What makes you happy?

I’m posting some early drafts of chapters from Audience Supported just for supporters of spinme.com…

Much of what follows in this book involves learning how to make your audience happy without compromising the artistic integrity of your work. It’s a less dangerous line to cross than you’d realize. Patronage doesn’t require pandering. But it does develop a self-awareness in a way that artists often take years or decades to attain.

Psychologist Steven Handel reminds us that you’ve got to be happy before you can make someone else happy:

“When it comes to first achieving happiness for yourself, I’m reminded of the lecture they often give on airplanes about oxygen masks. They always tell you that in times of emergency you should put your oxygen mask on first, then help your neighbors put on their masks. The reasoning is simple: if you don’t put on your oxygen mask first, you suffer a greater likelihood of dying; and you can’t help anyone once you’re dead.”

Regrettably, we’ve internalized the ideal of the “starving artist,” the creator so detached from our capitalistic society that she writes songs, paints pictures, or tells stories at her very peril. Even the phrase “selling out” suggests that you’re willing to trade your creative soul for a ride in the big pink tour bus I saw pull up into our driveway when I recorded musicians for a living.

Yes, plenty of musicians mistake being “famous” for being financially well-off or even artistically successful. The fame cycle Warhol chronicled during his Factory years has only accelerated, to the point that MTV offers up 15 minutes a pop to reality show contests who have achieved notoriety solely for making it onto MTV.

But, does fame really mean wealth? And does wealth bring real happiness?

In my workshops and conference talks, I often reference record producer Steve Albini’s definitive essay, “The Trouble with Music.” I’ve posted a link to the full essay on my website, at:


In the essay, Steve charts all the ways that record deals have forced musicians to struggle over the past few decades. He charts the rise and fall of a typical four-piece act that signs with a major label, gets a significant advance, and goes on tour. Steve closes with one of the most jarring things you’ll ever hear as an aspiring artist:

The band is now 1/4 of the way through its contract, has made the music industry more than 3 million dollars richer, but is in the hole $14,000 on royalties. The band members have each earned about 1/3 as much as they would working at a 7-11, but they got to ride in a tour bus for a month.

Under a traditional music contract, you’re likely to end up “underwater.” That’s a financial term you usually only hear associated with bad bank loans during a failing economy.

When you watch a show like American Idol, The Voice, or The X-Factor and you hear that the winner is guaranteed a recording contract, remember that’s all funny money. Just as Steve described, a $5 million prize can get whittled down to nothing pretty fast. Focus all your energy on “getting signed” or winning a reality show prize, and you’ve given away lots of your power to make authentic, artistic decisions. Worse yet, you don’t get to keep the money.

Therefore, let’s focus on ways you can find true happiness. That includes getting rewarded for creating great art that inspires and entertains your audience. Daniel Gilbert, author of the book Stumbling on Happiness, told the Harvard Business Review that a scientific study found that very few experiences affect us for more than three months. That explains why so many creative people struggle with “writer’s block.” Setting yourself up on a routine where you can be creative and get positive feedback on your work is a great way to prevent yourself from falling into despair. It also happens to be a great way to connect with your potential patrons.

Gilbert also notes that we have a tendency to blur the line between feeling “challenged” and feeling “threatened.” If you’ve ever held down a job where you worried about being fired if you failed to meet your goals, you’ve felt “threatened,” and it doesn’t feel good. Likewise, if you’re worried about making enough money from your craft to pay the bills, you probably associate “rehearsal” with the stress and pressure of explaining to your loved ones why you’re doing that instead of pulling down a “real job.”

What’s really happening when you gravitate to the guitar instead of the punch clock?

According to Gilbert, you’re gaining happiness from the little experiences in life. If playing guitar makes you feel good, it’s okay to find more ways to spend more time doing that. One of the complaints I often hear from musicians making the transition into full-time entertainment careers is that gigs, merchandise, and recording can start to feel like you’ve given up one crappy job for another. That’s what fascinates me about artists who build patronage into their business model.

The United Nations Conference on Happiness issued a 100-page report on what makes people happy. Sure, having more money in the bank can settle you down, but the UNCH discovered that more cash often leads to frustration, corruption, or personal danger. Mo’ money, mo’ problems. It’s actually the feeling of uselessness that causes us the most grief. Unemployment burns because you feel less valuable to society, not just because you can’t afford the things that you want.

We all seek to be useful. We all seek to be valuable. And we seek the stability to carry on with our days without the fear of losing our housing or our health care. Artists who limit themselves to “getting signed” or to grinding out their record releases one disc at a time lose their connections to all of those things in short order. Before long, they’re either worried about “getting dropped” or, like Amanda Palmer, wishing for it.

If you believe Gilbert’s theory that it’s really experiences that keep us going, you can start to set up a rhythm of life events that inspire you, encourage your art, and invite patrons along for the ride. After all, patrons mostly just want a chance to catch a glimpse of what you see every day in your artistic life. They also want to feel connected with you in a way that lets you both travel together on your artistic journey. If the life you’ve created for yourself terrifies you, it will surely scare them away. But, if you’ve taken care to cultivate a set of experiences that keeps you excited and motivated, you’ll feel happy. You’ll also attract attention from people who wish to support you.