It’s the end of summer, and I am scheduling my last few piano students into their slots for the fall. Invariably, over the summer, there has been some attrition. There always is, especially when kids turn about 14. Sometimes, the kid can be encouraged to continue, but too often the parent has lost the stomach for the continued battle about practicing and raises the white flag. When a child doesn’t have much musical aptitude and hasn’t learned to feel joy in playing music after several years, 14 may be a good time to quit, but as a teacher, it always hurts to see musically sensitive kids quit for no better reason than “piano is hard.”
At the same time, I’ve taken a week off to get my workload in order for the fall: Writing and piano, both. I’ve got some gigs coming up in piano, some travel scheduled, a book coming out, and I’m writing up a frenzy as the ecotourism writer for Suite101. So at the same time that I’m thinking about why kids don’t succeed at piano, I’m thinking about why writers do, and don’t, succeed in this brave new world of Internet writing.
Turns out that grown-up writers and teenage piano students have a lot in common.
The Internet has radically changed writing careers. It has undoubtedly destroyed some. Growing like some exotic weed, it has out-competed the traditional denizens of journalism: the print media. Magazines and newspapers are folding, editors are losing jobs, and writers with long careers are being displaced by “citizen journalists” and young upstarts on the Internet who don’t mind working for a few dollars an article.
The barriers to entry have come down. Or at least we think they have. And the barbarians are at the gate with their bad grammar and cliches.
It has never been exactly easy to make a living as an independent creative. At the same time, the barriers to entry in writing and some other fields, such as acting, have always been deceptively low, which may be why so many people who can’t write and can’t act think they have a shot at these supposedly glamorous careers. Unlike photography (where you need, or at least, used to need, lots of expensive equipment), or music (where you need an instrument and the ability to play it), anyone can try to declare himself or herself an actor or a writer.
Yet barriers did, and do, exist. Skill has always mattered, and so have contacts. To succeed, you needed to get good skills in front of people who could hire you. Bad writers and bad actors didn’t so much out-compete good ones for jobs as they muddied up the waters and made it harder for professionals to find their way to editors and managers.
These barriers to entry have never stopped anyone from throwing a hat into the ring, but they had a lot to do with who got passed through to the next level. Oh, and they gave us someone to blame if we didn’t make it.
Today, technology has opened the field: Writers can connect directly with readers on the Internet; with the rise of digital camera, photographers no longer need to invest $30,000 in equipment to be able to take consistent professional shots; musicians can put out their own demo CDs with equipment that costs under $1000; and actors can get their shorts up on Youtube.
So, have the barriers to entry really fallen?
I doubt it. True, in my current Interent writing gig, the barriers to entry are seemingly low. There is an application process, but in truth, it doesn’t seem very rigorous to someone who cut her teeth in national print magazines and major newspapers.
However, to succeed at this gig is a very different story. The financial model is, on the surface, distressingly different than the old model of “write a story, get a check.” Instead, income dribbles in over months and years, and it seems to take forever for those first pennies to turn into dollars; for them to turn into enough dollars takes even longer, inconceivably longer if you happen to have been one of those writers who used to make a couple of bucks a word writing national magazine service stories. Succeeding in this new world — making enough money on the stories to justify the time spent writing them — is possible, although not easy. I’ve done the math six ways from Sunday, and I’ve measured the information people share about their earnings against mine, and no matter how I figure it, it’s worth the work. But it’s a long-term game. Just like learning piano, which has so far taken me about 40 years.
And maybe it was learning piano — the discipline, the patience, the ability to understand this long-term process of continual effort and ultimate reward — that has given me the outlook necessary to succeed in writing. I think that what a lot of people — adults and kids, both – really want when they say they want to write, or play music, has nothing to do with the actual work itself : the practice, the day-in-day-out engagement with subject matter, technique, and skill. They want a magic pill that will do all that for them, so they can get to the real fun — the rewards of having written a book, the applause at the end of a show, and hopefully, a really big paycheck.
And THAT is the new barrier to entry in the arts. Only it’s not so new.
In the old days, we could blame those old barriers: how hard it was to get an editor’s attention, how expensive camera equipment was, how impossible it was to get a recording deal or an audition. The Internet has blown all that away — and it turns out that it was nothing more than a big smokescreen that concealed the real barrier to entry, which is something we should have known all along.
What it takes to succeed in the arts is the same as it always has been: the desire and drive to get up and do it today and tomorrow and the next day. To do it well, to manage the work smartly, to keep doing it even when it doesn’t pay off, to set a course and stay with it, to learn the ropes and techniques, to believe that it will happen even when you strike a plateau and can’t find a way up from it. You have to make smart business decisions, yes; as there ever have been, there are plenty of companies and individuals who would love to underpay you for your work. You have to find business models that make sense to you, but then you have to stick with them. You have to do the work. And even more, you have to love the work.
And, as my piano students, and some of my fellow writers are finding, that may be the biggest barrier to entry of all.
And if we don’t succeed? Maybe this time, we have only ourselves to blame.