Published on August 23rd, 2013 | by Brian Donohoe
Surviving As A Creative Musician: Art and Craft
Change is painful. It’s also unavoidable. The model for success in the music industry today is drastically different from what it was fifteen years ago, or even ten years ago. Within just the last five years, new trends and businesses have either sprung up or risen to prominence– Spotify, for example– that offer the potential for still more drastic evolution, even if these businesses have yet to settle into a truly sustainable model. It’s obvious that the recorded music industry has been turned completely on its head and that the artists who are really succeeding today are the ones who have aggressively adapted to and taken advantage of the fundamental changes that terrify record executives. The possibilities offered by this reality are intimidating and exciting. I’m far from the first person to observe that independent artists today have more control over their own destinies than they’ve had since the production of the gramophone.
But, even as hard-working, driven, creative, resourceful artists, how do we survive? Even better, how do we flourish?
Music is one of those confounding industries that requires its suppliers to create demand for their own products. Nobody needs a phenomenal new indie rock band or electronic dance producer, and the the internet is flooded with high-quality content that is either cheap or free to access, but there are indeed phenomenal new indie rock bands and electronic dance producers with successful careers. Granted, most artists are not able to support themselves with their original music alone, but that isn’t to say that a creative, talented musician can’t support him- or herself by being a self-employed artist who loves what he or she does for work every day.
The reason I am a musician is because I write music. I love playing instruments, performing, and touring, but I wouldn’t put up with the hassles of the music industry if it weren’t for the fact that writing my own original music, and hearing it turn out well, is among the most satisfying feelings in my life. To facilitate my life as a composer and producer of music, I’ve found it very useful to mentally categorize each gig or project somewhere on a spectrum between two poles, with “Art” on one side and “Craft” on the other.
Consider the “Craft” pole as the structural, skeletal element to music. If a carpenter is building a table for a client, he isn’t necessarily expressing himself artistically as if he were carving a sculpture of his own loving design, but he is absolutely using and honing skills that will make his sculptures better while earning a living at the same time. Also, he’s undoubtedly putting some elements of his own expression into that table, if subtly or even subconsciously. This is the equivalent of when I play a wedding gig or produce a track for a songwriter or organization that demands something rather specific. It’s a job, not entirely my own art, but it’s a good job, and it helps make my art better while generating some income.
The “Art” pole, then, is clearly the carpenter’s sculpture. It’s the creation of something purely personal and joyful for its own sake, or the sake of the creator and like-minded people who will appreciate it. For my band, Progress, which plays my own original compositions (as well as several by other band members), I use resources gained from my “craft” work in order to be a better musician, writer, producer, band leader, booking agent, and public relations representative. When I started booking gigs for the band, it was for virtually no money, but it was always a satisfying artistic endeavor for my bandmates and me. We now have a small but devoted following, which allows us to bring a little more money at gigs (a very satisfying feeling), but we still use most of that money to further the artistic project: go on the road, create video content, record in a decent studio, and so on.
The two sides of my work inform and assist each other in ways that make perfect sense. If I work with someone on a “craft” gig and we clearly get along well personally and musically, we can learn from each other and, later down the road, use and recommend each other for things more on the “art” side. Likewise, if other artists hear my original band and respond well to the music, they are very likely to use me or my bandmates for contract work. For us, this work has ranged from small things like isolated freelance gigs to large studio production projects.
When Wayne Shorter composed “Harlequin” (from Weather Report’s 1977 masterpiece Heavy Weather) or the Postal Service produced “Such Great Heights” (from their 2003 masterpiece Give Up), I doubt they were counting, in advance, how much money they’d be making off their compositions. They were most likely creating beautiful music for the sake of creating beautiful music, and it just so happened that enough other people loved their creations that they became luminaries in their fields. Becoming a thriving original artist with a sustainable life is the long-term goal for myself and my peers, but projects and gigs that aren’t entirely our own vision still serve that goal while also helping us earn a living. Most of my musical heroes, such as Michael Brecker, Keith Carlock, Jaco Pastorious, and even J.S. Bach, made or make use of both “art” and “craft” continually throughout their careers. In today’s age of faltering record companies and fundamental industry upheaval, when an artist’s independent spirit, resourcefulness, and creativity are more important than they’ve ever been, using every professional and artistic opportunity to improve is what’s necessary to survive and, given enough time and energy, flourish.