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Wall Street versus Art Street


One of the most challenging things about a life in music is the inevitable and perpetual need to navigate the delicate balance between business and personal. Between music being your job and music being your love. The need to pay the rent versus the need to do what you love and believe in. The desire to have long term financial and life plans versus the ongoing challenges of paying for gas, paying the band, feeding the band, airplane tickets, the fee for a one way drop rental car, and that unexpected speeding ticket just trying to get home from the gig.

All of the noise and clutter the daily debate creates can make it hard to see the tree for the forest. And when you finally get a moment with your friends, who love you, all you want to do is be safe from all the decisions and worry. But then you are faced with the question of whether and how to tour with them. Because as much as you try to avoid it, inevitably y’all get to talking shop…

Music is a life that breeds collaboration, in fact, screams for it and needs it. People in a room making sounds that move us, inspire us. cheer us, worry us, and ultimately bring us together. In your fellow musicians and songwriters you find inspiration, and you inspire. All of the greatest periods of creativity in human history were also times, coincidentally or not, when the greatest artisans of the time collaborated and competed in ways that compelled them even further in their craft.

Communities of songwriters thrive in cities from Seattle to Atlanta, Austin to Boston – and that’s just the USA. Here in Massachusetts, we have a wealth of songwriters who know and admire one another, and often work together here or on the road. Some come here chasing the heritage of Cambridge, because of the world-changing folksongs that were bred here. They tirelessly labor after a new sound, a new Cambridge – retaining the truth and courage they find in being in the town where Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and others collaborated. Some are after the community that has been nurtured here. Because you really can go into a handful of small joints in Cambridge on any given weeknight and find some of the nation’s best players, songwriters and collaborators playing together. It’s like a Harlem renaissance of honest music. I’m pretty sure it’s what people think they will find if they go visit Nashville, but little do they know they would find it if they just wandered the streets of Porter or Harvard or Inman Squares on the average Thursday night.

So, with all this community comes Collaboration.

And of course it’s fun cousin Competition.

As you grow and build, you may silently feel disappointed in yourself to find that you start to think… Your friends are competitors. And your competitors are friends. And you hate that – about the business of making music, and the fact that you even think about it. But it’s true nevertheless.

As you realize this, you determine you are part of a finite ecosystem. And the choices you make about where you tour, who you tour with, how you promote, who you align with – all seem to impact your path and plight in the ecosystem. And you then begin to navigate for yourself the things you value most, and the balance you keep between driving your music career forward and remaining true to your community of fellow artisans – who are all also making their own choices of priority.

So when the beast of business rears its head in the middle of your song circle, what should you do?

Should you feel guilty and ashamed when someone you personally love and admire asks you to play shows with them and you don’t know what to say? Should you pray at the altar of Woody Guthrie and the gods of hootenannies that you won’t be punished for immediately thinking about the fact that your friend is unlikely to sell tickets?

We like to pin business on the big labels, the old ways, and the bad guys. We assign business the archetypes of evil things – money, greed, ambition, maneuvering, distrust. And we assign craft the archetypes of good – virtue, honesty, purity, meaning, worth, sacrifice, giving. It may seem a clear black-and-white ethical debate, but real life is so much grayer.

Well let’s see, what do you do?

You can get a manager, agent or other business partner, and assign them the task of being “the heavy.” They look out for your best interests and by nature of their job description. They keep you on a business path while you keep you fight for artistic integrity. Ahh the lovely friction.

You can piss off all your friends, tell them they aren’t as cool as you, and travel thousands of miles with strangers for five years, only to find out that your friends are the people who are still in the business ten years later and you really wish you’d done more with them when you started out in the first place.

Or, you can take these things as they come to you. Make these decisions and navigate on a case by case basis. Stumble sometimes, apologize sometimes, and be relieved you did. You just gotta find your own way to be honest with your friends about your goals, and honest with yourself about what you may need to do (or not do as the case may be) in order to achieve them.

The best thing you can do for yourself is get a plan. If you have a plan, then making decisions like these becomes a lot easier. Even if the plan changes. And changes often. Get a plan.

Oh, that means I’m gonna have to write an entry about how to get a plan, doesn’t it? Hmm… Okay…