Louis Cypher asks five different Nottingham creatives how the need to make money affects their art, what the differences are in their creative processes, and whether they prefer one over the other...
"Simplicity can lead to unexpected creativity. When you have fewer elements to work with, you have to use them to fullest potential.” - Rick Rubin
When COVID-19 hit and extreme anxiety became palpable in every avenue and street... That is when I first heard this quote. I watched the industry I've spent my entire adult life pursuing begin to fall apart before my eyes. Musicians could no longer perform, go to the studio, practise. Ninety percent of grassroots venues reported that they were at risk of permanent closure due to the financial impacts of the pandemic. And the effects continue, long after lockdown ended.
In 2023 alone, fifteen percent of grassroots venues across the UK have been lost. As a whole, the UK music industry has lost approximately £900 million due to cancelled events and tours. Beloved Brexit also did not help matters, increasing bureaucratic nonsense for touring musicians, cascading division and conflict across the country.
The creative palette I was so used to was brushed away in one fell swoop. I had fewer elements to work with, meaning I had to unexpectedly diversify my creativity.
It was at this point that I began to draw… badly. I was desperate to escape the oppressive nature of lockdown, so scribble and doodle I did, until my friend Jasper came to stay when lockdown was eased. He's an illustrator, full of creativity, positivity - and ADHD. It was my mum’s birthday and I had no money for a present. “Why not make her something?" Jasper said, in his eternal optimism. Although my mum always nurtured my creativity, one of my terrible drawings was probably not gonna cut it.
It was then that I saw an issue of LeftLion on the table, I remembered the stack of National Geographics I had on my bookshelf and was struck with an albeit slight recollection of enjoying collage during my art GCSE.
So a collage it was going to be. I remember being a bit embarrassed by my first attempt. As a joke, I told my mum that the real present I had given her was me feeling inspired to be creative again. She had always encouraged me though, so even the pretend present went down pretty well.
Put simply, this article is about creativity - and how we can diversify our talents, through choice or obligation.
Slowly but surely, the fruits of my artistic endeavours improved - and I found that lessons I'd learned (or hadn't learned) from years working in the music industry to visual arts, were helping me along the way. I got better at accepting compliments and seeing my own worth - and I think one of the main things to do with this was that I was creating purely for myself.
Although I would post some of my work to Facebook, I realised I wasn't really seeking validation. People started to talk to me more about art than music, and I was amazed by the way I could enter a flow state in a totally new way which was separate to how I had ever experienced it in my music career. My creative processes in music and art were both equally valid, but completely different.
I started to think of my other friends who had a creative "side hustle" - how did the need to make money affect their art, what were the differences in their creative processes, and did they prefer one over the other? Here's what I discovered...
I’ve always been a drawer, a maker, a fidgeter. It wasn’t until a tutor at art school told me that what I was doing was ‘fine art’ that I decided to pursue it at NTU. In that sense I’ve tended to carry the shape of what I am making and adapt it incrementally to the environment it requires. As a result, I almost accidentally stumble into new things by way of feeling my way through, albeit with a nurtured naivety.
When the plague hit us, in hindsight, I was slowly drawing up the bridges that connected me to the outside world. Dead ends were realised and replaced with an ‘Okay, what shall I do next?’ attitude, rather than a retreat or on standby. I’ve always felt content in my own company but still needed a social fix. I gave up booze for a few years, joined a local poetry group (Gobs) and made strange noises in the corner of my room by making loops on my guitar and geeked out on a fetish for effects pedals for a while.
I created a system of making small pieces of art at my desk whilst listening to podcasts. Writing, making music, walking and more podcasts. I made ‘nice things’. Pictures of bees and whales emerged. It was good, it served me well; a calming consistency fronting the ominous quietus of events. I felt creatively connected, if not socially.
If something is taken away from us, we have to try to replace it somehow. We suffer if we go without. In the aftermath, the outcome was surprisingly a more ardent focus as a creator. My art has streamlined to a state of flow, where I am not trying to make good art, but something much more basic, a collection of instances not focused on skill, rather the absence of control, as is how I sense the world, yet in the same breath it becomes me.
It’s not something I need to make money from, it’s just something I need to do. And by inadvertently setting those terms, that language has focused my music and I am now home producing. I can lose hours being in that moment. The myriad half-ideas are coming into focus. I don’t require external validation and I ask more about others and their processes by which I am making closer bonds with people. The removal of many things I’d taken for granted has helped me focus on what’s important, it hasn’t been easy but it’s less foggy.
In the words of the great local warrior poet Miggy Angel, ‘When you eat a great strawberry, you don't ask ‘What did that strawberry mean?’ you say, ‘That was a great strawberry!’
Ali is currently recording music and making art that will be available early next year
Anthony ‘Pij Bass’ Robinson
I started my musical career way back in 1990 as a bass player. I was also a Foundation Art student at what was then called Trent Polytechnic. I wasn’t really a good student, to be honest. Not because I was crap, but because I was hardly there.
Things I remember? Hanging out in the Market Square, smoking cigarettes when I was supposed to be drawing the Council House. Meeting Joe Buhdha and learning to make beats. Getting drunk. A project on Expressionism, maybe?
To cut a long story short, I was more into music at that time, so I neglected the art. So since the 1990s, I’ve been in bands and production teams, playing bass, drums, guitar and anything else you don’t have to blow. I got to play with Harleighblu for about six or seven years around Europe and have recorded so much stuff it actually boggles my mind, when I think about it. Daaammmmn, son.
Anyway, even though I stopped my artistic studies, I never really stopped doodling and sketching. I used to keep journals, more written stuff than sketches. I started really getting back into it when friends started asking me to do commissions for them, around 2010.
I’m a portrait/figurative artist, and most of my work has been commissions. I work in many different mediums, but at the moment I’m working in ink. My main influences are comic book artists, but I’m also inspired by the usual suspects (keeping this concise is HARD, fam!)
Creating art, by which I mean drawing and painting, is really quite different to creating music. I think the process of learning is similar, in that you have to learn your craft and find out what your thing is. But there’s a different impulse involved, and I’m really not sure if I can describe it. Having spent decades in the music business, I find the pace of being an artist more in tune with who I am as a person.
Financially, I think I do better with it, too. Or at least it’s easier and quicker to make money. I like negotiating price with the client, the uniqueness of each request. I also produce T-shirts featuring my ink art. I sell them like limited edition prints. You can buy a traditional print to hang on your wall, or a T-shirt to show off your excellent taste.
What is similar is that collaboration is good for growth as an artist. In the same way that playing with a musician from a different genre can extend your musical horizons, working with a creative from a different medium does the same thing.
To that end, I’ve been working with a writer called Adrian Reynolds on a short adventure comic book story… Talk about artist boot camp… Another story for another time.
I learnt guitar on an old nylon string that my dad never picked up. My interests were always in Hip Hop, but I was a fan of some classic rock and my mum was really into disco and reggae. In my teens I started collecting records and learned about sampling.
My early career was as a gardener/groundsman. When I got to uni I landed a DJ residency at the Belgrave in Leeds. I studied Landscaping at BA, but did my Masters in Fine Art where I focused on sound and sculpture. I was hanging out with mural/graffiti artists and furthered skills that I developed as a child. Local rappers would come to my house to write to beats and I later put together my first band, the Dock Heist Unit.
On and off in life, one or the other required payment for me to stay inspired… admittedly, this isn’t a very ‘artsy’ thing to say. At my core, I was born a creative and it’s the only thing that’s followed me around the world as a consistent point of peace. I’m inspired to make sculpture when the moment feels right. Building large scale physical objects helps me feel strong in my person.
I suppose sometimes my physical art is functional; I built the desk I produced music on for a long time, out of wood that I cut and shaped myself. Drawing and painting has always been a reflection of ideas I’ve seen in my mind’s eye, which are a reflection of the stuff that inspired me as a child, like Dragon Ball Z and X Men, Lord of the Rings and general folk law/ancient history or religious works.
I’ve always felt compelled to create and tend to get really frustrated at times of my life when I lack the time to pursue random ideas that pop into my head naturally. I have never lacked ideas to dive into for as long as I remember. I’ve been making animations, music and drawing comics since I was a toddler, and was told off in lessons at school for drawing or writing poems, or I would almost fall asleep in lessons.
It’s harder for a lot of folks to make a living from their own ideas regardless of which craft they pursue. But I’ve made a lot of money from original music, and I think a lot of that has to do with the approach to the craft, and the fact that I’m a producer/service person. Artistically speaking, my own thoughts and expressions have not been what has made me money, but I still enact the craft from the perspective of a person trying to express deep thought and emotion.
The same would go for visual arts… if I know how to do something someone needs, then they will pay me and that’s dope. I think musicians get a lot less respect than what’s deserved but at the end of the day, music is there to be shared, and nobody sees the time and effort that goes into becoming what is presented.
Both crafts have their ups and downs, and I was told to pick one or the other by a lot of dudes when I was coming up, but I’m still here and carved out my own lane in both, and I would highly recommend that anybody who feels the same should stay true to themselves.
I've been into music for as long as I can remember. I started recording and releasing music in 2017, but it wasn't until 2021 that I really found my footing and started releasing on major platforms. My early albums were heavily influenced by punk, grunge, and proto-goth, and they shaped my perspective on life.
Punk taught me that you don't need fancy equipment to create something great, and I carried that mindset into my clothing brand, Drawpakk. Originally, Drawpakk was all about simple tees with hand-drawn slogans, paying homage to those DIY shirts.
When it comes to music, I create what I personally want to hear, without chasing trends. If people don't like it, it's not the end of the world for me. However, with Drawpakk, I do pay attention to current trends and get inspired by people's ideas for the brand.
It's important to me that the brand reflects what people want, so they have a say in everything and feel excited to wear the clothes. Music is more personal, while fashion is about involving and pleasing the people.
When it comes to music, I self-release my music through distribution services, so financially, there's not much happening right now. I do spend more on equipment than I make, but it's worth it because it's my craft.
In fashion, it's a bit different because I'm directly selling a physical product. With Drawpakk, we currently do everything made to order on a small level, so we don't have to spend as much on huge bulk orders.
We make a profit when someone buys a T-shirt. It's kinda like the old-school way of selling CDs, selling directly to the customer and stores but music isn't done that way anymore so it makes it harder financially.
Making music is the most important creative outlet to me… it’s how I process everything that happens in my life. I like to depict the way I’m feeling not just through my lyrics and vocal delivery but through the soundscape and structure of a song. I love having different versions of my songs too depending on how big the band is for a certain gig, whether it’s the produced track or if it’s just me and my guitar. One thing I’ve been trying to work on though is writing music that’s not so close to my heart all the time and trying to have a bit more fun with it here and there. I’m hoping to start some more projects alongside my ‘Chloe Rodgers’ stuff soon.
In the past year and a half or so I’ve also been really enjoying working with wood; making jewellery, keepsakes, incense holders, chess sets, and small bits of (very simple) furniture. Then I decorate it either by burning it or painting it. A lot of the time what I make just ends up being for me but it’s also become a bit of a love language for me; if I feel the need show someone that I’m thinking of and appreciating them, I’ll just spend a bit of time concocting something for them from sticks I’ve collected in the woods or something. It’s silly really but I find it therapeutic.
My process for the woodwork stuff is a lot simpler than with my music. My designs are simple and I’m not overly precious about them. When I’m writing songs, I couldn’t be more precious . Each word & each second has to feel just right or it’s back to the drawing board. Sometimes it feels like the songs just flow out of me, write themselves just the way I want them to be, then sometimes I have to keep revisiting something until I love it. I don’t actually know anything at all about music theory - when I try to learn about it the bits I love about music seem to dry up - so it’s all just about the way it feels in my ears to me.
There have been a few instances where the record label I work with have made changes to my recorded songs and I find that so stressful and have to fight the urge to point out to everyone the parts that I didn’t intend to be there and explain how I really wanted them to sound. No one has that kind of power over the woodwork I do, but if they did it wouldn’t bother me anywhere near as much as it does with my songs.
It’s been quite a while since I earned any decent money from any of the creative stuff. I had advances for my record deal and did vocals for an advert once and those were the best pay days I ever had but they were a long time ago. I used to be a carer and back then it was hard to find time to be creative, but I’ve been out of work since my dad died and I need to get a reliable job again in the new year. I need to write as much as I can before that. Earning has been inconsistent for me lately and I’m just lucky that my dad had life insurance really. Not looking forward to having to find that balance again!
In connection to this article, come along to an evening celebrating independent artists in Nottingham at the Old Bus Depot on Saturday 24 February, with live music, exhibitions and art stalls
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