So You Wanna Call Yourself an Artist?

Music creators have the label “artist” placed on us by an industry that values revenue streams more than artistic integrity. Nobody wants to be a basic bitch, and an “artist” is perceived as the antithesis of that.

The Paisley Fields new EP cover art by Julia McGinley, due out late summer 2015

The Paisley Fields new EP cover art by Julia McGinley, due out late summer 2015

I had a conversation with my husband last weekend about being an artist, or referring to myself as an artist. His view was that if I call myself an artist, I’m selling myself short. My opinion was I am already a professional musician, but I crave more. I want to be a songwriter, a performer and a legend. Essentially: an artist. It may sound silly to some, but that’s my dream.

I was also discussing this with a songwriter friend, and he explained that I needed to be more realistic. The implication was maybe I’m too old and should aspire to a more practical existence. 

To be clear, I’m not chasing after fame or cheap stardom. I am compelled to create something meaningful and lasting. Something that can speak to people long after my bones are dust. I’ve devoted my life to music and art. My songs are the legacy I want to leave behind.

So when do we earn the right to call ourselves artists? The answer is: Whenever we damn well feel like it. This question of artistic identity might be less of an internal struggle, and more of a concern of how we are perceived by others. This is the problem. Calling yourself an artist comes off as pretentious. But who cares?  

If you want to call yourself an artist, do it. If you believe in your heart that you’re an artist, no one can change that. Same goes with writer, musician, magician or fire-breather. If that’s who you truly believe yourself to be, then nothing is stopping you. You are a writer/musician/magician/fire-breather. Congratulations.

Why do we as a culture feel the need to place all these labels on ourselves? I’m not just a musician; I’m a gay musician. I’m not just a gay musician; I’m a gay country musician. I’m not just a gay country musician; I’m a gay country musician blogger… you get the picture. When do I just get to be James? Or Jim? Or whatever the fuck I feel like calling myself today? I’ve been bothered by this since I was a kid. Labeling yourself can be confining.

Frank Zappa once said “Art is making something out of nothing and then selling it.” I like this definition. Note the words “good” and “bad” are both absent from this statement. According to Frank, I’m making art daily. But I already knew that.

I’ll be making some new art next month with my band, The Paisley Fields. We will be selling the creation as a five song EP. One of the songs on the EP, “Not Gonna Be Friends” has moved people to tears from here to Memphis and back. This song is a part of my legacy. If nothing else, I have created this song. Download a part of my legacy here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/not-gonna-be-friends-single/id813667793