Flux doesn’t begin to describe the current business models for many artists in the U.S. Popular music was the first sector plunged into chaos. Book publishing, film and theatre soon followed. The chaos has been different for each sector, but chaos it has been. I try to follow developments in these other arts, looking for insights that might apply to the theatre world.
Two nights ago I attended a concert in Seattle by one of my favorite folk musicians, Lucy Wainwright Roche – she of the famed Canadian/Greenwich Village musical family. Roche has an enchanting soprano voice, an endearing stage presence and solid songwriting chops. I’ve been a fan since first encountering her at an outdoor concert in Seattle several summers ago.
Besides a gifted artist, Roche is an enterprising manager of her own career. At that summer concert I bought two CDs and signed up for her email list. Maybe a year ago she sent me an email saying she would soon be recording a new album (do they still call them albums?) and money was needed for the New York recording studio. Her ask was to support her career by prepaying for the CD. I thought “sure” and gave her $20 on a credit card. Six or nine months later, after I had completely forgotten this transaction, a terrific CD showed up in my mailbox.
This “prepay” scenario strikes me as easily adaptable for a playwright or theatre company organizing a production. This can only work if you’ve already established a relationship of some sort with prospective donor/attendees and have their email addresses and the ability to process credit card payments. These are not insurmountable obstacles.
How did I find out about the concert? Roche’s trusty email list. She sent the Seattle-area addresses an invitation. The concert itself was intimate and magical. The venue was the living room of Empty Sea Studios, a recording studio converted from a house. There were only 40 seats and tickets were $15. The venue sold beer, pop and snacks. Her three CDs were on sale. During the concert she soft-pedaled the new CD: “I have a new record out. What I mean by that is I’m the one selling it. The inventory is in my Brooklyn apartment and in whatever rental car I’m driving on the road.”
Besides admiring Roche’s artistry, I’ve been impressed by the initiative she is taking with her career. I believe that her initiative and tactics are going to be required of more artists if they are to have any kind of viable career.
After the concert we spoke briefly. Roche told me that in a normal year she plays 150 to 190 gigs; last year that number went down because of time in the recording studio. She handles all her own bookings and is on the road mostly by herself in a rental car. The Seattle concert was definitely on the small end of the venues she plays. The night before she had performed in Portland at a converted funeral home, to a breathing and slightly larger audience of 65.
She told me that she is one of the few independent musicians she knows who is making a living solely by doing her music. She qualified “making a living,” explaining that her income is a far cry from what big-name recording artists earn. She can pay her Brooklyn rent and go out to eat, but her income would not permit her to buy a home or raise a family. Her financial condition will sound familiar to most theatre and indie film artists.
I am not suggesting that Roche’s young career (she’s only been doing this four years) offers a clear model for theatre and other artists; it doesn’t. Her drive and initiative however are inspiring and worth emulating. She is certainly aware of the chaos, hardship and long odds of the music business. But instead of moaning “Woe is me,” she sees those obstacles as a spur to innovation.
Lucy Wainwright Roche is a wonderful, talented artist. If you would enjoy eloquent, bittersweet lyrics sung beautifully, buy a CD or two directly from her. You’ll also be fortifying a brave artist’s independence. And that’s always a good thing to do.
P.S. Click “Snare Drum Solo” for a 3-minute video of that song, written and performed by Roche.