My name is Dinah Thorpe and I used to have a Ten-Year Plan.
When I played my first show back in May of 2008 I started the clock on my ten years. If I wasn’t making a living as a musician by May of 2018, I decided, I would pack it in and find another career. And by “a living,” I mean enough to afford a place to live (preferably above ground), food to eat (preferably organic), and clothes to wear (preferably second-hand). To a hopeful twenty-six year-old, ten years seemed like an unimaginably long time, and certainly long enough to build a career as an artist.
Since then I have written, recorded, and produced two EPs and three full-length albums. I have dragged myself and my gear to shows near and far. I have sung for people in beautiful spaces made for singing and ugly spaces made for drinking. I have walked one red carpet. I have been rejected or ignored by countless music festivals, record labels, and funding bodies. I have read blogs called things like “Why Musical Talent Isn’t Enough to Achieve Success” and tried to figure out what that means for me – someone whose talents lie in the making of music, rather than in the marketing of it. I have written songs breaking up with my music career, and songs of recommitment. I have gone from office job to office job, and have tried to remain grateful for whatever dwindling number of days I get to spend in my studio doing creative work. I have talked with other artists, read their auto/biographies, and studied their work for clues as to how to keep at it. I have given up, over and over, and I have kept going. And somehow along the way I figured out how to make the art that I want to make.
Writing and recording music is my favourite thing to do. It is art and science, emotion and physicality. I feel proud and humbled by being able to make something from nothing. Because of course it is not from nothing. It is the distillation of everything that I have ever seen and heard, the making audible of the love and awe and sadness that I have felt, the response to the music that has called to me ever since I was ten and I bought my first cassette tape.
I recognize that I come to this from a place of privilege. Who else, after all, can afford the time and money to make art? I sometimes joke that I am lucky that those around me have made many sound financial decisions so that I could make one very bad one. I guess it is one of those jokes that is also serious, since it means food and a roof have remained with me over these years of trying. I am privileged to get to think and write, and to access the tools that allow me to do my work, even if only for two days a week.
I learned recently that a million physical CDs sold earned artists 45 thousand dollars and a platinum record, while a million streams earns artists 35 dollars. And now I am hearing about musicians who are packing it in or taking a break, and they are artists who are far better known and more established than I am (here I am thinking specifically of Ohbijou and Kathleen Edwards). I wonder what this - their apparent giving up - means for artists like me, the ones who are still in their first musical decade, the ones nobody has ever heard of, the ones who are toughing out the years of obscurity because surely their ship will eventually come in. Should we just make the art we want to make with the time and resources we can scrounge? Should we save ourselves the disappointment by just never imagining that we might make a living making art? And what does it mean to live in a culture where art – when it is made at all - is made by tired people in stolen late-night hours, and will likely never be seen, heard, or felt?
I don’t know if it has always been this hard to make a living as a musician. It is the only time in which I have tried. I don’t know if it is that I am a woman, that I am queer, or that my work is not easily categorized. I imagine that this feeling, of door after door after door being slammed in your face, is one shared not only by other artists but by workers of all kinds - factory workers, care workers, farm workers . . . And so I think I am only one of many many.
Here is some of my recent work. I am giving it away for free, since it costs me far more to try to sell it than I earn from doing so. And that is how art slowly stops getting made.
I used to have a Ten-Year Plan. Now I have no plan at all, except to try to find a way to keep making art – art that is interesting, challenging, beautiful, and meaningful. Even if only to me.
Toronto, January 2015