Around 1990, Fat Possum Records set about finding and recording aging bluesmen before they passed away in obscurity. Though R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough had previously achieved some notoriety, Asie Payton farmed his entire life and Charles Caldwell worked at a factory for most of his. Neither lived to see their first official releases. Last year, a heart attack took CeDell Davis, who, with a polio-crippled hand, learned at age 10 to play guitar with a butter knife. Not being an avid frequenter of Mississippi juke joints, I only know their names because a couple
guerosforewent more lucrative ventures and started a then-tiny label. Reading Chris Conde’s article, ‘Part Time Stage Gods’, which laments the tribulations of musicians about town who can’t earn a living off music alone, both reminded me of the departed and gave me the blues.
Call me romantic, call me lazy, but I feel art should come from an innermost urge. It’s not a choice, it’s a need; it’s not a career, it’s a calling. There’s already enough plastic in the world. As a broke singer-songwriter and much less talented performer than Phanie Diaz or Alyson Alonzo, I can’t pretend to know when a working artist should “take whatever gig they can” or insist that clubs meet their “payment guarantees.” I just worry that focusing on "selling your product," "treating it like a business" and "building your fan base" misses one of music’s most priceless gifts: an all-too-brief respite from the rat race. With due respect to the hustle, if musicians become full-time marketers, who will the people turn to when they need musicians?
Conde is skeptical of public funding for the arts and critical of locals’ aversion to self-promotion. He quotes Adam Tutor of San Antonio Sound Garden as saying: “The creative class often has this conundrum that most vocations don’t – having to offer their art for less [than what it’s worth].” But if you accept the verdict of the supposedly meritocratic market, isn’t what you’re getting, by definition, exactly what it’s worth?
The musicians I meet generally aren’t underachievers. They’re as unlucky as anybody else to grow up in a society that requires worthwhile endeavors to turn a profit. That trains us to internalize our failures or to blame others – the secular equivalent of “Your faith wasn’t strong enough” when some Benny Hinn is asked why they couldn’t cure you. Needless to mention, the audience and the venue are often as cash-strapped as those on stage. So mightn’t solidarity offer a better way forward? Why aren’t collective bargaining, crowdsource funding, and municipal grants up for discussion? Why are we forced to confront the compensation problem alone – like individual entries in a relentless and wasteful competition that we can’t ever rise above together? And is the implied measure of success how fast we can begin to look like Austin or Portland or every other city?
Van Gogh couldn’t give his paintings away, but who today would prefer a Thomas Kincaid? Folk legend Nick Drake sold maybe 10,000 records in his lifetime and now soundtracks Wes Anderson films and Volkswagen commercials. How many "voices of a generation" toured themselves ragged and ended their days with a shotgun in their mouth? Is that "making it"? And how many countless talents will we never know the name of? Is that purely due to their lack of initiative?
I don’t claim to know the answers here but I’m not convinced award-winning bands do either. What I will posit is this: you are not a product. We belong to the music – not the other way round. As socialist Oscar Wilde wrote best: “We can forgive someone for making a useful thing as long as they do not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.”
Let’s keep San Antonio useless.