Posted by: Liz Massey | August 18, 2010

The Artist @ Work: Viv Nesbitt and John Dillon, The Art of the Song

Viv Nesbitt and John Dillon performing together.

Today I have the distinct pleasure introducing readers to Viv Nesbitt and John Dillon, who are the hosts of The Art of the Song Creativity Radio show. Viv and John developed the show in 2004 and have featured scores of singer-songwriters and other musicians on their show over the course of nearly 300 episodes.

Currently, The Art of the Song has a network of more than 230 stations, mainly public and community radio outlets. The show is but one part of the couple’s creative and entrepreneurial endeavors — Viv has worked as an actress, writer, co-producer and narrator, in addition playing music professionally with John, and John has custom designed and built guitars, and recently wrote a delightful book, The 20-20 Creativity Solution.

Enjoy the interview and make sure you read all the way to the end — you’ll find several brief clips from artists who’ve been featured on the show!

How did you develop the idea for your radio show, “Art of the Song Creativity Radio”?
We received a call from our friend Mike Tilley, who was covering Taos events for KRZA – FM  out of Alamosa, Colorado. He told us he thought it would be a great idea to have us do a show about songwriting and the experience of being touring musicians. We agreed, and said we’d think about it.

He called back about 4 months later to tell us that KRZA needed a one hour show to replace a show that had gone off the air … had we thought about it? We said we would think more seriously, as we hadn’t really thought about it at all! He told us to think fast because the program committee was deciding in an hour.

So we brainstormed for an hour and came up with the basic format and called them to pitch it. The program committee gave us one hour once a month, which was just about what we could handle, as we knew nothing about producing this kind of long-form program for radio. It just seemed like the right thing to do, you know, to jump at this opportunity. We thought that opportunity doesn’t usually knock twice.

Why did you decide to do a radio show and not, say, a podcast or online radio program?
Podcasting was so new at that time that we didn’t really know anything about it. And an online show was not really appealing. I guess the honest answer is we didn’t know any better. Steve Rathe of Murray Street Marketing was an early mentor and marketer for us. He tried in vain to sell us on doing occasional specials until we learned how to produce a radio show, but we had our heart set on weekly broadcasts and nationwide distribution, so we went for it full on.

What is the business model for the show? How does it fit into how you make your (collective) living?
Ideally, the program is distributed to the 200 stations for free or with a nominal carriage fee and the budget is funded by underwriters (advertisers) and listener support. This is still a challenge for us. We invested most of our savings into the creation of the show because we believe in it so deeply. It has begun to attract sponsorship and underwriting dollars which we hope will eventually lead to it being self supporting, and providing financial support to us, as well as our producer.

What strengths did you bring to the show when you started it?
John had some experience doing a live radio show with singer-songwriters in Pennsylvania. It was also called Art of the Song … he also had all the recording equipment we needed, as he had just released a CD of original music. As a part of that process, he had learned how to operate Pro Tools and had become a good engineer and editor. Now he is an excellent engineer and editor! He also had the aptitude for the production end of things. He loves puzzling things together.

Vivian has a tendency to get life stories out of everyone she meets, including the grocery clerk, the woman on the bus, or the telemarketer. She had a lot of experience as an actor on stage and as a voice over artist. She also has a natural way of interviewing people that draws out some interesting directions for the conversation. She recently discovered that her interviews play out as if she were preparing to play the person on stage.

John has cut CDs of his own music, and has custom built guitars for a number of celebrity musicians.

What skills did you have to learn or outsource?
Bookkeeping. It’s cheaper to hire someone to do it than pay for the therapy necessary to get us to do it well. Also Station marketing. We now use Creative PR out of Los Angeles. When we started we learned quickly that the role of program director means that the person must meet particular set of demands and they have a very very difficult job. Understanding their needs and their reasons for picking up a show wasn’t something that we could really learn easily, though we are now starting to understand more now.

“Art of the Song” focuses mainly on songwriting and music, but you also bring in experts on creativity for your “Creativity Corner” segment. Why did you decide to do that?
In the course of all the interviews we were conducting, it became increasingly clear that the principles we were talking about were universal truths. The goal from the start was to find that intersection of that truth in all walks of life. Songwriters are accustomed to talking about their work probably more than most artistic expressions because it’s customary for them to talk about the story behind the song. The other aspect is that it is a really inviting jumping off point. The music tends to be very accessible.

What are some of your favorite shows that you’ve produced on “The Art of the Song”?
All of them! Seriously, every week we’re say to each other, “Wow, this is the best one yet.” The live shows are really neat because the audience adds such an important energy. Yet the ones done in the studio are intimate and compelling. It doesn’t change the answers, just the tone.

John, I know you recently released a book. How has becoming an author affected the production of the show?
I wouldn’t have been able to write the book without our producer, Tim Nenninger. He handles the day-to-day editing and assembling of the program.

How does the book help promote your other creative projects?
You know, you can release two CDs of original music,  or produce a radio show heard by thousands of people each week, and folks think it’s really cool. Write a book and it really does something — there is a tangible difference in the response. It makes the other things more valid somehow.

In your experience, what is the biggest challenge for artists related to integrating making art with making a living?
Believing that the art that one makes is worth money. Just because we’d do it for free doesn’t mean we should have to…

Any advice for how to tackle that challenge?
Seek out your own true sense of Value in your art form and be honest about your expectation of it.  You can have a day job and still be an artist. It doesn’t make your art less-than or you a lesser artist. Wallace Stevens (one of my favorite poets) was a lawyer. Kafka was an insurance agent. Just be clear about your relationship to your art. If you want it to make you a living, say so. Vance Gilbert said it best when we asked him why he sang and wrote music… He yelled, “TO MAKE DAMN MONEY!” And believe me, he does.

Do you have any advice for serious hobbyists or part-time artists on balancing the “day job” and their artwork?
There is no such thing as hobbyist or part-time artist. You are an artist the moment you declare it so. We all are artists in some fashion. It’s not for the special people, though we do need to be rigorously honest with ourselves as to where our talents lie. And let go of the conception that you will hit it big in something that you wish you could do. You are an artist. Now work at being the artist that makes you happy and feel as if what you do is meaningful.

Anything else relevant that we haven’t covered here?
Vivian recently wrote a solo play that she is beginning to tour. It was a huge thing to stop thinking about doing it and actually put into practice everything we talk about on Art of the Song. Having to take our own medicine from time to time, lock the door, turn off the phone, shut down the computer and let the time slip by while we allow the creative process to ebb and flow for a day is a very important part of what we do.

In our office with our producer, Tim Nenninger, who is also a singer-songwriter, we make it really clear that we all have to be expressing our authentic creative form or the program isn’t working. There are guitars in each office, an acting class meets in the space once a week. We host a songwriters group twice a month and also sponsor songwriting workshops quarterly. It’s a happenin’ place! We hope people will come visit!

John doing a presentation on the creative process.

Bonus! Audio clips from “The Art of the Song Creativity Radio”

Four singer-songwriters discuss the creative process. Clips provided courtesy of The Art of the Song.

Bruce Cockburn


Sarah Hickman

Paul Reisler

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