What Are We Afraid Of?
It’s important to put your best face forward professionally. We’re all hustling for gigs, and it doesn’t make sense to do anything but make yourself look as appealing as possible. But perhaps there is another layer to it.
Here we are at the denouement. I cannot help but feel that my final post in this series on entrepreneurship should offer different fare. I do hope discussion continues on the topic, and I will continue to offer my two cents on occasion, but I can sense that my final aria is nearly here and that the curtain will fall soon. Sitting here, writing this, I feel the need to offer something more personal. I remain, after all, a performer at heart, whether I like it or not.
Speaking of which, I never really introduced myself, did I? I just sort of started arguing at you. Let me try again.
My name is R. Andrew Lee, but you can call me Andy. I’m a pianist who plays a lot of new music, particularly of a minimalist bent, some of which I’ve recorded. I live in Denver, and I’m a proud to say I’m from Kansas City. I’ve been married 9.5 years and have two daughters, ages 5 and almost 3, and one son who is 4 months old. I take my grilling and drinking seriously, and have a penchant for interesting socks.
Veneer and Reality
Now let us take a look at what the professional world sees, or at least what I try to portray.
I teach at Regis University, and before that I was artist-in-residence at Avila University. I’ve performed in Belgium, France, several times in the UK (including London), Toronto, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Austin (among many others), and I’m about to add Chicago to that list. I’ve had six albums released to date, with three more already recorded. They have been played on the radio in Australia, Slovenia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Canada, and all over the States. They have been reviewed in nine languages. My recordings have been extraordinarily well received, making “best of” lists in Gramophone, The Wire, Mojo, Time Out New York, and The New Yorker, along with a host of smaller websites/publications. I have my New York Times quotes. I also have press from two of the most prominent classical music critics, Steve Smith and Alex Ross.
That’s not too bad, if I do say so myself. Now let’s take a different look at the above.
My job title at Regis University is associate university minister for liturgical and sacred music. I fall on the staff side of the staff/faculty divide, though I also teach in the music department. My primary job is to prepare music for Sunday and other campus-wide services. My artist-in-residence title was great to have, but it was a half-time gig while I was still working on my doctorate. I supplemented that income with private teaching and high school choir accompaniment. The performances in Belgium and France were part of international conferences (not bad, but also not paying). The UK tour almost broke even (only because I could stay with family) and the Toronto gig lost money (not a big deal because my brother was living there at the time). The performing accounts for a small percentage of my annual income. I’ve made very, very little money from the recordings, despite the press, though I’m glad that sales have at least been sufficient enough to justify more albums (well, at least since album number four.)
So why the veneer? The obvious, logical, and justifiable reason is that it is important to put your best face forward professionally. We’re all hustling for gigs, and it doesn’t make sense to do anything but make yourself look as appealing as possible.
But perhaps there is another layer to it. I think we’re afraid.
In the comment section of my last post (and a hearty kudos to the NewMusicBox readership for bucking the “Don’t read the comments!” rule), I was directed to a post by Kevin Obsatz titled “The Business of Art.” In this post, Obstaz articulates what I would contend is a nearly ubiquitous fear that is rarely discussed. After arguing that the “unquestioned orthodoxy” of our society is that everything is a business, he writes the following:
There’s a moral imperative [in a capitalist system] to succeed or give up, and succeeding means growing—bigger audience, more profits, bigger budgets. To keep making art that isn’t successful by a conventional definition is an affront to a capitalist ideology—unless it can be recategorized as a hobby, a consumer activity. …And, in my experience, that is truly terrifying to artists: if I stop pursuing my work as a business, does that mean I’m a hobbyist prosumer dilettante, and therefore not serious? That is death or exile, banishment, existential crisis.
Let me boil down my “reality” bio to a sentence and see how it strikes you. I am a church musician who performs and records recent classical music on the side.
Do you still take me seriously?
The thing is, when I was nearing the end of my doctoral program, I had three on-campus interviews. One for the job I currently hold and two for tenure-track positions in cities that I knew I would feel motivated to leave as soon as humanly possible. I have a great job that is rewarding, in an amazing part of the country, that also allows me to afford a mortgage, payments on a minivan, and music lessons for my oldest child. But my primary job is to prepare music for liturgies, and that has raised eyebrows and elicited pity from more than a few people. As a result, I don’t talk about my job that much in certain circles.
There are innumerable articles about how to define success for yourself in the arts, but doing that means being able and willing to go against how everyone else views success. We seem to be exceptionally good at judging a work of art on its own merits, but when it comes to judging artists, we too easily adopt a different set of criteria. If you can make a living as an artist, you must be good, and if you can’t…let’s just say you’re better off in the eyes of many if you struggle financially trying to make it work rather than doing it “on the side.” Never mind that a day job might actually mean having more time for your art.
I’m a moderate in most respects. I don’t have trouble seeing the perspective of those on both sides of an issue and often find more grey than black and white. Yet sometimes being a moderate means wanting to balance the discussion, and that is a bit of what I’ve been trying to do here. I’m not saying that these essays are some devil’s advocate intellectual exercises; I stand by the points I’ve made. Rather, in the face of such grand optimism about music entrepreneurship (or at least its pervasiveness), my nature seeks a middle ground.
We should be teaching the next generation of musicians how to promote the great art they will produce. I do not question that. What I worry is that we are selling something with a pretty, new face without looking beneath the façade.
We are promoting technologies that inspire creativity while at the same time drowning it out. We are embracing a path for success that allows few to be successful. We are trying to help artists promote their work but also reinforcing the mindset that to be a legitimate artist, one must successfully monetize his or her art.
My position is not one of a wholesale rejection of entrepreneurship in music. I only urge caution and perspective as we work to find a path in these uncertain times and suggest that we not forget the value of ars gratia artis.