Every artist has to face the dilemma of art vs. capitalism at some point. Can you survive by making great art while ignoring what actually sells? Do you have to compromise on the artistic side of things in order to have some level of success? Let’s find out.
The problem with art and capitalism
First and foremost, music and other forms of art don’t exist to create revenue. Their purpose, historically speaking, has been a completely different one. Music, paintings, poems, have always been about telling stories or evoking emotions.
It’s strange to think of your creative output as a “product” since it has a very special meaning to you and your audience. Something feels inherently wrong when artists start to think about the commercial aspect of their work.
If your goal is to dedicate your life to creating amazing music, you’re facing the problem of two limited resources: Time and money. On the one hand, you want to spend as much time as possible creating meaningful art, on the other hand, you need to earn money to make a living.
The discussion of art vs. capitalism raises some philosophical questions
- Is it even possible to create art if you must treat it as a product later on?
- Is your music not a true work of art anymore if you tweak certain aspects for a better “market fit”?
- How far can you go with the tweaking, where do you draw the line?
- Are you a better artist if your music sells well?
- Or the opposite: Are you not a true artist if your music sells well?
These questions are hard to answer and the is no black and white right or wrong. So let’s see how we can make the best out of the art vs. capitalism dilemma.
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Don’t listen to the snobby elite
First of all, there’s one thing I truly hate about this type of discussion and that’s elitism. I hear so many artists complain about Instagram DJs and the power of marketing these days but when you listen to their own tracks, you find out that they’re following the exact same scheme:
- Their tracks are tweaked to work as smoothly as possible in other people’s DJ sets
- They use the same boring straight four to the floor kicks that everybody else is using (taken from a standard sample pack)
- You know exactly when a new shaker or hi-hat is going to be introduced because they follow the most basic formulas of dance music
- They use the same stereotypical bleepy rave sounds or 303 lines that have been written many times before, even in the 90s
So my question is: Why should their music be more “artistic” and “true” than the tracks of so-called Instagram DJs? Is having some level of mainstream success and doing a good job at promoting your music the disqualifying factor?
Then what about leftfield-artists like Holly Herndon or Robert Henke who make super interesting non-conformist music but still have commercial success to some degree?
As I’ve said, there’s no black and white answer but one thing is sure: The snobby elite of today’s so-called “underground”-scene doesn’t provide a good answer either.
Aspects of great art that sells
You can only free yourself from the art vs. capitalism discussion if you find your own answer to the question of what feels true to you as an artist and at the same time is relevant to your audience. I’m going to give you three aspects of great art that has the potential to generate income.
1. Put your true heart and soul into your music
Yes, this sounds like a cheesy cliche but I believe that this is the most important factor of great art. As a music producer, you shouldn’t worry about your audience in the first place because “true fans” want to join the tribe of a true artist, a visionary in a certain field.
Putting your true heart and soul into your music is going to enhance its emotional quality and your fans will notice this. It might not resonate with everybody and that’s okay. It shouldn’t! But it’s going to create an even deeper bond with certain members of your audience and that’s exactly what you should aim for. Remember, you don’t need a million followers on your social channels, all you need is a loyal tribe of 1000 true fans to make a solid full-time living.
2. Challenge the status quo
Capitalism, in general, tends to reward conformist, common-denominator music because it appeals to a large audience of potential consumers. But there’s always a counter-movement as well that disrupts certain genres from within.
If you’re brave enough to challenge the status quo, there’s a good chance you are going to attract a certain group of people who are curious and willing to join your mission to disrupt your genre. This can come in the form of using new concepts and composition styles, but also pioneering new technologies.
The counter-intuitive result of challenging the status quo comes often in the form of commercial success. It’s a strange paradox but we’ve seen it happen many times before.
3. Provide context and orientation
If your music resonates with people emotionally and you’re growing your tribe of true fans, there’s a second layer to your art that might help you make a living. In times of information overload, people are craving for orientation in their lives. The context that surrounds your music, as well as your artist personality, can provide that orientation.
So how can you do that? First of all, the way you set up your artist brand already does a lot of the heavy lifting. Yes, shooting the right artist photo and writing a proper bio provides context. Moreover, if you manage to add extra value to your true fans by creating special editions of your latest release, you give them a reason to dig deeper and find orientation.
How to go above and beyond for your true fans
How does this sound: Imagine you’ve just finished a full-length album (yes, I believe we’re seeing a comeback of albums, in niche-genres at least). You’ve come up with a limited special edition that is focused only on your die-hard fans. This is how it’s set up:
- Limited edition of 100 colored vinyl records
- Incl. download code of all digital formats (also high-res 96kHz/24Bit masters)
- 12-page booklet containing a background story about the album concept as well as documentary-style photos of the production process
- A handwritten, personalized thank-you letter to the buyer
- Album artwork poster as a limited, hand-numbered screen print
- Secret download link to the field recording samples you’ve used for this record (including a free use license)
Do you get the idea here? It’s about giving your true fans more than “just” the art itself. Your music would be enough, of course, but this over-delivery that provides context and orientation enhances the value you’re giving them. Yes, you need to charge more for such a special edition. But this doesn’t have to do with you being greedy, you’re simply offering much more value.
What to do when success kicks in
Let’s assume you’ve done things right and produced great music that resonates with people. You’ve grown quite a significant following of true fans and are “commercially successful”, at least to a degree that lets you make a solid living.
The danger in this phase of your career is that more and more opportunities will pop up and you will have to decide which of them you’re willing to accept.
Let me give you some examples:
- A famous Vodka brand wants to use your music in their latest commercial.
- Some famous fashion brand is organizing club nights in your area and invites you to play there.
- You’re being offered a gear-sponsorship by a famous instrument company.
At first, these offers might sound like great opportunities. Usually, there’s a lot of cash involved in deals with beverage- or fashion companies. And who wouldn’t say yes to a gear sponsorship, right?
Let’s take a closer look.
Protect your brand and serve your audience
The art vs. capitalism discussion reveals some very interesting problems. Let’s illustrate them by thinking through the examples above. If you’re letting a Vodka brand use your music in a commercial, you have to keep the consequences in mind. In which context will they use it? What is the storyline of the commercial? Is this whole thing in line with your values and principles as an artist?
The same applies to playing shows for a fashion brand. Would these club nights be something you’re true fans would attend? How is the marketing for it done, does it fit your artist brand? Are you allowed to play your typical type of set or are there any additional restrictions?
Let’s now discuss the third example: Gear sponsorships. How can this possibly be a problem? Well, I think this only makes sense if you have an actual use for these tools that goes beyond fiddling around with them in front of a camera. Are these critical pieces that help you shape your unique sonic fingerprint? Do they provide a major benefit for your workflow?
How to choose cooperations wisely
I don’t say that every sponsorship or brand cooperation is an act of “selling out” or sacrificing your art to the big, bad, capitalist system. Actually, I think there are really good ways to cooperate and create a win-win situation. Here’s how I would go about making these decisions:
- Conduct proper research on the brand and make sure it’s in line with your principles as an artist. If you have a weird gut-feeling, it’s a very clear sign that you should say not to this cooperation.
- Whatever they plan to do: You must be in charge of the creative aspect. As soon as a brand wants to fuck with it, run as fast as you can. They either respect your art or they simply want to use your name.
- Make sure the project or sponsorship gives something back to the scene. If a brand simply wants to “buy themselves into the scene”, you shouldn’t support their cause. If they truly get what it’s all about, respect the culture in every little detail, and are willing to support the underground scene, you might want to consider it.
Believe me, back in my days as a brand strategist for a marketing agency, I’ve seen artist-and-brand-collaborations go really well and really bad. If you stick to the suggestions above, there’s a good chance you can co-create interesting projects that add value to your fans and the scene as a whole.
That being said, I think it’s completely fine to say you simply don’t participate in any sponsorship or brand collaboration whatsoever. If that is part of your principles as an artist, stick to it. You might not need it and your audience probably doesn’t need it as well.
Putting it into action: Art vs. Capitalism and how to escape the dilemma
So what exactly can you do now to escape the dilemma of art vs. capitalism? Here are my three action steps for you.
1. Accept that art can’t be treated like any other product
- Even if you find many voices online and offline that say your music is just like any other product, don’t fall for this perspective, please.
- If you have something important to express, be aware that your music has the potential to change people’s lives for the better.
2. Get as close as possible to your artistic vision and commit to it
- Don’t try to adapt your music to what the genre currently calls for. Instead, carve out your own unique little niche sound within the genre and dare to challenge the status quo.
- Find out how you can use interesting composition techniques, brave arrangement tweaks, and groundbreaking new technology to your advantage.
- Be very careful with brand cooperations and chose wisely. Make sure you remain artistic control over the project and try to find ways to support the scene rather than exploit it.
3. Think about ways to add massive value to your true fans
- How can you provide context and orientation in an information-overloaded, complex world?
- What are creative ways to present or package your music so they perceive an extra value?
So that’s it for this episode, I hope you’ve enjoyed it! Now I’d love to hear where you stand on this topic.
Join the discussion below and leave a comment, I read everything!