Column: [Can't Make A Living] – Perseverance Pt.1: The Big Why
There’s a great lyric from THE WALKMEN’s song, “We’ve Been Had”:
or the retro image I see so often telling me to
keep trying maybe you’ll get here someday
keep up the work, kid. ok
I close the book on them right there
Sometimes this verse epitomizes how I feel about music. Every so often I’m hit with what I call The Big Why – basically, that moment of existential crisis when you ask yourself, “why am I still doing this?” If it hasn’t happened to you yet (oh fellow indie musician), I guarantee it will at some point. It might be on some sore and hung-over morning after a tour or during a family function when your cousin (twice removed) asks why you’re over 25, not in school, and still working at Starbucks.
Let’s face it – being an indie musician these days can seem like a lot of hard, thankless work (e.g., countless hours of writing, rehearsing, recording, promoting, being your own roadie, plus not getting paid). For every fresh band starting up in this city there are probably two who are imploding.
I thought a good way to start this column, a sort of weekly indie-rock survival guide, would be to take on this important, often perplexing, issue. When I sat down to plot this essay I realized I’d have to get pretty philosophical, so I divided this first topic into several bite-sized 500-word installments.
OK, before I continue I have one caveat: I don’t claim to be some guru with all the absolute answers. I think each person’s Big Why ultimately comes down their unique circumstance.
Your answer might even be: “I really should quit this before I end up dead or in rehab.” However, I’ve been asked to write a column and to keep it positive – besides, they say you should write what you know (or at least what you believe you know), so here goes.
What follows in the next 8 installments or so is purely opinion (backed up with a few quotes and case studies). My hope is that if you happen to be struggling with your Big Why this might be helpful.
Anyway, end of caveat and onto my first point: music is Art. I have about 300 words left, so I need to keep this short. I think popular music, regardless of genre, is capable of being a legitimate art form.
Frankly, I believe music is THE art form – it’s modern alchemy – the closest thing to magic in our world. Yes, some music is merely craft (or crap), sort of like how some paintings are “purely commercial” while others are “fine art” and some manage to be both – but I believe that we (indie musicians) intend to make Art (with a capital ‘A’) even if we don’t necessarily frame it that way.
So if you have gotten this far you might be thinking, “yes, we’re with you Dean, we are in it for the Art, whatever that is.” Very good indeed, but believe me there has to be more to it than that.
First, this begs the question, “well, what is Art then?” In short, I don’t know. Nobody really does.
In Understanding Media (1964) Marshall McLuhan wrote, “I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.”
Leo Tolstoy in his essay, What Is Art (1897), said something like (I’m paraphrasing): “(Art is) human activity in which one emitter, by means of external signs, transmits, through infectious means, previously experienced feelings, creating an emotional link.”
Both gentlemen are hinting at the idea that Art is supposed to show us something hidden about our world – something we either can’t say or won’t say in more direct means.
I can buy that.
This line of thinking also posits that Art requires an audience – and that’s really what I’m driving at here. Personally, for music to qualify as something better than “an exercise” (and thus satisfy my Big Why), it should achieve (or should strive towards achieving) three fundamental qualities: an audience (aka recognition), subversion (aka a message), and authenticity (aka personal meaning).
So you see, this is really just an introduction, because in the next four installments I intend to discuss recognition. And, to narrow things down even more I am going to focus on what I believe to be one key component to obtaining recognition: perseverance.
Next Up >> Perseverance Part 2: Accidental Flaming Lips