The worst day of my writing life was attending a Kurt Vonnegut lecture entitled “How To Get A Job Like Mine.” Great title, right? I couldn’t wait for the big man to tell me the secrets to a successful writing career.
Crabby old Vonnegut put that fantasy to bed with his opening sentence: “You can’t. My job doesn’t exist anymore,” he said, and all of the air left the room. The author went on to talk about the golden age of the “slicks,” the magazines that once paid good money for short stories that were read by a large swath of America. These were the days when a story like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” would be published and days later people discussed it like the latest Kimye gossip.
By the time I had my moment with Vonnegut, the slicks were long gone. Some like Esquire, for example, still existed, but they no longer paid thousands of dollars for a good short story. Nobody gives a fuck about short fiction anymore was Vonnegut’s basic point—as a job “short story writer” no longer existed. But he had a second point, too, and that was this: If you’re a writer, you’re going to write anyway.
Esquire remains in print, by the way, but for how long who knows. The internet continues to exert its massive, transformational force on the traditional periodical industry, which is a shame for guys like me who like rolling up magazines and sticking them in our back pockets as we head out the door. “Adapt or die” is the hackneyed phrase kicked around when old farts like me bemoan the deaths of magazines and newspapers, and publications like Esquire are trying. You can buy the online edition of the magazine if you want, and of course you can read articles for free on their website, too.
The latter is the dominant paradigm now between writers and readers. Writing has been devalued to a point very much in line with what Vonnegut told me over twenty years ago: Casual readers think writing is worth zero dollars and, oh, let’s round up to zero cents. Don’t believe me? Consider how much you paid to read this rambling essay.
I scramble for every writing nickel and dime I earn, as do my colleagues. I’m not talking about the Stephen Kings and JK Rowlings of the world. They aren’t my peers. My colleagues are the writers who eke it out assignment by assignment. Why do we do it? Because we’re writers. What the hell else are we going to do? We subsidize the writing that we want to do with whatever we can: We write lists, sponsored posts, spec pieces, get day jobs, kill rich elderly relatives, whatever. We miss you, Uncle Ronnie!
My point is this: Writing isn’t dead; rather, one particular industry—the slicks—is long dead and another, the print periodical industry, is on the ropes. But writing isn’t dead. The craft remains valid and in demand, just not in the form that some of us fantasized about as kids.
This brings us back to Esquire and a recent interview with Gene Simmons published on their website. The interview was written by Simmons’s son Nick rather than a highly paid, well respected Esquire staffer. I mention this not to discredit the kid; rather, my point is that this article is a great example of the devaluation of the traditional writing career circa 2014. Stop dreaming of that staff position at a national magazine: That job is all but dead, replaced by celebrity kids and online interviews. Adapt or die.
The gist of the interview is Simmons the Elder burying the corpse of rock and roll:
Once you had a record company on your side, they would fund you, and that also meant when you toured they would give you tour support. There was an entire industry to help the next Beatles, Stones, Prince, Hendrix, to prop them up and support them every step of the way. There are still record companies, and it does apply to pop, rap, and country to an extent. But for performers who are also songwriters — the creators — for rock music, for soul, for the blues — it’s finally dead.
Rock is finally dead.
Read that again. “Rock is finally dead” is Simmons’s conclusion, but it isn’t his argument. What he describes is the death of the traditional record industry. He reiterates the point later: “There is no record industry, unfortunately. Not like there was,” he states. So what killed the record industry? File sharing, according to Simmons:
And who is the culprit? [….] Rock did not die of old age. It was murdered….The masses do not recognize file-sharing and downloading as stealing because there’s a copy left behind for you — it’s not that copy that’s the problem, it’s the other one that someone received but didn’t pay for. The problem is that nobody will pay you for the 10,000 hours you put in to create what you created. I can only imagine the frustration of all that work, and having no one value it enough to pay you for it.
Well, Gene, I don’t have to imagine that frustration, and neither do the overwhelming majority of writers, painters, actors, photographers, musicians, potters, dancers, or sculptors. We live it every fucking day. We put in our 10,000 hours, and more often than not no one values it enough to pay us for it. You got lucky, dude. You came of creative age during a bubble in your chosen field, just like Vonnegut did with the slicks. You both made the best of it and good on you for doing so, but don’t mistake the death of the bubble for the death of the craft.
My mind always goes back to Preston Lauterbach’s The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll when conversations arise about the death of the record industry. He has a nice piece of business in there about how in the ’30s and ’40s the advance man would come to town a few days before the band and stock the local jukeboxes with the group’s latest song. The objective was to build excitement about the coming show and sell more tickets. In other words, in the days of the Chitlin’ Circuit, the music industry revolved around live performance with recorded music being damned close to no more than a promotional item–a commercial for the band, so to speak. In business terms this is referred to as a “loss leader:” We’ll probably lose money on the record, fellas, but as long as we’re selling out shows we’ll come out ahead.
This equation was turned on its head in 1955, first with a mostly forgotten artist named Johnny Ace who accidentally shot himself in the head and thus created a massive demand for his records. Talk about a loss leader. The Elvis bubble took off shortly thereafter, and a few years later The Beatles gave birth to the British Invasion. By the end of the sixties the record (and particularly the album) had become the product and the live performance was the loss leader. Bands toured to support their latest record rather than recorded to promote their live performances.
That’s the record industry people like Simmons are talking about when they bemoan the death of the industry: The “records are the real commodity” industry. But it was a bubble—a long-lasting bubble, but a bubble all the same—and now that it has popped, we’re back to the “performance is the real commodity” industry of the prehistoric days of rock ‘n’ roll. KISS can print their own money by touring and selling crappy merchandise or licensing another mini-golf course. They never have to make another record. They are the Stephen Kings or JK Rowlings of this analogy.
It isn’t just KISS-sized bands. Artists both young and old are making their money on the road these days. I’ve hung out with veterans of the bubble days who play club dates now and make more in t-shirt sales than record sales. Maybe they’re fooling themselves, but to a person they tell me that they prefer the control they now enjoy over their livelihoods much more than they did the label/artist arrangements of the traditional record industry days.
I guess it comes down to this: The Elizabethan sonnet industry is dead, but the Elizabethan sonnet isn’t. We need to stop confusing industries with means of artistic expression. Rock isn’t dead, and neither is writing. It’s our responsibility as makers of things to figure out how to sell them if we choose to do so. I can’t have Kurt Vonnegut’s or Gene Simmons’s job but I can have my own, and I’m okay with that.
Now if only I could figure out how to sell some t-shirts.
Categories: on writing