DIARY OF AN ALBUM:
I’ve lived in this city all my life. I grew up on the Upper East Side and when I was ten years old, I was rich, I was an aristocrat, riding around in taxis, surrounded by comfort, and all I thought about was art and music. Now I’m 36 and all I think about is money. ‘Wally in My Dinner With Andre’
Years ago, I saw a movie, My Dinner With Andre, about two New York artists which is simply a conversation over dinner at a restaurant. One of the things that resonated with me a statement by one of the artists that seemed to summarize my own experience with being an artist in New York City – essentially that as a young artist one has the freedom to think and dream and live the art itself, but once it becomes a ‘living’ money is constantly on your mind.
I’ve had various reactions to this reality. I’ve tried to ignore it, pretending that I really didn’t have to think too much about it, and invariably ended up deeply in debt or impoverished to the point where I was scrounging around for loose change in the apartment. I’ve raged against it or even worse taken on work in situations that I knew were musically terrible just for the money.
This comes to mind because the creation of a record is inextricably tied to money. It costs money to produce it, it uses up the time when you could be working on something else that earns money and to promote it to the world is costly as well.
When I came to the city in 1997, there was a business for records that made sense. In the mid-2000’s, I played keys with live shows of the band Stellastarr*. It was the last generation of bands who were given contracts of $250,000 to record an album and in the process, all living expenses were covered. It was the dream of a generations of young musicians to get the attention of an A&R rep who would grant one of these magical deals. Of course, they weren’t as glamorous as they sounded – $250,000 for expensive studio time and supporting four musicians in NYC really wasn’t much. Additionally, the record company essentially owned all your work until the money was returned and most of it afterwards.
Today’s different – the artist covers the costs of creating the record and promoting it. Often in the hope that it will produce high enough numbers on a social media algorithm and garner the attention of the music industry. It’s a beautiful game for the tech companies – artists create essentially free content for them – and for the music industry (at this point they’re basically the same thing) which now no longer has to invest in new artists or actual record production.
So once again, I return to the question of ‘why bother?’ I suppose it has to be simple reasons – because making a record’s beautiful and fun. Because making art is so meaningful and joy-producing. Because I want to have music to play live and share it with those around me. Because I love working with other artists.
Thinking of the financial realities of a record is crucial – how much it will cost to produce and promote – so that you don’t bankrupt yourself in the process. But the choice to make a record is always a leap of faith without any guarantees – even if it has the biggest machine behind it. Knowing that, I suppose one always has the choice to serve the money (i.e. make music with the idea of somehow getting rich off it or pleasing a demographic, social media algorithm or industry person) or serving the music. Although they’re both important, you can only serve one master.
I don’t see how you can go wrong by placing the music highest always. At worst, it will fail commercially, but it will be truthful to yourself as an artist. At best, it will speak to something genuine within oneself that, in a world of artifice and lies, will have the power to touch many other souls.