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MONEY, Part 2: The Extravagant Gamble

In part one I talked about poverty and wealth, and a father’s calling to care for his family. Now I’m going to broadly explain some of the nitty gritty nuts and bolts behind trying to make a living as an artist. It might get tedious, but bear with me.

How to Lose Money. So these mugs. Oh, the mugs. We thought it would be fun to find a place to commission some handmade Rabbit Room mugs, partly to support the specific potter, partly to give ye faithful Rabbit Roomers a beautiful, somewhat meaningful souvenir, and partly (how foolish we were!) to help the Rabbit Room make some money.

*Note: if this is totally boring for you, skip down to where it says, “Now, forget about the mugs.”

Brannon McAllister suggested a potter (potteress?) in Greenville, South Carolina named Katie Coston, so I sent her an email and got the wheel spinning. She charged about $16 for each mug. That sounded like a lot until I thought about all the equipment she had to have bought, and the expertise (they were really beautiful pieces) and the clay and finish and other supplies, and the time it took her to spin each lump of clay into something beautiful, and the lettering, and the firing, then the shipping and packing supplies–and suddenly $16 didn’t seem like all that much. So I ordered a dozen or so (which came out to $192); with shipping the total came to a little over $200. If you subtract from that Katie’s hours, equipment, and supplies, I’m sure that didn’t leave her much. When Jamie goes to the grocery store for our family the bill can come to quite a bit more than Katie’s gross, so our order for mugs probably didn’t even buy her and her family a week’s worth of food. Hmm.

We re-sold the mugs in the Rabbit Room for the same price, but the shipping kicked it up into the twenties. Add to that the packaging, the time it took Pete to put together the orders and drive them to the post office, then consider the fact that, no matter how well we packed the mugs, with every batch of mugs we’ve ordered, the good ol’ USPS pulverized at least one shipment. Sometimes more than that. Then we have to either apologize and refund someone’s money (because we’re out of mugs) or we apologize and ship another, eating that cost. It’s stressful just typing this out.

(I should mention that the first two orders of mugs were handmade by Katie before she moved to England. After that we went with another guy in Wisconsin who provides handmade mugs with the bonus feature of the Rabbit Room logo. These new ones are a little stouter, a little less expensive, and the logo looks grand.)

With all the broken shipments we decided we’d better start insuring the packages. Well, that costs extra, and we discovered to our shock and awe that it didn’t do any good. It seemed like someone went postal on the boxes in order to make the USPS pay. But the USPS insurance claim system is cumbersome and hardly worth the trouble. If you bought a mug, I hope this doesn’t make you feel bad. It brought us joy to bring these fine little pieces of art into the world and to get them to you. But we’ve lost a decent chunk of money on them. The only folks who made money were Katie and Stoneworks, who made very little in the scheme of things (and the USPS, now that I think about it. They may have come out on top). Still, I’m glad to have my mug, and I bet you’re glad for yours too. (If you didn’t get a mug, I’m sorry to say we won’t be ordering them until next year’s Hutchmoot, where we can sell them and safely bypass the post office.)

Whew. Did you get all that? I know it was tedious, but I wanted to give you a behind-the-scenes picture of what one can go through to a) support an artisan and b) to sell a unique and beautiful product. Was it worth it? If you ask Pete on a bad day, after stressing over all the shipping fiascos, no. When he sees you guys tweeting pictures of your unbroken and coffee-filled mugs, he’d say yes. Maybe.

Now forget about the mugs. Imagine what it’s like to make an album. It’s a lot like making a mug. A $25,000 mug. That may seem like a lot of cash, and it’s definitely possible to make an album for less–but it’s also definitely possible to make an album for more. In the old days (as in, ten years ago) $25,000 would have been a teeny tiny budget. But here’s the breakdown, in case you ever wondered why some of us strangely insist on selling CDs instead of giving them away.

You need a producer. A guy who’s smarter than you. For example, well let’s see…how about Ben Shive! Ben has a wife, four children, and a mortgage payment. He’s also really, really good at what he does. He could also make steadier money teaching college or playing piano in the corner at an Italian restaurant. But he believes in the work he’s doing and has carved out a good career making albums. He’s picky. He typically only produces projects he believes in because he knows he’ll spend weeks upon weeks with the songs and the artist–and because he wants to be a part of work that he values either for its artistic, spiritual, or relational merit. If you want a grownup to spend eight to fourteen hours a day for two months working on your album, you need to pay him. Right? Right.

You need great musicians. This one doesn’t bear much explanation, but you should know that if you want a great player on your record you’ll usually need to pay him. He or she will be someone who’s had years and years of experience and will bring nuances to your songs you would never find on your own. They’ll make you sound better than you are. (This is definitely true of my records.) But these guys have families and mortgages and grocery bills too. So you need to pay them.

You need a mixing engineer. Some guy with thousands of dollars of gear and a studio will tweak the tracks and set levels and turn knobs you never knew existed, all to make the song sound as beautiful as it can. Again, it takes years of experience to be proficient at this. And an engineer might be able to mix a song a day. So there’s another full-time job for a week or so. (Oh, and the producer is usually (and hopefully) still involved in this part of the process, so there’s his time, too.)

You have to master the record. Mastering is the icing on top. It’s the final layer of sonic sweetness, and it’s when the songs are put in the proper order and burned to the final, glowing disc of ones and zeroes representing all your weeks of labor.

Now you’re finished, right? Wrong.

Now you have to hire an artist or designer. Someone needs to package the record and come up with a cover and lay out all the lyrics and thank yous and credits. After they come up with a (hopefully) mind-blowing cover and design they need to submit all that information to the printer.

Oh, and you might need a photographer. This one goes before the artist/designer, in case you want to use pictures for the packaging. Me, I avoid this at all costs. (Take the Clear to Venus cover, for example. The one record with my face on the cover sold the fewest copies. Coincidence? I think not.)

Then you need to print it. Usually folks print the CDs 1,000 at a time to get the best price break. So think about it. After all the above, then you still need to come up with $1,500-$2,000 to actually print the thing up! Unless you’re hip and you only sell it on iTunes and Amazon (or the Rabbit Room) digitally.

Now imagine you have no record deal. You’re an independent artist. You book your own shows. You answer the emails, make the calls, manage your website, post Facebook status updates so people know you’re interesting and witty, and you’ve somehow managed to carve out enough time in your diaper-changing, utility bill-paying, yard-mowing, church-attending, self-doubting life to actually WRITE SONGS.

Then what? Then, my songwriting friend, you have to come up with $15,000-$25,000 to record them (refer to above list), with the fool’s hope that you’ll sell enough to pay off the debt, or the financiers, or the grandparents so you don’t lose your shirt and your house. The artist’s life is not for the faint of heart, or the fiscally sage. It is an extravagant gamble. A leap of faith.

Please understand–I’m not complaining. And I’m not complaining on anyone’s behalf. I’m grateful to still be doing this. I’m grateful that I have enough listeners to have a label to help offset that record-making cost. I’m grateful for a wife whose astonishing, audacious belief in my gifting has convinced me to keep at this for the last fifteen years. Lord knows I’ve been tempted to throw in the towel. I’m grateful for you, whose emails and purchases and attendance at my concerts have given me the chance to write, record, and tour. I do not take it for granted. I still get weepy if I think about it.

But if you keep up with the Square Peg Alliance and the world of independent music you know I’m the least among my peers. There are so many writers whose songs are carrying the fire. I played a show in Chattanooga last weekend with Eric Peters and a band called Concerning Lions (who were really good). The concert was raising money for a group of counselors committed to making their services available to the poorest of the poor. One of them told how he plays Eric Peters’s song “Tomorrow” for many of his clients, and it helped them to voice their own fears and doubts and sorrows. I was so proud of Eric. And it reminded me (as if I needed reminding) how vital songs like his are in all this darkness.

The music business, and now the book publishing business, is morphing even as I type this. By the time you finish reading this post there will be a zillion new bands, new websites, new ideas for the Future of Music. The times they are a-changin’. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought of it like this before, but every independent artist you know is an entrepreneur. Many of us aren’t independently wealthy, don’t have benefactors, and have never written a hit song like “Awesome God” or “Sing Your Praise to the Lord” to provide so much money we have to cap our income and give the rest away. Most of us have at some point gotten royalty statements in the mail from ASCAP (who handles radio royalties) that said, “We’re sorry, but we don’t send checks for less than $10.”

The music industry is vastly different now from what it was even a decade ago. Record labels have had to change tactics, the advent of the internet and digital recording has democratized record-making and distribution, and an artist’s level of success seems to be in direct proportion to how much time he or she spends on social media. There’s a great temptation to spend most of your time promoting your work rather than improving it. We have become better typists than players; my computer keys are worn to the nub, but my fretboard is good as new. I’m not saying Facebook and Twitter and blogging are necessarily bad (forbid it that I should point out the speck in your eye when there’s a blog in mine), but that our need to sell CDs and book concerts and remind the world that we’re still here–still writing songs, still doing our best to create truthful, beautiful, excellent works–can seriously intrude on the time we could spend (and ought to spend) practicing, studying, honing our craft.

Again, this isn’t a complaint. I confess I have complained before, but this isn’t one of those times. I know full well there’s sex-trafficking, slave trade, genocide, war, and starvation all over this broken, beautiful planet. The Kingdom, God’s will done on earth, stabs into the wide blackness like a bright sword in the hands of missionaries, doctors, pastors, and Christians who die for love every day. Michael Card told me there’s more persecution in the church now than ever before. There are brothers and sisters in dank prisons right now. I don’t know why the Lord tarries. But until he comes, it is my job, in the words of George MacDonald, “to better what I can.” Look around you. See the sorrow and weariness in the world, in your own community and church, under your own roof–in your own heart, for Heaven’s sake–and better what you can. Let Christ lead you; he’ll show you how. If you’re wealthy, keep your job and fling the money at those who are bringing water to the thirsty. If you’re not wealthy, better what you can. Work your field. Tend your family like a garden. Write a song about your story. Write a story. Better yet, live a story. Make something beautiful, and make something beautiful of your life. There’s so much in the world that’s falling apart, so put something together. Find a way. If you’re called to write songs and that means getting creative with how you sell your product so that people with means can help you carry on, then so be it.

Many of us in Nashville were drawn here because of a fire in our bones to create. When I hear Andy Gullahorn sing a healing song for a rapt audience I am convinced that while there are some in the Body called to teach, and to preach, and to carry the Gospel to the earth’s edge, others of us are called to craft melodies and lyrics and carry the Gospel to the heart’s hollow. Whether a medical missionary is mending flesh or Gully is comforting a lonesome soul with a song, the medicine is the same. We carry to the world the presence of Jesus in us and through us who are in him and for him.

However we can, we better what we can.

Next: MONEY, Part Three

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