Sustainability and Chester Burnett

One of the most fashionable subjects for music-orientated articles and industry panels these days is Sustainability. Specifically “How to create/maintain a sustainable career in music”.

There’s loads of advice out there: from what sync agencies and collections societies to sign up with, to contract templates, to copyright tips, to what grants to apply for and how to fill out the relevant forms… the list goes on. But that stuff is all about finding the money. Sustainability is different. Sustainability is not about monetizing everything, it’s about standing back and assessing the entire operation. I would argue that to achieve real sustainability in the creative sector, you need five things (in addition to the desirable material/skills):

  1. a good network
  2. morale that tends towards up rather than down
  3. a steady income (even if it’s very small)
  4. robust health
  5. options

They may not all come at once but there certainly needs to be a workable rotation. By “steady income” I mean one that has a relatively predictable pattern (my income, for example, is dreadful in December/January but fairly decent in April/May – so I know when I must tighten my belt and when I can indulge in the odd ice cream). The network consists of your peers both inside and outside of artistic circles (“support” would be another word for it). I include “options” at the end because sometimes doing what you love as a job can lead to hating what you love – if you don’t have something else in your life then you can run the risk of painting yourself into a pretty grim existential corner.

I’m not going to go through the points individually, they’re pretty self-explanatory. Besides, there are already far too many “Top 5 Dos & Don’ts for Independent Artists” on the internet (most of them are just link bait) and I have no intention of joining their ranks – no two artistic careers are the same, people just have to find what works for them.

Instead I’d prefer to point out why I think it’s funny that so many earnest students of “the new music economy” are busy scribbling down notes on sustainability at all.

Out of all the changes currently befalling the music industries, of all the shifts in attitudes, of all the consumer migrations and revenue relocations, the ONLY thing that has stayed the same is the way in which one maintains a sustainable career. All the rules have been rewritten except this one: When you’re successful be sensible… when you’re not successful be even more sensible.

In recent years we’ve changed the way we record music, we’ve changed the way we store music, we’ve changed the way we access music, we’ve changed the way we share music, we’ve changed the way we distribute music, we’ve changed the way we market music and we’ve changed the way we value music.
But in terms of how a musician balances art, ego, expectation and economics… nothing has changed. Sustainability still tends to be dependent on the choices and attitudes of the individual rather than the wider context of the marketplace.

To illustrate this point, here’s an example from sixty years ago:

During the late 40s and 50s Chess Records was (as far as I’m concerned) the most important record label on the planet. The tracks it was releasing in this period would go on to directly shape pop and rock as we know it. But on their amazing, peerless, genre-defining roster they had only one artist who was consistently solvent for his entire career. Only one that ever achieved anything approaching sustainability. It wasn’t the one who invented Rock & Roll, Chuck Berry; it wasn’t the one who invented Chicago blues, Muddy Waters; it wasn’t the one who crossed over from the R&B charts into the pop charts, Etta James.
No, it was Chester Arthur Burnett AKA Howlin’ Wolf.

He didn’t believe in hype, he didn’t borrow money, he didn’t rely on luck or fame. He refused a recording advance (preferring to be paid what he was owed when he earned it), he opted to buy himself a Pontiac stationwagon rather than accept the label’s signature Cadillac (there’s a nice scene in the take-it-all-with-a-huge-pinch-of-salt movie Cadillac Records where Muddy Waters mocks Wolf’s vehicle, to which the latter replies “I own this car, it don’t own me”). Most importantly he avoided sinking into the quicksand of alcoholism and drug-addiction that claimed so many of his contemporaries, most notably his ill-fated (but far better selling) label-mate Little Walter. Wolf was functionally illiterate for the first half of his career but then went to school in his forties as his record sales picked up. Later he trained in accountancy and went on to keep such an efficient business going (predominantly in the live performance sector) that his backing band were not only the highest paid on the circuit but even had health insurance.

And did he do all this at the expense of the all-important mythology? Did his refusal to gamble, womanise or drink to excess undermine his credibility as an artist? Absolutely not. It meant he could continue making art while his “more successful” peers were paralysed by bankruptcy.

In Howlin’ Wolf we have someone who both predates Rock & Roll and lives through its golden age, who inspires the likes of The Rolling Stones, Cream, The Faces and Led Zeppelin who then in turn go on to inspire millions more and give birth to entire subgenres of rock and blues music that shape the way in which emerging musicians construct their notions of what it is to be an artist.

Burnett died seven years before I was born but is one of my favourite singers of all time (I first heard his London Sessions album when I was eleven and I’ve been hooked ever since). I love that deep growling delivery. And I love the way he plays with the genre, with the narrative voice, with humour – and yet never strays too far from the emotional guts of a composition (be it one of his own or something written by Willie Dixon). He’s honest, aggressive, charismatic and yet full of self-awareness. He’s one of the few artists that I can always listen to and is one of the single greatest influences on my own work – indeed “I asked her for water, she brought me gasoline” is the loose template for pretty much every song I’ve written for the Bedlam Six (it’s the most economical, hard-hitting and loaded lyric I’ve ever encountered – there’s an entire relationship in that couplet – it’s absolutely perfect).

And now, as a professional musician myself, I am equally inspired by his long-sightedness, his fearless common sense, the importance he placed on treating his band with respect and (most importantly) not getting complacent.

I often end up speaking on the Sustainability panel at conferences and I always disappoint the more romantic members of the audience with tips such as “prepare packed lunches before the gig” and “hydration is very important on tour” because a lot of people would rather be sold a bag of magic beans and a shortcut to a fictional version of success than just work out what they actually want out of life and knuckle down for the long haul.

The music itself is always (and will always be) more important than the perks… and the music is the thing you begin with before complicating it with fashion and fad. The trimmings are just there for the people who get jaded – and you only get jaded if you play by someone else’s rules. Real artists do what’s important to them and ignore the expectations.

Just listen to one Howlin’ Wolf song and tell me if you give a damn how many drugs he’s taking or whether he’s just smashed up a hotel room. There’s no space for that stuff. That’s the angle you use to promote a band whose music doesn’t speak for itself. Wolf was happily married to a woman who helped him do his book-keeping. But the songs he sings are the most dangerous songs ever recorded. He is the poster child for the whole “blues is the devil’s music” argument. He sounds like he could devour the entire audience without pausing to chew. He knows how to create a mood and he knows how to create a myth; he knows it doesn’t require the lazy shorthand of conspicuous indulgence.

Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll is child’s play, anyone can do that stuff, it’s the musical equivalent of trying to impress someone by casually dropping into a conversation how many press-ups you can do. If you really want a sustainable career in music then do what Chester Burnett did: make dangerous, soulful, provocative, majestic art… and keep all the receipts.

1 thought on “Sustainability and Chester Burnett”

  1. Thanks for this – very helpful to have your example and line of reason.

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