Straight talk about funding

I recently received the following e-mail from David Trotter. With his permission, I'm posting it here, with my responses below.

Amy,

I've watched you over the years since you were a musician in your late twenties in Missoula (though I fell of the bandwagon for a while in between, because of relocations and bad internet connections), and besides always being an interesting and talented artist, you've always been an interesting and gifted self-funder, from the days of your CSA to Patronopolis.

This is inspiration to an artist, photographer, writer who know too well the struggles of staying afloat.

What you do needs to be done on a larger scale, both for individual artists and for the arts themselves (though, frankly, there are probably too many anonymous arts-support groups and general crowdfunding operations already). The emphasis really needs on individual artists.

What is your input on the funding process, particularly for solo artists. You've always had elements to your plan that now have been picked up by popular crowdfunding, but you've always seemed to have a unique success.

That seems to be part of the person who is you and seems to fit with your style of creating. The last time I actually saw you in person you were sitting on the edge of the trade circle at the 2000 Rainbow gathering writing music.

What are your thoughts on the process today?

David Trotter

David,

First of all, thanks for all the compliments.

Secondly, I don't remember that moment at the Rainbow Gathering, but I do remember being there, and I'm so glad I got a taste of that whacky and wonderful world!

Now to your questions.

I guess I want to start by dispelling any misconceptions you may have. I have struggled financially to a kind of ridiculous degree. I am still not anywhere close to where I want to be on that front, or need to be to feel secure. My reasons for being perpetually poor are complex and in my opinion have just as much (or more) to do with psychological baggage than with societal stuff. I don't want to go into that further here, but I needed to say that much.

All of this is to say -- I get the impression from your letter that you think I've got it dialed somehow, and unfortunately, I do not. The level of financial instability and stress that I've accepted as normal is unhealthy. I have extended my resources of time, effort, ideas and energy without paying adequate attention to replenishment. I've left the spigot on the outflow open wide, while often the inflow tank has been just barely more than dry. In many ways, I haven't taken good care of my basic needs.

It's delightful to be writing this in the past tense. I feel like I am on the cusp of change in this area. I'll put it to you straight: I want to make more money. And I feel I am smart enough and skilled enough and hard-working enough to start making more money. So I'm going to.

This reality check about my financial situation is not meant to discount the success I have had in fundraising for my work, or to poo-poo the generosity of my incredible community of supporters. Not at all! The purchases and gifts and loans and grants and donations I've received have been absolutely essential to my ability to make art. Because people have chosen to support me over the years, I have been able to feed and house myself, and keep working on creating things. This is the part you're interested in, I know -- not my financial difficulties, but the ways in which things have worked out. I just didn't want to get into that without making it clear that it's been herky-jerky, unstable, and often frighteningly close to the bone. Which, again, is not to diss one penny I've been given.

So, when it has worked, how has it worked?

My mind goes to 1999 in San Francisco. I think my approach to receiving support -- even the awareness that such support was possible -- grew out of performing on the street there. It was such a basic, simple exchange: I opened my guitar case and started singing songs, and if people liked it, they dropped money in. They weren't getting anything concrete, they weren't buying a CD or even (usually) hanging around for a whole song. They were just plunking some change or a few bucks into my case and saying, essentially, "keep doing this."

That's how I took it anyway. It was just kindness. Maybe they felt like my music brightened their day for a second, maybe they felt sorry for me, who knows.

The fact that we were so anonymous to each other is kind of the point. They weren't buying into any sort of "celebrity" b.s., they weren't supporting me because someone else had shined me up and told them I was important. We were just human beings out on the street, sharing a moment, exchanging something intangible for something concrete. That was my first "crowdfunding" experiment.

When I came back to my sister's place after an afternoon of busking, we'd count the money on her floor and giggle with delight (she was letting me crash with her for free, another hugely supportive factor). People were saying YES to the idea of me singing and playing songs in public. They were voting for my artistic life with their nickles and dimes and sometimes (waa-hoo!) their twenty-dollar bills. And with their smiles and waves and words of encouragement. I especially loved it when they danced a little as they walked by, or when some kid stopped about three inches from me and just stared, with a face that said, what the heck is this person doing standing out here singing -- is this even legal?

I wish I could thank every single one of those good souls. What a difference they made.

Extrapolating from those experiences, I would say the success I have had in finding financial support for my work (maybe) comes down to:

1. Opening up. If I'd sung in my closet all day and no one would have supported me.

2. Being brave. My hands often shook as I opened my guitar case, and it took a big internal push to strum that first chord, and sing that first note.

3. Being imperfect. Oh, the imperfection! Forgotten words, forgotten chords, choking and spitting and coughing and suddenly needing to pee. The list goes on and on. And the environment was loud and weird and not really conducive to street-singing. If I'd waited to be perfect, or for the perfect place/time/situation, I'd still be waiting.

4. Being receptive. I looked people in the eye. When they smiled at me, I smiled back. When they stopped and listened, or threw money in my case, I felt and expressed big gratitude. When they wanted to talk, I let them (to a point...sometimes I had to cut it off if it went on forever or became awkward). I tried, and try, to recognize the relational element of any kind of artistic exchange. I'm not pushing a Big Mac across a counter here. There's something deeper and more soulful going on. (But also, this doesn't mean I want to date you/be your therapist/hear your life story -- finding that balance can be tricky!)

5. Being focused. If I went out to make music, I made music. I didn't smoke pot or get drunk or wander around by the seashore or go shopping. I made music. I took it seriously. It meant something to me. I think people could feel that.

6. Being frugal. I counted and kept every penny. If I bought a bowl of clam chowder to keep me going in the midst of a street session, I kept track of how much it cost, and I didn't let myself do that more than once a week. 

7. Being persistent. Some days I made $20. Some days I made $120. It was completely random. I didn't let the twenty dollar days get me down too much. I kept showing up.

8. Luck. And the grace and generosity of others.

All of these things apply to my other attempts to gather support for my work, too.

I hope that helps!

Thanks for writing David.