“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?

You decide.

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  • LN

    I actually think it has less to do with the mainstream’s love/hate relationship with monotony, and more to do with artist’s lack of marketing and budgeting skills.

    In a word: These indie artists need better managers.

    I was listening to NPR the other day, and they had an interesting story about a guy who made half a million dollars last year selling ‘geek rock’ (rock that incorporates heavy elements of geek/programming/video game culture). He creates the music and funnels it right to his audience via the internet.

    Also, quite a few artists are making good money on YouTube doing covers of popular songs, and even singing their own music.

    The internet — particularly services like ITunes and YouTube — have given independent artists more power than they’ve ever had.

    And actually, more and more promising up-and-coming artists are choosing to LEAVE big labels and promote themselves.

    Think about it; Ludacris got his start selling CDs out of the trunk of his car. Many southern rap labels are totally in-house — they do their production, printing, marketing, EVERYTHING, and thus they get to keep a bigger cut of their products. I remember when one of my favorite underground rap groups, Little Brother, “made it big” and got signed to Atlantic records. A few disgruntled years later, they left and handled their own affairs.

    I know of quite a few artists who make $30,000, $40,000 even $50,000 a year doing what they love. It just takes some focus, a plan and some business savvy.

    I don’t think it’s helpful for artist’s to blame consumers for their poverty. What they need to do is take a long, hard look at their business plan.

    • excellent comment. one of my favorite commenters on here, Glendon Cameron, recently said something similar about how he’s making a living doing what he loves and self-publishing, while many other friends who are also writers are trapped in contracts that they hate and dont nearly give them a large enough slice of your own pie. and look at these bloggers who have parlayed a creative outlet into book and endorsement deals. heck, look at Ariana Huffington! she started the HuffPost as a popculture/political blog a few years ago and she was just bought out by AOL for MILLIONS. i agree that if you have manage your skills, invest money in yourself and your marketing, and display some business savvy, artist doesnt have to equal poor

    • jamesfrmphilly

      FWIW : i don’t want to have a business plan. i create art. that is all i care to do.

    • @LN

      “I actually think it has less to do with the mainstream’s love/hate relationship with monotony, and more to do with artist’s lack of marketing and budgeting skills.”

      Dag-nab-it!

      You beat me to it, when I read the article, it reminded me of 1999 when there were so many black writers waiting to get put on. The market was there, but creative purists as I term them, were spitting up the Kool-Aid and calling anyone that got a check a sell out!

      With all of the tools of social marketing at hand, you really don’t need a label, publisher or anyone other than your fan base to get your “shine” on.

      Become a advocate of your dream, if you are not passionate it about it, why should I be?

      I speak from experience, I made a gang of loot and in the process made NUMEROUS errors, which is to say, even when you make mistakes you can move forward with your dream.

      You do need a handle on your fear and a gallon of ” get up, get out and get something” in your tank every day to make it happen. No one is going to give it to you!

      A very THICK skin is critical, because you will be criticized, regardless of how good you think you are and what your momma told ya!

      Stop bitching and wishing and start ,baking and dishing! No one will ever know how great you are if you keep mum!

      Amanda Hocking ( fiction writer) made more money in 12 months (over $4 Million) doing what she loved and working her ass off, than most of people reading this article will in a LIFETIME.

      She is like 24 and was turned down by publisher repeatedly, she said eff it and wrote what she wanted to write.

      Ms Hocking, recently signed a sweet book deal with a publisher because , frankly, they need her more than she needs them, which is a bookend to your Luda parallel, I saw that happen and it was beautiful.

      Any writer, that doesn’t have a blog, has not heard of Smashwords, Bookbaby, Creativespace, Scrib, Tumblr and several other portals to get your work out there is really just bullshitting, you can self publish a book for under $1K, with most of that going to editing…

      @serenissima

      Hit me up I got something for ya! iwriteisell@gmail.com

  • SRenda

    Artist does not equal poor. Most people give up on art or on making art their primary outlet and source of income because of beliefs like these. For those of us on here who want to make living with their art you must persist. you have to have a much bigger vision for what you are doing that will have ripples for generations to come even if it means in your lifetime eking out a small income or doing it on the side which doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. It really has to be do or die. Master P said it best when he said “Get rich or Die Trying” you can leave out the ‘die’ part but maybe something like get rich with the art I choose to create and I will thrive for the rest of my life and my dedication to art will influence generations to come. If you choose to the career path of artist then the perspecitve needs to be that any job you take to pay the bills is your side hustle not the other way around. I’ve been at it for over 15 years and while I am by no means rich It has forced me to make many creative decsions about my life. I wouldn’t trade it for golden handcuffs. If you try to give me handcuffs I’ll paint themn instead.

    • Brina

      “If you choose to the career path of artist then the perspecitve needs to be that any job you take to pay the bills is your side hustle not the other way around”

      It’s all about how you think that makes a HUGE difference. I too have a side hustle (9-5) while I work on my career.

  • ash

    art is like prostitution.. first you do it for love…then for a few friends..then for money

  • I can’t participate in the thought process that artistry has to equal poverty. My degree is in Chemistry. I decided to be a performer. Went out and got hired to do it. Its a decision, and when you collapse all other possibilities for the one that you want, it has to happen. I’m not rich. But I’m not miserable either. Joy=riches in this time for me.

  • I really like this article. Finally, there is someone speaking about what is really going on. I blame the mainstream media for this because if they would actually stop hyping up the same ole people and actually give new ORIGINAL artists a chance than maybe, there will not be this “struggling” artist issue. I am a violinist and a writer and according to society that equals poor. I have seen so many struggling artist who are talented but never get the opportunity to share their gift with the world. We really need to start giving other people a chance to put their work out there.