Struggling Artist or Rock Star: Why Only Two Choices?

A recent article about Cat Power has fueled my thinking about the pigeonholing of artists — both by themselves and others.

I often find I’ve put myself in the trap of thinking that there only two choices: “I’m a starving artist” or “I’m a Rock Star”? That somehow I have to either scrimp and pinch and struggle, or have wild, incredible fame and fortune, and that there’s no in-between. That’s pretty much what the author of the Atlantic Wire article about Cat Power has decided.

But these statements by David Wagner are clearly oversimplifications:

  • “It’s no shock to learn that musicians lead financially precarious lives”
  • “Everyone knows that artists go out on a financial limb by committing to creativity as a career.”

These two statements are FALSE. I know plenty of musicians who make their living playing or teaching music, and live in houses and have mortgages and cars and kids in school. That is, they lead fairly plain, solid “middle-class” lives. No drama. But that’s not an exciting or interesting story, so who’s going to write about it?

Cat Power’s story, essentially about a person making a living but encountering health problems for which they can’t find or possibly afford care, would not be the subject of a news article or even an opinion piece if she were simply a sales clerk at a convenience store, or a bank teller. Imagine the tweet “MAY HAVE TO MISS WORK THIS WEEK ON ACCOUNT OF MIGRAINES AND ASTHMA.” Inspiration for a magazine cover? I don’t think so.

Sidebar: Steve Lawson has also written a brief post in response to the David Wagner article: http://www.stevelawson.net/2012/10/indie-or-not-who-gets-the-money/ .

My perception is we’re in a culture that idolizes extremes and isn’t interested in middles. But let’s not digress to politics.

Back to the personal intent I had in writing this post. And that is to briefly explore my attitude towards the work of creating and leading this chamber music group, the Chicago Bass Ensemble. I think I’ve found myself ensnared by the myth that a struggling artist is a great artist. And as a result, I put roadblocks in my own way, so it will look to me like I am struggling and therefore deserve to be great. Examples:

  • Music reading sessions like the one I led last month. Yes, musician’s schedules don’t always line up easily. But tools like Doodle, Google Calendar and PHPList e-mail make it actually pretty simple to find a date. And speaking personally, even finding a space isn’t a HUGE deal. So why do I let months and months go by without setting up reading sessions? So I can have something to complain about! Look, ma! I’m struggling!
  • Finding new music. I agonize about finding music to play (Ma! This such a struggle!). But my friend Dave pointed out to me the other day that I should be able to find and listen to pieces via YouTube. Of course! Duh! Or as Lou Mallozzi at Experimental Sound Studio sometimes encourages me to do, sponsor a call for compositions. It’s just not that hard.
  • Practice. Here’s the deal here: I do NOT currently make a comfortable cozy living as a musician. I work a day job. And I have a family. So, yes, finding time for extended and detailed work in the practice room can be a scheduling problem. But I can, and do, fit in 10 or 15 minutes almost every day (and thanks to Lift, I track it–and my flossing–so I know that in the last 7 weeks, I’ve checked in on “Practice Musical Instrument” 39 times). No struggle, just do it!
  • Getting, and publicizing, performances. Well, I haven’t found the silver bullet on this one yet. I haven’t put in the work to get well-known to presenters and organizations. And I haven’t gone whole-hog on the self-presenting thing yet. Probably the struggle here is just to decide on a course of action: self-promote, or pursue presenters, or just record, or …? Not having a clear direction in mind makes it very hard to take action! So, I’m deluding myself if I say getting gigs is a struggle. Committing to a course of action is what’s needed.

So I started this post off talking about a misdirected view that we have of artists: that they either struggle or live in mansions. I don’t think that is true. I think there are artists who are able to create their art and enjoy their lives, neither crushed under the heel of callous misfortune nor cavorting with the lotus-eaters. Personally, I have fallen into the trap of equating struggle with artistic success. And I am writing this post to force myself, publicly, in front of both of you who read and comment on this blog, to admit that my life just isn’t that hard and I can be successful, even if it doesn’t require struggle to achieve my goals.

 

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