When I was 29, I was pretty sure my life fell apart. My internationally-touring, seemingly success-bound band met with a fiery, inevitable demise, and a few months later, my long-term, live-in girlfriend left too. I was suddenly alone, both professionally and personally, and the bony finger of blame pointed directly at me from every empty angle. I lost my way, I lost my appetite, and I lost an unhealthy amount of weight, slowly starving myself, but almost completely unable to eat.
But from the bottom, at least there's only one way to go, so with a lot of help from my friends, family, and the SIMS Foundation, I started climbing out of that pitiless pit.
It's an odd place to show up, for someone with a degree in cello performance and composition, but as an artist, you just go where the money is, so there I was... Selling unhealthy food that I'd never eaten, and never would, to pay my bills. And it paid better than anything else I'd ever done. Which really seemed weird.
I coordinated my first solo performance with the release of that commercial. It was everywhere, and I bounced all of the attention toward a single date, Jan 22nd, 2003 at the Saxon Pub. My father was visiting from Michigan, and on the way to the gig, glowing with pride he said, "Oh Johnny, I always told you I'd drive your limo when you were famous..."
I said, "famous schmamous... I need four more of these commercials to get out of debt. I don't need to be famous, I just wish I could make a living."
He said, "Johnny, artists have never made a living. They have patrons." It was so true that I had no idea what he meant; I needed to pay bills, not paint the Sistine Chapel.
Five years later, I had a wall full of Austin Music Awards, and the same problem. You can't buy groceries with awards, no matter how many you have. I knew I was missing something, but couldn't figure out what...
Then we had the 2008 presidential election. The country was split pretty evenly between Obamanites and McCainians. I have friends all the way across the political spectrum and one remarked offhandedly, "you're not going to get what you pay for with that guy." And I said, "Whay so you mean? I get what I pay for as soon as I give him the money."
And that caught my attention. So I started digging into it. "The giving is the getting?" That made no sense, and all the sense in the world, at the same time.
A few days later I realized, "there's a part of me that wants to feel alive through resonating with what he's doing, and the best way for me to ensure that part of me keeps resonating a to make sure he can keep working. When I support his work, I feel good."
Then it hit me: that's what artists do. That's how patrons feel. That's what my dad had meant. We don't just buy music, we love it. And nothing makes us feel better than empowering something we love or believe in.
So I built a really basic subscription option, and offered it to my audience. Over 50% of them tried to sign up that night, and 34% were successful. Then my jaw dropped, and I realized that it wasn't my problem alone, it was a community-wide problem. It wasn't that I couldn't eat... it was that no one else has ever been invited to make a meaningful, personal impact.
I also recognized that I had just accidentally bridged the digital divide between free music on the Internet, and the ongoing expense of actually producing it. So I built a whole platform, called Patronism, and began splitting my time between performing, and helping other artists connect more meaningfully with their own audiences, in ways that benefit both. And I didn't have to do commercials for unhealthy food to sustain my career. It turns out that the money isn't just in the products, which represent what has already happened, it's in the promise for the future, and in the work itself.
And to this day, while I still love performing, and believe I'm at my best when I'm doing it, nothing makes me happier than helping people benefit from that one basic idea:
Musicians make music, patrons make music happen, and the partnership between them makes life more meaningful for both.
And I sometimes wonder, where would I be now if my life hadn't fallen apart?