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Andrew Calhoun

(Printed in August/September 1996 issue of Sing Out!)

Everybody wants to “make it” in this society. Why isn’t it enough to be making?
Elizabeth Wenscott

Carla Sciaky put together a panel to discuss the issue of redefining success at the Folk Alliance conference. There was a good deal of emotion expressed by panelists and audience—why do we do what we do, when few of us who work in this musical form ever make a decent living at it? What is success?

The notion of success attracts a horde of sneaky psychological bugaboos. It’s usually thought of as something you ought to be, implying that whatever you are isn’t good enough. It takes your happiness out of the present. To think of success or failure as something you can be is crippling. You can never “be” a success, although you will experience different kinds of success—and failure—daily. If you take them as measures of your ability, and not as measures of your worth, you’ll be a freer person. They ought to be equally acceptable. Haim Ginott says “labelling is disabling” for developing children, and it is just as destructive to developing adults.

If I am an entertainer whose job it is to draw X number of people and sell X number of units, I can measure the results. If it’s my job to touch people through music, the results, and rewards, are immeasurable. If I go about my job honorably, I’m as legitimate an artist as anyone. There is no label, or agent, or gig, or deal, that can make me a more valuable human being, and the chances are I’ll do better on the business end if I bring my self-esteem to the table, and not hope for it to be granted from outside.

Lies weave their way into our language, words we use unconsciously that affect the way we think, love and experience ourselves in the world. An example: when my daughter was four, we were walking past a garden, and I said, “Casey, look at the flowers! Which one is your favorite?”—and instantly felt that I’d screwed up. So I said, “Well, they’re all beautiful, aren’t they?” Because once you have a favorite, you aren’t really looking at the others anymore. And it’s a short road from thinking that one flower is better than another, to thinking that one person is better than another. Low self-esteem is pervasive in our society, and what we all experience as our own private little worry chamber is part of a larger problem. We’re taught to compete in this society, that one is the “best” and the others are “less.”

everyone is thirsting
each of us a fountain
it’s just that we forget
Erin Corday

Artists are often people who grow up with a sense of being isolated from their families and/or communities—whether by trauma, an unusual way of seeing, or possession of a special gift. Art is a means of expressing things that don’t exist in daily conversation. The artist transforms her experience into a shareable form, so that it can exist outside of her. If other people recognize and receive the art the artist is freed of her burden of uniqueness—she has found a road home into ordinary life.

Let’s look at the conventional notion of success in the music business. For an artist, it’s a major label deal. Artists are termed “rising stars” (Icarus was one), who are trying to get to the “next level” and “make it.” Young artists signed to major labels almost invariably begin to produce inferior work shortly thereafter. They were trying to make a connection—and they were removed from ordinary life, put in a spotlight and treated as if they are more important than other people. It’s an insidious form of psychological crucifixion. Why do they fall for it? Just hungry, like all of us, for a little basic human recognition. It’s something we could all give one another constantly, but mostly we don’t. Our true wealth, infinite in a way that our oil and water and air are not, is the power of creativity and the spirit of love. Lacking love, we fumble with our rosary of addictions, and fame can be one of those addictions. You can’t get enough of it; it won’t make you happy.

Americans have ceased, to a large degree, to be present in our own lives. We are all miracles. Yet we walk around bored. Politicians speak of growth, never of balance. Why should we grow? Is a successful life one which amasses wealth? What is the value of reading a book? I’ve always had a problem with these lines from Satisfied Mind. “…it’s so hard to find/One rich man in ten, with a satisfied mind.” It’s just as hard to find one poor man in ten with a satisfied mind. Life is difficult. Mortality is everyone’s burden. What is success? In your life, it’s what you decide that it is. Maybe it’s having time for friendships. Maybe it’s learning to be kind to yourself. Maybe it’s financial security. Maybe it’s a tapestry of things. Maybe it’s okay to fail.

As president of a record label, for me success means putting out the music I love the most. I’ve tried to build a company based on serving the public interest and maintaining a spirit of community among the artists. Waterbug is largely an artist’s co-op. All the artists own their recordings and publishing rights. In a very real sense, the label cannot be bought. Cooperative efforts include artists selling each others’ recordings from the stage, sharing gigs, etc. 20 artists contributed a song and part of the cost of manufacturing a label sampler which each of us sell from the stage for $5. We are working cooperatively to help each other get heard. Any group of artists could do this. I think less “star” mentality and more cooperation could go a long way toward restoring honor to the term “Folk.” I’ve suggested to the Folk Alliance that we transform “Folk Music and Dance Month” into a series of benefits for Habitat and related organizations, working through a network of churches.

Eileen McGann was the last to speak at the Success workshop: “We as folk musicians do a really extraordinary thing, here at the end of the twentieth century, I think we live in an age where community almost doesn’t exist in Western culture. …people are increasingly urbanized, increasingly isolated, nobody knows their neighbors. Whether we’re singing to 200 people or to 12 people, we create community. …you don’t fight with people you’re harmonizing with. …We’re successful as community builders.”

My daughter is ten now, and a gifted dancer looking to be a professional. Doing my job as a parent to talk her out of it, I said, “Casey, it’s tough to make a living in the arts. I’ve had a hard time.” She said, “But you made it, Dad. People pay you to play.”

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