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Being Small – Sustainability, Scale and Success

June 11th, 2015 | 1 Comment | Categories: New Music Strategies |

It’s that time of year again – one of my favourite conferences began last year, and this year continues as an annual event – Small Is Beautiful. Billed as ‘Insight, intelligence and ideas for micro-enterprises’, it’s a wide ranging exploration of how life and work play out for those of us who neither work for nor run corporations. Sole traders, freelancers, entrepreneurs, artists, makers, educators… an amazing collection of people gathering for inspiration, solidarity and encouragement in an evermore perilous financial environment.

Last year I wrote how being a ‘micro’ was my Plan A – it wasn’t a 2nd choice, it was always the aim.

This year, I’m going to explore a few of the reasons why, on the themes of Sustainability, Scale and Success.

Sustainability is such a buzzword in every field that we quite often lose sight of how it applies to us. There are so many kinds of sustainability that I need to consider in my work, perhaps it would be helpful just to list them:

  • Economic Sustainability – that’s obvious: can I keep doing this and no end up broke?
  • Creative Sustainability – alongside the economics is the task of maintaining the level of creative exploration and control that is right at the heart of my reasons for staying micro.
  • Environmental Sustainability – one of the joys of being self employed is that I can (and do) turn down work if the environmental impact of doing it is going to outweigh the benefit of the work. I can choose to spend more and get a train, rather than a cheap flight, and soak up the cost because I think it matters. That control feels vital…
  • Political Sustainability – this is a more tricky one, especially as every area of life involves compromise, but I’m deeply wedded to the aspect of being small that gives me political agency within my work. Being micro and stay micro is itself a counter-cultural act, and carving out a space where you can make art that is explicitly political without being beholden to someone else’s agenda is a luxury we’d do well to cherish. I certainly don’t take that freedom for granted, and make a lot of my decisions about the future with that freedom in mind.

Scale is another area that requires unpacking – especially in music, where the aims of so many people are unquestioning and depressingly hyper-modernist. Much of the music world is still obsessed with the metrics of success that applied in the late 20th Century, the triumph of giantism, and it’s inherent rush for the middle ground creatively and culturally, the competitive element that left so many crushed by a system built to push everyone through a funnel towards huge sales and huge gigs… Choosing something other than that is still often seen as ‘what you do because you can’t play stadiums’.

But realising that the kind of interactions with my audience that I cherished only really happened at a small scale, that there was an upper limit to the size of event that really worked for me was liberating. It took me out of that particular conversation about growth in numerical terms, and allowed me to think of growth in terms of creativity, consistency, how regularly I can do shows, reputation, the kinds of collaborations I was able to make happen… How to increase your standing as an artist or practitioner without playing to ever-bigger audiences is a really tricky question, but one that we micros are well placed to ask.

So how does the desire to scale in terms of impact weigh against the need to stay small in terms of the experience? It’s a juggling act I’m still working through, and one that requires a different conversation about priorities. And that leads us onto the third of our ’S’s…

Success… what is success? Is it a place you intend to arrive at, or is it a state of being? Is it your ability to navigate change successfully, or will it be something that is measurable only in hindsight? I have a mixture of ‘targets’ that help me with planning, but ultimately, success is about the ongoing curiosity of my creative exploration. So many other people have an expectation of what my ‘success’ should look like, what I should be pursuing and how I should go about it. Sometimes it’s to the point where they consider me irresponsible and/or lazy for not pursuing the business side of my work ahead of the creative side, and I have to be sure what it is that I value in order to push back against that.

But I also have to have some kind of idea of what order of success in those kind of economically measurable and observable terms is needed for me to be able to keep doing what I do, and to reach whatever creative targets I set for myself. Where is the perfect balance of creative freedom and audience size for whatever venture it is that I’m involved in? These are conversations I have to revisit on a very regular basis so as not to get sidetracked.

So, what are those questions for you?

  • How do you prioritise sustainability in its myriad forms?
  • What do you imagine is the perfect scale for your venture? At what point do you think growth would start to inhibit your other aims, personally, creatively, philosophically?
  • What is success? In what ways are you already a success? How can that success be maximised?
  • What is it that you value most, and how does your business plan help you to maximise the impact of those values on your life and the lives of those around you?

Last year’s Small Is Beautiful provided a lot of food for thought in asking and answering those kinds of questions and I’m looking forward to exploring them again in new and different ways this year, and maybe finding some new questions, new aims and new goals.

See you there?

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