Creative and Professional Success for Independent Artists/Musicians
Part One: What Defines Success? Article & photos by Jack Gold-Molina
Defining success is something that preoccupies most professional artists. It could be making music that is creatively satisfying and will attract listeners. It could be marketing themselves effectively to get people to buy their music and attend their shows. It may also be achieving a very high level of musicianship, partly in order to be more competitive, but also to be certain that they are challenging themselves and putting in the countless hours of practice that it takes to be the best there is.
Doing things for others is also a primary motivator for many creative artists and musicians. Making enough money to survive and do what they love – pursuing their creativity, performing, and making a positive difference in the world – is often preferable to doing anything else. Musicians open schools such as the Seattle Drum School and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) that has locations in Chicago and New York City. Children, adults and families can study music and culture and get involved with other people in their neighborhoods through the programs at these schools. The success of music teachers is defined by how well their students learn their instruments, advance in their lessons, and develop as musicians and artists.
The Seattle Drum School was founded in 1986 and established itself as a leading Northwest vocational music school for drum set, guitar, bass, voice, piano, horns, and musical studies. The school’s mission is to provide a community and a culture that encourages learning, friendship, personal growth, and self-expression for students, their families, and staff. As the school’s web site states, “Our programs include valuable information and experiences that provide our students with the necessary tools, confidence, and inspiration for becoming professional musicians, college music majors, or for pursuing music as a fulfilling hobby. You’ll learn from some of the most distinguished musicians and teachers in the area.”
“One thing, I think, is perseverance,” said Seattle Drum School co-owner Kristy Smith, when she and her husband, founder Steve Smith, were asked about their success as educators and as artists/musicians. “We can’t help but be creative. That is part of our nature, in a way, but the thing that makes a business last is sticking with it. I don’t think that you can ever take the creativity out of it. We have each other to champion the cause, which is trying to inspire other people to use their creativity and to not let it drop when they get discouraged, because everyone gets discouraged.”
“Our creativity feeds off of each other – being able to stick with it, keep our eye on the mission and what we are trying to do, and making sure that it stays at the focal point,” adds Steve Smith. “I think a lot of the success that this business has been built on, for the longest time, was the quality of people that we attracted. I don’t know for sure how much credit for that I can take. I have always been a teacher, so I think there is a strength in the fundamental concept of doing this. It seems like a very natural thing for me to do. As a business, the way that it expanded and the way it grew over the years has a lot to do with the right people showing up, people who are likeminded. I have always loved playing and learning music. I think that maybe that is part of the gravity of bringing all of these other people around – the teachers, the staff. Without that, a school is just an information vendor, and there are plenty of those. I got very lucky with a lot of the people that kept coming around.”
“People think that I must have had some sort of a plan to do that, and I didn’t. I just worked my butt off,” Steve Smith continued. “I always want to improve. I’m always learning. I’m always trying to come up with a better way. I have taught so many people over the years and I never quit, on anybody, I don’t care who they are. I don’t care what their problems are. I don’t care how young they are. I don’t care how old they are, how successful they are, or how frustrated they are. I totally believe that I can figure out a way to help that person learn as fast as possible, and what will make them want to do it. That, I think, is a lot of that attraction.”
The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) was founded in May 1965 in Chicago, Illinois, by pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams, pianist Jodie Christian, drummer Steve McCall, and composer Kelan Phil Cohran. In August 1965, it was chartered by the State of Illinois as a non-profit, tax-exempt organization. The AACM has been established for more than 50 years as a collective formed to meet the emerging needs of dynamic and visionary artists, to expose and showcase their original compositions, and to create an outlet for the development and performance of their music. Internationally renowned for its unparalleled contributions to modern music, the AACM has been a leader in the cultural community in the United States and internationally.
The nine purposes of the AACM, as outlined in its charter and printed in brochures and publications produced by the organization are:
- To cultivate young musicians and to create music of a high artistic level for the general public through the presentation of programs designed to magnify the importance of creative music.
- To create an atmosphere conducive to artistic endeavors for the artistically inclined by maintaining a workshop for the express purpose of bringing talented musicians together.
- To conduct a free training program for young aspirant musicians.
- To contribute financially to the programs of the Abraham Lincoln Center, 700 E. Oakwood Blvd., Chicago, Ill., and other charitable organizations.
- To provide a source of employment to worthy creative musicians.
- To set an example of high moral standards for musicians and to uplift the public image of creative musicians.
- To increase mutual respect between creative artists and musical tradesmen (booking agents, managers, promoters, and instrument manufacturers, etc.)
- To uphold the tradition of cultured musicians handed down from the past.
- To stimulate spiritual growth in creative artists through recitals, concerts, etc., through participation in programs.
According the organization’s website, “Since its inception, one mission has been to provide an atmosphere conducive to the development of its member artists and to continue the AACM legacy of providing leadership and vision for the development of creative music. The organization takes particular pride in developing new generations of talent through the free music training program conducted by members for city youth, the AACM School of Music. Another equally important aspect of AACM’s mission is the high moral standard members seek to provide in their capacities as performers, artists, teachers, and role models.”
Reeds player and multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell has dedicated his life to creative music as a performer and educator. “I studied music in high school. I studied the clarinet in Milwaukee and then we came back to Chicago and I continued to study at Inglewood High School,” he said in a 2004 interview. “I also studied when I was in the Army with the first clarinetist of the Heidelberg Symphony. I would say I started to develop some musician chops when I was in the Army because there you were functioning 24 hours-a-day as a professional musician.”
Since the early 1960’s, Mitchell’s innovation as an improviser, composer, bandleader and solo performer has placed him at the forefront of modern music. He is a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the Creative Arts Collective of East Lansing, Michigan, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. “‘The Art Ensemble’ became ‘The Art Ensemble of Chicago’ when we went to France. Like ‘The Art Ensemble’ and other small groups like Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Wadada Leo Smith, Muhal Richard Abrams, all of these groups are outgrowths from the larger organization which was the AACM – the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. This is an organization that came together because musicians wanted to have more control over their destinies, and they wanted to sponsor each other in concerts of their own creative music. When we went to Europe, we became ‘The Art Ensemble of Chicago.’ We decided on that name because it kind of let people know where we were from.”
“’69 is, I think, when we went to Europe,” Mitchell continued. “We got ourselves established there and we ended up doing a tour of France, all on Maison de la Courtiers, while we were there. We did concerts in Denmark, in Sweden. We’d be in Chicago for a while but before we went to Europe we had been out on the West Coast a couple of times, and we had just exhausted our places to go in the States. We had been to Canada, and so on. We figured it would take about 20 years to get known because you didn’t have the Internet like you do now. So, for us it was the next kind of logical step.”
Although Mitchell has received numerous grants from such institutions as the National Endowment for the Arts, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and the Institut de Recherche at Coordination Acoustique Musique in Paris, France, his focus has never strayed from his continuous artistic growth. “Our goal has always been just to study music. I’m a very strong believer to be really a good improviser you have to understand how composition works also. So, you have to be able to write, you have to be able to play, you have to be able to improvise as a soloist, you have to be able to improvise in a larger ensemble, and so on and so forth like that.”
Mitchell is the recipient of many high profile honors and awards including the Outstanding Service to Jazz Education Award from the National Association of Jazz Educators, the Certificate of Appreciation from the St. Louis Public Schools Role Model Experiences Program, the Certificate of Appreciation for the Art Ensemble of Chicago from the Smithsonian Institution, the Jazz Masters Award from Arts Midwest, the International Jazz Critics Poll, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Image Award. He has conducted numerous workshops in the United States and Europe and has held artist-in-resident positions throughout the world. He has taught at the Creative Music Studio, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians’ School of Music, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Illinois, the California Institute of the Arts, and Mills College in Oakland, California, where he has held the Darius Milhaud Chair of Composition since 2007.
Another example of an independent creative musician who has received high profile recognition for her contributions as an artist and educator is Seattle-based saxophonist Kate Olson. She has shared the stage with the likes of Wayne Horvitz, Elvis Costello, Terry Riley, and Sir Mix-A-Lot, and has a musical focus and versatility that covers multiple styles ranging from creative and mainstream jazz to rock and hip hop. She has earned degrees in Music and Improvisation from the University of Wyoming and the University of Michigan. “I guess success is a matter of viewpoint,” she said, when asked about how she defines success as an artist. “I think I’m an engaging performer, I work hard to deliver a good product, and I’ve trained for years to not only be a professional musician, but also a business person. My mission is to help make the world a more beautiful and caring place by bringing people together over authentic and creative performances.”
“I’m not exactly living my dream, but I don’t have any complaints,” she continued. “I was raised to be financially responsible and independent, so I don’t really have a choice, culturally, to step away from that. I can’t think of anyone in Seattle who doesn’t have a tight web of support and system of bail outs who is able to subsist on their income solely from music, or who does that without occasionally sacrificing what they do artistically. I take the amount of paying work that I need to make that happen.”
Olson’s own projects include KO SOLO and KO ELECTRIC, and her collaborations include Syrinx Effect, Ask the Ages, Seattle Rock Orchestra, Electric Circus, and Seattle Jazz Composers Ensemble. She has been featured in television commercials, has performed in Europe, Latin America and Korea, and has been nominated for the Earshot Golden Ear Award on five separate occasions in four different years. “I’m not funded,” she said, when asked about creativity as it relates to funding. “The closest thing to funding I have at the moment is a 4culture grant that is helping to offset the cost of making the next Syrinx Effect record. We were awarded $6k. That is not the full cost of the record.”
“Ideally, I would be making more passive income,” she continued. “I’m not really internet savvy enough to monetize any of my social media, although I know that’s possible. I’ve thought about writing some method books or publishing some transcriptions. I’m also interested in writing for video games, but again, I don’t have a way into the scene, so it’s a struggle to think about dedicating time to networking in that direction. I’ve put up my own money for everything. Ideally, I’d also be applying for every grant I possibly could, and hopefully getting some of them. I think residencies would be great too.”
UK reeds player and vocalist Craig High, who is a member of known space rock bands and underground festival regulars Black Light Secret and Spiral Navigators, has a contrasting, yet not dissimilar, point of view. “Success is a relative concept and I wouldn’t necessarily apply it to me if the paradigm used is fame,” he said, when interviewed about his approach to creativity. “My vision is a world where competition has been subordinated to cooperation and a communal interest in transcending the physical reality we experience through our senses.”
“My strategy is underground creative projects that both inform and entertain,” High explains further. “Underground culture is traditionally and intentionally starved of income. Security firms, the breweries, and license fees suck nearly all the income from the venues and events I play. My expenses are sometimes covered but generally my music is financed from elsewhere. The arts are the same as they were in the Middle Ages. A small minority of performers are employed by the establishment and are rewarded handsomely but the vast majority live hand to mouth existences because hierarchy and the pyramidal system does not spread resources fairly or efficiently.”
“The Big Green Gathering was a case in point last weekend,” High continued. “I personally got £15, one free meal and one free drink, but I didn’t have to pay the £90 to get in. It cost me £40 in diesel to get there and back, so the petro chemical industry makes out of my gigs more than I do as well as the breweries and government through licensing. I play a lot of free events and benefit events too, but I know there are many corporate institutions who produce nothing but bureaucracy who rake off money that should be going to those who are producing the entertainment that draws the crowds that generate the income – another and perhaps more personal reason for being anti-hierarchical. The fact I function as a performer at all is somewhat of a miracle. It is on record that I am considered by the state to be ‘unemployable,’ so I make my own way as best I can. (I’d) rather that than be a bird in a gilded cage like celebrities who mostly have little or no control over the content of their art.”
While keeping with one’s own original approach, it is also important to maintain a broader outlook. “A lot of it is responding to what is going on in the world and seeing my perspective of what is needed more than anything else,” explains Roger Fisher, original founding guitarist for Heart and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, when asked about how he is inspired as a creative artist. “It seems to me that humanity needs to make a paradigm shift and get on a higher level or we are doomed. If I were to translate to music those concerns – I’m really concerned because the planet is really headed in a precarious place – in the songs that I write there are magic little mechanisms in there to manipulate the mind. So, theoretically when you listen to my music, you get charged emotionally and spiritually. You may even want to dance, so I think it is good stuff. So much of it is really relevant because of responding to things going on in the world.”
“Success to me is, on a daily basis, how I am able to achieve happiness,” Fisher continued. “Every day I am successful and it feels wonderful. It’s because I’m not wanting something that I don’t have. I’m creating and giving to everybody else. It’s not about me, it’s about what I can give. About five days a week my brother (producer Michael Fisher) and I get together and work. We just live and breathe this craft – music and music videos and live performance of course. And so any day that Mike and I are working together, I am successful because there is nothing else I would rather do. We are trying to get work done and we have intentions of getting it to the world, but I don’t get too wigged out about things not happening fast enough. When everything takes so long, I just think, ‘Well, there’s a good reason for this.’ I’m a 68 year-old rock guy, rock is dead, the 68 year-old isn’t dead, and his little dream of really having something popular is still brightly burning in his soul.”
In the second part of this story, we look at determining and understanding what the future holds for independent creative artists/musicians.
KatePlaysSax.com (2018). Bio – Kate Olson. Retrieved from: http://www.kateplayssax.com/bio/
The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) (2018). About AACM. Retrieved from: http://www.aacmchicago.org/about/
Cook, R. (2005). Richard Cook’s Jazz Encyclopedia. Penguin Books: London.
Lewis, G.E. (2008). A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London.
Mills College (2018). Music Faculty & Staff: Roscoe Mitchell. Mills College. Retrieved from: https://inside.mills.edu/academics/faculty/mus/rmitchell/rmitchell.php
Molina, J. (2004). Roscoe Mitchell: In Search of the Super Musician. All About Jazz.
Molina, J. (2017). Interview with Roger Fisher.
Molina, J. (2017). Interview with Craig High.
Molina, J. (2017). Interview with Kate Olson.
Molina, J. (2017). Interview with Steve and Kristy Smith.
Seattle Drum School (2018). About Seattle Drum School. Retrieved from: http://www.seattledrumschool.com/about-us/
Sorrell, R. (2015). The Audacious Archive of the AACM. South Side Weekly. Retrieved from: https://southsideweekly.com/the-audacious-archive-of-the-aacm/
Wikipedia (2018). Roscoe Mitchell. Wikipedia. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roscoe_Mitchell