Getting Past The 'But Artists Should Just Be Artists' Myth
from the it's-designed-to-keep-you-down dept
At Monday’s excellent SF Music Tech Summit, there was a really good discussion in the final panel of the day, that crystallized in my mind why it’s hogwash when some repeat the refrain that “artists should just be artists” and not worry about business models, connecting with fans or social networking. It’s a claim that is made over and over again — sometimes by musicians themselves. In the past, we’ve pointed out that this is fine, if artists just want to be artists then they need to do one of two things: either not expect to make much money or partner with someone who can focus on the business model and social networking side of things. Dave Allen, who was on that panel, used his manifesto on why artists needed to stop whining and start taking charge as a kicking off point, and brought up his concept of why all bands needed “a fifth Beatle” to manage that side of their efforts. In many ways, it reminded me of Andrew Dubber’s recent manifesto that pointed out that if you wanted to make money as a musician, you had to become a musical entrepreneur.
But, two other comments on the panel made the point even more clear. First was Sebastien Keefe, from the band Family of the Year, who talked about how the band (more his bandmates than himself, actually) did a really good job connecting with fans online, including a special private concert that only Twitter followers found out about, and a cool postcard promotion, where people would pay $5 for a postcard, and the band would send it back to the fans from their tour. When the question came up of artists claiming that they didn’t want to spend the time on social networks to connect with fans, he noted first that it wasn’t that much time, and second that an artist unwilling to do that was “selling themselves short,” in not really building up their audience.
Though, what’s really cementing the myth of “artists should just be artists” was Tim Quirk’s comment. Quirk, of course, got a lot of publicity recently for revealing how major record label royalty statements are often total works of fiction, using his own royalty statements as an example. On this topic, however, he noted that the people who tell artists that “you should just focus on being an artist” were almost always “feeding them bullshit” in order to gain more control over the artist. That is, it’s a line you often hear from record labels or managers who want more control over a musician’s business. So all three of those musicians (Allen, Quirk and Keefe) highlighted how the claim that “musicians should just be musicians” isn’t just a myth, but it’s often used to limit the potential of musicians.
Right after that panel, there was a short (and very sparsely attended) talk given by Stephan Jenkins, of the band Third Eye Blind — and without realizing it, he put the exclamation point on this particular discussion from the previous panel. While he said he was grateful for his major label experience, he also talked about how being on a major label actually made it harder for the band to really focus on their music and artistic ideals — because the label started dictating everything that the band should be doing. From that, he felt like the band really got away from the sort of music that it wanted to create, that had helped make the band big in the first place. He talked about how piracy has given the band “a second chance” by letting a new generation of fans discover their original music, and that has resulted in the band’s most recent album, which he felt was much more true to the band’s musical roots. He noted also that, now that they were out of the major label system, they were making a lot more money, even if they were selling fewer units.
All in all, it really helped solidify the idea that the claim that “artists just need to be artists” and shouldn’t be concerned about business models or talking to fans is really just a line used by record labels to try to gain more control over artists, at their own expense. That doesn’t mean that artists shouldn’t try to find that “5th Beatle,” to help them when it becomes necessary, but that they should make sure that whoever that 5th Beatle is, he or she is really aligned with their thinking in where they want to go with their career.