Entrepreneurship, Success, and the Illusion of Narrative
or How Felicia Day Taught Me That I Was Wrong About Claire Chase
In August of last year, I wrote a series of four essays for NewMusicBox. The first post was (provocatively) titled, “You’re and Artist, Not an Entrepreneur,” and the series spun out from there. Writing those essays absolutely consumed me. If I wasn’t writing or editing, I was mining sources, reading opinions, watching talks, and mulling arguments. Seven thousand words later, I was finished, and I haven’t written a word on that or another other subject until now.
Despite the numerous conversations that spun out from those essays, I had no desire to re-enter the fray. I was content to sit on the sidelines and see how things played out (if I payed attention at all). Then a book came along that challenged my thinking and forced me to reconsider much of what I had written. It was the newly published memoir by Felicia Day, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost).
In 2007, Joss Whedon (then primarily of Buffy, Angel, and Firefly fame), responded to the Writer’s Guild of America strike by producing Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, starring Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, and of course Felicia Day. I thought this 40-minute experiment was fantastic and became curious to see what else Felicia Day was doing. That’s when I encountered her pioneering web series, The Guild.
(I would have previously encountered Day’s work while binge-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer (she played “Vi” in season seven), but for whatever reason I never explored her work further at the time.)
I’ve been a fan since, and when Dave McIntire and I were starting a little record label in 2010, I wanted to know what Felicia had been doing that helped make her startup a success. I even went so far as to share some of my thoughts on the now-defunct site Chamber Musician Today.
Quick sidebar. First, I’m both glad and mildly horrified that my writing for the site has been preserved thanks to the Internet Archive. Second, that’s a terrible title for those posts and I know it. It was a placeholder that I forgot to change before publishing and then it was getting tweeted and if I changed the title it would change the url which in turn would break any links going back… you get the picture. Finally, Felicia actually commented on that second article. I promise. But there is no way for you to know that because commenting was hosted by a separate service and despite the fact that said service still exists, any threads connected to Chamber Musician Today seem to have vanished. I have many sads about that.
Anyway… I thought that if Felicia Day could create something special and build a career from scratch, then I should be paying attention to how that happened. As I go back and read some of my conclusions, it all seems painfully obvious now. I feel like maybe it wasn’t 4.5 years ago, but I could be wrong.
The point being that I admired Felicia’s accomplishments and wanted to imitate her success as an entrepreneur.
<cue record scratch sound effect>
The Part Where I Bash Entrepreneurship in a Big Way
The thing is, I didn’t think about entrepreneurship in general terms again for years. All I cared about what trying to make my albums successful and getting more performances. I was concerned with immediate and concrete goals.
But then, somewhere along the way, everybody started talking about entrepreneurship. I don’t want to imply that I was on the leading edge (I wasn’t by a lot), but entrepreneurship was quickly becoming institutionalized. Conservatories were creating entrepreneurship centers by the truckload and it was hard to read anything about careers in classical music without seeing the “e word” used with frightening optimism.
“Is competition stupidly fierce for dwindling traditional jobs? Try entrepreneurship! Struggling to pay student loans? Entrepreneurship! Suffering from a Vitamin D deficiency due to excessive time in windowless practice rooms? Entrepreneurship!”
Then I learned that I, along with Irritable Hedgehog owner Dave McIntire, would be receiving an award from our alma mater because of our successful entrepreneurship.
(In fairness, the award is given to someone who “caused regional and national attention to be focused on the University and the metropolitan area,” but when you’re described in press materials as being “entrepreneurial” and “bucking the trend” of the music industry’s decline, it’s hard not to read it that way.)
That was just over a month before I began writing the NewMusicBox posts.
Rightly or wrongly, I felt like I was being held up as an example of How to Create a Career in Today’s Economy, but I knew that the label wasn’t making money, and whatever performing gigs I could get accounted for a small fraction of my annual income. (The vast majority of my income comes from my “day job,” which is a university-based church-music gig that I got the old fashioned way.) By economic standards, we were terrible entrepreneurs. Artistically, I’m extremely proud of what we have accomplished, but if this was the solution to the economic problems music graduates were facing, I felt like we were all screwed.
So I wrote about it. In a very public way. And went so far as to attack someone who was being hailed as the archetype of arts entrepreneurship: Claire Chase.
Enter Felicia Day… again
Let’s review/fill-in a rough timeline to this point:
- 2008-09? – I become interested in The Guild and Felicia Day’s work
- Summer 2010 – I record the inaugural album for Irritable Hedgehog
- February 2011 – I organize some thoughts on what I tried to learn from Felicia’s entrepreneurship in some blog posts
- October 2012 – Claire Chase is awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and is hailed as an “arts entrepreneur”
- June 2013 – Claire Chase delivers a convocation address at the Beinen School of Music
- June 2014 – I learn that I’ll be receiving an award from my alma mater for my own bit of entrepreneurship
- July 2014 – I am invited to write a series of essays for NewMusicBox
- August 2014 –
- December 2014 – I preorder Felicia Day’s book, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)
- August 2015 – The book arrives
It’s funny how easily we fall into old habits. I had continued to follow the career of Felicia Day but was more interested in her work than the marketing behind it. When the book arrived, however, I immediately began to read it as some sort of how-to manual, albeit a humorous, well-written one. I wanted to know more details about how The Guild came to be and how she carved out her own little empire.
The major problem (for me personally) with such a reading of her book is the brazen hypocrisy of it. On one hand, I was gleefully looking for entrepreneurial tips in the memoir of an incredible, successful woman while on the other I had recently denounced another incredible, successful woman for her promotion of entrepreneurship. Something was wrong, and at least I had the good sense to recognize it.
So I kept reading. And I learned a lot.
I learned that my narrative of Felicia’s career was totally wrong. First, here are some quick facts: Felicia, after earning degrees in math and music, heads to LA to become an actress. She gets some nice parts here and there, but ultimately can’t get a big, leading role. She becomes addicted to World of Warcraft (a computer game) during this time, decides to write a pilot for a TV series based on people who play the game, unsuccessfully shops it around, and then decides to produce it herself for the web. She devotes herself fully to this project and is able to monetize it, keep creative control, and ultimately become CEO of her own production company, Geek & Sundry.
What’s scary is how all these things are true, and yet so many details are omitted that a false narrative is easily constructed. Allow me to demonstrate.
I imagined her as a struggling actress, which she was for a time, but she was earning a nice living from acting. As she described it, she was getting a number of commercial gigs and had carved out a niche for herself as the quirky secretary/best friend. She was paying the bills with her acting. Think about how many people in LA wish they could say that.
Second, I imagined that the idea for The Guild pilot was somehow a more deliberate process. Turns out, Felicia was meeting with a group of women when the topic of goals came up. It came time for Felicia to say something, and she, panicking for want of something to say, spontaneously mentioned she wanted to write a pilot. Luckily for all of us that turned out to be a great idea.
She then hated the writing process, got the practically unheard of idea for internet crowdfunding from a near stranger (Kickstarter didn’t exist yet), and got in way over her head with the launch of Geek & Sundry. And there was never any grand goal of creating an internet video empire. She just wanted to create something.
Moreover, she was the benefactor of some incredible timing. She got into producing a web series before the concept took off in a big way, but not so early that it was completely unheard of. She didn’t have to compete with thousands of other crowdfunded projects when raising money, and the blogosphere (wow has it been a long time since I used that word) was small enough that little projects could get noticed but big enough that it could drive meaningful traffic. I am not saying she didn’t work hard to get where she is—she worked so hard she severely affected her physical and mental health. But hers is a story that likely couldn’t have happened if it took place a year earlier or later.
Oh, and I forgot to mention one other, tiny detail: IT WASN’T EVEN HER IDEA TO PRODUCE THE GUILD FOR THE WEB!!!
My imagined narrative was wildly inaccurate, and I had no idea. Felicia’s success was not part of some grand scheme. She was (by my reading) just sick of the commercial and typecast roles she was getting and wanted to try something else. The goal wasn’t an empire; the goal was to write a script. Then the goal was to get it produced. Then it was to produce it herself with some friends. Then it was finding a whole mess of people to help put it together. For free. Then it was finding locations for filming (illegally). Then it was getting props, even it that meant dumpster diving. Then it was getting some people to watch the darn thing. Then it was trying to figure out how to afford a second season since all their favors had been called in for the first. You get the idea.
A Year of Hindsight is a Wonderful Thing
There is something beautifully human about storytelling. I think that falling into a good story, regardless of the medium, is one of the great pleasures of this life. But there seems to be something about the human brain that wants to create a tidy narrative even when one doesn’t exist.
I did that with Felicia Day. I felt like it was being done to me with my work for Irritable Hedgehog, and I should have recognized that there was an excellent chance that others were doing the same with Claire Chase.
Here we have one of the most important new music ensembles in the world, ICE, which rose from nothing to touring the world and supporting the work of a huge number of musicians and composers. Who wouldn’t want to emulate that?
The problem is, ICE was formed less as part of a grand scheme and more from a desire to make music with friends. In a profile on NewMusicBox from 2007, Claire had the following to say about ICE (ca. 13:44):
We started out producing our own concerts, self-producing everything. And we had no money, and we had no venues, and nobody knew who we were, and nobody knew the music that we were playing, and so we just got together and did it. And found an audience and found some money and it grew from there—from a very simple desire to have a garage band….
We do music that interests us. We do projects that interest the group… I hope I’m not revealing too much about ICE’s secrets, but that’s kinda how we operate. It’s not a whole lot more complicated than that.
I don’t want to imply that there aren’t a lot lessons to be learned from ICE, but learning lessons is a far cry from replication. My guess is that once it became obvious to everyone that the possibility of landing an orchestra/university position was slim to nil, people began tripping over themselves to find a replacement. Claire Chase just got caught in all that.
The Speech Revisited
In case I haven’t linked to it yet, here is the speech that I argued against a year ago. If you skip to 4:40, you’ll hear the bit that seemed so inflammatory to me.
The calling of our generation is not to occupy positions created for us; our calling is to create positions for ourselves and for one another… In a word, our calling is to be entrepreneurs.
Is it any surprise that I titled that first post, “You’re an Artist, Not an Entrepreneur”?
Let’s start with a bit of context. This speech was given to music graduates, most of whom spent their time studying music written by dead people. (I just got an image of a zombie sketching ideas at a piano. Also, zombies are a great way to avoid the passive voice, which I tend to use without remorse.) I’d guess that new music folks understand the music employment landscape differently than other classical musicians, and it would make sense to address that.
Moreover, she really doesn’t get into economics. There are three mentions of jobs or positions, and two uses of the word business. In seventeen minutes. But that’s not how I heard it, is it? I heard the MacArthur foundation saying that Claire Chase was “forging a new model,” and the NY Times saying that she was “making the most positive case I have heard for the new entrepreneurship.” I heard Claire in the context of a narrative that was being forged around her, but not by her.
Had I listened a bit differently, I would have heard that she wasn’t espousing the virtues of technology to market and sell music (an idea I attacked), she was talking about exciting collaborative opportunities. She was describing an entrepreneurial spirit being used to take art to new heights but not necessarily as a way to pay the rent.
In the time since my essays, she’s clarified this considerably. In November of last year, she gave a talk titled “Debunking, Disrupting, & Rethinking Entrepreneurship” at Northeastern University. When asked about push back she’s received, she said:
It [entrepreneurship] has received a bad rep because it’s associated with money as its primary catalyst, and I think that’s very problematic because I’ve never thought about it in those terms. And certainly nothing that ICE has done and also more importantly nothing that’s really interesting that’s happening in the cultural entrepreneur environment in this country starts with an idea of “we’re going to make money doing this” or even “we’re going to break even doing this.” It starts with “I must do this.”
Back to Entrepreneurship Bashing…ish
I was wrong about Claire Chase. Let’s just put that plainly in print before I move on to anything else. As I see it now, I was putting her words in the context of a narrative that she didn’t control. I was also reacting to how others seemed to be creating their own narratives about my little bit of success. Thank you, Felicia Day, for helping me realize that.
But the oversimplified narrative that created a Claire Chase Model™ and that continues to push the economic hope of musical entrepreneurship still exists. There are people writing that the digital economy has been great for artists (thanks for the wonderful response, Future of Music Coalition) and entrepreneurship centers that promise to help “create sustainable careers” and state that musicians “must be their own businesses.”
As Chase herself told David Weininger of The Boston Globe,
I think there’s all sorts of misconceptions that there’s a model now of entrepreneurship. This thing that was precisely set up to be disruptive and can be quite radical is now a set of skills that you’re going to learn at an entrepreneurship institute: If you just follow these steps, you can be an entrepreneur! As if anything could be farther from the truth.
So obviously I’m against any sort of business training for musicians.
Alas, the truth is (once again) a bit more complicated than that.
I think that motivation is extremely important in all this. I think that a small percentage of musicians will have a sustainable career primarily in performing/composing, entrepreneurship training or no. I think we can be more honest about that. I think that we should give musicians all the training we can to make great art, which almost always requires money. I think we need to acknowledge that the desire to create art and the desire to have a career in the arts are often at odds. I think we need to talk about how soul-crushing it can be to try to monetize art. I think technology is neither good nor bad; it presents new challenges and opportunities at every step. I think one of the most important things we can help musicians learn is who they are and why that’s interesting.
I think that you’re an artist because you’d be doing this free. I think you need some business skills because you can’t afford to.
I think I’ll probably always associate entrepreneurship with money.
Wait, When Did Wil Wheaton Get Involved?
Wil Wheaton, who you may know from Stand By Me, Star Trek TNG, The Big Bang Theory (note the shirt), or Table Top (an amazing series produced by Geek & Sundry), wrote a blog post in 2009 titled, “Get Excited and Make Things.”
I love this post because it gets to the heart of being a creative person in the 21st century. The barriers to making things have almost been entirely eliminated—It’s cheaper now than ever, you can do it yourself, you can share it easily, and you don’t need anyone’s approval to do it (I’ve heard that somewhere else, I just know it). As he writes, “We can take these great creative risks now, because we really can’t fail, not in the traditional monetary sense.” That doesn’t mean that anyone will see it or that you’ll make any money from it, but that doesn’t you still get to make things.
For all the writing and analysis that has been done on the careers of Felicia Day and Claire Chase, they mostly just wanted to make a thing. Sure, at some point I imagine they both said to themselves, “Hey, I like this thing and some other people like this thing. How can I get the money I need to make more things?” They managed to get the money, but many don’t. And then those people say, “You know what, I like making this thing and am going to keep making it” or “Hey, I’ve got an idea for a new thing. I’m gonna make it.”
We got into music because we love to “make things.” Entrepreneurship, such as it is, is born out of that; we have to make things and will do what it takes to keep making things because we are artists. We may be self-managed, hustling, entrepreneurs with portfolio careers, days jobs, and gigs, but we are, and will continue to be, artists.
I’ll close with a line from Claire Chase’s address to the inaugural New Music Gathering, “I say we just break it down. Let’s call what we do music, let’s call our roles in it human, and let’s call our modality, our way of doing it, love.” I couldn’t say it any better myself.