Being An Artist In The 21st Century
In a run-down bungalow in Los Angeles in 1969, an obscure alcoholic writer sat in a kitchen full of old newspapers and tins of bacon grease, working out his daily living expenses with a pen he borrowed from the manager of a Californian office supply company. Rent, booze, child support, food, cigarettes — about $100 a month, the writer figured.
“OK” said the manager of the office supply company, “if I promise you $100 a month, for life, will you quit your job and focus on writing?”
John Martin paid Charles Bukowski $100 a month, initially out of his own salary at the office supply store, in order to give the writer time to work on the waist-high stack of papers in his closet. It was the foundation of Black Sparrow Press, and the start of Charles Bukowski’s career as a full-time writer.
There’s always been middlemen, ever since someone painted their hand on the wall of a cave in France and someone else (presumably) put a rope around it and started charging for admission. They get between artist and audience, handling the day-to-day realities while the sensitive artist gets to focus on their art. But there’s a Faustian aspect to this model. Artists — successful artists, the chosen few who landed a record deal or a publishing contract — were looked after by the companies that profited from their work, but it wasn’t the interests of the artist that were really being served. Hold a séance and ask Elvis’ ghost what happens when you become successful enough that you never have to hear the word “no.” Or take a look at the insurance policy Albert Grossman took out on Janis Joplin’s life. Big corporations will behave as big corporations always have — that is, psychopathically. And over the years and decades of the 20th century, the corporations got bigger and more psychopathic with every book or record or movie sold. Art is big business, and maybe always was. Whether it’s the moneyed nobility who sponsored Mozart or the record companies that kept Led Zeppelin in hotel rooms and heroin, artists have always needed sponsors. Making art requires money, and promoting it takes even more money, and money is something that artists, especially early in their careers, are not known for having a lot of.
But it’s not the sixties anymore. The times, they have a-changed. We live in a shrunken world, a noisy cell bound in copper wire where anyone can talk to anyone else, no matter where they happen to live. What the old gatekeepers of culture — the publishers, the agents, the record labels — used to offer was exposure. Big deal. In a world where a video of a baby biting his older brother’s finger can get over 400 million views, exposure is not the impossible dream it once was. The barbarians have stormed the gate, and those who made a career out of getting between an artist and their audience are struggling, like all agents, to justify a position that suddenly doesn’t seem so necessary anymore.
For the artist, this is a mixed blessing. The days in which an artist got to focus on their art exclusively are, for the most part, over. Those happy accidents of cultural history — a teenaged Elvis walking into Sam Phillips’ studio to record some songs for his mother; Harrison Ford working as a carpenter on George Lucas’ kitchen — may give us all hope in the power of luck, but they were always the exception, never the rule. The reality, especially now, with record labels and publishing companies trying to squeeze every penny out of a collapsing business model, is that no one’s going to come along out of nowhere and pay you to do what you love.
Few people will shed a tear for the demise of the giant corporations who have been foisted one millionaire mediocrity after another on the public (Ke$ha, anyone?) but there’s more to this than a David/ Goliath dichotomy. It’s no secret that great art is often produced by people utterly incapable of having a normal life. Think of poor earless Vincent or haunted Fyodor; true genius tends to struggle in the world, and it’s hard to imagine the old masters setting up Twitter accounts and providing links to their work on Smashwords or Flickr. The middlemen were supposed to nurture talent like this, handling the details artistic genius skips over on its way to the next big idea. Now that we’re all just one hyperlink away from superstardom, the madmen and sinners who used to create the very best art may be left behind.
If you want to be an artist now, being creative isn’t enough. You have to have a web presence, become a social media expert and sell yourself like some pink-shirted corporate slimeball. You need to somehow combine Kurt Cobain with Donald Trump, and this is probably not why you became an artist in the first place. You wanted to write, to sing, to make beautiful music and images, not sit up late in the night grappling with coding and commenting on other people’s blog posts in the hope they’ll comment on yours. You’ll learn skills you never wanted to have, and the time you used to spend making art will now be swallowed up by the endless task of marketing yourself in a world of seven billion voices, all shouting at once.
It seems daunting. Instead of trying to appeal to a publisher or editor or record label and letting them worry about finding an audience, now you have to go out and build your own audience, one person at a time. You worry that your muse is too delicate, that the pressures of day to day life and the rough winds of capitalism will destroy your art. But if that’s true, yours is a sickly art that deserves to die in any case. The pressures of marketing will crush your creativity from coal to diamond, something rare, hard and beautiful. On a level playing field, quality wins out. An independent artist with a borrowed laptop, making a small coffee last all day while they help themselves to free wi-fi can compete head-to-head with the marketing juggernaut of the big corporations. It’s still not a fair fight, but it’s getting fairer.
Many of my favorite musicians — Astronautalis, Rodney DeCroo, Ceschi – are people I would never have heard on the radio, or through any traditional media. These are people who might not even have got record deals once upon a time, but they’ve been able to build up a fan base by themselves. More importantly, they’ve been able to do exactly what they wanted, without some chart-brandishing executive spouting gibberish about demographics as though there are no people, only targets. This brave new world of artist-as-promoter is the blank spaces on medieval maps, scary but full of promise. And when you start to see people as well-known as Louis CK or Radiohead abandoning the traditional publishing model they have mastered in favor of a DIY approach, you know something big is happening. The technology-driven democratisation of culture we have witnessed in the past decade has ushered in an era of unparalleled freedom for the creative artist. It may mean pursuing money in a direct way many people feel is at odds with the artistic temperament; but as Gilbert K. Chesterton noted, “Artistic temperament is the disease that afflicts amateurs.” Who would choose to go back to the shackles of corporate control over your art and fifteen percent royalties when there’s a whole wide world out there that you can reach from your couch?
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