A Life in Music. Fame, Fortune, or Fancy?


[I started this a couple of weeks ago…and since then Steve has written a couple of blogs with his take on the same issues….Is he stealing from me?? I don’t know. But after watching Hedwig last night I think I’m going to have to keep a closer eye on him. ;)]

The musicians life is a hard one. Not only because most people regard creative fields as a hobby rather than a real life job, but also because of our willingness to do everything speculatively in hope that something will eventually come of it. Steve told me once that “we’re our own worst enemies because we love what we do” and that is so true. Now I can hear someone out there now saying…”stop complaining….you may not get paid much but at least you love your job!” Yes, and the age-old saying that you can’t live on love alone certainly applies here.

For many of us, there is no school that can teach what we do. Our work is a mixture of years of real world study, fleeting emotions, tragedy, and hope. Every note we write a piece of history saved from the ashes of charred memories. Every song a blanket woven from future hopes and past disappointments. Yet we are seen as children, refusing to grow up and get a career.

This is never so apparent as when you are managing your own career. You’re expected to have a middle-man of sorts in order to be taken seriously. If you don’t have a label, a manager, a publicist, and a booking agent…then you are obviously an amateur. I get so frustrated constantly explaining to people that I have no desire to be famous. I want to write, I want to perform, I want to connect. I also want to be paid fairly to do these things…but I don’t need a private plane and millions to be happy. I’m happy with train fare and a few thousand extra in the bank.

So as a singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with 20+ years of experience, why is it that people still expect me to do my job for free? I’m not talking about recorded music here, I’m talking about playing shows and festivals that are patronised by thousands of people.

While I don’t think that anyone has a right to a living just because they are a talented musician…I also don’t think that people have the right to deprive me of a living just because we’ve created a culture that feels that we shouldn’t have to pay for music. The inequity that exists in the world of music is part of the problem here; the whole rock-star dream. Much like the American dream….it’ll just cause you to live aspirationally rather than practically and that can be a dangerous pitfall.

The problem comes when I voice this to others. Unless this person is a seasoned musician…these words will cause me to lose credibility. How can I say that I have no desire for fame and fortune? Isn’t that the reason that one becomes a musician in the first place? To avoid studying medicine, or the law? To avoid being part of the establishment?

Deciding to be a musician is not a quest of avoidance…but a labour of love. There are quite a few assumptions that we need to get over…

1. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone knew who you were?
No, this would suck. How would you ever live a normal life? Imagine having video chat open ALL THE TIME. Think you have lots of people in your life now who like to tell you how to live? Imagine having hundreds of thousands of those, even millions. Nice.

2. It’d be cool to be treated like a rock star all the time.
Again, your record label is happy to spend YOUR MONEY treating you like a rock star and other people will be willing to do the same because they think fame is some magical dust that will rub off on them. Once you’re out of money and hit songs it’s back to being NORMAL. Additionally, being treated like a star doesn’t make you a better musician…as a matter of fact I’d imagine it has the opposite effect.

3. Doing a huge tour across the world is fun.
No, it’s really not. Ask anyone who has done it. Grass roots tours with people you like are much more fun because you’re hanging with friends and leaving more time for exploration and doing it on your own terms. You don’t need to answer to anyone and your schedule is your own.

I don’t have answers for all the problems that exist in our lives as musicians. I do know that I’m beyond happy that I am able to do what I love for a living…but, until we change our thinking about what it means to be a musician I can’t see our lives getting any easier. But I suppose as Al Bernstein once said…“Easy doesn’t do it.”

7 comments to “A Life in Music. Fame, Fortune, or Fancy?”

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  1. Interesting post, Lo.

    I particularily liked your statement, “we’ve created a culture that feels that we shouldn’t have to pay for music”. At a recent SOCAN event, they spoke of how difficult it is for their agents to collect miniscule amounts of royalties from shopping centres and stores within the shopping centres because the owners feel that once they’ve purchased the album, they can do anything with it, such as using the music to create an atmosphere to draw more clients. The yearly amount that SOCAN bills these places is very small versus the amount that is generated as a result of this commercial usage. Don’t think for a minute that every New-Age shop out there is paying Enya to play her music all day long, but at least in Canada, SOCAN is working hard to collect our fair share. It’s got to start somewhere, I suppose. SOCAN is also chasing the mobile providers for ringtone royalties (and are in court over it currently) as well as chasing cable companies and other folks that think of music as something that holds no value.

    Another side of the “we shouldn’t have to pay for music” coin is one that I’ve run into a bit; the artist that needs your services that expects that you will play, record, rehearse etc. for free (note: this does not apply to you, Lo 🙂 ). I have turned down several offers in the last year from artists that wanted a major commitment from me, for no pay. It’s one thing to do a gig or two for friends (my recent drum-subbing for Noelle comes to mind) and split any money at the end of the night, but it’s quite another when one is expected to willingly donate their time and abilities. Let’s just say that it is easier to turn people down after the Montréal Jazz Festival show; we played to tens of thousands and were compensated quite nicely. I still get many offers, but it is easier to turn down a “freebie commitment” when I ask them, “Can you get shows like this?” Chances are, they cannot.

  2. I had a conversation with an art therapist last night about the fame/creatives thing – very interesting. I can’t remember how it came up, but the subject of abandonment was discussed.

    The desire for fame is something that often comes to people who have really intrusive parents, and it often affects creative types. It’s funny – she said this without knowing anything about my family background, but it was absolutely spot on.

    Quite often artists create work as a means of describing and validating their own universe, rather than really communicating and interacting with the outside world – trying to create a world that is one’s own, and not dictated to by other people. It’s the thing about not wanting to take a risk by abandoning oneself to other people (because the experience of trusting ones own parents has been so traumatic), and yet indulging in making music/art/etc. which requires true abandonment to make work in the first place. There’s also a lack of willingness to abandon the idea of fame or other tightly held things, especially when reality delivers a cold hard blow.


  3. Guess it’s worth logging my related (and possibly stolen 🙂 ) posts here, just for reference:

    Working For Free; Working For Friends is the latest one, and The Myth of Success before that…

    Clearly it’s an issue close to my heart, and there are so many angles to approach it from, be they business focussed or to do with the interpersonal weirdness that drives most people’s handling of their music careers. The flip side of this, I guess, is people who do a bunch of work saying it’s for free, then suddenly decide it should be paid… The important ‘rule’ in all this is to get everything in writing, and keep the paper/e-trail.

    Failing that, just do it all yourself – it’s exhausting, but at least you avoid the losers 😉

  4. I think sometimes what is overlooked is the basic economics of supply and demand. Why buy something you can get for free? If there is a line behind you, willing to beat your rate (as in most professions), employers will choose the best bargain especially when no major gain is to be expected from the venture.

    There are booking agents who deal with artists who are local and are not looking for the jets and infamy.

    It’s hard to fight against a system well ingrained throughout the world. Good luck in your fight.

  5. Hey Lobelia-
    thank you for expressing so eloquently (yes, eloquently) some of the issues I’ve been struggling with (yet somehow unable to verbalize comprehensively) for the last 10 or so of my 30+ years as a musician/performer/composer, trying desperately like hell to make a meager freakin’ living at this. This post really expresses the unrealistic attitudes of 1) family members & 2) non musician friends who have “normal” jobs.
    The one cool-as-hell thing is that I keep having 1sts – in other words, I continue to find myself in musical situations that have never happened before. I won’t go into details here, but it sure helps me keep going…
    Anyway, thanks again for the excellent insight, and all the best –

  6. People should read this.

  7. Quote:
    “While I don’t think that anyone has a right to a living just because they are a talented musician…I also don’t think that people have the right to deprive me of a living just because we’ve created a culture that feels that we shouldn’t have to pay for music.”

    I agree with the second part – if someone is consuming music or using it somehow, the artist should be able to be compensated.
    But the feeling I get from your writing is that you DO feel like you have a right to make a living with your art.

    As someone else already noted it really is a supply and demand issue – and I’m of the opinion that it’s not a worthwhile fight. By all means, make your art. Just don’t expect that the world will pay you for it.

    The world demands a very small amount of “good art” and even less “new good art”. Not only is an artist competing with the television set, other living artists, but also all dead artists that left behind work.

    It is a luxury of a rich society to even consider “professional artists”. There has to be disposable income (and quite a bit of it) for citizens to spend it on art. I see the trends of the future aiming squarely towards LESS disposable income for everyone for quite a while.

    Societies are going to have to be more “local” in the future in order to be sustainable and healthy. This includes art too. More and more, a community is going to be drawing off of the local artist pool. And those artists (all but the most in demand) are going to be having day jobs, mind you. They will do things for which their local economy actually has a large demand for most of their time, and make art on the side. Making art will be a part of their income, but not their whole income.

    Hopefully labor standards will develop to make for shorter work weeks and more vacation time so these artistically inclined people will have more time to create. We’ll see.

    Also keep in mind that this is only a prediction for the developed world. The “undeveloped” world already lives more or less like this. There will be an leveling out of the world, and it won’t be in the form of every other country becoming like the USA.

    This is not to say that artists should give up – the opposite really. As things change, there will be some people who will really crave our (yes our, I’m an artist too) output. We just have to accept reality.

    Speaking for myself, I have been much happier with my artistic output since I stopped trying to make money at it. It’s so much work and stress trying so squeeze out money from my creativity, I felt less inclined to create. Now I can come home and relax after a day of work. And art is part of that relaxation. I don’t feel like I have to “pimp it out” after I finish something. I let people call me if they are interested in my work. In effect, people around my hometown know my work and respect it. I make a couple of bucks here and there with my art – but without effort or stress. If tastes change and people no longer want what I can do, oh well. No problem. I’m still quite content sitting here in my home and doing it for myself.

    All of us make lovely art. But try to remember – it’s just art. You can’t eat it when you’re hungry and it doesn’t keep you warm in the cold (I’m speaking literally here).
    People will pay for things they need. Provide things people need and you will get paid.

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American born Lobelia isn’t just your typical singer-songwriter. A multi-instrumentalist who worked as a studio musician for 10+ years, she has won multiple awards for her songwriting, has been featured in Billboard Magazine, and was one of the original Women of MP3.COM in the early days of the Internet. In the UK for 10+ years now, she hosts several acclaimed songwriter nights at Tower of Song, shortlisted by the PRS as one of Birmingham’s best small venues. She can sometimes be seen performing with celebrated solo? bassist, Steve Lawson. (aka Mr. Lo)An advocate for sustainable touring, she travels the world performing at house concerts and small venues.