What Are We Afraid Of?

What Are We Afraid Of?


Photo by Joel Cooper, via Flickr.

Here we are at the denouement. I cannot help but feel that my final post in this series on entrepreneurship should offer different fare. I do hope discussion continues on the topic, and I will continue to offer my two cents on occasion, but I can sense that my final aria is nearly here and that the curtain will fall soon. Sitting here, writing this, I feel the need to offer something more personal. I remain, after all, a performer at heart, whether I like it or not.

Speaking of which, I never really introduced myself, did I? I just sort of started arguing at you. Let me try again.

My name is R. Andrew Lee, but you can call me Andy. I’m a pianist who plays a lot of new music, particularly of a minimalist bent, some of which I’ve recorded. I live in Denver, and I’m a proud to say I’m from Kansas City. I’ve been married 9.5 years and have two daughters, ages 5 and almost 3, and one son who is 4 months old. I take my grilling and drinking seriously, and have a penchant for interesting socks.

Veneer and Reality

Now let us take a look at what the professional world sees, or at least what I try to portray.

I teach at Regis University, and before that I was artist-in-residence at Avila University. I’ve performed in Belgium, France, several times in the UK (including London), Toronto, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Austin (among many others), and I’m about to add Chicago to that list. I’ve had six albums released to date, with three more already recorded. They have been played on the radio in Australia, Slovenia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Canada, and all over the States. They have been reviewed in nine languages. My recordings have been extraordinarily well received, making “best of” lists in Gramophone, The Wire, Mojo, Time Out New York, and The New Yorker, along with a host of smaller websites/publications. I have my New York Times quotes. I also have press from two of the most prominent classical music critics, Steve Smith and Alex Ross.

That’s not too bad, if I do say so myself. Now let’s take a different look at the above.

My job title at Regis University is associate university minister for liturgical and sacred music. I fall on the staff side of the staff/faculty divide, though I also teach in the music department. My primary job is to prepare music for Sunday and other campus-wide services. My artist-in-residence title was great to have, but it was a half-time gig while I was still working on my doctorate. I supplemented that income with private teaching and high school choir accompaniment. The performances in Belgium and France were part of international conferences (not bad, but also not paying). The UK tour almost broke even (only because I could stay with family) and the Toronto gig lost money (not a big deal because my brother was living there at the time). The performing accounts for a small percentage of my annual income. I’ve made very, very little money from the recordings, despite the press, though I’m glad that sales have at least been sufficient enough to justify more albums (well, at least since album number four.)

The Fear

So why the veneer? The obvious, logical, and justifiable reason is that it is important to put your best face forward professionally. We’re all hustling for gigs, and it doesn’t make sense to do anything but make yourself look as appealing as possible.

But perhaps there is another layer to it. I think we’re afraid.

In the comment section of my last post (and a hearty kudos to the NewMusicBox readership for bucking the “Don’t read the comments!” rule), I was directed to a post by Kevin Obsatz titled “The Business of Art.” In this post, Obstaz articulates what I would contend is a nearly ubiquitous fear that is rarely discussed. After arguing that the “unquestioned orthodoxy” of our society is that everything is a business, he writes the following:

There’s a moral imperative [in a capitalist system] to succeed or give up, and succeeding means growing—bigger audience, more profits, bigger budgets. To keep making art that isn’t successful by a conventional definition is an affront to a capitalist ideology—unless it can be recategorized as a hobby, a consumer activity. …And, in my experience, that is truly terrifying to artists: if I stop pursuing my work as a business, does that mean I’m a hobbyist prosumer dilettante, and therefore not serious? That is death or exile, banishment, existential crisis.

Let me boil down my “reality” bio to a sentence and see how it strikes you. I am a church musician who performs and records recent classical music on the side.

Do you still take me seriously?

The thing is, when I was nearing the end of my doctoral program, I had three on-campus interviews. One for the job I currently hold and two for tenure-track positions in cities that I knew I would feel motivated to leave as soon as humanly possible. I have a great job that is rewarding, in an amazing part of the country, that also allows me to afford a mortgage, payments on a minivan, and music lessons for my oldest child. But my primary job is to prepare music for liturgies, and that has raised eyebrows and elicited pity from more than a few people. As a result, I don’t talk about my job that much in certain circles.

There are innumerable articles about how to define success for yourself in the arts, but doing that means being able and willing to go against how everyone else views success. We seem to be exceptionally good at judging a work of art on its own merits, but when it comes to judging artists, we too easily adopt a different set of criteria. If you can make a living as an artist, you must be good, and if you can’t…let’s just say you’re better off in the eyes of many if you struggle financially trying to make it work rather than doing it “on the side.” Never mind that a day job might actually mean having more time for your art.


I’m a moderate in most respects. I don’t have trouble seeing the perspective of those on both sides of an issue and often find more grey than black and white. Yet sometimes being a moderate means wanting to balance the discussion, and that is a bit of what I’ve been trying to do here. I’m not saying that these essays are some devil’s advocate intellectual exercises; I stand by the points I’ve made. Rather, in the face of such grand optimism about music entrepreneurship (or at least its pervasiveness), my nature seeks a middle ground.

We should be teaching the next generation of musicians how to promote the great art they will produce. I do not question that. What I worry is that we are selling something with a pretty, new face without looking beneath the façade.

We are promoting technologies that inspire creativity while at the same time drowning it out. We are embracing a path for success that allows few to be successful. We are trying to help artists promote their work but also reinforcing the mindset that to be a legitimate artist, one must successfully monetize his or her art.

My position is not one of a wholesale rejection of entrepreneurship in music. I only urge caution and perspective as we work to find a path in these uncertain times and suggest that we not forget the value of ars gratia artis.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

5 thoughts on “What Are We Afraid Of?

  1. Paul H. Muller

    I expect to be in the minority on this, but as someone who has been involved in church music at the congregational level for 20 years I think you have the most important job there is. Church music today, as I have experienced it, is split between hopeless 18th century traditionalism and shallow late 20th century praise songs. What the church needs is serious contemporary music that speaks to human spirituality, not a hymnody driven by pop consumer fashion in search of ‘relevance’ or one satisfied only by nostalgia. Who is going to step up to that challenge? Arvo Part comes to mind, but we need music that can flourish outside the concert hall and be heard in the sanctuary. The church needs musicians who have a presence in contemporary art and who can adapt the music of our time to the needs of the people and their liturgy. If you want one definition of success – one with important historical connections – that would be mine.

  2. Rob Deemer

    Great set of articles, Andy – kudos to you for keeping them focused and absolutely pertinent to the NewMusicBox readership!

    From my perspective, I think that neither your “professional” description and your own translation of that description seems useful – both have a sense of forced “veneer” of one type or another. Do you know what does seem useful? I submit:

    “My name is R. Andrew Lee, but you can call me Andy. I’m a pianist who plays a lot of new music, particularly of a minimalist bent, some of which I’ve recorded. I live in Denver, and I’m a proud to say I’m from Kansas City. I’ve been married 9.5 years and have two daughters, ages 5 and almost 3, and one son who is 4 months old. I take my grilling and drinking seriously, and have a penchant for interesting socks.”

    This seems like someone I would not only want to listen to, but to get to know and hopefully collaborate with sometime in the future. Entrepreneurship has collected a lot of baggage over the years that, as you describe, seems to assume that we can’t just present our own selves but rather filter that identity in one way or another. Usually the result of this filtering is that the individual either comes across as fake or they’re so good at embracing their filter that they become the character they present to the public, losing their initial identity altogether.

    Perception is extremely powerful…I try to encourage my own students to think of themselves not as student composers at Fredonia, but as composers who are working toward a degree at Fredonia. If we come to terms with who we are – at the root level – we’ll have a better chance at sustaining honest and worthwhile lives (and careers).

  3. Linda Essig

    Thank you for the series of articles. Truthful framing — not” veneer” — is important. When you remove what you purport to be a veneer of success, your description does not seem particularly accurate. Instead, you can truthfuly say that “Andy is a musician with a portfolio career that includes litrugical music as well as new (mostly minimilast) classical music, performed live internationally and on well-received recordings.” When a music student takes well-taught coursework in music (or arts) entrepreneurship, they may learn to frame her/his career in a way that both supports and reflects their success. Such coursework is not a requirement for doing so — but it can help.
    Cheers, Linda

  4. Andrew Hudson

    Genre isolationism is nothing new. I remember reading about an opera singer who got a gig on a reality TV show, and was subsequently ostracized by some members of the opera community, even though her opera work hadn’t changed– it’s the same thing: the only way to enforce the supremacy of your own worldview is to belittle the experiences of outsiders. And in a world where classical musicians (particularly those who play modern music) get misunderstood and ignored by the vast majority of audiences, there’s a very real psychological threat of marginalization, and this sort of politics of legitimacy is one of the coping mechanisms we have.

    I think the more damning question is not “What are we afraid of?”– but rather, why don’t we address the root of these fears?

  5. Aakash Mittal

    This is my favorite essay of your series. (the other ones are also good). In my own artistic journey I am continually interested in artists who put the “art first” to the extent that it is not tied up with monetary gain. Or better put, the success of the art is not tied up with its ability to be sold. Non musicians I find inspiring are Vincent Van Gough and J.R.R. Tolkien. Regardless whether their art was a source of income (or not) they worked tenaciously with a sense of detail, urgency, and integrity towards their vision. The artistic vision and its execution was prime. Along these lines I believe that everyone can (and should) participate in the arts regardless of how they earn their living. Art is one of our most sacred and creative rituals and everyone has a right to it. I disagree with the message in our culture that promotes art as something created by the professional and consumed by others. I believe the artistic experience is a communal one.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.