Artists & Writers Are All Musicians Now
Here’s what creators—and creative softball players—can learn from the likes of Paul Simon and Nipsey Hussle.
I wrote the following for the gameday program of the 73rd annual Artists & Writers charity softball game. Given that most folks couldn’t make it to Herrick Park, I’ve shared my essay here as an "intermission” between the first two chapters of my new book We Are All Musicians Now. Enjoy!
Growing up the son of a Greenburg (Dan) and an O’Malley (Suzanne), I had lots of big, spiritual questions as a child. For instance: What religion are our pets? (Half cat-lick, half mew-ish, I decided as a toddler). Was my dad’s first wife, Nora Ephron, also my ex-mom? (My parents eventually convinced me she was not). And why, in the name of Leopold Bloom, did Paul Simon play in the Artists & Writers softball game?
August usually found my author-parents gearing up for the annual contest in East Hampton. Though they’ve since divorced and relocated, I still remember my mom composing new cheers to debut from the sidelines, and my dad fine-tuning his swing to keep up with hard-hitting teammates such as George Plimpton and Carl Bernstein. I’d heard of their Artist foes, too, with a Hall of Fame roster that once included Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. But as the years went on, I started to wonder why the guy who sang “Mrs. Robinson” played left field in a game dedicated to other professions.
Now, after a decade-plus covering music for Forbes, and with several books under my own belt, I think I finally understand. Musicians are, in many cases, both artists and writers: recording artists on the one hand, songwriters on the other. That’s the obvious part, the technical definition. What’s dawned on me recently is that both artists and writers are musicians—at least they are now. Let me explain.
Over the past quarter century, most major disruptive technological changes have hit the music business first. Think about the shift from analog to digital accelerating the decline of physical retail: stores like Tower Records were the first to go out of business, well ahead of Borders’ and Blockbuster’s demise. Or how Napster’s peer-to-peer filesharing decimated record labels, paving the way for Spotify while Netflix was still stuck in a DVD delivery paradigm. Even the ubiquitous term “gig economy” is a music reference.
The scribes who played in the Artists & Writers game when I was young often held cushy jobs at thriving media outlets. They worked for bosses who’d let them keep their intellectual property and reap the rewards for books or film options, enabling them to own property—even second homes “out east.” Newspapers and magazines now act like record labels, tightening their grip over intellectual property while cultivating an increasingly freelance workforce. Meanwhile, fine artists grapple with sneaky counterfeiters and opportunistic promoters—the sort of charlatans who’ve historically plagued the music business.
Artists and writers looking for solutions would be wise to follow the few musicians who’ve emerged stronger than ever from a once-struggling industry (enough to comfortably afford Hamptons real estate: just ask new residents Jay-Z and Beyoncé). They’re among those who long ago realized the value of their intellectual property, fighting to maintain—and, in some cases, regain—their priceless catalogs. Or in some cases, like that of Paul Simon, offloading their copyrights for centimillion-dollar sums and never having to worry about working again.
To be sure, the aforementioned names are at operating at the music industry’s pinnacle, and things aren’t always quite so rosy further down the mountain. Yet it seems that, in the past several years, many of the most creative business arrangements have been emanating from musicians. Instead of collecting a stream of pennies for one of his releases, for instance, late hip-hop star Nipsey Hussle sold a mixtape for $100 per unit, and only made 1,000 copies available. Imagine authors trying a similar format! Or how about the electronic producer 3LAU, who released a recent album as a series of Non-Fungible Tokens and took home $11.6 million? Visual artists got the idea: mononymic creator Beeple sold one piece as an NFT for $69 million shortly thereafter.
This sort of disruption is part of the reason I made it my mission to convince some musicians to make their Artists & Writers game debut this year. Singer-songwriter Katini Yamoaka is coming in from New York, and Taylor Hanson of the iconic pop group Hanson is traveling all the way from Oklahoma. Whether it’s Katini celebrating (some of) her roots by releasing the Tokyo-centric single “Moshi Moshi” just before this summer’s Olympics, or Taylor and his brothers founding a beer called Mmmhops, they are among the music’s legions of outside-the-box thinkers.
If only for that level of inspiration and edification, I hope this year will be the start of a musical renaissance at the Artists & Writers game. And if you see Paul Simon, tell him he’s always welcome to come back—and play for either squad.