Being a professional indie musician isn’t for everyone: Lessons from Charles Ives and Shellac

Charles Ives, 1913

Charles Ives was a very good insurance agent but he was also one of the finest American composers. His work is extraordinary and he created almost all his wonderful music while holding down a full-time job.

If you’re trying to make even a partial living as an indie musician you’re a businessperson, and the news gets worse… You’re a small business. That’s a tough row to hoe as it’s unlikely you’ll have much support. You’re going to have to fill lots of roles all by yourself, publicist, customer relations, sales, accounts and legal for starters. That’s all you. If you know a bit about any of those roles that’s great. If not get studying.

Talent and even producing wonderful music is only a component of success. There are lots of talented people and as a consumer it feels like there’s lots of music out there to listen to and quite a lot of it is really good. The way to garner an audience is to be good at publicising yourself and managing your relationship with your audience. The way to prosper (or at least survive) financially is to be good at selling stuff and managing the money that earns you.

This isn’t for everyone, but just because your music might not be your job doesn’t devalue your music at all. It might even be the best path you could take. You might be better off keeping your music as a hobby in the sense of something done for pleasure rather than for financial compensation. This can be a great liberation. Music doesn’t have to be your career, and choosing to make your living elsewhere doesn’t make your music any worse. In fact it could make it better.

Upsides to not making a living from your music:

  • Freedom to create whatever you want
  • No worries about pleasing anyone else
  • No stress about sales and income

Downsides to not making a living from your music:

  • Music becomes your second job
  • Time and energy may be hard to find
  • Difficult to be taken seriously as a musician

There are two interesting and very different examples of musicians who have taken this path in Charles Ives and Shellac.

Charles Ives

Charles Ives is, in my opinion, one of the most important composers of the 20th century. He created extraordinary music quite unlike anything that had come before. Part of the reason he was able to create such remarkable music as  Central Park in the Dark and his Fourth Symphony is that he was free of the influence of early 20th century East coast musical society. He was free of both averaging influence of musical culture and the need for commercial success.

Ives worked as an insurance agent first with Charles H. Raymond & Co. and later in his own company. He is even credited with laying the foundations of estate planning, structuring life insurance for the wealthy. His book Life Insurance with Relation to Inheritance Tax was evidently very well received and used widely in the industry for many years.

There were downsides to this path, Ives’ music was not well known during most his lifetime and he certainly didn’t receive the recognition he deserved until very late. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1947 after receiving the support of composers like Henry Cowell, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland and Lou Harrison.

I wonder what might have been different had Ives been embedded in musical culture as a career composer. I suspect that his remarkable talent might have been quashed early on as his music is not easily accessible, but later on with the endorsement of notable and influential musicians he may have faired better. Unfortunately there is no way to patch the two halves of different lives together, but we are lucky to have the music that was formed by his experience as a part-time composer.

Shellac

Shellac are probably best known as the current project of Steve Albini. It may seem curious to include them in this post as Albini is a well known guitarist and producer and the other members of the band, Bob Weston and Todd Trainer, have previous experience in bands of repute too. I am mentioning them here because Shellac is not a primary source of income for any of them. Albini works as a producer and recording engineer, Weston as a mastering engineer and Trainer manages a shipping company.

Their freedom from the need to make a living from the band gives them a great deal of latitude. This is primarily expressed by making music when they want to as opposed to when they need to earn some money. While this leads to sporadic album releases and tours when they do produce something it is because they want to.

They pride themselves on presenting their concerts as cheaply to their fans as possible. They’re not relying on making money from them, or at least not much money. They also tour when they want to so they tend to be having more fun than a lot of bands on the road. The tours tend to be short so they can fit them around their regular work.

Shellac don’t have to do any of the stuff that modern bands tend to complain about. There’s no publicity grind of early morning radio interviews and kids TV show appearances. Actually I would love to see Shellac on a kids TV show, but I’m not going to hold my breath. Of course they have a following built on their past bands but I suspect they would work in a similar, if smaller scale, way with a smaller following.

Charles Ives and Shellac both benefit from independence from the commerce of music. The main benefit is creative freedom but for Shellac at least there seems to be some fun gained too. The most important thing is that your music and your career do not have to be the same thing.

If being a small businessperson is not for you and you choose another way to earn your crust you can take comfort in the fact that some great musicians have chosen the same path.

  • http://mysonglife.net MySongLife

    Great post. I agree that there is a certain liberation in having a non-music income to sustain you. The problem I’ve found is that for most people, to get good enough to satisfy your own idea of how good you want to be, you need to put in so many hours. Doesn’t leave much time for other careers. It gives me even greater admiration though, for those, such as your examples, who manage to achieve it.

  • http://rubken.net rubken

    You’re spot on that time available is the big practical problem to earning your income outside music. The main advantage is the artistic independence you can gain. Different paths are right for different people and I think the most important thing is to be aware that there is more than one way to be a great musician.