Starving Artist Vs. Slimy Marketer: How to Strike a Balance

Art vs Commerce by Tom Giebel / Flickr

Art vs Commerce by Tom Giebel / Flickr

Today’s guest post is from one of my UC students, Jarrod Welling-Cann. He is facing the issue—as we all do at some point—of how to making a living from his art. His thought process here is particularly relevant for any creative professional wondering about the role of marketing, sales, and promotion in the artistic life. His starting point is The Education of Millionaires by Michael Ellsberg, an excellent read for just about anyone who seeks to make a living doing what they love.

“I realized I was a people person and I needed to get educated in the game of life.”

Michael Ellsberg

Whenever Ellsberg used the word “entrepreneur,” stereotypes in my head began to play out: money-driven, (slimy) success-hungry business [persons].

But when Ellsberg reflects on his early writing, and his attempt at entering literary bad-boyhood—with Rock Star Envy, along with his Black Masks, White Guilt thesis, and other rants on ecofeminism—I was reminded of my own temperament and inclinations. I’ve spent a lot of time reading critical theory in the realms of feminism, Marxism, media theory/communication, and environmental sustainability—and while I find all of these extremely important for philosophical direction, none of the them really help me put food in my fridge or pay my rent on time (directly).

All people are in themselves valuable, creative, complicated, coping with fears and desires in their struggle to survive—yet how can we all live well without domination or submission?

While I’m very passionate about analyzing structures of power, obedience, prejudice, and class, race, gendered and structural violence, I also want to know (as most people do) how I can stay alive and productive without being under the authority of others, without depending on the power of others for my own survival—and not just survive but actually be good to people.

This is where the dilemma occurs.

How can I become self-sufficient without either relying on obedience to authority without exploiting others and becoming an oppressive authority that delegates obedience (stress, guilt, anxiety) in a competitive labor-for-income / income-for-resources mode of survival?

I digress (a little). Perhaps a starving-artist ethos won’t bring sustainable benefit to those in need but neither will a slick-n-slimy mosquito-marketer’s ethos help. A starving artist denies the need to understand markets, and the slick-n-slimy mosquito-marketer denies people their humanity—their right to be vulnerable.

Can we meet somewhere in between? What I’m saying is that we all want this for ourselves, don’t we? We desire relative certainty of basic needs (monetary and material sustenance), optimum physical and mental health (with occasional visits to the psych ward), and a complex but (major) conflict-free or crux-free, reliable (and sustainable) interpersonal (and international) relationships (sprinkle some crocodile tears, long hugs, forlorn weekdays to taste).

Easier said than done.

In my experience as a performing artist and songwriter, I often struggle with the question of how to engage without violating trust, with the hope that being modest and genuine will motivate people to offer support. Shying away from even remotely appearing like a salesman is not uncommon in the musician’s world—you have an intimate product, you don’t want to be “pushy,” and you want to connect to the audience without having an empty or transactional relationship.

This summer we, The Sleeping Sea, are dropping our first full-length album, Sun Drips, and I’ve definitely been brainstorming ideas of how to creatively create awareness for the album without violating trust or being inconsistent with our message.

Plus other questions arise like:

  • How much do we charge?
  • Do we release it for free download?
  • Can we make enough to keep making more?

In other words, I have to actually make decisions on how our music is valued by our audience, unfortunately, in terms of money—the least artistic value-system there is. Most artists I know, including myself, cringe at the idea of putting a price tag on their most intimate and subjective of creations (CDs, photographs, films, poems, etc). Putting a dollar sign on art has this subterranean psychological effect in that you feel limited, defined, boxed-in, sold-out, etc. (but you still want to pay rent, right?).

In Cincinnati we’re fortunate to have a small but dedicated group of local listeners, who restored our confidence after a 6-month recording hiatus by supporting us last week at our Friends with Friends compilation release, and in that I’ve started to realize that we don’t have to sell ourselves short just to maintain our audience’s trust. In fact, our audience will value the “product” we’re offering even more so when we show our confidence within it—but there has to be a mutual excitement about it and no secrets.

With the music industry at such a pivotal point, I have wild uncertainty about whether people will even buy music at all anymore, let alone something that isn’t a 99-cent download on bandcamp.

So, I’ve realized that I have to give my audience something for nothing, gain their trust through communication, build a relationship and build it for the relationship’s sake, not for the money, or the 15-minute fame, and in those moments of trust, I see that successful creation is indeed a participatory process—not an “I made this myself so you buy it” process—and this commitment to seeing audience-as-people-not-wallets can actually lead to better, critical communication down the line.

Back to Ellsberg

I found five big themes with this book that really stick to the proverbial ribs of life:

  1. Nothing happens unless you take risks (question the “safe”).
  2. Give (and give and give) without expectation or strings attached. Never treat people as means to an end! Ever!
  3. No one can teach you what gives you inertia, or what gives you purpose in life, so find out what you love to do (or can’t not do) and start making your own Life-Study plan, your own self-syllabus, and act upon it.
  4. Be a (really) good listener: Connect people to other people (find your social intelligence and brush off the dust).
  5. (I’m adding this one via synthesis.) Just as the tongue is hardwired for sugar, fat, and salt, so is the brain hardwired for patterns. Some patterns are stories. People like stories. Tell meaningful stories.

Anyone brave enough to read The Education of Millionaires without lifting a brow or turning a deaf ear will be motivated to assess critically their own power to influence their purpose in life, and have some confidence to swim swiftly in the supposedly gelid waters of doubt; and hence reframe their own potential.

Share this
Posted in Guest Post, Life Philosophy, Marketing & Promotion.

Jarrod is an e-media major at the University of Cincinnati. His mission is music, film, and media as a vehicle for social awareness and transformation. Find out more at his website or at The Sleeping Sea.

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments