collect royalties, and for the first time ever, to be paid beyond one-time fees for their compositions and performances. After that, we got widespread radio, singles, and eventually long-play records (LPs).

So, some time in the late forties/early fifties, we found ourselves in a perfect storm. The war was over, the country was flush, and new technology made it possible for a great number of people to purchase new, original, pop music to listen to in their homes. At the same time, jazz was becoming marketable to white audiences, and rock and roll was a little fledgeling thing, trying out its legs. Suddenly, a pop musician could sell a million records, many of them to people who had no access to a live music venue. The recording industry, as we know it, was born.

Because this is America, a huge and sprawling economy quickly exploded around this new phenomenon, eating everything in its wake. Managers, producers, sound engineers, music promoters, and of course record labels, with their attendant CEOs, A&R men, publicists and secretaries, sprang into existence and proliferated, filling important roles that had never existed before.

Musicians got famous, and famous in an unprecedented way. They required bodyguards, they rode around in cars with tinted windows, they appeared in movies. For the first time in human history, pop musicians (albeit a tiny fraction of them) could be rich, powerful, and well-respected.

At its peak, in 1999, the recording industry created almost twenty billion dollars of revenue in the US alone.

Then, the internet happened, and caused this whole reel-to-reel to reverse itself. The recording industry began to shrink. The long-play record receded back into the mud, replaced once again by the single. Musicians began to lose sales, royalties, and even copyright protections.

In conclusion, the music industry as we know it has existed for less than 100 years, and seems to have peaked about fifteen years ago. Like tulips in Holland, popular music was a fevered craze, which begat an extremely volatile and short-lived industry.

The History of Music

But before that – before the internet, and the industry, and the long-play record, and the jukebox, and the copyright - was there music? Yes.

There has always been music.

The earliest known musical instrument, a bone flute found in Southwestern Germany, is dated at 35,000 years (that’s your entire estimated life span, times 500). And we can assume that the human voice was the first musical instrument, and thus, that music began much earlier. That means that music (and art) existed before agriculture, written language, and of course, money. 

Music predates money by, oh, roughly 25,000 years. If you ask me, conflating the two has been a grave mistake, from which I wish us all a speedy recovery.

The History of Musicians

From what I can tell, musicians have rarely been esteemed by society, and have largely had to beg for food, shelter and money, since the dawn of the modern age. At best, we have been thought of as a kind of monk, whose vocation requires us to eschew worldly concerns (and thus subsist on charity). Mostly, we’ve been thought of as charming accessories to be kept by the nobility, like exotic birds; or more often, as panhandlers and degenerates.

The only historical period for which this has not been the rule was a brief era of fewer than a hundred years, in a relatively small part of the world. If you’re reading this, you were probably born in that part of the world, during the latter part of that era. 


But I implore you, fellow musicians: let us not be so short-sighted as to chalk up the tiny blip of our own lifetime to “the way things have always been”. We are the creative class - we exist outside the economy. It’s our job (more than anyone else’s) to remember our humanity, above and in spite of the economic imperative. 

When even our artists become obsessed by money, humanity has lost its soul.

Musicians today, just like Shakespeare, Mozart, and Robert Johnson, must play at the pleasure of the gentry, play for tips, and do our best to eat free and evade our taxes.

Perhaps this sounds insane to you; it does to many people. If I had ten dollars for every time someone on an airplane, or at a family gathering, has asked me how I plan to make money as a musician, or why I haven’t chosen a more practical line of work (or why I use Kickstarter instead of “getting a record deal” (quotes mine), or why I don’t play corporate events/weddings/covers/lindy hop exchanges), I could stop this Kickstarter campaign right now. 

What we have here, folks, is a failure of imagination. Capitalism is such a powerful psychological concept that people in a capitalist society often fail to recognize the value of anything other than money.

And to me, that sounds insane. So I guess we’ll agree to disagree. 

Making Peace with Panhandling

Kickstarter (and Patreon), in my view, are 21st century tip buckets. I’m here on the street corner of the internet, passing you my hat. If you like what you hear, drop a dollar. If you don’t, move on. I won’t get rich off it, but it will give me another few months of making beautiful things, here on the outskirts of society, for no good reason.

If you look at the amounts I’ve raised on Kickstarter and think that I’m a liar or a hypocrite, let me take a moment to gently correct you. I have been in debt, because of music, for 100% of my adult life. And I didn’t even go to college! 

Since I made my first record at nineteen, whatever money I’ve made from touring, CD sales, royalties, licensing, tips and Kickstarter, I’ve spent feeding myself, fixing my car, and making records. Add to that whatever money I’ve made at my succession of glamorous day jobs (dog grooming, burger flipping, latte-making), or borrowed from my family, or my fans, or credit cards, or banks. Never underestimate the amount of money an obsessive person can spend on the thing they are obsessed with.

My point here is not to have a pity party. On the contrary, I feel that I’ve been incredibly fortunate, in a whole myriad of ways. I love my life, and I love my work. What I want to say is this: I’ve gotten comfortable with debt, and with begging. It hasn’t been hard to do, because I don’t care about money. I also don’t care overly much about pride, or being cool, or maintaining my so-called “artistic mystery”.

I care about music. 

I think e.e. cummings said it best, when he said: “If a poet is anybody, he is somebody to whom things made matter very little- somebody who is obsessed by Making. Like all obsessions, the Making obsession has disadvantages; for instance, my only interest in making money would be to make it. Fortunately, however, I should prefer to make almost anything else, including locomotives and roses.”

As for me, I should prefer to make albums, and songs, and mischief, and merriment. If you want to hear the things I make, send me some money. If you don’t, go on your merry way. 

Regardless, I’ll be here on the corner: the wild-eyed monk, with the tin cup, singing.


This post was inspired by the work of Amanda Palmer, Elizabeth Gilbert, Milton, and many others. 


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