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Saturday, May 3, 2014

Searching for greatness among today's artistic entrepreneurs

Edgar Degas quote at Minooka High School
By Ted Slowik

Lately I've been struggling with the notion of artistic professionalism. I know many people--writers, musicians, photographers, artists--who are full-time, self-employed entrepreneurs pursuing their craft. I have the utmost respect for these individuals for having the courage to pursue their artistic calling.

Some have part-time jobs to help pay the bills (think of the cliche of the aspiring actor working as a waiter). But there's a clear difference between those fully committed to pursuing their art as a professional career, and those who have full-time "day jobs" and in their spare time pursue their art as a hobby.

I definitely fall into the latter category. Many years ago, as I was finishing college, I faced a crossroads and had to decide whether to chase my dream of being a songwriter/musician or take the responsible route and security of full-time work as a journalist. (An ideal combination of the two would have been to write for Rolling Stone but my half-hearted tentative efforts to pursue that opportunity did not result in a job offer).

So I entered the local journalism world of late-night school-board meetings and village board committees and obituaries and calendars and human-interest features, all the while collecting a regular paycheck, paid vacations and health benefits. No complaints or regrets. It wasn't a bad life.

Then one day, not long after my brother Jim died of a heart attack in 2009, I realized our time here is short. You only have so many days to create a legacy, and no one wants their final thoughts to be, "What if?" I began to wonder what might have happened if I had chosen to pursue a career in music instead of journalism.

Over the past three years the result has been a wonderful experience of personal growth as an artist. I recorded songs professionally and self-released them. My development and improvement as a performer, musician, vocalist and songwriter is undeniable. And hopefully I'll have time--years even--to continue that growth and find out just how good I can be. Maybe one day I'll write, play and record a song so good that I'll be remembered for it long after I'm gone.

While I feel great about my progress, I still think it's important to realize I'm but an aspiring professional, one not even in the same class as those artist entrepreneur friends I mentioned earlier. This isn't false modesty or a lame attempt at self-deprication. If you need further explanation of the difference, check out the Coen brothers' movie "Inside Llewyn Davis." In a pivotal scene, one night the drunken folk singer protagonist of the story heckles an amateur performing on stage.

"I do this for a living!" he shouts.

Still, these days it's more difficult than ever to define what makes a professional artist. In the old business model, a record company would sign an artist. Talent scouts and impresarios were employed to hire new artists. Once signed, they had the resources and support of producers, other musicians, marketing and publicity professionals. By being signed, fans were assured that this artist passed muster and was deserving of professional status.

Nowadays, anyone can call themselves professional. The Internet created cheap distribution. Home recording technology has become so inexpensive that anyone can sound professional. It's easier than ever to put your stuff out there. The problem is, it's so easy millions are doing it! There aren't enough gatekeepers in the world to sort through and keep up with all the new art and music out there and recognize talent deserving of a wider audience.

Because while a lot of original art and music out there may be good, very little of it is great.