Joe The Indie Rocker

"'Bout the only rapper still gettin' money in a drought"
—Jay-Z

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Indie rocker Joseph Arthur Joseph Arthur hide caption

itoggle caption Joseph Arthur

As my appositive suggests, I am, in fact, just "visiting" here at Weekend Edition. Normally I warm a seat three floors above for NPR Music; as I have grown fond of telling people, the network basically pays me to think about music and use the Internet all day. (Not gonna lie — it's pretty sweet.) And one of my favorite music things to think about, especially now that economic pessimism is dominating non-election headlines, is how full-time musicians routinely eke out a living by selling people their creativity.

I can't imagine I'm the only one fascinated by the material realities of musicians. See, we're always mentally privileging music and the arts; we all reserve a special critical language for understanding why a good song makes us feel the way we do. Which is often useful, of course — but human creators are almost always behind said songs, and it's not as if they didn't have to make next month's rent payment.

It's a topic especially pertinent to Liane Hansen's interview with singer-songwriter and aspiring Renaissance man Joseph Arthur.

Dude has put out five albums this year alone: true, four are shorter EP-length records, but still, that's a rather overstuffed songbook he's amassing. This on the heels of one full-length in 2007, another in 2006, painting a whole hell of a lot, and operating his own art gallery/recording studio/performance space. (The Museum of Modern Arthur, he calls it cheekily.) "Prolific" only begins to describe it.

Intrinsic worth aside, all that output leaves Arthur with plenty of outstanding debts. Recording isn't cheap; neither is mastering, pressing-up discs, and distributing them. Multiply that by five new CDs. Then there's publicity and booking agents and touring costs and other overhead business. All this in an age where fewer and fewer are willing (and able) to buy anybody's records — and going out to see music isn't exactly recession-proof either. If the right brain can't get the left brain to do some budgeting, all those new songs will have been for financial naught.

Liane asked him how he makes a living out of all this. We had to leave out his response for time — after all, it's probably more pertinent to hear one person could be responsible for so many auditory and visual ideas (and still have plenty of free time, as Arthur claims). But that excised segment of the discussion follows here:

Joseph Arthur talks about how he pays his bills as an independent artist.

This is a man who was once supported by a major label for approaching a decade. But it really is a sign of the times that he says that now he's earning a big chunk of revenue from song licensing to TV shows and movies — and that he's totally cool with it. The "rules have changed," he says, and doing songs for television advertisements is the new sought-after promotional opportunity (ask Feist, or anyone else who's ever had an iPod commercial set to his or her music). And even all that, plus touring, t-shirt sales, etc. still adds up to something of a peripatetic lifestyle — a "beatnik existence" in his words.

Not to say that the archetypal Joe the Singer-Songwriter is nobler or more deserving of our support than the equivalent Joe the Plumber. But Arthur is willing to put up with all this to feed his creative habit. And his fans, who are seeing the fruits of his work fully ripen, will likely be grateful for that.

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