Why Selling Out Doesn't Mean What It Once Did

"Selling out" has long been considered the scourge of the creative. The dollar sign death knell to the artistic soul. But relationships to career and goals change. Certainly, the economy has changed. And the dreams of our twenties take different shape in our thirties.

Life happens, moving us along-- sometimes unwillingly-- and we find ourselves in the crevice between the rock and the hard place, making important decisions about the "business" of our art. OR, in the best case scenario, this next step is so fluid, so sensible, we can't help but forge ahead.

Because living the dream implies that there is only room in your life for one.

We don't think that's true.  

It's something that Anna Bulbrook, violinist/musician and now, founder of GIRLSCHOOL, an LA-based music and arts festival that celebrates and connects female-identified artists, leaders, and voices in an inclusive, action-oriented, and forward-thinking way know something about. This past January GIRLSCHOOL launched its first annual weekend-long festival, called FIELD DAY WEEKEND at the Bootleg Theater in LA. The goal is to spearhead "creative or community-based events, online editorial content, and collaborations with organizations that create or support positive change." 

So we chatted with Anna about gold records (she's got one), living "the dream," and why building a business was the next smart and oh-so-soulfilling step.  

How has your relationship to career changed from your early twenties until now?

When I was 23, I left my corporate job and ran away with the circus—I mean an indie rock band—for what turned into ten years. I saw an opportunity and I needed to see how far we could take it. With nothing to lose but a job I was lukewarm about at best, I’m so glad I did.

… Because we took it pretty far. We put out several studio albums on major labels, toured the world, did a bunch of TV shows, music festivals, all that good stuff. I even have my gold record hanging up somewhere.

That said, I’m in a different place now. I’m 33. I’ve gotten to “live the dream,” and see it through to its logical conclusion. I now want the ability to drive my future for myself. I want to put my money where my mouth is, and to make something that serves others. I want to support women in music. And I want to build a business that can carry me into my 40s and 50s. (And unless you’re in U2, that business is not being a sideman in an alternative rock band.)

"I want to support women in music. And I want to build a business that can carry me into my 40s and 50s."

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I also want some creature comforts: I want to be home on weekends and holidays. I want to participate in the cultural life of my city. I want to be present for my friends and relationships. That stuff is all real.

A lot of creatives feel the pressure to ‘stay the course’ with their dreams, sometimes to their detriment. When and how do you think “giving up” makes sense? 

Rigidity is the enemy of… everything. Throughout life, what you want can and will change. Your needs change. Your identity can change. Maybe your family situation changes, and it clarifies things. Maybe you just wake up one day and see things you never saw before. (That has happened to me a couple of times now.) These changes can happen slowly or instantaneously. And when they happen, there is zero shame in changing course, admitting that your feelings have shifted, or acknowledging that an earlier approach doesn’t work anymore.

I try to look at it as exploring and being open to what needs to happen, rather than “giving up.” The single most important thing in life is to do things as opposed to not doing them—even if that means closing a chapter to make room for something new, or taking a break to earn some income for a while.

Adrien Young, Anna Bulbrook, and Jasmine Lywen-Dill. Photo by Jen Rosenstein.

Adrien Young, Anna Bulbrook, and Jasmine Lywen-Dill. Photo by Jen Rosenstein.

Why did you decide that this point in your career was the right time for Girlschool?

I didn’t think too hard about it. As soon as it occurred to me to do it, I went for it. If I had slowed down to think it through, would I have talked myself out of it? Would I have missed out on all this learning? Or would I have found a different challenge to take on? The beauty of signing yourself up to do something, and then figuring it out, is that doing is incredibly powerful. You can’t decide if something was successful, or fun, or completely sucky, unless you’ve done it first.

Without that first test-run of Girlschool, we wouldn’t have proven that this great un-met need existed. We wouldn’t have attracted an assembly of amazing women to work together to build Girlschool into a proper little music festival and brand. And we wouldn’t have discovered all the other ways that Girlschool can help to create a space and a platform for talented women to connect. 

How do you strike the balance between being creative/following your passion and also making money? 

I think transitions are by definition intense. When I went from working full time to being in a band, I spent a full year pulling 60-hour work weeks, plus recording with two bands, plus using all of my vacation days to go on tour. (The things you do when you’re 23!) It was hard, and I didn’t sleep a lot, and I wasn’t in the best shape. But at the end of that year, I had played on two records that changed the course of my entire life (the first The Airborne Toxic Event album, and the first Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros album), and I was in a very, very different place than when I started.

"Rigidity is the enemy of… everything."

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This year, I’ve been in a double transition. My band is on hiatus, so I’ve had to rebuild my income in addition to building Girlschool. This year, I worked harder than I did when I was 23 for less money. I took a lot of risks, I made mistakes (which I hate doing), I didn’t sleep a lot, and I recently bought some “relaxed fit” jeans. But I made it work because I care too much about Girlschool to not find a way.

I should add that in addition to earning money by playing violin, I landed a summer-long producing job this year because of… Girlschool. And even though it slowed me down a little bit with Girlschool stuff, I was happy to have the job because it supported me while letting me sharpen my Girlschool skills in a bigger sandbox.

So when I say that it’s OK to do things differently than you ever have before, I mean it.

Also, “relaxed fit” jeans are amazingly comfortable.