Art Versus Commerce, Musician Or Merchant?  

-The Artist’s Dilemma 

by Tom Stein, Professor of Professional Music, Berklee College of Music


Andy Warhol maintained that the business side of art was also a form of art. He died one of the richest artists in history, and started a movement that sharply altered the visual landscape to this day: Pop Art. He got his start as an illustrator for department store catalogs in the 1950’s, he then went on to revolutionize the world of art in the 1960’s.

To do music as an art requires a certain amount of craft, or technique. One should be able to play in tune, for example, or execute rhythms with some precision. This is usually referred to as “technique”, and musical artists typically devote a large amount of time to developing it. Mature artists also concentrate on the emotions contained in music; we call this “expressiveness”.

Another way to view this (metaphorically) is that how we say something can be distinct from what we have to say. We can analyze each separately. How we choose to express something is the “medium”, and what we are expressing is the “content”. It is certainly possible, even advisable, to focus on both these aspects of our creative endeavor in order to develop further as an artist.

Warhol’s insight was a valid one, and it certainly worked for him. He looked at the business of doing art as an integral part of the art itself. He made sure he was always in the news. He sold magnificently, and lived the lifestyle of the rich and famous. He realized that his artistic technique could encompass his business dealings, and that each was integral to the other.

I’ve noticed a certain cognitive dissonance when it comes to musical artists in training, especially young people who tend to be idealistic to the extreme in their views. There is a view that they should just create good art, and the recognition will come. They feel that engaging in the business of music somehow cheapens their art. That somebody else should handle the business for them. These young artists tend to resist learning about the music business, as if it somehow will hurt them. The opposite couldn’t be truer.

I believed the same when I was a young artist, so I fully understand this sentiment. I felt certain that if I attempted to market myself (or heaven forbid, became successful), that I would be “selling-out”. This is actually a totally misdirected view of reality, I later learned. Before I could create good music, I needed to learn ALL the aspects of creative performing, composing, arranging and recording, including the business aspect.

I came to realize that the business side of music could also be approached as a form of art, and that it actually WAS a part of the art itself. I learned to apply the same techniques I had developed doing music (e.g. improvisation, quick decision-making, creative thinking, disciplined work habits, etc.) to the business side of my career. I came to see that doing the business was really no different than making the music. It took me little while, but I’m glad I finally woke up to this.

The best part of this was, that when I became more adept at handling the business part of being an artist my artistic (musical) values also improved progressively. I was able to play with better musicians, at better venues, performing to better audiences, while making more money. The money relieved pressures of time spent working jobs outside of music to support my living costs, so that in the end I could devote myself more fully to music. These were all good things. I became a much better musician, and more confident in everything I was doing. The same concept applies to teaching for me. Teaching (or writing) is no different than creating music, in my mind. I approach everything I do in exactly the same way.

I would encourage young musicians to keep their mind open to learning about the business side of music. Don’t buy into the myth that great artists need to be poor and hungry. History has shown that this is not true. Picasso was also a wealthy man, and very shrewd with his business. I would encourage young artists to study what other successful artists do and have done, read their interviews, and learn best practices in business. Read any books you can find about the business of music, and business in general. Find areas in business that interest you, and investigate them further. Talk to other business people to see how they think about their business. There are some very good programs of study in the music and entertainment business, and there is no logical reason why a great musician can’t be good at the business of music as well. Many of them are.

Young musicians should not be afraid of the business, especially if they want to do music professionally, as a career. I would encourage you to study marketing psychology, and learn about the history of economic trends. Get to know about demographics, finance, and organizational behavior. These are subjects that pertain to musicians and bands in a very direct way. A band is also a business, there is no way to avoid that if you want to be well-known for what you do. Fully embrace this component of your music.

If you apply to your music business the same motivation, attention, perseverance, ambition, meticulousness, creativity and love (yes, love) that you bring to your music-making, this will almost certainly revolutionize your musical success and bring you to a higher plane in your artistic musical endeavors.

Treat your business as if it is a part of your art, because it is.


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