JD Samson talks dollars and sense
Transcription by Erin Pehlivan
JD Samson of Le Tigre, Men, Dykes Can Dance and so many other magical arts initiatives talks to Shameless Magazine Feature’s editor Michelle Kay about how to get by financially while making a career as an artist.
Take a listen here:
For a transcription of ‘JD Samson talks dollars and sense’ read on: Sarah Feldbloom: Hi, I’m Sarah Feldbloom, Shameless Magazine’s Web Producer. You’re about to hear an interview with artist and musician JD Samson, most notably of music outfits Le tigre and Men. JD will be giving us the low down on her experience trying to make her way financially while working as an artist.
If you haven’t picked up a copy of our money issue yet, do! Inside you’ll find a feature article laid out in comics and a pull out poster which will give you more information about how to address issues surrounding financial survival as an artist. The piece was written and drawn by Marta Chudolinska. You’ll also find at your fingertips a guide to money management for those who are starting out, by Dana Lacey, and a how-to on balancing your budget by Jann Lee.
I won’t make you wait any longer now, here is Shameless Magazine’s features editor Michelle Kay, she’ll give you the rest of the story!
[Sound up on Michelle introducing JD Samson while on the line with her]
Michelle Kay: Hi, this is Michelle Kay and I’m the features editor for Shameless Magazine. Today I’m speaking with JD Samson. JD Samson is a musician, DJ, producer and member of feminist electro-dance band Le Tigre. She was the co-founder of the queer dance group Dykes Can Dance, and is a member of the Brooklyn-based band and art collective, Men. Known for her badass moustache and even more badass dance moves, we’re talking with JD today about making art and making money solely through art.
JD Samson: Hi.
MK: You’ve been a musician and an artist for most of your life. Why did you choose this career as opposed to something more stable like being a teacher or a librarian?
JS: It was an interesting switch for me. I had gone to school for experimental filmmaking, and I guess I expected to get into the film world and get a job either editing or set design. But kind of out of nowhere I started becoming friends with Le Tigre because we were all involved in the feminist art scene in New York. Soon I was going on tour with them and being part of the band was kind of a surprise to me, then I just took it as an opportunity. So that’s kind of how I got into being a musician. But my parents were artists and it was always my favourite subject in school and it was my dream really to be making art. So, that was something that I knew when I was a kid.
MK: Last year you had written a piece for the Huffington Post about being a musician, and you said that you loved the job but it was not stable in terms of income. You described yourself as a workaholic, productive, queer woman but there are some hefty issues you still needed to think about in order to feel secure. Can you talk about some of those issues?
JS: Sure. I mean, it was interesting write something so personal for Huffington Post. They’d asked me to write something that could seem controversial to some, I guess. We really wanted to have a discussion on the blog, so I found that this was a really good way to get the most complicated you know, I wanted to be as honest as I could be. That’s really what my character is about; coming through and talking about the things that tick me off, and how that can then bring the community closer together. It has been great to have such an incredible voice to affect wonderful queer teens and other feminists. When it comes down to it, sometimes it does feel that living month to month is something difficult and I’m not necessarily sure that’s something that I can be strong enough to do for the rest of my life. That’s why I wrote that article.
MK: Now that you’ve written the article, have you found that you’ve made any changes in your decision making?
JS: To be honest, it’s been really interesting. I’ve had a lot of responses to the article. Some people found it too negative or I was complaining and I’m really lucky – I’ve had a great life. And I really tried to make that clear – that I do feel very lucky for what I have, and I do feel like in a lot of ways, you know, believe me, I am not calling myself the poorest person in the world, I’m just saying that the economy has taken a nose dive and everybody feels it. I think it’s perhaps a way to bring people together again. As an artist, it’s just a way to find a discussion around something that people might be scared to talk about and try to bring people together that way.
Since I wrote it, it’s been an interesting process of writing a record, and I’ve been feeling very self-critical whether or not to comment on these things in our records. I want to make sure that I’m keeping myself working as an artist. That’s something that’s complicated when you’re trying to make money in the arts. It’s this age old question of art versus commerce and whether or not you should follow your creative journey or if you should try and go commercial and make money. I think through the processes of writing the Huffington Post article and thinking a lot about that and responding to that in interviews and talking to friends about it, I have been way more secure with myself as an artist who wants to make art. Hopefully I’ll be able to make money in other ways such as DJing or writing film scores or whatever it is. All I can do is just try and do everything at once.
MK: You had also written about re-examining the meaning of success in this piece. What does success mean to you?
JS: Someone last year had told me about this, like, triad of success or something. Apparently you can either think success means making a bunch of money, receiving recognition for what you do, or feeling respected for what you do. I think they are not mutually exclusive but for me the most important thing is being respected for the work that I make. I decided that I think that’s why I wrote the article as well, because I don’t want to make a bunch of money and make a horrible product. I don’t want to water myself down. I don’t want to be a shell of a person being puppeteered. I want to be what’s important to me and that is activist work. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do and that’s what I will do, and if I’m able to do that I’ll feel successful.
MK: Would you say that the recognition, respect and freedom you have to create the music and art you want is worth the tradeoff, instead of getting a stable paycheque?
JS: Yeah I mean it’s hard but it’s just as difficult for someone whose freelance, like a freelance writer for a magazine, or a freelance producer for a TV show. Everyone has that feeling of “I need to sell myself in order to make money.” And then as you get older and have done it for a long time, feels bad. Especially for someone who doesn’t have a big ego or that much confidence or something. I’ve been thinking about it recently, like as a queer woman putting yourself out there in that way, when a lot of times you’ve been pushed down or oppressed or all kinds of things. It does feel really difficult and I’m not really used to that. I think that’s part of what is hard for me – just the feeling of being freelance, like self-promotion over and over again for a certain amount of time, it feels horrible.
MK: I want to go back to that – to talking a little bit about confidence – but I just want to ask: What are some of the major pros and cons of being a musician?
JS: I consider myself an artist before I consider myself a musician just because I didn’t go to school for music and making conceptual work. I went to school for filmmaking and I always studied conceptual art, and just fell into the music world because it was a band made up of artists. I think what’s great about making music is that you’re able to be a performance artist, make work on your own, and then present it to people and then it’s a product.
I have a lot of friends who are performance artists or who do installation work and for them it’s really, really hard to make money because they don’t have anything to sell. You can’t sell a performance. You can have a performance, but to make enough money, you have to have a good budget and get grants and all that stuff, and it’s really complicated. Unfortunately, with the music industry going in the direction it is right now, we’re all concerned about how to make money. Part of the process for Men right now has been to create a show that’s interesting enough to change every time we have a show in each town so that people want to come back, or interesting enough, to create new instrumentation for each show or adapt each show to being a different work. Because the 99 cents we used to make off songs just isn’t there anymore. People download all their records for free and that’s just the way things are going.
MK: In terms of budgeting and managing your money, do you have any advice for when you have a job in the creative field, or how to budget when your income is so unpredictable?
JS: I went to this talk recently about why artists are poor and it was really interesting. It was kind of ironic because it was all generalizations about why artists are bad with their money. I found it to be kind of depressing. I’m not that into generalizations and stuff but I did find that it was interesting to understand, or to be self critical really, like, it’s true, I don’t really know how to manage my money at all. When I get paid, I pay my rent, and I work as hard as I can all the time – this is part of me being a workaholic – and I work hard all the time to make as much money as I can so that while I’m waiting for more work I’m going be able to make ends meet. And I don’t really have any tips because I’m really bad. I guess the biggest thing is just the way I do it right now; by having my hands in many different things and just trying to continue to make work and put it out there. I think as a musician, the most important thing is to just keep making good work and to keep making work that gets people coming back.
MK: I guess there’s definitely a lack of education regarding budgeting, and how to manage money for young people which is why we’re putting out this issue. I think that’s a really important thing people need to learn.
JS: Yeah. Another thing that’s been really interesting for me is realizing how many people are going through the same thing. There’s a group here called WAGE – Working Artists for the Greater Economy – and it’s kind of trying to figure out the ways in which artists can get paid better for their work and create a union for a lack of a better word and try and come together on this and figure out how to do it right. What’s interesting right now in 2012 is that nobody really knows the answer to anything. If we did, we’d be working towards making our economy stronger but it’s as if we’re all just experimenting. Just with the music industry – you know the internet has taken jobs, the internet has become this place for free information and free art which is all really cool. But in this other way we all need to think about what to do with that now. I think any kind of skill sharing community groups that can sit around and talk about ideas and help each other out is the really the way to do it, it’s like going back in time. MK: You talked a bit about experimenting and people not knowing the answer. Do you have any advice for young people that want to become a musician or artist? You mentioned skill sharing but do you have any other tips?
JS: To me, it’s always just about having the time and not really doubting yourself. I think the best thing you can do is make good work and that’s something that I really believe in. The more you think about who’s going to buy what you’re doing, the more that affects your music or your paintings or your photos. I think as artists in this economy, the best thing we can do is make good art, make relevant art and be critical of ourselves and critical of society. And take chances. That’s what eventually is going to be the most successful and respected.
MK: I want to talk a little bit about when you mentioned confidence. You are somebody who is a trailblazer in terms of gender identity, and somebody who encourage people to reexamine the rigid lines of gender. Do you have any advice for our readers and listeners who may identify as queer and trans in terms of garnering that confidence or, achieving success according to their own terms?
JS: Yeah, that’s interesting. I think I’m seen as a confident person just because I put out this personality who wants to find strength within the community and stand up for herself and all these things, but the truth is I’m just like everybody else. As a sincere and honest person that some people see as confident, but that actually makes me very vulnerable to the world. It’s complicated sometimes for me to be able to harness that confidence when I most need it. The most important thing to think about is that we are all in this together and that there are so many people to support this community in every way, like financially and emotionally. When I play a show, and there are people standing there and singing the lyrics and understanding my sentiment, it brings me so much closer to my own confidence. Not because I’m standing on stage and they’re singing, but that energy and exchange is just something makes me feel like somebody’s there backing me up.
MK: I guess when you are showing vulnerability it’s also like taking a risk as well. Through that risk, you connect with people.
JS: Totally, and I think that’s something that I do that I would never regret about my public persona. I have been a sincere and honest voice throughout the past 12 years or whatever and I think that’s someone everyone can rely on me for. That has ended up being important in my career and important to the community. I think that’s been my responsibility. It’s been easy but really effective and pretty cool.
MK: Can you talk about some of the issues you’ve been through, or experiences, that our listeners can relate to or may identify with?
JS: I think that clearly as a gender queer person, I live my life every day choosing to either pass or to be out now, or to be confronted about my identity. That’s something that’s been very complicated for me and difficult at times. Of course I’ve been happy to have the community. Obviously as an artist it’s hard to be taken seriously as a female and as someone who’s queer and someone who has my appearance. It has been very complicated to deal with on a daily basis whether that there are people who you’re buying an instrument from or putting on a show for you, or paying you, or setting up your shows. I just feel like I’m really lucky to have a community of people that I can talk about that with. I go through the same thing everybody goes through.
MK: Talking about your community, who are some of the people that have inspired and influenced you?
JS: Last night I went to see this incredible performance called the Untitled Feminist Show…here in New York. It was just incredible. It was like a dance performance or performance art piece of movement and different naked female bodies. It was deeply inspiring that women are creating such incredible work on such a professional level and being taken seriously. I just felt really excited about the future. I also have a really good friend and a collaborator, Emily Roy who is making really incredible work that is really inspiring to me. I think it’s a really awesome time right now. It’s really difficult. This place is where people remember that they’re artists.
When you’re having such a hard time financially, you really have to consider what you’re doing and what you’re making. Do you want to stay true to yourself or do you want to water yourself down? Everybody’s going through that right now. It’s really awesome to see so many people really truly making incredible art because they have to and because they’re at that level. They’re at that boundary with themselves where they’re just asking themselves all the same questions that I’m asking myself, and to see that happening is really beautiful.
MK: That’s really powerful because you end up connecting with a lot of people that understand your experience or who are going through similar things. JS: Oh, of course, yeah. I think to be around other artists making work – especially other feminist artists – is just so important.
MK: What are your plans for the future? I saw your tweet that you had scrolled through Facebook looking for sperm donor. Is it possible that you’ll want children in the future? JS: [Laughs] Well that was a joke because you sit on Facebook and you’re like, what am I doing. I thought that was a funny joke but actually a lot of people wrote me back and were like “I do that all the time!”
Right now the most important thing for me [is] continuing as an artist, finishing up this record Men is making right now, and trying to put it out in a creative way in order to make money, but also stay on track with our fans and community and stuff. That’s kind of the immediate future, but I’m also trying to DJ as much as I can to travel and promote our music and make money that way. I’ve been having some meetings with some filmmakers about doing soundtrack work. All kinds of stuff. Whatever is happening around me seems to be an option.
At this point, all I can do is continue to do what I know how to do, and leave room for opportunities in other areas and see what happens until I need to make a decision. I’m not afraid of getting a real job either, in collaboration with my artwork in order to make it all work together. I’ve thought about going back to school and becoming a teacher or an academic or whatever. I feel so lucky enough to be an artist, musician, activist, feminist, queer and somewhat of an academic to have a lot of different options. MK: So basically, stay tuned?
JS: Yeah, I think that’s how everyone feels.
MK: I’ve been speaking with JD Samson today of Le Tigre and Brooklyn-based band and arts collective Men. You can follow JD on twitter @jdsamson. Thanks so much for speaking with us today.
JS: Thank you.
[Sound up on extro]
SF: I’m Shameless Magazine’s Web Producer, Sarah Feldbloom and that was Shameless Features editor, Michelle Kay, speaking with JD Samson of Le Tigre about how she supports herself financially as an artist. If you haven’t read up on this topic in more depth yet, be sure to pick up a copy of Shameless’s Money issue, on stands till the fall hits, for articles about working as an artist, planning your financial future and balancing your budget. And don’t forget to check out the Shameless blog for a fresh dose of feminism at shamelessmag.com. Thanks so much for listening. Talk to you again soon!