Clearly, independent creatives today face a very different set of realities than they faced in the twentieth century and earlier. The internet, mobile devices, etc. have presented independent artists with opportunities that were previously nearly inconceivable. These opportunities, in turn, are re-shaping what it means to be an independent creative, what it means to be a “successful” artist, etc.
The history of artists is marked by their increased emancipation from the shackles of gatekeepers. In the pre-Industrial Age, the very few artists fortunate enough to have the opportunity to hone and use their talents were largely beholden to wealthy patrons (music and visual art), to publishers (writers), to theater owners (playwrights), etc. Artists, unless they were born into wealth, nearly never had the opportunity to control their own destiny, and were largely at the mercy of wealthy gatekeepers.
In the Industrial Age, as leisure time increased for a larger portion of the population, there was an increased demand for art. Art became increasingly commodified, and more gatekeepers emerged (the record label, the literary agent, the Hollywood studio, the New York gallery — less powerful than earlier patrons, but still powerful), who could make or break the career of an artist.
Today, at least in the West, we find ourselves in a post-Industrial Age. Technology has democratized the production and distribution of many types of art, and for the first time in history artists have the opportunity to take control of their own destiny. In order to do this, however, today’s independent creative must find a way to fulfill the roles played by the patrons and gatekeepers of old: the business side of art.
As it turns out, the gatekeepers of old were not all bad. They paid the artists and gave them the freedom to focus on their art. They found venues to display the artists’ work, and publicized these events. Even today, if an artist is able to get a lucrative deal with a gatekeeper, it could make sense for them to take it. A major record deal could provide a musician with access to producers, studios, publicity, etc. that, on their own, they simply would not have access to. This screed is less for the lucky few with the talent, connections, or simply, luck, and more for those of us who are still building their career, or who have decided that they prefer the freedom that the 21st century gives them.
That said, this does not have to be an either/or. It may make sense for an independent artist to sign with an agent/producer/publisher/studio for a time, and then go solo afterwards. The main thing that the democratization of the means of the production and distribution of art has done is to turn the tables on the gatekeepers: artists now have the power to control their own destiny. If we want to sign a deal we can, but now we have options.
With power, however, comes responsibility. Historically, the artist was mythologized as a rare breed, lonesome, detached, and focused on higher matters, while mere mortals (the gatekeepers) dealt with the messy realities of life (business). This mythology had the result of making many artists (as well as fans) feel as though getting involved with the business side of art sullies the purity of their work. As a creative, I sense this within myself, and have to silence it in order to get business done.
At the heart of all this is the idea that today’s independent creatives must see themselves as both artists and as businesspeople. There is, obviously, a balance to be had, and business decisions should not trump artistic decisions. That said, if there’s a temptation to imbalance, for most of us it usually tips towards art, at the expense of business. To a certain extent, today’s independent creative is a small business owner — a sole proprietorship. Once you take responsibility for the business aspects of your artistic career, you will be able to take better advantage of the golden age of artistic opportunities in which we find ourselves.