Selling Out

I was walking in the London metro to my transfer point when I heard the sweet melody of a saxophone permeate the dirty porcelain walls all around me. The sound of the saxophone sounded very inviting, especially in the likes of a city such as London. I walked toward the music, and I could hear that the sonorous sound of the saxophone was accompanied in the background by a high-tempo prerecording of the song, complete with a catchy bassline. I continued to follow the sound along the narrow bends and curves of the metro and finally found myself at the entrance of a long corridor, with people busily scuffling by.

Plastered against the wall, there was a man in his late 60’s who was busy playing his beloved instrument. His hair was grey, and neatly wrapped in a ponytail behind his head. I took a closer look at his instrument. The saxophone that he was playing looked as if it had endured many years of use, as the original luster of the golden metal was fading away, kind of like when a brand new copper penny turns rusted and discolored when subjected to moisture and time. Beside him, he had a little pull-cart which had a respectable looking amplifier with an old Sony Walkman spinning wildly.

I stood to the side and eyed the man from a distance, while absorbing the tunes that he was sharing with me, and the rest of the people in the metro. The first song that he played was “Tell me more” from Grease, a song that I am quite fond of.  When playing the song, he played with such great passion and vigor that it made me want to dance along. In fact, the man would often throw out a kick or two here and there according to the music.

I reached into my pocket and shuffled around for some spare change to give to the man. After all, he already made my day by enjoying his music and he probably has a hard  time getting by, being a street musician and all. I finally found a 50 pence coin and after contemplating if it were too much (the pound is nearly twice as much as the American dollar, thus making this 50 pence piece almost a dollar) I walked in front of the man and generously tossed in the coin into his saxophone case (which was glittering with all of these other coins that other people had contributed). I thought to myself how he must be pretty good, considering that he had a respectable amount of donations from others.

The man smiled at me and continued blowing into his saxophone, pushing out rich and substantial notes into the air. Quit enjoying his music, I stuck around for a while and made an “audio snapshot” of his music by recording with my mp3 player. I closed my eyes and could feel the music flowing through me, almost transporting me to another place. The walls around me seemed to disappear, and all that I could hear and see were the colorful waves of music flow around me. Guitar-playing street musicians are a dime a dozen, but those who play the saxophone are quite rare.

Every now and then someone would toss in a coin or two and give the man a cordial smile, as if thanking him from bringing some joy and happiness into the gloomy “dungeon” of the London metro. I stuck around for maybe five minutes, and then suddenly felt a great urge to talk to this man and find out about his music-playing history.

At the end of one of his songs, he put down his sax and took a drink of water in the bottle next to him. I slowly approached him and told him that his music sounded beautiful. He looked up and thanked me for my kind comment. I then asked him how long he had been playing the sax. He replied that he had been playing the sax as long as he could remember, and that it is something that he is incredibly passionate about.

I then sheepishly asked him what his favorite song was, and if he could play it for me. He then paused for a moment, and looked at me, as if formulating his thoughts and what he wanted to say. After a moment he told me that he had a lot of favorite songs, but he wasn’t able to play them at that moment. I asked why, and he told me that he couldn’t because his favorite songs couldn’t earn him any money. He leaned in and almost whispered in my ear that his favorite music wasn’t the pop-songs that he was playing in the subway, but jazz.

Drawing his saxophone to his lips, he then spit out a series of rapid and soulful notes that felt like it was straight from his heart. He told me of how much passionate he was of jazz, and how immensely popular it was in the 70’s and 80’s. He then let me know how in the early 90’s it started to slowly fade away, and that people were soon drawn to pop-music. As a street-musician, nobody would give him any money for playing jazz, so he had to resort to playing these pop songs to make an earnest living.

I then felt terrible for this dilemma that he was in. Here this man was, playing music that he didn’t really like to earn a living. He was unable to play the music he truly loved because he couldn’t earn an honest buck off of it. Play the music you have a burning desire for and starve, or play trendy music that you don’t really like, but at least be able to put some food on the table?

There are many “starving artists” out there who are faced with this same situation everyday. Stick to the art that you love, or “sell-out” to the man so you can make a living? Believe it or not, 50-cent used to be a very respected underground rapper who would rap imaginative and well-crafted rhymes before he sold out and starting spitting out songs like “Candyshop” and started making movies. Many renaissance painters were often commissioned by rulers to paint certain images that the painters weren’t quite fond of, but had to in order to survive.

Staying true to your art or selling out? It is indeed a very sticky subject and I don’t think that there is a clear-cut answer to the problem. One side vehemently opposes the idea of “selling out” and stresses that people should stay true to his or her own art, no matter how little money they make. However the other camp fights back, saying how artists have no other choice but “sell out” in order to pay the bills and keep the electricity on at night.

I feel that both sides have legitimate claims and that the issue is not black/white, but rather it is composed of different shades of gray. It is of upmost importance to stay true to oneself and practice what one truly finds passion in, but one must also be realistic and make sure that he or she doesn’t find him or herself on the streets.

As a photographer, I find myself in the same little dilemma as well. I love my specific niche in photography (street photography) and it is one of my greatest passions, but I seriously doubt that these images that I take of strangers in the street can help me earn enough money to keep a roof over my head. Should I start selling mousepads and coffee mugs of my images in order for me to dedicate more time to shoot photos in the streets? Or do I work in a field that I find less personally-satisfying and use my little free-time to take a couple of snapshots here and there? Only God knows what will happen to me in my future, but until then I guess I will continue promoting my photography as only a “hobby” and nothing more or less. Who knows, maybe one day I will take the art-world by storm, and sell hundreds of books of my work and have a countless amount of exhibits around the world.

Well until the end of the year, hold off in buying a new calendar for the 2010 year. Who knows, you might find a special-edition “Eric Kim Photography” calendar hanging on your wall.

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