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Friday, July 17, 2009

Artistic Economies, Part One

When you can't remember who you are, and all you can see is the view from the top of the cliff - with your toes hanging over the edge and the wind pushing your back - it's time to make a change.

I started my "straight job" here at the nursing home on Monday, January 5, 2009, just in time to coincide with the apparent economic meltdown. I say "apparent" because when I hear about companies like Goldman-Sachs posting quarterly earnings of 3.4 BILLION DOLLARS and granting an average of $700,000.00 per employee in bonuses, I have a hard time believing that our economy's bad behavior is simply the natural order of things... but that's another post.

In some ways, this year so far has been very good for me. I've mentioned before that I haven't had a straight job in almost 20 years, and after nearly seven months of working in the "real world" my bills are more-or-less paid, and I'm in better physical shape than I've been in a long time. My understanding of and empathy for the millions of people who have utterly no choice in the matter and will work like this for the rest of their lives has never been higher - these folks are all my potential fans, and every folk-based musician needs a big damn dose of humility in the faces of those who work a lot harder and longer and for less pay than a famous artist, and then spends their money and energy to come hear us sing and play. Hats off to you, workers - and fans - of the world.

But that implies that I'm making any money as an artist or getting more than locally famous. I'm not, to speak of. Most of our gigs barely pay for themselves, and they sure as hell don't go very far toward paying the bills. I've had a pretty big, healthy reality check, and the working and living conditions of most of the people of the world have snapped into focus for me... as bad as it is, I know I have it better than most. With a "refresher course" in what straight jobs are like on a day-to-day basis, my enthusiasm for getting my artistic career together is about as great as it's ever been, but I just don't seem to have the time, or the energy, to do it. No wonder people who have nothing else in their lives but drudgery go home every day and watch mindless TV, eat potato chips and deep-fried Twinkies, lose themselves in fundamentalist religion, and run up their credit-card debt. I feel really productive if I practice one day a week and read one book a month! How am I ever gonna get that house by the river I want?

I'm not sure where I read it, but someone once said that what an artist needs more than anything else to ply his trade is large amounts of unstructured time. If you don't have it, you ain't gonna create art. Aleister Crowley said something like, "You don't come home from a job like that and write epic poetry." Richard Thompson said something like, "'s hard to convince people you're working when you're sitting in a coffee shop staring out the window, but if you're a songwriter, that's exactly how it goes." I'm working 8 - 10 hours a day at the nursing home. On the weekends, I usually gig at least two nights. Where is that unstructured time? And tell me again when I'm supposed to sleep?

I've written enough songs to make three or four new albums, but I don't have (or is it haven't made?) the time to get in the recording studio. I've written a novel that is as yet unpublished, despite untold query letters. I've got artwork sitting around my studio, framed and ready to be sold, and no galleries will take it (even though they say they like it) claiming that with times as tough as they are, "...we're not only taking on no new artists, we're letting people go." What the hell are those Goldman-Sachs workers spending their bonuses on? Salami? Won't anybody actually pay for art in their lives anymore?

I've had those twenty years to get my act together, and even though I've spent a lot of it learning my art and writing songs and making all sorts of art, I didn't spend much time learning how to market myself, and I blame no one but me. Nor am I ashamed of the (non-artistic) work I'm doing. Better men than me have endured far worse and come out of it far better. Hell, if Bob Marley can work in factories in Delaware for months on end, I know I can survive until the end of July! But the wind is at my back, and as spectacular as the view from the edge of the cliff is, it's a long way down, and there's rocks below.

I don't know who I am anymore. I don't know what's gonna happen, but a change has Got. To. Come.


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