Business vs Art

We’re in the last stages of finally finishing up a music deal that’s been in the works for months and I AM HATING THIS. I am talking to my lawyer more than my friends, I have a constant stream of legalese running through my brain, I’ve put too many tasks on the back burner, and I’m sick of thinking of all the ways that a situation could go that I should prepare for or protect myself from or whatever.

I’ve been here before, and I didn’t like it then either. It begs the question:
how do you balance business and art?

I guess some people choose to distance themselves entirely from the business side. This can be business vs. art approach number one. Let’s call someone like this the “Hands Off — hire out and let me create” artist. He hires people to do all of it — lawyers to negotiate the contracts, business managers to pay the bills, accountants to track receipts and do taxes — and he concentrates on the creative work. I’ve heard about these people and I admire their focus. I admire the time and energy that they must be able to devote to their craft, free from the weight and clutter (and pure paper!) of the business issues around them. I also admire the bank accounts they must maintain in order to keep this staff employed. I wonder if he had to reach a certain point of knowledge and business acumen to get where he is, or if his talent was so clear that all the pieces just fell into place and a team stepped forward, wanting to get involved (I don’t actually believe this happens — every successful person I know has worked their ass off — but I wonder about it when feeling insecure).

There are a few problems with the total “Hands Off” approach, the way I see it. Firstly, qualified and experienced people don’t want to work with you when you’re an “emerging artist” since 5% of what you make (a typical percentage deal) will not even buy their gas. (Especially lately.) Secondly, when you’re successful enough to interest these professionals in working with you, you may find yourself without the time or inclination to note each detail and dollar the way you did in the early days, which puts you at risk of getting ripped off by a dishonest or opportunist “team member.” We’ve all heard the stories of the notorious band manager who embezzled a zillion dollars (me? I’d notice if, say, a zillion dollars were missing, but hey…), or the business manager who paid for his yacht along with someone’s bills, or the lawyer who churned the contract to the tune of ten times the original estimate. And nobody noticed. Or cared. Because it was all going so well, that no one thought to check up on it. Lastly, artists who maintain a lot of staff to keep their careers running smoothly pay for it dearly, even if their staff is completely honest and fair. A busy, successful artist might have a lot of pay outs — add it up: 5% to a business manager, 10% to a booking agent, 15-20% to a top end manager, 5% to a lawyer, 10% to a personal manager, plus payouts for band members, a publicist, a stylist, a trainer, road crew, merchandising fees, product manufacture, and oh yeah, taxes!, can leave you with a little sliver of the pie which is the industry of YOU. If you’re doing great, the pie might be humongous and your little sliver will take care of you and yours for ages. If not, well…you’ve seen these folks on “The Surreal Life.” And working at jobs that make you shudder.

But it still sounds appealing in a rock star, glamorous kind of way, doesn’t it? “Oh, sorry, I have to take this — it’s my business manager” sounds so much more fabulous than: “wellllll, got to head to the internet cafe and pay those bills online before the late fees kick in, see you later”. . . right? Even if it might mean you’re more informed, aware, and in control of your money or anything else when handling it yourself. The draw of being taken care of is a strong one. Sometimes I think that’s a big part of the rock star fantasy… just not having to deal with stuff you don’t want to. (Of course we all know that things would inevitably pop up that we’d have to deal with that we wouldn’t want to, but they don’t appear in our fantasies, so screw that.) In addition to being taken care of, I think option number one here offers another payoff: somebody to blame. When you delegate all your business tasks to others and rely on them without question, you’re creating a fall guy for whatever failures or frustrations might come up. You can be angry or irritated with someone ELSE for the problem; it’s not you, or your art, or your decisions (or lack of decisions) that lead to this moment. This has its benefits.

So our little “Hands Off” fellow goes into the studio day after day, continues to write or paint or produce, and tries not to ask too many questions that unsettle his team members. He enjoys his process, and tries to ignore the small voice which encourages him to learn more about what he’s signing, who has power of attorney over his accounts and body of work, and what his balance sheet looks like at any given time. He tries not to worry about things like future security and reversion clauses and quarterly tax payments. He tells himself there’s too much to do on the current projects, he doesn’t know about all that stuff anyway, and so he should let the pros handle it. After all, weren’t they recommended by those great successful friends of his? Hands Off may reach creative heights and find substantial fulfillment in his career artistically, yet find himself alone and uninformed if his work turns in an unpopular direction. He may be left with less money than he should have, less contacts than he might have had, less certainty about what steps to take next.

But there are other options. There’s approach number two, the “Hands on EVERYTHING” artist. This go-getter believes in knowing each aspect of the business as thoroughly as possible. She’s read all the books, keeps up with monthly newsletters, asks the right questions, and knows her stuff. She will not be duped by a smooth-talker or bullshitter, and impresses the industry people she meets with her knowledge and understanding of both the surface (and undersurface) of the business. Industry folks wonder if in fact she wouldn’t make a great manager, or art gallery owner, or publisher (as well as singer, painter, or writer). Her focus is scattered but she’s managing everything (barely). She’s doing it all, by herself: writing up press releases, styling herself for photo shoots, booking her own tours, fulfilling orders, editing content, managing the money, researching the contracts before bringing in the lawyer. And every piece of that pie is HERS (dammit).

This approach has its, umm, issues as well. As talented, as gifted, as one might be, it is quite likely that by doing everything by oneself, this artist is missing out on the depths of knowledge and experience that a talented professional has in his or her field. AND all this gathering and application of new knowledge is tiring, inefficient, and most likely, costly, even though, on the surface it’s less expensive. In other words, it’s not only exhausting, but a little cocky and probaby not cost-effective in the long run. She thinks: “I can do it as well as the rest of you — for free — what do I need you for?” What underscores her thoughts might be a little darker: “I have to do it myself…because you might rip me off, or I might be unhappy with the result, or I might give up some control, or then I can’t say I did it all myself.” Hmm. Right-O. Well, that’s one way to go at it.

Our little “hands on Everything” is willing to take the heat — she has no intention of placing blame on anyone else — but she’s also afraid to release her white-knuckle grip on every aspect of her business, which makes her tense, tired, worried, distracted, and overwhelmed. But she imagines the day when all this hard work had paid off, and all the profits go into her basket, and this keeps the process in motion. Her little voice nudges her to spend more time on the work itself, to actually sit her butt down at the keyboard and write more, write better, keep at it, but she convinces herself that all these tasks need to get done — and she’s the only one who can do it — and so she does. She probably won’t get ripped off. But she also may never reach the level she imagines, limited by her own knowledge, skills, time for her art itself, and contacts in a competitive industry.

Clearly these are extreme examples, and most people use a combination of approaches as they move throughout their careers. But I think we all have our leanings, and looking at the silliness (and dismal realities) of our tendencies at their extremes may help us figure out where we can confidently delegate more tasks and where we should be participating more directly.

I’ve been trying to do too much myself. As much as it freaks me out to invite partners and team members into my career (and income, and sense of personal accomplishment), I believe it’s time to open up the flow a little bit. Share the wealth, if that’s what comes. Share the concerns, if those are what appear. Share the journey, as full and thrilling and fun and frustrating as it often is.

So this deal will get done, and the legalese and details and six thousand possible future scenarios will all recede again into the concerns of real life and actual decisions and plans of action. And hopefully all the knowledge, experience, contact, skills, talents, and confidence of those who I’ve invited into my life and career will benefit both sides of this partnership in amazing, positive ways.

Where in your life is there a little voice calling to you for balance? If you are careening through these days as so many of us are, barely able to manage the tasks (let alone philosophize about them), I encourage you to try to get quiet and listen to what it’s asking of you. There must be a healthy middle space between mostly business or mostly art. Or mostly anything. What a wondrous world we live in, full of ideas and ways of seeing and ways of being. Let’s enjoy it. More.

Five things I’m thankful for today:
1. The Olympics. The thrills of victory, the agony of defeat is right, baby. I’ve cried about 50 times since they started.
2. Aloha Ski & Tuning Shop on Main Street in Park City. Thanks Jackie! 
3. Shamans and the fascinating terrain they explore.
4. People who make terrific efforts to help with and come to my shows — thank you good people of Feb 12th at the Egyptian!
5. Big Ray’s BBQ of Ottawa, Illinois. Rock on, Big Ray and Jonathan!!

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