All About Me (and why it can't be)

I am a blogger. I will be for a long time. How do I know? Because I just wrote those words, without thinking too deeply about them. My wife, Belén, encouraged me to do it, and her instincts are great. I’m going to practice blogging—not the practice-makes-perfect kind—more like a religious practice. I have several religions outside of my theological beliefs: music, narrative art, and thinking-out-loud to Belén until she can’t take it anymore. Maybe she believes writing blogs will lead to more thinking-at-qwerty, allowing our walks, drives, and snuggles to be more interpersonal.


I am also a composer. Author Seth Godin, the other person who just encouraged me to begin blogging again (in The Practice), just related Dave Grohl’s (or Dave’s mom’s?) observation that many musicians form that identity around 10-13. That’s what happened for me. It carried me all the way through composition undergrad. I was unique—a musical theatre writer with formal training. There aren’t that many of us in Arizona.


Drew Nichols conduct musical theatre composer
Tiny Drew conducts his first original musical at Arizona State

But after college, I began to publicly dissociate from the identity for a few reasons. I was still writing, but there was a 7 year stint where no one performed my music live. For 2 of those years, I was working at a law firm. For the next 5 years, most of my musical energy went into playing keyboard in theatre pits. I’d moved to New York City and discovered that, seemingly, a majority of its 8.4 million residents are writing musicals. Since being a composer was no longer a special identity, and I had the distinct honor of being a great keyboard mercenary and occasional music director to tide me over, I tightened my definition of “composer,” so that I could be proud of it when I really reclaimed it.


I began to underappreciate my ‘formal training’ (not enough to fully double-quotation-mark-it) when it became clear that there’s not a direct correlation between genius writing and a license-to-compose-university-degree. My definition shifted to include practical experience in the genre (like I was gradually earning in theatre) and commercial appeal (required for full-time writing, and I was not going to be proud of the work unless it was paying all my bills.) It’s led me to focus all my efforts on producing work that shows my theatre-convention-theatre-audience savvy.

These are common coping mechanisms for those of us who live in a society that only justifies artistic endeavors undertaken by well-rounded children, time-strapped adult hobbyists, and already-successful professionals. Most of society’s artistic R&D work is done by un-or-underpaid creators who make huge sacrifices that few other industries demand. Even Major League Baseball’s severely underpaid minor leagues have a better system.


We all see frequent examples of artists who overcame those obstacles, whose talent and work garnered jobs and connection to an audience. But unless you’re in an artistic community, you don’t see the underwater glacier of worthy artists who follow other career paths. More than talent and work, what determines commercial success is proximity to resources.


If you’re born into an environment with resources, if you find your way into fortuitous circumstances, or if you’re given financial success earlier in your career, you can get an artistic leg up. You can train with master teachers, utilize professional tools, find collaborators and producers, pay for marketing, and—the greatest resources of all—spend your time learning and creating, rather than hustling other jobs to survive.

My parents could afford to prioritize my piano, saxophone, and composition lessons. I was given a scholarship to college, based on academic ‘merit’ that was more a tribute to my teachers and parent. I was mentored and hired by wonderful industry professionals, and exposed to more tools in which I could invest time and money. Technology that didn’t exist 5 years ago is now making my work much easier to produce. I lucked into several great survival jobs. I’ve been introduced to great teachers again as an adult. Belén values my artistic work and supports me emotionally and financially as I undertake constant emotional and financial risk. An artist herself, she has introduced me to a startling majority of my collaborators and employers.

All of those advantages, and I’m still on the brink of leaving full-time art for a long spell, because our lifestyle is not sustainable. The effects of the pandemic on the theatre aside, I didn’t have much more underpaid keyboard playing left in me. Any money we save can’t be invested, because we don’t know how long we’ll go between gigs. We have to pay wild rent, but don’t know if we’ll even be home to reap the fruits. Work-life balance is terrible. We hardly see friends, and when we make friends at work, we say goodbye to them two months later. It's even challenging to feel like our theatre work is reaching its full potential. Most theatres are just recycling the same old musicals instead of taking the necessary risks to advance the art form. Despite the cultural, financial, and legislative oppression that many of my fellow artists experience, on top of our shared struggles, most of our institutions are slow to adopt diversity, equity, and inclusion practices.


It took a pandemic to give me the personal time and available collaborators to do the work I feel I'm meant to do. It's also the work that might get me that successful-commercial-composer status, but the pandemic showed me that chasing status is getting in my way as an artist. Because being an artist means it can’t be all about me.


I like how Seth Goden defines Art—“a human act, a generous contribution, something that might not work, and it is intended to change the recipient for the better, often causing a connection to happen.” I feel that way about the art that reaches me. I hope to one day tell Taika Waititi how generous he was in betting on Jojo Rabbit, and how deeply I felt a connection. I also want to know who, in his mind, he made it for.


Because I’m starting to see that great art comes from intimate relationships. When it hits a chord with the masses, it’s not because the art was created with the masses in mind. The artists are expressing something deeply personal and generous. Generosity is hard to come by when the motivation you’ve articulated for yourself is “make stuff that people want to buy.” As Simon Sinek says, “Money is like fuel. Cars need fuel, but the purpose of the car is not to buy more fuel.” Art costs money, time, and life force to make. But the purpose of art is not to support oneself financially. Obviously, or none of us would risk it.

Does that mean I shouldn’t try to make money? That I shouldn’t value my skills and time? Of course not. What it means is that I need to know why art is the vehicle I’m driving, where I’m going with it, and let my time and money serve those, first and foremost. Following Simon Sinek’s model for expressing my “WHY,” I’m here to challenge and delight myself and others so we can be our most joyful. This wording came quickly to me, and reassured me—is there any field as intersectionally challenging-delightful as the arts?


Currently, I’m out to challenge us to

  • learn compassion, show generosity, take responsibility for the empowerment of others

  • develop ethical, generous artistic production models that connect directly to audiences

  • address oppression, disenfranchisement, abuse (awareness, accountability, and healing)

  • make art that explores our shared humanity


I’d like to delight

  • artists who love working on collaborative, dense, challenging projects

  • audiences that love quirky, fast-paced musical theatre

  • audiences that love quirky, fast-paced films (stretch goal, at the moment)

  • people who want freedom from cultural blind spots


In that mindset, my identity concerns dissipate. I view other composers as collaborators, working toward shared goals, rather than competing for funding and audiences. It allows me to be more generous with myself, seeing my work as something more important than my own success. And I can expand the view. I’m now a Writer Musician Schemer. The range of my creative interests falls inside of those labels—Composer, Playwright, Keyboard Player, Keyboard Programmer, Arranger, Music Engineer, Profit-Sharing Model Maker, Facebook Debater, and now Blogger.


With love to you, whoever you are,

Drew


On the next blog post,

· Drew tries desperately to keep his word count below 1,000

· The word “I” appears far less

· TED Talks, podcasts, and books get urgently recommended



All the random keyboarding