I’ve been thinking about art and how the pay works. There was some talk about pirating works recently on Twitter. And then that spiraled into another discussion about how streaming and whatnot affects artists. I’m not in a band, but I do travel for comedy. I am at what you’d call a somewhat lower level – no one is demanding that I headline or anything, and I’m just one guy sending out avails to bookers like everybody else. Both bands and comedy involve a lot of slumming it. Lots of nights driving to and from places. The money isn’t great, as you’d expect from bar shows doing it out of passion – dingy Irish pubs, cheap beers, cool out of the way spaces like book shows and art galleries. That’s the stuff; it’s not corporate gigs and it shouldn’t be. I once said I made enough money doing comedy to survive in the specific lifestyle portrayed in the 50s book MIDNIGHT COWBOY, where most of the characters are homeless drifters. I stand by that and it hasn’t changed.

It’s funny how it works – I’d really like to be able to go travel and do comedy way more. I’m at least good enough to get booked consistently now. But the gas prices don’t care about that. It might be going down a little now. $4.49 for gas seeming like a bargain – what a world. It’s still just not worth it to go and drive more than a few hours. Even driving two hours, while doable, I’m losing money. It’s more out of passion and playing a long game – if I travel enough and get seen enough, I can build momentum. Or that’s what I tell myself. But with the insane gas prices and everything else being so fucking expensive, I just had to start really calculating things. I’m pretty awful at math, but it seems like I just have to be way more choosy about where I go. It’s a cost benefit thing. Then again, since I started this piece, gas prices are mildly down at like $4 a gallon now. We live in the lap of luxury.

And this isn’t a new thing I just invented or thought of. Any artists or bands will tell you it’s a fucking criminal thing, the pay and all of that. We’re out there making a go of it and if we don’t have rich parents to help us live in LA or NY and get the right connections, we’re all pretty indie for the most part. For comedy you can do the cruise ships or the corporate gigs, but really, not everybody’s cut out for that. Not everybody really wants to do the board room lunchtime gigs where everyone’s eating gas station tuna sandwiches and apples and drinking Cokes in the middle of the day. A buddy of mine said you do those shows to do the comedy you really want to do later. I can respect that.

Read a NYT piece recently about Janeane Garofalo, whose work I’m not familiar with. It basically went into her strident devotion to being “alt.” Back in the 90s that was all the rage. It spilled over into the early ’00s when I was finally becoming culturally conscious in small and weird ways – I remember loving all the weird movies I could find, getting into heavy metal, all this stuff; I was really into that sense of finding something “other.” It’s a very pure instinct.

The Garofalo article makes mention of how she would never even repeat bits that did too well – “anything that was successful, she didn’t want to do.” I love that. There’s something in it, a spunk, that really speaks to me, because it’s sort of the essence of comedy to me. The going-out-on-a-limb. The adventurousness. I do repeat bits that work, as do a lot of comics, but that Garofalo anecdote really spoke to me about what the most exciting part of it is, which is the failing. When you come up with a good bit and throw it out in the void of a crowd at a mic, not knowing whether there’ll be any return. Especially for more long-winded or complicated bits. That’s what I like about doing this. I think it should be valid just to like doing something to do it. The Mike Birbiglia movie DON’T THINK TWICE was about that.

But everyone needs art in their lives. And as a whole it does have an industry. Just taking a cursory glance at the statistics for Florida’s arts and culture economy:

“The industry generated $166.3 billion of economic activity and $63.8 billion by the nation’s nonprofit arts and culture organizations. This economic activity supports 4.6 million full-time jobs and generates $49.4 billion in resident household income. The arts and culture industry also generates $27.5 billion in revenue to local, state, and federal governments—a yield well beyond their collective $5 billion in arts allocations.”

Quite a hefty thing. The report ends up saying the arts have a ripple sort of effect on everything else. You go out to the arts and then you pay for parking, dinner, a bunch of stuff. But there’s also a wide gulf there because there’s so many artists out there, and the big respectable money isn’t funneled in every direction equally. Then they cut the arts funding for schools and kids. Spotify will cut peoples’ comedy albums off their service and hoard all their money for a bodybuilding anti-vaxxer. There’s not a lot of equity going around. Never has been.

And it just goes into another thing I just read yesterday – this Carmen Maria Machado piece about why it’s OK for artists to not rush into the business side of things. It talks a lot about how sometimes really good art takes a while to marinate. But the rush is understandable because, again, we all need the money and we want to try and climb that ladder and open doors. I always thought this too. Why rush? Why promote a product that isn’t really as good as it could be yet? Of course, now we have to contend with the burning Earth. How much time do we really have left? Who knows?

But it’d be nice if we could all just have the time and license to do whatever we want more often.

Nothing I’m saying here is going to change anything. It probably comes off as a lot of bitching. But I think about this stuff a lot.

The Grind

I’ve been slacking on trying to promote my existing writing because I have been undertaking National Novel Writing Month and doing new stuff instead. That’s the persistent temptation – I just love the feeling of chasing a new story.

It’s a 1920s historical fiction tale about a made-up blues guitarist back then. I am woefully unprepared for this kind of thing. I’ve never been a history buff and I’m also writing extensively about a Black man and racial issues of the time. All of it could go so wrong this thing may never even try to see the light of day. But I think there is a part of me that just really wants to go after it and try it. What is art if not trying things that could fail? Can’t ever be too safe.

Aside from the specifics of the story, I’ve just been thinking about writing in general. I feel like you’re not a good writer if you can look back at your stuff and be like yeah, all of it was good. My old stuff was good for the time. I can read it now and be like ‘well, there’s a lot I’d do differently today.’ I’ve been trying to shift my writing to a sort of show don’t tell mentality where I just describe things in a basic manner, have some dialogue, and let people figure out the rest in their heads – no need for a lot of inner monologuing from characters if I can help it. I feel like the best writing just transports you and makes you forget you’re even reading at all, skipping along like a rock on water, pure imagination. Too much wordiness or introspection from a character can, in the wrong hands, spoil that.

But on the other hand, the more I write and read, the clearer it is that there are no real rules for anything. Anybody who tells you there are is either an English teacher just trying to get you to pass a class or lying to you. There are infinite ways to tell a story. The fun part is getting it to the point where it can reach people. Maybe I’ll be able to do that some more sometime soon.

Starving Artist

I saw this Tweet thread this morning, reacting to the news of the Squid Game creator, who apparently struggled for years, had to sell his laptop, got rejected, et cetera before finally breaking big with his show recently. His show is about the monstrous ills and woes of capitalism, how it eats people alive, which makes a lot of the stuff he went through seem pretty personal. Almost meta.

But then, as the Tweets say, you get this narrative where it’s inspiring. People will say “never give up.” They’ll say “follow your dreams.” It’s a good general way to go about life in that we all need stuff to keep us happy and fulfilled. And maybe once in a while you do get published. I was glad to get the stories I’ve published out in the world. It is possible.

However, there was always the slight voice in the back of my mind telling me this was a bit annoying, the whole follow your dreams narrative.

It’s just in the kind of empty-calorie optimism in that statement. “If you just keep working hard, you’ll be on Netflix or published by Penguin Random House or have your own TV show or your dream job just like that!” I don’t know. There are ways to be fulfilled and there are ways to live a fine life. But the entertainment industry, and breaking big in any way – that’s a tough thing to do. Most of us won’t, in writing or comedy or film or any of it. I’ll see comedians make Facebook pages for themselves a year or so into comedy. That just seems bizarre to me. You don’t even know what you’re selling yet. Some comics do it for 10, 20, 30 years before they really get any success. It seems like deluding yourself.

And the world is full of these stories of artists not making it for decades or something. The entertainment system’s gatekeepers pick what they want at the time and other things inevitably get left behind. Loads of the things I like, movies or bands for example, I can go on their Wikipedia pages and see the same thing like clockwork, like the refrain of a song: “initially the work was panned and critics hated it, but years later it was reassessed as a masterpiece.” It makes you wonder if maybe nothing is ever objective. And it makes you wonder who else we’re sleeping on.

As I write this I’m playing a John Lee Hooker album. This is a guy who made music for literally like 40 or 50 years before finally getting a charting album in his 70s. That’s crazy to me. Inspiring, but wow, I don’t think he was planning on it taking so long.

The industry and art are like yin and yang – we need the industry to amplify the art, but the artistic instinct is very different from a business mindset. The industry, responding to the insatiable need for entertainment, has become a gigantic money-driven machine. This isn’t to make this all some kind of ‘fuck the system’ point – I can do that any old time. I’m just saying that maybe it’s all relative who gets success and we shouldn’t base our worths off that.

Maybe social media has played a role in it, giving us all a platform to feel like we have bullhorns to say whatever. Or maybe it’s just part of human nature to want to be recognized for something, in some way. I dunno. The comedian Sara Schaefer had this podcast where she outlined the details of how TV shows get made, with all the various steps, rewrites, meetings, consultants, people it has to go through – and that sometimes, even after all that, the show still doesn’t make it to the air.

I can go on writing forums and social media threads and there are hundreds of comments all talking about their books and projects. About how far along they are and their ideas. All of them miniature universes living in minds and laptops and cell phones. It’s inspiring. I hope all of them get finished to satisfaction. And beyond that there are the mountains and mountains of published works that are not touted as masterpieces or remembered by the ages, but they’re still there, still definitively in the world. And maybe humanity is a vast and wide thing and a great mountain of experiences and the creation and expression of art is its own virtue, and it’s fine just to be happy with whatever you do have, the sheer electric experience of creating and the validation whenever you actually do accomplish something.

But yeah, it’s just Hollywood and NYC that decide everything for us – if you’re not in those cities you’re not making it, apparently. What a small thing that kind of world seems like to me.