"Making it" as an Independent Musician, Seeking Conscious Consumers in Music, and other rants
Let's say you buy Beyonce's album. Fantastic. You supported Beyonce. You love her music, you bought it, and now that ten dollars you earned floats its way to Beyonce to support her bEYutiful BEYuniverse. You are one of the millions who helped her build and maintain her pop-stardom. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. You bought a CD and now, Beyonce can add another rhinestone to her redbottoms. Or another LED light in the glittering billboard spelling her name. Or something.
on the other side of the universe, there's independent musicians. i'm a full-time, independent artist. sometimes after I do a show, an audience member will approach me and say "i really hope you make it someday". It's a weird thing to hear. And I've never figured out what to say in response. What does "making it" look like? Does making it in music mean being on TV? Getting a grammy? Does it mean people recognize you on the street? Does it mean you buy a mansion in LA? Why does success in the music industry seem to depend on celebrity, riches and stardom? Is celebrity required to make a living wage from music? Na. Is celebrity and stardom what I want as a musician and human? Na. Not really. So what does MAKING IT mean for an independent musician?
I believe i'm making it. every day. i am doing what I love doing. i am getting paid to share art things. yes, I want to make more money doing it. Yes it's terrifying and unnerving every day. I don't know if next month is going to look good. i don't get a check every first of the month. i don't know if my work will always translate to resources. I could spend lots of time, energy on an album that people don't seem to like (done it). i don't know if i'll make a living wage this year. it's scary. but some days, it's everything! sometimes i write music all day! sometimes i get to travel and meet people and somebody pays me fairly! sometimes i pay my student loan bill and I still have some left over! sometimes I'll make somebody cry with songs! sometimes i inspire somebody! i'm definitely making it.
my dreams aren't about filling arenas and paparazzi. my dreams are about growing my audience. coming out with a self-produced high quality album and making enough money to build a recording studio. to build a choir. to hire a small staff. to record and produce other women of color musicians who rock. to go to ghana. to go to london. my MAKING IT is me doing exactly what i already do, just bigger. and the only thing that looks different is the power of my audience.
Which brings me back to that rhinestone. There is no hierarchy of artistic engagement, or support. I can't say that buying a Van Gogh for 60million is any less or more special than buying the sketch of a street artist for a dime. One person does not love art more that the other because of their level of support, or the impact they make on the artist's bank account. But there is a difference in the power you have as a consumer of independent art.
So you can buy Beyonce a rhinestone. You can go to a stadium show and scream your lungs out and I'm sure Beyonce appreciates and is grateful for every last scream in the house. But when you go to an independent musician's show- the impact of your presence is powerful. Listening, sharing, reaching out. All of that matters immensely. It can mean the difference between that artist writing another song, or looking for a job and chalking it all up to an old hobby. For an independent musician-if no one is there to see, enjoy or support your work-there is only so much struggling you can do before you let your dreams go.
I am a Black woman, a queer person, and a lover of so many different kinds of music, and I believe it's extremely important to be to be a conscious consumer. I can't afford to be passive and still get the variety of music I want. I often complain about the poor state of mainstream music. But really. These giant record labels don't produce simple music for the sake of it, right?
I'm not an economist or a business person. But let's talk numbers. Black folks make up about 14% of this country's population. And we're in possession of an even smaller percentage of the country's wealth. So we could assume that the music that is most "popular" and most $uccessful (currently the likes of Drake, the Weekend, Taylor Swift, Bieber, Selena Gomez, Fetty wap) is only popular because a certain "majority" demands it. The majority may be twelve year old white girls. it may be 22 year old white men. I'm not sure who it is, but I know it's not me. That's why conscious consumerism matters to me. That means buying Emily King's new album. Going to a Meshell show. Looking, digging, searching for the music that matters to you. Because these folks are dope. and my time, money, and presence in their artistic careers matters. Because I want to see them thrive. I pay for and support what I want to see more of.
I promise this isn't a ploy to guilt you into buying my music. if you don't like it, please don't buy it. what's the use in that. but i DO want you to buy someone's music. go to someone's show. my friend Brenda asked me if I thought I'd ever be on mainstream radio. I said no. It would be lovely, but I don't believe it could happen. What I do believe and dream of is that the concept of "main-stream" will become less and less relevant. That venues like youtube and sound cloud will grow. Artists will have control over their voices, their image, their message. And rather than having one MAIN STREAM of music, we could have many little rivulets. The music becomes more diverse, nuanced, colorful! I believe it's beginning. I just hope it doesn't stop.