"Back to the New Middle Ages and A Year of Re-" (Essay)

An artist reflects on the profound changes in his livelihood and calling, faces up to fears and failings, and resolves to move forward.

Resolutions. At this time of year in particular folks get hung up on them - making them, breaking them, writing them off all together. Resolution comes from the word resolve, a word that I have been doing a delicate dance with lately. It feels like re-solve, as in having to solve an old problem all over again.

I deliberately stepped away for a couple weeks over the holidays to recharge my batteries and enjoy being with family - successfully I might add. Thus this first morning back in my office I came face to face with a host of fears and anxieties strewn about my desktop that had been anxiously awaiting my return, and ready to challenge my resolve.

Three articles all caught my attention this morning. "Pay the Artist" detailed how Pharrell Williams monster hit "Happy" apparently earned $2,700 for 43 million streams last year. Jaw-dropping if that's true. An article in Sunday's Nashville Tennessean detailed the demise of the music industry's middle class - the writers, session cats and other workaday gigs that the "country music capital" has long sustained. Finally and even more astonishing to comprehend, an opinion piece in the Washington Post predicting that the turmoil, upheaval and constant reinvention that describe the current music and literary worlds will be widespread in many industries (see "In 10 years, your job probably won't exist")

I'd be lying not to say that these past few years of deriving a livelihood from my calling have been challenging. More musicians than ever wanting to play for what seems like a dwindling audience pool, and competing for the same opportunities be it festivals or the intimate house concerts. Having so many DIY (do-it-yourself) tools at one's fingertips make it easier than ever to record and market one's art. The laws of supply and demand have been mighty unfavorable for over a decade. There are a lot of great bands barnstorming the country playing for not much money and sleeping on couches and in vans. We are literally floating in a vast sea of music, available in a dizzying amount of recorded and live settings.

As our more "traditional" sources of revenue vanish, a multitude of companies profit by inserting themselves between artists and their fans in every conceivable way, from selling music online, "curating" streaming radio with algorithms, bidding or competing for performance opportunities that pay little or nothing, and even fundraising from their fans for new projects (Kickstarter and IndieGoGo come to mind). It is a natural outcome of having such a robust market of musicians to whom one can sell services.

Since the old music industry crumbled and this new weedpatch of gatekeepers and facilitators sprang up, "independent" artists like me have become almost totally dependent on direct fan investments in performances, recordings and other projects. It's almost as if we're back to the middle ages when artists who relied on royal patronage to support their work. Thus now the biggest challenge is how to connect - and stay meaningfully connected - with those supporters, and to reach more people who would enjoy my work.

It's easy to spend a few minutes poring over the morning’s Facebook news and see what other artists are doing, and not doing (which of course is an inherent part of the mythology and distortion of social media). It's easy to conclude that times are tough all over. It's easy to be envious and discouraged and frustrated. In addition to all the everyman fears about aging, about parenting, and having aging parents, lies the very natural fear of most any artist; "do people still value what I do?" and "will they still value it in the future". It's easy to forget all of one's blessings and gifts.

I know what I want. I want to share my songs and stories with a lot of people. In small bunches in houses and smaller towns over a lot of different nights in different places would be fine. And for each person, I want that experience to be magical. Entertaining. Inspiring. Something that makes you say wow, that was really special. That takes work, and dedication - perspiration and inspiration. I've got to skip the self-doubt, and get back to art and the craft of expressing myself. And find new ways to connect with more people open to making that magic with me. Being a part of that unique living organism that is every show, of artist and audience creating and sharing an experience together.

So here are my three resolutions. 1. Do more good in the world, however I can. 2. Keep making it easy to spread the word about what I do. 3. Make good new art. It's time to hit the Reset button. Recalibrate. Refocus. Rededicate. Research. And most of all, renew my commitment to why I do what I do, appreciate the gifts of music and creativity, and honoring those gifts and the people who have enthusiastically supported me these last 20 years.

And perhaps share a few more pictures of cats and food on Facebook :).

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