Powerhouse Topics and Self-Indulgence

So back in February, I read the “Why YOU Need a Powerhouse Topic” post at The Savvy Musician and it put into words things I’ve been developing for some years (if not decades) now.  Outside of the light (though not as light now that the school year has begun) teaching load and the semi-heavy gigging, I intermittently give talks about, well, being a musician in this day and age.  Well technically I give talks and lead workshops and present on a variety of topics some of which don’t have direct relevance to being a musician (though indirectly, as a musical career gets chosen by immigrants that’s in a style outside the mainstream).

But the idea of having a Powerhouse Topic isn’t just for the express purpose teaching which, in its own way can be as Self-Indulgent as Performing, as David Cultler says, this can be a life transforming experience.  He makes a list of bullet points:

  • Your expertise can lead directly to numerous professional opportunities: presentations, workshops, residencies, key note speeches, classes, media coverage, books, consulting work.
  • Those opportunities can add, perhaps significantly, to your income.
  • Your presentations around the powerhouse topic often lead—directly or indirectly—to additional work in your primary area(s).  For example, perhaps someone who sees your talk is so impressed by the way you interact with the audience that they book your group for a concert.
  • As an established authority, your network will increase appreciably, often with people trying to connect to you (instead of the other way around).
  • Being an expert in a particular area impacts the way you approach your art.
  • Having a powerhouse topic will keep you motivated and growing as a lifelong learner.

The drive implicit in having such a deep interest in a topic can lead directly to learning and modifying your own art (as well as your ability to talk about your art).  In many ways, this is how I’ve always approached music making–it’s not just an activity I go out and do for the benefit (o in some cases not for the benefit) of an audience’s pleasure.  Obviously entertaining an audience is relatively important, but entertaining doesn’t have to be an in-your-face presentation of a musical style you prefer.

And I think far too many musicians are intentionally or not doing precisely the latter.  We’re so confident of the value of the music we’ve grown up with that we sometimes will take offense if the audience doesn’t also appreciate our efforts.  Or we go into a performance with guns blazing intent on making the audience enjoy what we’re doing while never questioning that what we may be doing isn’t of much value.  That’s the Self-Indulgent aspect of performing.  We get so locked into an idiosyncratic way of doing things that we never question what it is we’re are doing and why we are doing it in the first place!

I think that having some level of self-reflection necessarily tends to make us question what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  And if we truly find it of value then we just might want to teach other people how to do it as well.  That’s where I am.  I want immigrants or preference minorities to know that it’s perfectly ok fo them to get out there and play their own music.  That there is no need to conform to a majority’s artforms, styles or genres of music.  I also want to give those underserved audiences a chance to hear something they might otherwise not have a chance to hear.  In some cases, as with the commission I got to write Klingon music for the Klingon Christmas Carol, it may very well involve piggy-backing on something that is relatively mainstream if only because of the fact that there is actually so little music of that sub-culture being played (for whatever reasons that may be).

So there’s a fine balance to be walked here.  You need to have a Powerhouse Topic (or performing area) that has enough interest for whatever audiences might be out there.  David Cutler gives a list of necessary conditions for this:

  1. Passion.  You will spend a lot of time close to this topic, so be sure you’re passionate about it.
  2. Relevance.  People should be interested in your topic.  Become the leading scholar on the Breviarium de Musica by Frutolfus of Michelsberg (12th Century) might be fascinating, but probably won’t get you far.  As sad as it may be, not many people care.
  3. Problem solving.  The best topics help solve real problems.  That’s why people will be interested in your message.
  4. Not overcrowded.  If there are already mountains of experts on the topic, look elsewhere.  Standing out will be tough.  The secret is discovering a field that people truly care about (or could be compelled to care about), but there is a dearth of specialists.
  5. Niche. Your message should be directed specifically towards a kind of audience: trombonists, private teachers, arts administrators, college students.  To quote a friend who is a serial entrepreneur, “find the biggest, littlest niche possible.”
  6. Unique.  Your take on the issue should be somehow different and thought provoking.  Develop your own personal theories.
  7. Communication. Only messages that are communicated clearly, accessibly, and in a way that connects with others will prove helpful.

There has to be enough interest and at the same time not so much interest that the field is overcrowded.  Given that I have tons of experience in some of the most obscure musical genres (noise, anybody?) as well as the more mainstream ones and everything in between, I think I’ve gotten to a good place with regards to being a pretty good judge on the value of a number of things.  The past few years have been a long experiment on how to present them, or to get them presented.  I practically dragged il Troubadore through the Klingon Music Project-the website, the number of tunes I’ve recorded solo for demo albums and all the networking and promoting and PR–it has all counted.

The thing is, because of the experiences I’ve had, I’ve gotten to know a bit how things can work and especially how things can’t work.  There are just some markets and demographics that aren’t particular profitable while others could potentially be given the right materials (collaborating musicians/artists also count as materials).  You need to know what you’re working with before you can even begin to know how it might work.  When I created the tunes that I recorded solo and all the panels/workshops that I said il Troubadore could do, I knew these were things that we could do.  It didn’t matter if the majority o the material was a creation by me–I know my forces and what they are capable of and make the necessary preparations and hundreds of hours of marketing.  This has led us to some of our best paying gigs as well as a means for connecting with, as I said, underserved audiences.

As I slowly transition to being more of what folks sometimes call a “mastermind” I do have to keep tabs on my own active participation and what I can and have time to do.  That’s the difficult part.  I love making plans and learning means and methods for making those pans come to fruition–but in the end, I do have to be a performer.  And that role is something that musicians, teachers, and PR reps all have in common–they are performing roles.  Those with the ability to switch back and forth between roles will be the ones who have the flexibility to work in this uncertain climate.  This is something I’ve been emphasizing throughout this blog, and especially as it relates to being a freelance musician.  Once you think of yourself as, say, one type of musician (whether that be a rock, classical, metal, shaabi, bhangra, ottoman classical, reggae, etc.) then you’ve effectively cut off a whole wealth of learning opportunities, profitable opportunities, and most importantly (to me at least) those “teachable moments!”


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