Thursday, March 21, 2013

Killing yourself to live in order to live to kill yourself

Hello! Long time no post. I got shit-canned from my job in January (along with a bunch of other people) and have been in a bit of freefall since. I promise I'll be returning in earnest soon, with the full I Was A Teenage Trip Hop DJ and other normal stuff.

This past week, that Onion article took the internet by storm, and clearly cut way close to the bone for all of my creative friends. Hilariously, I read it on the way to an interview where I was about to do my dog-and-pony show to try to get a job that I wasn't personally invested in at all, but that would give me more money to put toward my "real passions" on evenings and weekends. Ha!

I've read a lot of earnest responses to the Onion gag, and my friend and sometimes bandmate Aroon's "How to work on passion projects while still having a day job" advice column over at How to be a Grownup is one of the most thoughtful and constructive. Balancing creative pursuits with having a job and being a functional adult human being is something I've thought a hell of a lot about over the past ten years since I graduated college and entered the 9-5 working world, and it's actually one of the topic/starter prompts in the file I compiled before starting this blog, so I felt compelled to jump in with some further thoughts after reading Aroon's great comments.

The reality is, there's nothing inauthentic about wanting/needing stability and there's nothing un-punk about wanting a safety net (although maybe it is un-punk and that's a good thing). You don't get a 401k for being an elder statesman. Jesus, so many of these guys - these literal gods in our personal pantheons - don't even have health insurance. That last one still makes me cry, and not in the figurate sense. It seems like every other day another beloved icon is reduced to begging for donations. And those are the guys who are actually world famous. It's even tougher when you're only "cult famous" to a small but dedicated group of fans.

Life is hard as hell and there's never enough time, energy, or money. For those that are trying to balance living the creative dream with a "day job," and feeling that weird and toxic mix of entitlement, self-loathing, frustration, and defiance, I offer up the following thoughts in addition to Aroon's.

1. You'd be surprised at how many famous, successful artists are also working day jobs. And I'm not talking about your hometown heroes, I'm talking about people that do Pitchfork interviews and are on NPR and get played overhead when your'e shopping at the Gap. People who tour the world and then return to a weird, boring job when they're done (if they're not flat-out waiting tables or changing oil). I remember being a teenager and thinking that everyone out there was "living the dream" and "doing their art as their job" - until I found out Lou Barlow was working mail order, stuffing packages between tours. Humbling. It might blow your mind how "big" you have to get before you can even sustain the same basic "middle class" lifestyle you're already enjoying off of your 9-5. 

2. The thing is, "doing your art" for a living often means doing everything but your actual real art for the bulk of your income. It's the weird paradox of "making the leap" - you're likely going to still spend most of your time and energy on doing tangential things to your "main output" in order to actually make money. Bands don't make money by "being bands" - they make money by touring and playing live venues that want to sell alcohol, and by selling merchandise that's ultimately just a souvenir that's only tangentially related to their actual creative output, which is music. A friend of mine who has semi-successfully pursued music as his main income for the past decade once told me, "I'm not a singer. I'm a traveling t-shirt, bumper sticker, and beer salesman" - and he wasn't really joking. I used to wonder why my favorite cartoonists seemed to take so damned long - often several years - between releasing new stuff, until I realized most of them spend all their damned time doing commercial art work and barely squeeze in their "real" stuff in between jobs. I have another friend - an artsy rocker - whose cultish fanbase would faint if they had any idea that he spends the bulk of his time making mood music for TV crime dramas and commercial bumper jams for lame reality shows. "Hey, Horton, it pays the bills!"

3. Sometimes the best case scenario for "making it" is that your awesome creative passion becomes...your oppressive day job. Nothing sucks the joy out of your art like turning it into something you HAVE to do. By this Friday. Or else you can't pay rent. Ask anyone who's opened a commercial recording studio and spent years recording Creed soundalikes, rappers that don't pay, and other mutants. If your art's your great escape from the turmoil of daily life...what happens when it becomes the turmoil of daily life? How do you escape then? The dream of turning your art into your day job might just turn into a nightmare as the thing that you lived for now becomes the monkey on your back. I know a TON of people that this has happened to. I bought a rare piece of recording gear off of a guy who spent 15 years making records under the gun and up to deadlines. All he wanted at that point was to get the world's most boring office job and take up fly fishing.

4. Don't buy into the myth that if you just had the time, you'd do this stuff 24/7. You most likely wouldn't. I've been living off of severance and unemployment for the past few months, and I've probably worked on music less than when I had to squeeze it in between work, the gym, dinner, and quality time with my friends. There are a million reasons for my personal paralysis, but I find this to be true of almost everybody. Nobody's actually working on their stuff all day every day. Do you think Kevin Shields tooled away on that ramshackle mishmash that he recently released since 1991? Considering there's dated baggy beats and that awful "jungle" thing, I imagine he did a whole hell of a lot of "everything else" in those 22 years. Who knows what Portishead did in the 11 years between their self-titled and Third albums, but they put the latter together in just a few months. When the time is right, it's right, and when things are done, they're done. On the other hand, there are some artists that are incredibly prolific - they've got a new record out once a year, and an EP and more in between. I'm not going to name names, but a few of my favorite artists are this prolific, and you know what? With rare exceptions or particularly "hungry" streaks (usually when they were just getting started and trying to prove themselves on evenings and weekends), their work would be better if they took a few years between releases and condensed the best songs from their three "pretty good" albums into one "amazing" album in that same time frame. Be Johnny Jewel.

5. Live somewhere boring. I have a good friend, who also makes some of my favorite records that get released, who once said something that totally speared me when he visited me in Chicago - "This place is great, but there's always a million amazing things going on at the same time. I think if I lived here, I'd never get anything done because I'd always be distracted by all the cool things to go out and do." He's got a point. There's a great energy from living in a cool place, but there's so much distraction all the time. What if you lived somewhere boring as hell where your only refuge was your creative output? What if there were no parties, events, shows, and when there were, they were a big deal and a rarity? Life as a big fish in a small pond can be incredibly fulfilling in a way that being the latest guppy in ocean never is. The big fish still eats the most. I've totally lost my metaphor. Move somewhere boring and make amazing things on your own, then make those amazing things happen in public. Be the founder and king of your scene where there was none before, and foster others instead of dealing with warring tribes all clamoring for the same eight blocks and the same four clubs and two galleries. It's not a war, it's Thanksgiving. Ok, the quaaludes must be kicking in.