In an age of digital downloads, file sharing and online streaming, it seems that consumers have come to expect art for free. A decade after Napster's emergence in 1999, the music industry alone saw a 47 percent decrease in sales. Meanwhile, a 2010 survey by Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC) shows that 7 in 10 independent artists work one or more jobs to get by.
“It seems that the younger generation have a lesser appreciation for art than their parents did because of the gadgets and television that take people away from natural creativity,” says San Francisco street musician/percussionist John F. King II. King is practically an institution at the Embarcadero Ferry Building, where he has played for tourists, vendors and locals for more than nine years. His entire livelihood depends on the donations he receives. Though it is often a struggle to make ends meet, he remains determined to pursue his passion for music. “It's hard to call it a job because it's my love,” King says.
For graduate student Madeline Clifford, summer months tend to be the most challenging time of year as an independent artist. Clifford, also known as "MADlines" for her lyrical skill, is currently enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts/Poetry program at Mills College in Oakland. In addition to performing her poetry and rapping, she has done lifeguard training to earn extra money, taken on babysitting jobs and even applied for food stamps so that she can have enough to eat at the end of the day. “I have to tell myself that it's gonna be okay. That I have a support system and that I won't be on the street,” she says. “It just puts things into perspective. People are doing this [art] because they absolutely have to. It's just something in their being.”
“We've said it in very polite ways of 'Can you help us eat? Can you help me not come out of pocket?' versus telling people, 'You know it's insulting for you to make it so art can only be done by those who can give it away,'” says HBO Def Jam poet and educator Mark Gonzales. “I think food should be free also, but we paid the caterer.”
Alternatively, graffiti artist Juse One has found stronger appreciation and support for independent artists since moving abroad a year ago to Europe. The New York native lives with his wife in Copenhagen, where he works as a freelance artist and part-time street art/graffiti instructor at a nonprofit for low-income youth called Street Mekka. When he was an undergrad at Hunter College, Juse One recalls, his art was often relegated to a “side gig” while he worked three to four nights a week as a club bouncer in Manhattan. “When I was really in a pinch, I would take my last 40 or 50 bucks, buy some canvases, some Utrect or Pearl paint, go up to 59th Street and make paintings. Every time I went up there, I was able to come away with a couple hundred bucks and stay fed for another week or two,” he says in an email.
Since moving to Denmark, however, Juse One has been able to make his passion for art into full-time career. “They value artwork on an everyday level much more than my fellow Americans. Even young Danes seem to be interested in buying art. I can't think of more than one or two of my American friends (whom I am quite close too) that have ever wanted my artwork enough to insist on paying me for it,” he writes.
Making a Living in the U.S.
Instead of relying on income generated from album or DVD sales alone, Gillian Grassie, a 24-year-old harpist/singer-songwriter from Philadelphia, wears many hats as an independent musician. Grassie plays everywhere from living room concerts to large club venues, she does master classes for harpists and even speaking engagements at schools. "People often tell you to find your niche and stick to it. What I’ve actually found most successful in terms of trying to build a sustainable living through music is to cast my net pretty wide,” she says.
She has even had success touring with her harp abroad in places like Russia, China, India and France. Most recently, Grassie returned from a month-long ESL (English as a Second Language) Folk Project tour through Peru, Colombia and Ecuador funded by the Fulbright Program as well as the English Language Offices of the U.S. State Department.
Online "crowdfunding" sites have also allowed Grassie to find ways of generating financial backing for her upcoming album “The Hinter Haus.” Kickstarter and IndieGoGo are two of the biggest online funding platforms often used by artists looking to raise money for creative projects.
Within only five days of launching her Kickstarter campaign, Grassie met her initial fundraising goal of $8,000. By the end of the campaign sheexceeded her goal, raising just over $14,000 (with a 5 percent fee from Kickstarter).
Gonzales, the spoken word artist, developed his career out of a combined love of poetry and education. He has a masters in education from the University of California, Los Angeles, and performs his work nationally and abroad. According to his biography, as an educator Gonzales engages elements of poetry and hip-hop culture in his curriculum to transform the classroom into a space for “invention” and “imagination.” In the fall, he will be teaching a course called "Poetics, Culture, and Geopolitics: Performing Power" at Stanford University's drama department as an assistant professor and resident artist.
Gonzales's strategy for becoming a self-sustainable artist? “Don’t sell people things they don’t need. When your art and your creativity speak to a human need, people will seek you out,” he says.
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