Rethink Music … Or Else

Rethink Music Conference by Mathew Tucciarone(Before I begin, let me credit the above picture to my talented photographer friend Mathew Tucciarone. You can find all his photos from the Rethink Music Conference on his photo blog, which you should totally check out here. And, if you like his stuff and are feeling generous, drop him a comment or the ubiquitous “Like”, won’t you? Gracias.)

So this past week, Boston was once again host to the annual Rethink Music Conference. For all of us who are musicians, or are otherwise deeply involved in the music industry, it’s a time and place to gather together with other musicians or music business people and try to figure out exactly how to move forward into the future with our desired profession. I mean, let’s be honest….it’s not like the industry is currently anything like what it used to be. Music labels are dying, the industry structure is collapsing, and the conventional “we discover you, we pay you money up front, you make albums and tour, we collect our money back from your profits and then maybe you get a little more cash” system is just not feasible anymore. More and more artists are finding that their future is increasingly in their own hands….and while that opens many doors and offers up a good number of possibilities to all of us that have never existed before, it’s not always a plus.

Marketing is hard. Promoting is hard. Managing your own band and your own tour is hard. And don’t even get me started on the money you need to have to make some of these things happen (which, by the way, definitely doesn’t flow freely from the low-paying jobs that any recent grad of an arts school might find after they receive their diploma). But the hardest part, I’ve found, is the time.

Time, to me, is more valuable than anything in the world. It’s the most important commodity there is. You can always make more money, but good luck making more time. You’ve got what you’ve got, and every second that goes by, you’re that much closer to death. (No pressure.) The situation that I have found myself (as well as many of my musician friends) in is akin to a circle of hell, or some sort of evil, complex riddle that keeps on folding back into itself. And it goes, with subtle variations here and there, a little something like this:

You go to school for music. You pay a lot of money to do so (at least at a good music school like Berklee you do). You graduate. You try to find a job in music, but those jobs are often few and far between. So, failing that, you suck it up and decide to become a good, honest member of the workforce while working on your music in your off hours, building on your dreams slowly over time and hopefully reaching a tipping point where you’re able to leave your regular job and do your music full time! Good plan, right?

But wait…..there’s a problem: your degree is in MUSIC. Silly you! You tried to major in something that inspired you and made you happy, instead of one the few careers that actually could pay you a decent salary upon leaving college. Well, crap…..didn’t think that out too well, did you?

So, unfortunately, here comes low-paying job number one….which is all you can get at the moment, but you need to pay your rent, so you do what you need to get by. And you don’t mind going to work every day and putting in 110%, but you sure would like to be paid a living wage for it! This, however, is not to be. Retail and entry-level jobs of most kinds for music degree holders often aren’t great cash generators, but you’re staying ahead of things, paying your bills like an honest citizen, still trying to spend some time focusing on your music, still hoping, still dreaming, and then…..

Your six month grace period is up, and here come the loan payments. And now you understand JUST how much you don’t make. “Wow,” you think, “if I only could make the American median income of $35-$40,ooo/year, everything would be sort of okay!” But you don’t. You work retail or some other low-paying job. You’re barely making $25,000, if even $20,000.

And so here comes low-paying job number two. You know, the one that gets you some “extra cash” and some “breathing room.”

But there’s never enough breathing room, and now you have another problem you hadn’t anticipated. Now there’s not enough time. Not to do music; not to write, not to play, not to spend creating. You begin to collapse psychologically. You want to do some music every day, but you’re just worn out, and coming home, shoving some food in your face, and falling asleep is often the best you can do. And even if you do find a couple hours free one day, you have errands you’ve been putting off that you have to get done. And even if that isn’t the case….you’re just not inspired. All great art that satisfies the soul comes from being inspired, from being given the time and space and atmosphere to create, and, well, you just can’t do it. It’s like putting a gun to Michelangelo’s head and telling him, “You’re got two hours! Create a masterpiece!” Sorry…..not gonna happen, folks.

Now a feeling of dread starts creeping up on you….the realization of your circumstances and how far behind the eight ball you truly are. You look around, but there seems like no escape. Day after day of working hour upon hour for less than you know you’re worth, but no time to breathe, to relax, to create. The joy and openness and endless possibilities of your time in school seem like a distant memory, fading into your past, leaving you with your current financial reality.

Now you’re depressed. Now you’re slowly dying inside, your creativity and inspiration things you reflect upon using past-tense verbs. You see no way out. You look through tons of different jobs, thinking of anything and everything you could qualify to do that pays more. You apply. You get rejected or, even worse, hear nothing (or, even worse than that, get called in for an interview, and then hear nothing). You have good days, you have bad days…..but no days in which it seems like you’re getting ahead of things. In your mind, future plans go from, “Hey, maybe I can put out a CD in a few months” to “Hey, maybe I can put out a CD in thirty years when my loans are paid off and I have some extra cash.” You want to be able to pay your fellow artists fairly, just like you want to be paid for your talents….but where does the money come from? How do you compensate musicians, engineers, designers…..especially when you know you probably wouldn’t be getting paid for the end product anyway because most people are just used to getting their music for free nowadays? It’s almost like you have to have a huge following just to get any money at all… does that help artists that are just starting out?  What about songwriters who don’t have a band or tour?

So many questions…..and it all just seems so hopeless sometimes.

Now don’t get me wrong…..I’m not complaining. (Well, okay….I sort of am, but in a more detached, matter-of-fact kind of way.) Life is what it is, and, even though I quite enjoy doing so, there’s really no point in complaining about it. Yelling into the wind often accomplishes nothing….it’s better to just keep your head down and keep going forward. That’s usually the most you can do. (Not really all that inspirational of a thought, I’ll admit….but this isn’t the Hallmark blog, you know.) What I’m saying here, simply, is that I have experienced most of these things myself, and many people who graduate with degrees in the arts experience them too. In fact, a good number of my friends have told similar tales, in whole or at least in part.

And in a related note, did you see this little list from NBC? It’s been floating around the internet recently, and while there is much outrage on the part of artists in response, I can’t help but think it’s true in a way. More and more in society, it seems that art and culture and relaxation are taking a back seat to business and profit and 60-80-hour work weeks. It’s getting so that people who work salaried jobs are afraid to leave their offices at 5pm after a hard day’s work (unless you’re the COO of Facebook, apparently. Good for her!)….I know my dad was required to put in mandatory overtime in the years before his retirement. Whatever happened to an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay and going home when the job is done to be with your family?

I remember reading a book once where real articles from old publications which made predictions about the future were reprinted. One magazine from 1935 predicted that by the year 1995, due to innovations in manufacturing and technology, American society would be working only six or seven hours a day, four days a week…..that we’d therefore have more leisure time to spend with our families and on our hobbies and travel, on enjoying this life and the things we loved in it. Isn’t that just amazing? I know I can’t quite believe it. It seems like the people in 1935 didn’t fully take into account what a powerful force greed is….

So, in conclusion, what does all of this say about our world? Our society? About what importance we place on providing fair opportunities and decent-paying jobs for our citizens? About what value we place on the mental health of our population, on relaxation, on providing all people enough time to experience the lives and the world they’ve been given? About our personal attitudes and judgments in regards to the things our friends and neighbors care about and find important in their lives which we may not care about at all?

And, most importantly for the purposes of this blog, what does this say about what value we place on music and the arts?

Rethink THAT, yo.

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