“Since I was seventeen I thought I might be a star. I’d think about all my heroes, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix… I had a romantic feeling about how these people became famous.” ~ Jean-Michel Basquiat
Inspiration and discouragement walk finger-laced through the artistic capitals of the world, stopping for a gentle moment to kiss, or breaking for an intense instant of conflict and passion. Independent artists feel the constant ying and yang of this ever-conflicted relationship, wading through recurring financial and emotional struggles in cities such as New York, Paris, London, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Between student loans, half-regulated rent, and minimum-wage-paying gigs, it’s a wonder that independent artists are not lining up on city rooftops with instruments, notebooks, microphones, dance shoes, scripts, and cameras, preparing to jump into the next lifetime. Instead, we play hard, drawing fuel from disappointment and slow achievement like a solar panel from the sun. We transform rejection into motivation. We move surreptitiously through obstacles.
On a late Monday evening, I sat surrounded by ordinary-looking people of all ethnicities, sexual orientations, and nationalities, soaking up an overwhelming improvisation performance at Manhattan’s historic Blue Note. Local singers, hip-hop artists, soprano saxophone performers, violin players, and electric guitar entertainers freestyled numerous jam sessions while combining art with spontaneity devoid of imperfection. After the opera singer shattered our scale of expectation and an alto took us deep into thought, I stood wide-eyed in fortunate discovery but recognizing the bittersweet dream of many independent artists.
As mainstream consumers bitch and moan about the lack of diversity in music, literature, dance, and film, independent artists channel their frustration into making art that rarely meets the ear or eye. Each day, a handful of independent artists receive the opportunity to carry their work into the mainstream, but most albums, shows, and books flop due to the twisted love-hate relationship that mainstream consumers share with mainstream monotony.
The consumer does not decide what’s hot and artistic talent is not a prerequisite for mainstream success. In fact, mass marketing campaigns, repeated radio plays, Oprah’s book endorsements, and powerhouse-funded films decide who has got “next” in every artistic industry. And most consumers, too lazy to venture beyond the latest talk show endorsement or popular deejay’s “exclusive shit” rhetoric, eat exactly what they’re fed, despite issuing complaints regarding the creative lull that tends to plague every artistic industry. Originality is rarely “it” anymore and if an independent artist wants to go mainstream, they tend to sacrifice innovation for fame and success.
But we know this, right? The underground scene is nothing new and its juxtaposition to mainstream artistry continues to symbolize the difference between night and day. That incredible self-published book sees minimal Amazon sales. That dope mixtape collects dust under the bed of some artist’s Brooklyn apartment. That mind-blowing performance only blesses the ears of a hundred people. And the cycle continues.
Reading that Basquiat quote, I weep knowing that many independent artists start with romantic feelings about how the famous become famous. But regardless, independent artistry survives through the depths of lows and the limitations of highs, even if mainstream consumers largely ignore it.
Perhaps, the real question is:
Do independent artists really need mainstream validation? Could we make decent livings if complainers actually backed up hot air with financial support? Will artistry ever stop being a synonym for conflicted and poor?