Last week I visited a public school to talk about songwriting. The students in the songwriting club ranged from about 8 years old to about 13. They were polite and energetic and excited to have me in the class.
They asked a lot of questions, starting with "Are you really a professional?"
Next, "When did you get your record deal?"
And finally, "Are you famous?"
I handled the first question without too much difficulty, quickly rhyming off the several ways that I make money through songwriting. (Paid performances, CD sales, royalties, song commissions and teaching. I didn't mention the subway singing, figuring it'd fall under "paid performances".)
In answer to the second question, I replied that I don't have a record deal because I am an independent artist. I explained that I try to run my music enterprise like a small business;
I pay for my recordings myself and therefore don't run the risk of being in debt to a record company. I added that record deals are few and far between these days and generally unavailable to niche artists such as myself ("niche", I guess, being people over the age of 25 whose songs that don't fit neatly into Top 40 playlists).
Picking up steam, I went on to say that if anyone in the room chose to follow any kind of creative path "as a songwriter, painter, dancer, sculptor..." (I was getting breathless now) "you may not always make a lot of money at it..." (here comes the big finish) "...but you'll always feel energized and alive."
I stopped and looked around the room, noticing that a few students (and their teacher) were now looking slightly alarmed. (Oh right. They wanted a visiting songwriter, not a visiting crazed lunatic.)
So I sang a song. And, after that, I listened to some of theirs.
They reminded me of the songs I wrote when I was twelve. Some were sweet and catchy, while others were more complex and personal and ambitious. Because it was a classroom, there was evaluating going on. Some songs were judged "better" than others. I wished they had just been allowed to stand. After all, these kids are only 12. Shouldn't they just be encouraged to write as much as they can, without comparing their work to commercial standards? Over time, their writing would gain maturity and depth, and they'd have the opportunity to develop their own true expression.
Or, on the other hand, maybe they should be encouraged to succeed in the commercial industry, because at their age they have a chance.
Before I left, one girl came up to me and proudly showed me an autographed picture of Hillary Duff. Then she asked me if I was famous.
I didn't want to disappoint her, nor did I want to lie.
So I said, "Well, not as famous as Hillary Duff".
She didn't ask me for my autograph, but she gave me some very nice stickers for my guitar case.