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(Printed in August/September 1996 issue of Sing Out!)
Everybody wants to make it in this society. Why isnt it enough to be making?
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 audiencewhy 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. Its usually thought of as something you ought to be, implying that whatever you are isnt 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 successand failuredaily. If you take them as measures of your ability, and not as measures of your worth, youll 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 its my job to touch people through music, the results, and rewards, are immeasurable. If I go about my job honorably, Im 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 Ill 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 Id screwed up. So I said, Well, theyre all beautiful, arent they? Because once you have a favorite, you arent really looking at the others anymore. And its 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. Were taught to compete in this society, that one is the best and the others are less.
everyone is thirsting
each of us a fountain
its just that we forget
Artists are often people who grow up with a sense of being isolated from their families and/or communitieswhether by trauma, an unusual way of seeing, or possession of a special gift. Art is a means of expressing things that dont 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 uniquenessshe has found a road home into ordinary life.
Lets look at the conventional notion of success in the music business. For an artist, its 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 connectionand they were removed from ordinary life, put in a spotlight and treated as if they are more important than other people. Its an insidious form of psychological crucifixion. Why do they fall for it? Just hungry, like all of us, for a little basic human recognition. Its something we could all give one another constantly, but mostly we dont. 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 cant get enough of it; it wont 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? Ive always had a problem with these lines from Satisfied Mind. its so hard to find/One rich man in ten, with a satisfied mind. Its just as hard to find one poor man in ten with a satisfied mind. Life is difficult. Mortality is everyones burden. What is success? In your life, its what you decide that it is. Maybe its having time for friendships. Maybe its learning to be kind to yourself. Maybe its financial security. Maybe its a tapestry of things. Maybe its okay to fail.
As president of a record label, for me success means putting out the music I love the most. Ive tried to build a company based on serving the public interest and maintaining a spirit of community among the artists. Waterbug is largely an artists 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. Ive 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 doesnt exist in Western culture. people are increasingly urbanized, increasingly isolated, nobody knows their neighbors. Whether were singing to 200 people or to 12 people, we create community. you dont fight with people youre harmonizing with. Were 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, its tough to make a living in the arts. Ive had a hard time. She said, But you made it, Dad. People pay you to play.