When you study the independent music industries, there’s a lot of talk about money and how so little of it moves around. But when you talk to musicians, the money is almost never the thing that they value the most in the whole process – and it is never, ever the reason to become a musician.
But here’s the interesting thing: while it may be obvious that the reason they generally become musicians is because they live, breathe and love music, what may be less obvious is that what they often come to value about being a musician is discovering the impact that their music can have in the lives of others.
Simply put, “your album helped me when my father died” is a much richer and deeper reward than “here’s ten dollars”.
And this goes way beyond music. It’s about why we contribute to culture at all.
Art is not simply expression – it’s connection. Human beings finding meaning and significance out of that thing you made.
I’m not a musician and nor do I consider myself an artist, but I have made a few different things that are at least vaguely in that same territory. And I can tell you categorically that the potential for connection – always a surprise when it happens – is by far the biggest payoff.
Today, I’ve been thinking a lot about a woman named Beth, who lives in South Carolina. We’ve never met, but we’ve exchanged a few emails over the years. It started with a note from her father when she was still in school. This was easily a decade ago.
Beth was a fan of Ashley’s Worlds – the children’s serial I produced when I first started making radio programmes, and later put online for people to download. I have no idea how she or her dad discovered it. But I do know that she loved it because all of the characters were cats. And, importantly, cats are animals.
As her father explained at the time, above all else, Beth loved animals. As it happens, she still does.
In one of those earlier emails, I recommended she check out the book All Creatures Great And Small by James Herriot. I believe I suggested My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell as well. Ideal books for young animal enthusiasts, I thought.
Over the years, I’ve heard the odd update from Beth and her dad. They used to send me the occasional note letting me know how she was getting on in her life, school and so on. It seems strange to me now, though it felt less weird at the time, but I even remember when she had her wisdom teeth out.
Later, for that brief period I was on Facebook, she connected to tell me about her job as an assistant keeper at a local zoo (LinkedIn tells me she’s now advanced to the position of Mammal Keeper) – and how somehow she felt like I’d had some sort of influence in her life.
I don’t know if she knows this, but when she first got the job at the zoo, her father emailed me to thank me. Which still completely blows me away.
Of course, it was the Gerald Durrell rather than me or the radio series that really had the influence – but the radio show was an opportunity to have those small points of connection that were valued and led to the book recommendation and a few other words of encouragement I managed to send.
She was always going to be a zookeeper. What I made, did or said played no causal role. I’m not taking any credit here. Just saying that the fact she so valued the thing I made that formed part of the fabric of her life, and that it connected with those things that were so important to her, really means a lot to me.
We haven’t spoken in the last couple of years. It’s not important that we stay in touch. That’s not really the bit that matters. But it’s always served as my reminder about why we make things and why those things are important in ways that have little if anything to do with their value in the market (for the record, the value in the market of Ashley’s Worlds is precisely zero – so go download it for free, especially if you like cats).
What’s important about all this (for me, at least) is that I can think of a whole bunch of people I will never meet or speak to who have entirely changed the course of my life through their art, and a whole bunch of others I know personally and speak to nearly every day, who don’t really have any clue the extent to which some of the things they have made or done have affected me.
I guess the point is that chances are what you’re doing and what you’re making matters far more than you think it does. How you make a living at that is the thing that makes it sustainable. Not its purpose. Its purpose is far grander than that. Far more significant.
So just in case you don’t ever get the same kind of feedback and follow-up I was lucky enough to get from Beth and her dad… on behalf of whoever it is out there who liked your thing – thanks.