The Poor Artist

by Sheldon Rocha Leal

In my career as an artist, educator and songwriter I have met many people and because of my background in Law I have advised many artists, including some of my own students…past and present.

Over the years and since I have been involved in the music industry, there is one misconception which has really annoyed me and that is that of the struggling or starving musician/artist.

To be honest, I almost feel that we as musicians/artists are partially responsible for reinforcing this misconception. I feel that we don’t often ask for what we want and when we don’t get what we want, and we see others getting more than us, we get upset.

The truth is you get what you negotiate for. People often settle for getting paid nothing, don’t read their contracts and then feel like they’ve been robbed. Musicians need to understand that, as an artist and artisan, they have worked hard to hone their craft and that, there is a monetary value attached to that level of expertise. Asking for anything less than what you’re worth is an injustice and lowers the whole industry for everybody else.

I’ve heard many artists/musicians saying that they can’t ask for certain prices or raise their prices from one year to the next. People won’t respect your craft if you don’t respect your own craft. A doctor wouldn’t lower their prices or not increase their consultation fees from one year to the next, so why should we as artists.

It’s incomprehensible to me to hear of cases where musicians, who are employed on full-time contracts, go to work for months on end without getting paid and then complain that they are not getting paid: if you are not getting paid, you do not go to work, that’s how it works in any other industry and that is how it should work in the music industry. If you do not establish the boundaries from the get go, you have no one else to blame but yourself, when your employer starts blurring the lines. At the end of the day, your employer is running a business and they are looking after the bottom line. If they can save a few thousand here or there, then that’s exactly what they are going to do: that is the nature of the beast.

Another scenario that really annoys me is when I hear musicians saying that they won’t do certain gigs or perform certain music, because they don’t want to sell out. It’s a business and I think that many musicians forget, that it’s about money at the end of the day. One needs to pay the rent and put food on the table. If you are going to be that precious, the only person you will be performing for, is your grandmother on a Sunday afternoon. I think the confusion lies in the fact that music is such a personal thing, and not only is it a job, it’s also a vocation. Musicians needs to learn to separate the two. The reality, however, is that it’s a job, just like anything else, and if you expect to make money, you need to give the audience what they want. It might not be what you want, but unfortunately that’s not what it’s about.

Finally some musicians will take forever to complete a project. This is unacceptable. We need to be more disciplined and approach our art like a business. If you are relying on your art-form to pay the bills, then you need to be disciplined and fastidious about what you do. People like Mozart and Beethoven wrote hundreds of works at a time when they didn’t have access to the technology we now have at our disposal. We have no excuse.

We as an industry need to stick together and take responsibility for our careers, otherwise we’ll encounter situations, to which I’m exposed, occasionally when people hear I’m a singer.

Dinner Guest: “What do you do for a living?”

Me: “I’m a singer”

Dinner Guest: “That’s so cool, can you sing something for me?”

Me: “No…What do you do for a living?”

Dinner Guest: “I’m an accountant”

Me: “Can you do a quick bank recon for me”

Dinner Guest: “No, I get paid for that”

Me: “Exactly…what I do is an art, it’s something for which I have spent many hours training and perfecting. I’m not going to sing at a dinner for free, I get paid to sing. Like an accountant gets paid to do recons. I need to be in the right frame of mind, I need to rehearse and I need to warm up before I open my mouth to sing”.

People who just sing in these situations are the people that give the public the wrong impression of what we do. This gives the public the perception that music is something anyone can do, that doesn’t really have a value and that any old person can start a studio and start teaching music. All misconceptions…

Therefore in closing these are some of the things you need to consider when entering a career in the arts:

  1. Don’t think that others will have your best interests at heart, read your contracts carefully and take responsibility for your career.
  2. If there is something you don’t understand, don’t be scared to ask for help, but don’t defer your responsibility to someone else. You’ll be asking for trouble.
  3. Don’t be scared to ask for what you’re worth, don’t let people bully you in doing your job for less.
  4. Don’t do a job if you don’t get paid.
  5. Remember it’s a business. Be disciplined about what you do.
  6. Give the audience what they want.
  7. We need to stop being precious about what we do, it’s a job, we need to just get it done.
  8. We can’t be going around giving freebees at every dinner party, it depreciates our art and gives people the wrong impression.
  9. We need to conduct our business professionally and with integrity.
  10. If we stick together and take responsibility for what we do, the rewards will come, because the cream always rises to the top.

When people say that the music industry is a tough industry I almost feel like, it’s like any other industry: only those people who are most passionate and willing to make the sacrifices, who reap the rewards of what the career has to offer. But that is true of any profession, vocation or career.

At the end of the day we need to be the lead characters in our movies and we must top casting ourselves as extras in our own production. We can’t get upset with others for not valuing our business, if we don’t even value it ourselves.