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Working Artists, the Case for Indie Publishing

by Alison on October 11, 2012

It’s funny how life sometimes feels more like a novel. This past month, mine has felt like a passably written, sometimes comic novel with well pronounced themes. The theme lately? Well, the author isn’t finished yet, but it’s something like: make art for art’s sake and forget the rest.

In the past four weeks I have attended:

  1. an in-home musical salon, organized and hosted by Abby, who is a classically trained flautist (or is it flutist?)
  2. a cabaret evening, featuring modern dance, tango, and musical interludes by the talented author Rakesh Satyal
  3. a gig for a ZZ Top cover band that Leah’s husband stars in
  4. an entire music festival filled with indie bluegrass artists with lifelong careers of pickin’ and singin’
  5. and a LitQuake event featuring a hilarious coworker who also runs a popular scooter magazine in her spare time.

(Simon rocking it on stage.)

In short, it’s been an inspiring month. As someone who is always waking up in the pre-dawn hours to peck away at this keyboard, almost nothing inspires me more than being around other creative people and working artists. Since writing is generally not an artform you perform, it’s important to me to have these types of interactions and remember that there’s a community of working artists out there, doing what they do for the love of the thing itself.

(Abby wowing us with her flute.)

This past Sunday was my favorite weekend of the San Francisco calendar, the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. This isn’t like 99% of festivals you’ve ever attended or heard about. This is three days straight of bluegrass and bluegrass-inspired music for FREE. That’s right. It’s 100% free.

How do they do it? Well, it comes down to one man, a local San Franciscan named Warren Hellman. Warren was a private equity investor who made…well, people speculate it was close to a billion. But Warren’s one true passion was bluegrass music (very unusual for a San Francisco private equity investor, you must agree). The story goes that Warren decided he wanted to have a house party and invited bluegrass legend Hazel Dickens to play it. She gave him the what for and said she didn’t play private concerts for rich guys.

Wait, you need a visual of Hazel to understand how awesome this moment must have been.

Adorable, right? I picture this moment like a good scolding from your grandma.

And so Warren built a giant free bluegrass festival in San Francisco so Hazel would agree to come and play–and the rest is history. The event costs millions of dollars every year and it’s a great gift to the city. Warren passed away last year, and it’s endowed for another 15 at least. And the organizers have stay committed to bringing in small-time bluegrass legends for enormous audiences. Obviously there are big headliners too. Dolly has played the festival. Emmylou Harris and Robert Earl Keen perform frequently.

But for every Dolly, Willie, or Dwight Yoakam who performs, there are five small artists you’ve never heard of, five artists who get on the stage and utter some version of, “I’ve been doin this for 40 years in small backrooms and bars. I’ve never played to more than 100 people at a time.” Some groups are simply gospel choirs on the church circuit. Others are pickers and singers that time seems to have passed by, paying them hardly any notice.

Sometime on Sunday, as the oh-so-rare San Francisco sun was warming the top of my head and Todd Snider was on the stage playing his heart out, I realized how good the music world has always been about carving out a place for its indie artists. Because music is an artform best practiced with an audience present, bars, churches, and music halls all over the world, night after night, give up-and-comers a chance to do what they love most. Friends and family members come to see them. Frosty beers are raised at the ends of songs. And the music scene is richer for these artists.

In fact, I would argue that we love and even glorify these musicians with devoted niche audiences. They feel so much more authentic than a band whose music is now backing a Chrysler commercial.

What’s curious to me is that we haven’t developed that same support in the writing community. For over a century, there was only one path for writers: publication. You were either published or not. If you couldn’t convince the New York publishing companies that your book would have popular appeal, then you were on your own. If you put your book out there on your own, people eyed you skeptically.

But I think self-publishing is helping all of that change and I’m very very glad. As someone who works at a publishing house and has been published by the Big Six, you might expect me to be fighting the self-publishing trend–or, at least skeptical about it–but in truth I think it’s the most exciting thing to happen to the written word in a long, long time.

Does that mean I think traditional publishing house will fail or become irrelevant? No, absolutely not. However, I do think it means that it’ll be so much easier for the writing community to finally nurture and support our working artists, people with incredible stories to tell that speak to specific audiences that would never get “radio play” on a national scale.

Here’s to indie-publishing and the inspiring artists who will be born from it.

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