Marty Khan: WTF Do I Do Now?

Marty Khan, Co-Founder & Director, Outward Visions, Inc.  •  June 14, 2012

There is only one thing that we can say without doubt in these perplexing days of trying to earn a living by music: absolutely nobody has any idea what the hell is going on. Oh, there are plenty of theories - especially put forward by those who are trying to forge their own importance in the new environment - Facebook this, Twitter that, social media, viral marketing, upload this, download that (emphasis on load).

Bottom line: there are no easy answers - never have been. But at least in the past there was a methodology that now seems over, done with and, in some ways, lamented. And that is the old lottery system of star-making by labels, managers, publicists and related whatnot. All you had to do is make your music and let the powers that be be the powers they be.

To a degree, it still exists. But now the odds are so top-heavy that you′re better off playing the lottery and not having to bother with all that learning, practicing and rehearsing stuff. So what′s the point and WTF do you do now? To a hard-lined old-school mutha like me, it means a thinning of the herd - fewer phonies, poseurs and mediocre wannabes hammering out a few overused chords, trite melodies and banal lyrics in search of stardom. And there′s always a good chuckle on tap from those who try to outdo Lady Gaga’s carne couture on the path of outrageousness.

So, what is the outlook for those to whom making music is like breathing - those who are simply unable to live any other way? My answer may sound a bit like those who are pulling your chain in the hopes of a hustle: you’ve never had a greater opportunity to make the music you want in the profound spirit of "take care of your music and it will take care of you." But, as in all true revolutions, you have to be willing to give up the tinsel, whipped cream and all the other cosmetic perks that were the extraneous side effects of true commitment and inspiration.

The opportunity to realize your musical aspirations and share them with an audience is palpably in hand, and in so many ways, to a greater degree than ever before. Self-empowerment is truly in front of you. I′ve been hearing about musicians craving self-empowerment for the 40+ years I′ve been in this business. But I found that it was usually something only craved between record deals and management agreements. Now, it’s here in full bloom - like it or not.

For most artists it′s like handing them a shovel, a bag of seeds and a wheelbarrow and saying "food ahead." It’s so much easier to make that great connection, find that fortuitous opportunity or glom onto some Daddy Warbucks and count on serendipity for your success.

It′s those unpleasant words like commitment, responsibility, planning, and that most elusive substance - integrated thinking - that are the necessary tools. Combined with logic, deductive reasoning, good will and an overarching sense of partnership that will do the trick.

And yes, technology and the Internet are key devices. But forget that sense of instant gratification promised by the various viral mania and similar shortcuts. Here′s a good hint. Forget the concept of finding the magic key. Don’t think of the Internet as a means to reach a hundred million people at the click of a mouse and hope that a one-tenth of one percent response will provide those 100,000 sales. Instead, look for 1000 people willing to commit $50 a year to your artistry and its product. That’s a good 45K net. Work from there and build. I wrote that in my book Straight Ahead - A Comprehensive Guide to the Business of Jazz (Without Sacrificing Dignity or Artistic Integrity) 10 years ago, and it’s more valid now than ever.

Of course it′s not a magic formula. It will require lots of application and commitment. Sharing of information, developing mutually beneficial partnerships, utilizing creative marketing techniques, and most importantly, collective action are all essential. It′s going to be hard work - and those who don′t want to do it should find some other way to feed their faces and indulge themselves in the humdrum.

But for those who see music and life as symbiotic, it’s not only the best way, it’s the only way.


About Marty Khan
Marty Khan is co-founder and Director of Outward Visions, Inc., a not-for-profit arts and education service organization founded in 1976. A 35+ year veteran manager, consultant, non-profit expert, producer and activist, he has worked extensively with artists like George Russell,The Art Ensemble of Chicago, World Saxophone Quartet, Sonny Fortune, Oliver Lake and Sam Rivers, along with non-jazz artists like Alwin Nikolais and John Zorn. He has helped set up and/or consulted with over 100 not-for-profit organizations and has lectured on arts and business at numerous educational institutions including Columbia, NYU, Yale, New School University, Rutgers, New England Foundation for the Arts and ASCAP. From 2007 to 2011 he lectured extensively for the Careers in Music courses at the University of Arizona’s Camerata Program. He also developed and participated in seminars for Berklee and the New England Conservatory and New York City′s Department of Cultural Affairs to better inform artists and arts professionals on how to avoid the traps and pitfalls of the arts business. He was the visionary and director of large-scale initiatives and festivals in New York City, Los Angeles, Tucson and Philadelphia. A freelance writer, he is the author of Straight Ahead: A Comprehensive Guide to the Business of Jazz (Without Sacrificing Dignity or Artistic Integrity) and the accompanying Teacher′s Guide, extensive jazz writings, and 10 short stories and three novellas with paranormal overtones that take place in the jazz environment. Khan continues to provide consulting services to a variety of musicians and arts professionals whose goals and aspirations are to search for the highest level of artistic achievement in the classic traditions of the jazz art, and the transcendence of the human spirit.

Click here to download a free chapter from Marty Khan’s book Straight Ahead: A Comprehensive Guide to the Business of Jazz (Without Sacrificing Dignity or Artistic Integrity).

Get more advice and commentary from Marty Khan at his two blogs, Khanfrontation and Straight Ahead Advice.