Play it Forward (edited)
As I enter the final stage of printing my new album I can feel a familiar dread just beginning to make an appearance. Why? Because the next stage for me is the hardest, most repugnant part of any album. To honour it you have to put it out there in the world. It was made to be heard, so those potential listeners need an invitation. But sadly, it is the way of this noisy, crass western world that any potential listeners are in commercial invitation overload. The rules say: we must become our own marketer to be heard. But does the language of the market-place truly roll off the tongue of an artist? Oh! To see the end of tyranny via press releases, festival applications, new biographies, website re-builds, photo shoots, selling yourself to venues and of course, trying to talk about your art on social media in a way that doesn't make you feel like a snake oil salesman.
My sneaking suspicion is that this capitalist society is no place for an artist. Someone who wants to refract their experience of humanity through their own unique prism and share it along with their soul with the world. These offerings are in essence humble things. Offerings that deserve dignity and a sense of place and human connection.
Instead we have this almighty shouting match, a competition to find out who can come up with the cleverest video, or the most arresting photo to grab the attention of any passer by. Think back on Myspace just before we all jumped ship. An ugly mass of 'Thanks for the follow'-style gifs and cookie cutter 'come hither' promo shots and hardly a sliver of real life and vulnerability left.
Truth is, I'm over it. Completely.
There isn't a simple answer because it's how our fear-based money machine mentality operates here in the west. Maybe we 'should' do our art justice by gambling all of our resources in order to make the most of our latest release. But even as I allow this my insides are screaming "NO!" Why do we keep paying other people to make us look special, it's about art not 'special'. It is ABHORRENT TO ME that so many lose sleep over how they are going to pay for all this stuff just to connect the dots between them and the thousands of lives that will be made better by listening to their music. Not to mention that other 'more-business savvy' people will safely profit from their win-all/lose-all gamble on behalf of spreading beauty. No. There has to be another way.
I have thought on this long and hard over the past couple of years of awakening self acceptance. My recent decision to take the pressure off my own art to earn my keep was the first piece of the puzzle. The result? I have finally finished an album and have conceived and partially written three more. Taking all that "You must PROMOTE YOURSELF. This is a BUSINESS" out of the equation has led to an awakening of my adventurous creator child. I have written more songs and ideas than ever, found some INCREDIBLE collaborators that appear to love playing my music and made slow natural connections with listeners who are truly interested in what I am doing NOW. I don't have to sell them anything, I don't need to impress them at all. I lost another weekend of album sales yesterday with a decision to hold off my album artwork until I had the main text font right and guess what? It doesn't matter.
Seeing the 'crowd funding' , 'pay what you want' and subscription models working for friends was another clue. People DO still want to pay for music but mostly for music where there is a connection to the artist. Art is not just what an artists offers but includes the reaction from the beholder. It's a relationship. A narrative. Everyone wants the story of their own lives to gain meaning by connecting with something original, beautiful and valuable. This brings to mind a Yo Yo Ma comment on an episode of Krista Tippet's excellent podcast 'On Being'. While searching to define beauty he speaks of it being 'a transfer of life.' On that same program Krista shares another striking definition from John O'Donohue which could as easily be applied to great art “beauty is that, in the presence of which, we feel more alive”. We are not another brand of cornflakes. Art is essential to the human experience. There IS a reason to fight for this stuff.
Still, there seemed to be one piece missing. What about those more introverted artists that only share with their own artist community? The ones to whom talking about their art is an alien concept, a deal breaker or just not possible to fit in around those seven hours a day they spend actually practising their creativity. Or those in non-mainstream or exploratory genres that get zero interest from the media machine?
There is only one resource left, in my understanding, that could benefit every type of artist who wants a human connection. Only one under-used superpower that can't be tainted by the Kryptonite of commerce.
Together we have EVERYTHING we need to be each others megaphone. We have this rarely-tapped strength, a massively complex body with every different kind of skill needed to spread good, soul-expanding news in a jaded and suspicious society. For a start between us we have masses of loyal listeners, those that believe in our art and support what we do. They are the first to re-inforce the value of our exploits and they also share our art in the world without being paid a cent. Why? Because they instinctively KNOW they are part of something unique, real, alive and intrinsically valuable. These people give us a voice in the world, big or small, just like all those forms of advertising we encounter every hour of our lives. But how different is that voice? How different is writing your own bio to writing something evocative and authentic about another artist you admire? Most importantly, how often do we actually do it?
We also have the power of barter inherent in the uniqueness of all our various skills. Not only can I make you a poster or a Facebook header but I'd actually enjoy it. I can't play the viola on my album but I could play bass on yours. It would also be an enormous buzz to post photos and chat about my amazing experiences making that album, to everyone I know who might actually not have known about it's existence otherwise.
This 'play it forward' model even has a built in quality control mechanism. No artist wants to publicly praise another artists work unless they REALLY think it's good. Art to an artist is an extremely serious business. This effectively locks out that brand of opportunistic hack (come on, we all know somebody) who spends more time making facebook pages, tweeting and stoking their own ego than they actually do practising their skills, being vulnerable with their muse or making unselfish, beautiful things. They can't get this kind of access. Which brings me to the best part of all. The audience is protected. The worst they can encounter is quality art that is not to their taste, and lets face it, we could all use the growth opportunity of more exposure to art we would not normally seek out. EVERYBODY WINS.
Am I crazy or could this approach actually work? Could it be formalised into a resource or is it only effective as a spontaneous series of individual choices to SHARE more regularly. Can you picture it? A bunch of smart, articulate artists offering each others art to the world with the added wings of their admiring words. A bunch of us making conscious heart intentions that lead to a few less viral cat videos, a few more spellbound souls in some small venue or art gallery and a couple more dollars in the savings acount of an indie artist who is finally not exhausted and has some life space to make another piece of breath-taking, world changing art.