We hold up our artists as the cornerstones of culture. Every nation does. Shakespeare is synonymous with literature in England. Goethe is the same for the Germans. Joyce is Ireland’s bard, and so on, so forth. Some rise so high, their country of origin gets lost in the collective cultural consciousness. How often do you think of Van Gogh as a guy from Holland? He’s of the world. Like Homer, he’s simply ours. (Both Simpson, and other guy I had in mind, now I think of it.) They’re of the world, one of us – they don’t belong to anywhere specific, their reach and impact too vast. We see them as expressions of world culture: Our Stories, Our Songs, Our Dances.
And we need our collective culture, as otherwise what are we? Can we be defined by our industry? Cars are wonderful, but culture? I’m not so sure. Even the guitar is only a piece of wood ’till it’s played. The goal is expression. A car’s goal is transit, alone, until it’s not, until it’s a Deloreon going 88 mph down a road on a projected screen in a theatre. Then it’s The Car from Back to the Future, forever part of culture. It is art that defines an object as something else, only then can it achieve cultural significance, and become part of us.
Yet, knowing this, we fob off our responsibilities to the artists. We say, or think at least, “if they’re good enough, the free market will take care of them”. We hold this opinion knowing that Van Gogh died in poverty, at his own hand, never knowing what’d become of his art. Following James Joyce’s death, his family pleaded with the Irish State that his body be returned home for burial. This was refused, and so Joyce’s final request went unfulfilled as his family couldn’t afford it. In Switzerland, “his family had to borrow the price of his funeral – in a small grave which could accommodate only one coffin”. Finances aside, the Irish State snubbed his request to be buried in the land that bore him, dubbing him instead the “creator of immoral books”. The same country, the same State, that plasters his image on every tourist board, and advert denoting “the island of saint and scholars”.
Thankfully for Joyce (& The World), There Was a Woman Called Harry
James Joyce only had one patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver. His works had a horrible habit of being banned, with his own country refusing to sell them. It is no exaggeration that without Harriet, Joyce’s lineage of ground-breaking literary work likely would have been lost. She coughed up the money for his early works, and to have Ulysses published, when no one else would touch it. She even sent him an allowance to keep him, his family and his writing afloat after its subsequent ban– all because she believed in him as an artist.
What About Comedy, Film?
Due to the controversial premise of possibly the funniest film ever made, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, it was near impossible to get the production started. John Cleese recently discussed how all the top companies wouldn’t back the religious themed movie, due to the backlash it could (and did) evoke – but, thankfully the loveliest, most spiritual Beatle, George Harrison, put up the capital single-handedly to get it made. When asked why he did it, he replied: “I read the script, loved it, and then I wanted to see the film.” But let’s get back to music, shall we, with a thought that may have crossed your mind…
Ed Sheeran is Doing Fine, So What’s the Problem?
It is true Ed Sheeran is doing very well indeed, and seems to be equally at home with the business side of making music, as he is crafting songs.
The examples of his business acumen are as abundant…
Here you can see him rapping about Nando’s to get free chicken.
Here‘s Ed describing how the first thing he does every morning, is check how his album sales are doing in EVERY single market… as you do.
Safe to say, Ed Sheeran would make a great business man even if he ever hung up his guitar for good. And he’s not alone: 50 Cent made far more money off Vitamin Water than on his album sales combined, Bono achieved the same investing in Facebook, and Mick Jagger received a business degree at the prestigious London School of Economics.
What’s Safe Isn’t Always Challenging – Art Must Be
There is absolutely nothing wrong with using your gift for marketing, or ability to make shrewd business decisions to earn some cash. But, being business-minded should not be a pre-requisite to who shapes our cultural landscape. What sells is all too often what’s familiar. Art should be what’s challenging, what’s pushing the limits outward – and this is simply not possible to do if you’re hedging your bets, and playing safe. Good business practice backs proven results, never the long shot.
So, it seems Art & Good Business are directly at odds.
But, still, you may be thinking…
If you’ve got the talent, you shouldn’t be struggling. You only have yourself to blame!
Yeah, I thought the same, and then I discovered the heart-wrenching story of blues extraordinaire Blind Willie McTell, who busked for change till his dying day, and, oh yes, EVERY SINGLE ORCHESTRA WORKING TODAY exists purely due to donations.
Turns out donations are not only the norm today, they’ve been instrumental in getting instrumentalists to play their instruments since, well, forever.
So Why Did We Break from the Traditional Patronage Route?
We live in a society that somewhere along the line started equating commercialisation of music with success. If you can’t make it in the free market, you’re considered a failure, and as such should give up. We intuit this, even while knowing Mozart died penniless. And though George Harrison saved Monty Python’s film, his group has left a huge gap in people’s perception of success in music. As, frankly, The Beatles are the strangest anomaly in the history of music.
Think about it. Not one of the best songwriters of all time, not two, but THREE, in the same band, who all released several masterpieces before they turned 30. And… Ringo, was also there…
The Beatles were pop, and rock, and blues, and avant-garde players pushing music to its limits, and selling millions of records while they did it. And they got away with it, because they were the Beatles! They practically invented pop music. They established the very idea of an album. They solidified the three verse/chorus/bridge style of playing into the norm. They could break all the rules, as they were essentially the ones making them. But, not all were so lucky.
Why Mile Davis & John Coltrane were Kind of Blue
During the same decade where the Beatles soared and conquered the earth, John Coltrane and Miles Davis were taking Jazz to the places few have understood and, arguably, none have surpassed since. And they barely scraped by. Davis was so unknown, two policemen beat him to a bloody pulp while on smoke break (at his own show), as they thought “some black man was trying to break in”. They lived hard, bleak lives – battling heroin addiction, being belittled as players of “nothing music” because they didn’t play from sheet music. Thankfully, Europe was more gracious than home, and saw them for what they are, two of the greatest composers that ever lived – and paid a decent wage when they toured there. Most jazz musicians never came close to financial success – though their influence is lauded in music lecture halls throughout the globe, most struggled till the bitter end.
How To Help
If you want to help an artist. Don’t buy them a drink. Don’t root them on along the commercial route. Don’t buy in to the notion that an artist must be selling to be successful. Rather, be their patron. Forget this flash in the pan, dead in the water comericialised approach defining “successful” music and art. Following the whims of the free market gets you Bieber, and puts hormones before harmonies. Do what humans have done since time immemorial – support your artists. Buy their work, see their shows, and give them a token of support – be their patron.
If there’s an artist in your life who you believe in, ask them about the best way to show your support. Many have patronage pages you can make monthly or one-off denotations to, or simply buy an album.
I’ve personally been saved countless times by 10 or so people who give small but indispensable donations via my Patreon page, while I write, put on shows, tour and tear my hair out trying to make a life and a living out of making music.
If you’d like to see how you could join them visit kilkelly.net/support.
How Payment Works
Patreon acts in such a way that you give as little as 1 dollar each month, with a small, reasonable percentage going to the platform.
What’s in it for you?
Along with knowing you’ve supported independent music, you receive physical as well as audio copies of all my new releases, regardless of how much you donate. Yes, this also includes a copy of “The Prick & the Petal” Artbook & Album.
Thanks for reading!