Thursday, February 2, 2012

Art vs. Commerce

A couple of years ago, the fine people at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville invited me to their fine weekend-long big-time book event because St. Martin's Press had published my first novel, THE PLUNDER ROOM. I was excited, not just because I got a chance to talk about my debut dream-come-true in public, but because I got the chance to go to Nashville. Music City.

It's not that I'm a fan or anything and that Nashville's a big Mecca for me. In fact, I am a fan, a major fan, and it has cost me millions and not a little stress and personal destruction. See, I'm a music-industry professional. I've been buying talent and promoting shows for 17 years at the concert hall that I opened with my wife and brother here in Greenville, SC.

In my role in my company in the concert-touring business, I have worked with tons of talent agents who represent some of the finest musicians in the land. We've played host to and have paid more than 3,000 artists over the years.

Going to Nashville, then, was a fun thing for the book, but it also gave me another chance to meet up with agents, people with whom I had done business and had (presumably) built relationships through so many years. Many of them hard years.

Of course, I was thinking: How cool. Me and my company pay around a half-million dollars a year to artists, many of them in and from Nashville. And, from that, talent agencies get their 10 percent commission. Multiply that annual outlay by, say, 10 years, and that's some serious cheddar.

With my book-festival invitation in hand, I send out the call that I'm going to be in town for a long weekend. Stop by, guys (most of them are men). It's downtown. Easy to get to. It'll be fun. Spend a minute, even two minutes! Hey, you might could pop for $25 to buy my first novel - my own attempt at art! Heck, that's nothing compared with the thousands of dollars I send to you fellas every year buy your artists.

Then I trundle off to Music City. It's fun. It's nice. I sell a book here and there.

Wanna know how many agents show up to wish me well? Pick up a copy? Spend a few minutes with me and my own art?

None. Not one. Nobody.

Guess that pretty much hammers home the whole Art vs. Commerce thing. At least, it does to me.

Now, my next book, a nonfiction project about The Handlebar, ROCKIN' A HARD PLACE, comes out later this year.
Its thematic essence revolves around, you guessed it, Art vs. Commerce - what it's like to try and squeeze the toothpaste of art into the tube of commerce. You can't. But the music industry works to do it every day.

No tickee, no laundry, as they say.

Seems to me that agents are saying: If you're not writing a check to my agent for one of my artists, I could really give a crap about you or your venue. There are a world full of gullible, guileless and idiotic mopes, some with even bigger checkbooks, who will pay my artists to play in their venue.

And, yet, this whole thing, so I'm told and my wife reminds me, is all about relationships.
Hmm. Okay.

Part II:
My editor for my Handlebar book recently asked me to get a few back-cover blurbs - y'know, a sentence or two or three that says: "I got this book. It's good. Buy it"? She wants big-name artists who have played our room in the last 17 years. The bigger the name, the better the blurb, so the conventional literary thinking goes, the more the book sales.

Like I said, we've had tons of artists. Many of them have gone on to superstardom: John Mayer, Sugarland, Zac Brown Band, the list goes on. We paid them pretty good money. Lost some money on a few of them. Took risks on all of them.

Now I return to their agents and managers ask for a tiny favor from their artists: How 'bout a quickie blurb. Shouldn't take long.

I've done several blurbs myself for other books. They're kind of fun. You read a few pages of a book and a draft of the dust-jacket copy - the same way that Jon Stewart in no way reads a book every night to do a killer interview with the author. You get a flavor for the writing, a feel for what's inside the pages. Then you toss of a blurb: "Great book. Buy a copy." And you attach your name and your bona fides. Takes all of about fifteen minutes. (I generally take a longer, but, hey, I'm not a writer, not a musician, so I just spend my days goofing off.)

Per my editor's request, I send out feelers to a bunch of agents with whom I've had relationships and have paid a lot of money to over the years. I ask if I can get one of their rock stars to fire off a quickie blurb.

Wanna know what I get? Nothing. Either no response. Or "she's too busy." Or "they're focused." Or the artists have no time. Or the agents can't be bothered. Or ...

But, y'know, before they got to be big-name artists, I had time to open my wallet and my risk and my room and my staff and my kitchen to them. I had time to promote their shows and the start of their careers. I even made time at the end of the night to pay them.

But now they don't have all of about 15 minutes to return a token artistic favor.

I'm not bitter.

A bunch of this stuff's in the book.

But for some idiotic and insane reason (we all know the definition of insanity), I am still a fan, especially a fan of live music.
But a fan of the business? Of this whole Art vs. Commerce clusterfuck?

Sorry, I cry Uncle. Commerce wins. All the time.

After 17 years of banging my head against the wall and buying talent as a fan and as one of the last true heartfelt believers in the art of it all, it has FINALLY dawned on me that it's just silly and even dangerous for me to keep operating that way.

Heretofore, then, when I get up in the morning and write and do art stuff, it's Art. But when I turn my attention and energy to Handlebar and music work, it's commerce. It's business.

Want something from me? Sure, it's all about money. You may get it, if I see a solid return on my investment. And if I'm a fan and just can't afford the show or can't fit the show into our Calendar or don't WANT to do the show, y'know what? I'm not sorry at all, not the way I have been for 17 years when I can't "make a show work."

I'm not sorry anymore. Nobody's sorry in business. It's business. No room for art here.

No tickee, no laundry.

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