I sometimes look for insights from other businesses with parallels to the art market of fringe songwriting. Beyond general characteristics shared by all capital-based businesses – managing margins, staying profitable, building towards some kind of measurable growth – the operational nitty-gritty of fringe songwriting doesn’t have an extensive family tree in the annals of commerce.
What is fringe songwriting? I define it as a calling that wakes one up in the middle of the night at the cost of good sense the next day. It’s anything and everything that doesn’t kiss butt up the chain of the art department. It’s not anti-business but… productivity doesn’t really conform to pre-conceived notions of commercial timing, such as considering where to place the “hook,” landing a song with a radio audience, finding placement in hackneyed TV, movies and advertising, or developing for a young-star-in-the-making to sing. Fringe songwriting is a decidedly underground endeavor perhaps unsuitable for the mainstream.
Anyway… the businesses of fringe songwriting and dealing weed – pre medical marijuana weed dealing that is – share a few parallels. Fringe songwriting takes flexibility, long, unpredictable, typically uncompensated hours, to foster a network of community. Weed dealers work a roundabout path of getting to know friends-of-friends-of-friends to establish a trust with an eventual clientele. Both enterprises require travel, often at odd hours, and to dark, dingy, sometimes stinky and even dangerous destinations.
Both trades require proficiency in finger math, and the contracted agreement between buyer and seller is more copacetic than institutionally proper. A fringe songwriter looking to get paid at the end of the night might have to wait out a long, rambling, protracted story by a promoter. It’s not unlike sitting in some dude’s apartment waiting to exchange green for green, bud for cash. Alternative economies are always in the picture too, including bartering, IOUs and Funny Math.
Fringe songwriters and weed dealers might share the same customers: pot smokers. If these industries were to seminar together, I imagine a smooth amalgamation of discussions and debates about what-it-all-means, infused with ideological heaviness and understood by all as right and natural, which is to say it’s not very well understood at all. I would expect to hear plenty of words, yet would be surprised to see anything written down in way of a formal business plan.
The entrepreneurial dream of fringe songwriters and weed dealers tends to end up near the same place. While a weed dealer doesn’t typically have high hopes of becoming the next grandiose drug Kingpin, a creative songwriter generally accepts the limited commercial ceiling of farmer’s markets and subway tunnels. Money tends to stay in the cash world. It can get lost in the couch. The IRS doesn’t typically pay notice.
A weed dealer faced with state and federal legalization might suddenly stand outside the bounds of relevancy. Ditto for the fringe songwriter facing a public’s embrace of autotuned idolatry. Losing your audience to a normalization of increased regulation and automation can be a rude awakening after 10-20-30 years in business. Certain luxuries of the underground – like wearing bright red action slacks and kicking back in a beanbag chair or drinking in dive bars to foster self-promotion and spending sleepless nights striving for originality – lose charm quickly with money tight, margins more defined and life’s progress on a decidedly sideways bent. As a life plan, it just doesn’t make sense to be an original songwriter or old school weed dealer functioning in the underground market anymore. Sad, but true.