Feeding the Pig: The Problem with Homegrown Arts Organizations

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Once upon a time there was a farmer, and he had a wonderful, vibrant garden. His garden fed his family, his livestock, even his neighbors. It was so healthy and food so plentiful that he had enough produce for his local market and so his garden even provided him with an income.

The farmer loved his garden and he tended it, took care of it, cultivated it, watered it and gave it all of his attention.

Then, one day, the farmer got himself a pig.

Sacrificing the Garden to Feed the Pig

And oh my, how impressed he was with his pig, so new and different from the garden. The farmer became so enamored with the pig that he began to give it more of his time. His pig grew and got fat and the farmer fed it more and more of the garden’s produce.

Soon, most of the harvest from his garden was gathered just to feed the pig. The pig demanded so much attention the farmer had less time to tend his garden — and so the harvest began to whither and dry up. Weeds began to take over the garden, but the farmer hardly noticed because his attention was so consumed by his pig.

One day, the farmer was so exhausted from caring for the pig that he asked himself, “How did this pig get so big, and what has happened to my beautiful garden?”

But still the pig demanded more from the garden, more time and attention from the farmer. And the farmer couldn’t escape the demands of the pig. He began to lose his joy — with the pig, with the garden and all the good things he once had as a loving farmer.

Until finally, one day, there was nothing left of the garden. It was gone, and the pig couldn’t survive and the farmer had nothing for market and couldn’t feed his family.

Threats to the ‘Garden’ of Musician

Thus is the state of many arts and music organizations.

Let’s use music to explain, but this is true of all artists, bands, charities, and nonprofits. In my universe of folk and roots music, our “garden” is the world of songs, poetry, community, instruments, the audience, and all that is part of being a musician and songwriter. It is a beautiful, amazing, colorful, vibrant garden.

And there are many loving, attentive “farmers” for this world: The IBMA takes care of the bluegrass garden, the Folk Alliance International cares for the folk garden, South by Southwest in Austin and more.

The “pig” is the corporate structure any arts entity — whether a national organization, a local community group or a garage band — creates to oversee their operations. Mind you, the garden existed long before the corporate/business structures, but once they were created, they tend to take over the garden.

Here’s what happens:

When the pig is first brought into the garden, the expenses are low and all the attention is on the artform, the artists and the garden itself. The good intention is to make the garden bigger and better while feeding the pig.

As the pig grows, the need for money takes over. Executive Director salaries, offices, managers, agent and staff, marketing. Vacations and benefits. Travel budgets. All of this money gets sucked out of the garden. The bigger the pig gets, the more unyielding the budgets become and the more attention the farmer gives the pig instead of tending the garden.

Before you know it, the garden begins to whither and dry up. The cost of being members of the organization becomes way too high. The costs of attending the conferences get way too high. The pig overtakes the garden to such a degree that all the beauty that was the garden begins to dry up and leave.

Feeding the pig makes the cost of being in the garden too expensive for the average artist.

Fact: It costs the average musician upwards of $1,000 to be a member of most music trade groups, pay for conference fees, travel, and get hotel rooms and meals. That is more than most musicians make in a year. Heck, it costs $80 just to park your ding-dang car in Austin during SxSW now.

Abandon the Garden — Or Get Rid of the Pig

If it costs more to be part of the garden than the garden can provide, the farmer needs to make a choice:

Abandon the garden or get rid of the pig.

My whole argument here is that the corporate structure of the arts world — the pig — has gotten so out of hand that it is ruining the very garden of arts we love. As the business models change and the ability of artists to make a living becomes more difficult, farmers need to reduce the size of their pigs.

That doesn’t mean the people running arts organizations are “pigs.” Be careful how you interpret this. Most are sincere, passionate folks that truly love the art form they are helping. It’s the size of the corporate structure that becomes the pig.

Recently, the project that Pete Seeger started ran into this problem. When the Clearwater organization began, it was a community-driven, music-loving group that protected the Hudson River.

As time went on, the pig got so big and fat that most of their attention was spent on raising money to feed the pig and not to protect the garden they were part of. Finally, this year, they cancelled the famous Clearwater Folk Festival to conserve funds to keep the pig fed.

WoodSongs Front Porch Music Assocation

By contrast, the WoodSongs broadcast has a live event with artists from around the world 44 weeks a year in front of 500 people on a Monday night with a 30+ member crew, syndicated to hundreds of radio stations plus American Forces Radio in 173 nations, a 5-camera TV broadcast edited, closed captioned, satellite fed and viewable in 96 million USA TV homes on public television, live online feed, plus more than 800 shows archived for free on our website — all on a weekly budget of $619.

How is this possible, you ask?

Because — drum roll, please — we have a teenie weenie pig. WoodSongs Front Porch Association is a teenie weenie pig. Our commitment of the WFPA is to keep the pig on a damn diet. It costs a lousy $25 a year to belong and that is not just you but includes your whole band or family up to five members.

On top of that, all members get free tickets to the WoodSongs Gathering this September. The proceeds from your membership does not go to feed the pig — it goes to nourish the garden by providing roots music education programs free to teachers and home-schooled families.

Join the WFPA, a pig-less organization that loves the garden. That’s why we call our members SongFarmers. Check us out at SongFarmers.org

Time to Trim Some Bacon?

My point is simple: If the pig makes more money than the artists in the garden — the pig must die. 

Or at least go on a diet.

All arts careers, bands, and groups need to take a close look at the condition of the garden you are part of. An organization with a flourishing garden and a little pig is doing it right. If you see your garden withering, struggling — if the artists are frustrated and the audiences dwindling — take a good close look at the pig.

It might be time to trim some bacon.

Michael Johnathondescribes himself as an organized vagabond, a home-loving traveler, folksinger, a poet and writer, and tree-hugger. Originally from New York (where he was a neighbor of Pete Seeger), he moved to Kentucky in the 1980s and now lives in a log cabin on seven rural acres where he plays his banjo on its “grand front porch.” Michael is the producer and host ofWoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, a radio and television program featuring Americana, folk, and American roots music. Connect with him online on his website, and check out Michael’s play, Walden, andWoody Guthrie Opera.

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