Wednesday, December 19, 2007

sustainability and music (3)

I've received a couple of interesting and thoughtful e-mails in response to my earlier posts on "sustainability and music," and it seems I've given the impression that I think money, or making money, is "a bad thing."

This is interesting - and rather surprising - to me. In addition to seeing myself as engaged in a "vocation" and a "ministry," I also see myself as a "self-employed business person" or even (in my more optimistic moments) something of an "entrepreneur." I liked the theme of the recent MEDA conference in Toronto (where I sang a couple of my new songs about - you guessed it - economic stewardship): "business as a calling."

And, like many business people, I am seeking to operate my business (and make money/earn a living) with integrity, in a way that is coherent with my faith. Or, to put it another way (in the words of a song on a recently released album that you really ought to buy... GRIN... in fact, you can listen to the song here) - "My money talks, so what can you hear it saying...?"

I suppose you could say that I'm taking an enterpreneurial approach with a passion for environmental sustainability and a "simple living" orientation. And yes, those words CAN all fit in the same sentence...

I don't have a problem with earning money. I DO have a problem with business models - in any industry/economic sector - that are not sustainable (which is to say, they are destructive) in environmental and other terms. And I am actively seeking/exploring/developing alternatives in my "line of work," as are many other people in theirs.

For instance, according to the prevailing wisdom of what a musician must do to "make it," my performance schedule is woefully inadequate. Over the past few years, I am averaging probably 40 to 60 performance dates per year, trying to keep it to a maximum of two weekends "away" per month, and have been "on the road" for more extensive (long distance) touring anywhere from 2-5 weeks per year. This has been about right for our family - it is what we have decided that we can handle at this point.

Some people look at my performance schedule and say "Wow - you sure are busy, and are really taking this music thing seriously." Others would see this kind of schedule as not serious or viable at all (definitely not adequate for consideration for a record label contract or distribution deal with most indie labels/distributors). Many musicians tour much more extensively and continuously, some logging 200-plus performances per year as a working musician.

It is a rare artist indeed who can find the right balance between the kind of "on the road" time required to build and sustain their career and the kind of "at home" time required to build and sustain healthy family and community relationships. Of course there is no one formula or "right way" to do this, and I have tremendous respect for people who have managed to maintain a lengthy career, as well as good relationships and mental health, with a kind of touring schedule that I know I could never manage.

But I also know of (and respect) many who have not been able to pull this off... and others who try it for a few years and then "settle down" to a "real job"...

A couple of interesting examples that I've come across lately:

1) a friend in a band with a major label contract wondering about their future prospects if the new album isn't a big seller... very uncertain, even if the new record does really well, whether this career is a viable long-term option, could be managed while starting a family, etc. What surprised me most was that here is someone who has achieved what many musicians dream of - a major label contract - and he's asking all the same questions as many of us in the "indie" world. Except for their album to "do well" and give them a shot at some degree of financial viability - even in the short term - it needs to sell upwards of tens of thousands of copies (where for most of us "indies" an album that sells a few thousand is doing well).

2) another friend wrote this article about The Duhks - a Winnipeg band that I like very much - and their struggles with wanting to "go green" (see the great website for their Sustainability Project - Green Duhks) while at the same time trying to "make it" in the music business. They are doing things like buying carbon offsets for their tours (and using a "veggie-oil run van") to mitigate their environmental impact, but at the same time (and acutely aware of the contradiction) felt compelled to accept sponsorship from Chevrolet for an ad in Rolling Stone magazine that could really help their career.


Two things that strike me about these examples:

1) the pervasive sense that the economic system in which we are working is fundamentally untenable and unsustainable, for ourselves, our families, our communities, our planet.

2) the pervasive sense that WE HAVE NO CHOICE, that there is no other option, that the "get as BIG as possible as fast as possible - tour! tour! tour! sell! sell! sell!" approach is the only game in town.

(By the way, I hope it's clear by now that what we're talking about here is not unique to "the music business" but has parallels in virtually any "sector of the economy" that you can name... agriculture, energy, and the automotive industries immediately come to mind...)

Is it true that the mainstream system is fundamentally flawed and inherently unsustainable? You know by now that I think "yes."

Is it true that we have no other choice? I don't think so.

Can we even imagine an economic system for music that is not inherently destructive of the environment (and for which we attempt to compensate by buying more and more carbon offsets while simultaneously pursuing ever-increasing levels of touring, CD and "merch" sales)? Can we imagine an economic system that is actually GOOD for the planet?

Can we even imagine an economic system for music that is not inherently destructive of family and community relationships, but that actually ENHANCES and STRENGTHENS them?

I think we can. I think it's already happening. I think we need to share those stories and experiences and help to get the word out. In my next post I plan to share some of my own beginning experiments that attempt to move in this direction, and might even go so far as to venture "a modest proposal for an alternative business model for the arts." And I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts and experiences and experiments and critiques.

I'm reminded again of the old adage (wasn't it Gandhi who said it?) - we must become the change we wish to see in the world.

And by the way, I do want to incorporate "carbon offsets" as one of the standard costs of the way I "do business" - am considering listing them up front as one of the standard costs on my invoices for performances (a cost that I'm thinking we would share 50-50 as travelling performer and hosting community). What do you think about that idea? But I've heard a lot of controversy around some artists that have gone big into carbon offsets and promoting "carbon neutral" tours, only to find later that the companies that they worked with didn't follow through, or that the trees planted to offset carbon emissions all died, etc... Can anyone point me in the direction of good, trustworthy, reputable systems that are in place for buying carbon offsets? Who has experience with this?



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