The Mom and Pop Artist

A few months back, Pomplamoose lost money on their big, multi-city tour. A lot of the conversation and criticism seemed to focus on how Pomplamoose managed the tour poorly, or how they aren’t anything special. Blah, blah blah. As for me, I have another question for Pomplamoose …

I consider myself a casual fan of Pomplamoose, mainly because I like what they do in their very creative YouTube videos. I also enjoy their covers and mash-ups of popular songs. I like the fact that they have figured out how to make a decent living off their music and videos. Jack Conte said as much (in the above-linked blog):

We, the creative class, are finding ways to make a living making music, drawing webcomics, writing articles, coding games, recording podcasts. Most people don’t know our names or faces. We are not on magazine covers at the grocery store. We are not rich, and we are not famous.

We are the mom and pop corner store version of “the dream.” If Lady Gaga is McDonald’s, we’re Betty’s Diner. And we’re open 24/7

What Jack is describing is perhaps the new future for aspiring musicians, artists, and even filmmakers. The major labels and industries, now more than ever, are focused on the mean. Katy Perry. Transformers 5. Bieber. For those who aspire to something different and are willing to work to build a modest following and a modest living, the tools are there, and they have never been better. Pomplamoose makes a living making their videos and songs.

But they were determined to go on tour, and they lost money on that tour. My question for Pomplamoose: if what you’re doing on YouTube and iTunes is working, why do you need to do something else? Why do you need a tour?

What does it mean to “make it?”

Fifteen years ago, the major studios and labels had a lot more money to make a lot more product. A lot more bands could “make it,” if making it is a fat recording contract and a tour bus. But it was never a given. For every major label act, there were a thousand more who never got their shot at a recording contract. Then you had the acts who got their contract, but the label decided weren’t as marketable as other acts. Their tours weren’t supported.

Now the industry has less money for fewer acts. So it’s even more of a longshot — but it was always a longshot.

Is it the fault of the Internet? Yes, absolutely, blame the Internet. People don’t go to shows anymore. People stream music. But that same internet that made the longshot longer now provides all the tools you need to make a living — perhaps a decent living — making your own music in your own home. You don’t get the tour bus and the toilet seat made of gold. But you get to make music for a living.

I see a similar trend happening in film. Tentpoles are the norm since small independents don’t make money overseas, and the overseas box office is where the action is. If making it as a filmmaker was theatrical distribution, there’s now a lot less room to make it, especially for indies. The chances of theatrical distribution are lower than ever, and the distributors are going to make sure they get their cut (they always have), leaving very little of a dwindling box office for filmmakers. But, like music, the tools are there. Digital cuts the divide between the haves and have nots, maybe not completely, but enough that the little guy can compete for a small segment of the market. No, it’s not a theatrical distribution deal with a wide release, but it’s something.

Which brings us back to the question: what does it mean to make it?

Does making it mean a multi-city, rock-and-roll tour?

Does making it mean a wide theatrical release?

If so, then it’s harder than ever, and it isn’t getting any better. Seriously, you should quit. People don’t go to shows anymore when they can listen to virtually any song in recorded music history on their iPhone, and see a lot of really great concerts on YouTube. Movie theaters now compete with home theater systems and tens of thousands of titles available on Netflix and Amazon. It sucks if you want to be a touring rock star or want to see your name on a movie theater marquee. It really sucks for you.

But, if you just want to make music that means something, or movies that come from the heart, and you are content to make a modest living doing so, the tools are there. No, you may not have the best equipment money can buy and the weight of a studio at your back, but a laptop and a little creativity are all it takes to make something decent enough to find a loyal following. And for that loyal following who will provide you a decent living, your art may be the thing that gives them the hope they need to get through tomorrow. It won’t be in a sold-out arena or on 1,000 screens, but it could happen in the privacy of someone’s bedroom, where even a little beauty goes a long way.

So, could making it mean a career spent on YouTube or Amazon? It might, if we allow our paradigms to shift enough to see it.

Photo credit: ncrob1 [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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