Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Starving Artist

Indie artists are constantly brainstorming in an effort to survive financially and artisticallly. Singer/songwriter Jill Sobule is currently collecting donations via the Internet from fans for her next recording project. The donations website homepage has a photo in tune with Sobule's tongue-in-cheek approach to life: women dressed as office staff in 1960s fashion, each attending to the business of fundraising for Jill. The goal: $75.000. As of today, she's raised $68.519.

And why not? The popular notion of the starving artist a la Van Gogh, choosing at times to buy paint instead of food (or in the case of the indie musician: guitar strings) is not as romantic as it's made out to be in novels and movies. I am an idealist, but also a realist and applaud the Jills and the Jacks of the indie music world who come up with alternatives to waiting for the Toothfairy to bring them a fistful of dollars. Politicians do it - fundraising that is. Non-profits do it - even schools are forced to do it, so indie artists are now saying: let's do it, let's pass the hat!

Throughout history wealthy patrons have sponsored artists: painters, sculptors, playwrights, composers. These original angel investors were either very cultured and recognized the important role that artists play in our world or they were simply drawn to creative people because of the noble concept back in the day of the artist having been given their talent aka gift by God. Whichever the case may be, the artists benefited from these early versions of stipends and fellowships. In our day and age most artists - painters, musicians, actors, writers - usually need a so-called day job which allows them to pursue their art without being evicted by the landlord. In some countries, the government sometimes acts the part of sugar daddy, but in America, land of the self-made man and woman, we like our artists to suffer heroically for years. Besides, it makes for killer biopics with award-winning performances.

Jill Sobule has been critized for wanting to raise 75k when many indie artists are content with spending only a few hundred, but I say: to each their own. And let's not forget to compare with another indie artform, the shoe-string budget movie, many of which have budgets well above 75k - the marketing of a film alone costs a boatload.

The record business is not what it used to be and there are pros and cons to that. Sobule has been on both major labels and indie labels - now she's on her own, but no woman is an island and sometimes you need a little help from your friends and the best friends any artist has are her/his fans. Your girlfriend/boyfriend may dump you, your parents may never forgive you for not getting a "real" career, your cat or dog may even scowl at you from the corner of the room, but your fans will be there for you with a few bucks for your next recording.

Political candidates in the 21st century must raise an obscene amount of money and may not even win the race - a gamble for their donors that makes playing in Vegas look like a sure bet. So compared to the big spending we're seeing this year on the campaign trail, Sobule is asking for a mere pocketful of change that will result in something very tangible: a new collection of songs for her fans to enjoy. Sure, she could max out her credit card, but instead she's choosing to be "financially creative" in ways that allow her to sleep soundly at night.

I am pretty sure Van Gogh, virtual patron saint of all proud, struggling, starving, half-mad artists would have approved.

[Photo: Vincent Van Gogh, self-portrait, 1887.]