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“Capitalism kills art.” – Desdamona, Minneapolis hip hop and spoken word artist (via Facebook)
“No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” – Jesus of Nazareth (Luke 16:13)
Over the years I’ve thought a TON about the correlation between art and commerce, and those of you who read my blog regularly are familiar with my interest in the collision of music and industry. At this point I’m starting to arrive at the conclusion, perhaps better phrased as a question: Could it be that art and commerce, though inseparable in the 21st Century, are actually enemies?
Here’s my thesis: Introducing the possibility that your art will/could produce a financial profit irreversibly changes your headspace in making the art, therefore altering the end product.
Example: this article from Somali poet K’Naan.
Art is all about the headspace – what one is AIMING for. Why create? Why pursue art at all? Most artists will tell you it’s kind of like the combination of birthing a child and speaking your mind. It’s simultaneously something you want to say and need to say, while also being painful and even dangerous if said incorrectly or at the wrong time. What if nobody thinks your offspring is cute? What if speaking your mind leaves you at odds with your friends and loved ones? (Bear with me as I rotate metaphors.)
In the current landscape of music, the motivation to accurately and genuinely convey an artistic message crashes uncomfortably into the desire for approval from one’s audience. But what/who is your audience? What are you aiming for from the outset? This is the crux of the issue, and my theory is that it is more difficult than we might imagine for an artist to intentionally cater to both an artistic audience AND a market audience. In fact, it may be impossible. And I’m not using “artistic audience” to refer to a gathering of people who only listen to indie rock and only wear vintage clothes. I’m talking about speaking your message to those who wish to really hear your message (an artistic audience), as opposed to speaking a message to those who only want a certain kind of message from you (a market audience). Can both targets be simultaneously aimed at?
This is not to say that artistic success doesn’t sell. Many artists have set out to convey a message that they really believe in and found to their surprise that the market also enjoys the message. But that is almost beside the point. What the market is buying has never really been about art. Commerce is based on pleasure and enjoyment – preferring one thing over another and spending your hard earned dollars accordingly. And sometimes the market takes great pleasure and enjoyment from unexpected places.
Sharp-shooting metaphor: One cannot, with the same bullet, hit two separate targets… unless perhaps those targets are directly in line with each other. But then you would have your aim set only on the first target, which would be the only target you could even see, and the second target would be an after-effect. I’d submit that the order of those targets, in order to hit both, MUST be art first, with commerce hiding behind it. The commercial gamble of the artist is to aim toward the artistic goal, not knowing whether commercial success is hiding behind it.
Summary so far: I want to suggest that one does not (maybe even cannot) land on a both commercially successful AND artistically successful statement by directing one’s aim toward both artistic and market audiences simultaneously.
If you replace the word audience with “master” you can see where Jesus was going with the New Testament quote I included at the top of this post. Jesus digs a little deeper into the hearts of human beings by using hard-hitting terms like “hate” and “devoted,” but the point still stands. Jesus says his followers must choose who they will serve, the Kingdom of God OR the Kingdom of Economy. Interestingly, only a few chapters earlier in Luke, Jesus also teaches this:
“And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.” (Luke 12:29-31)
Worrying about wealth/provision isn’t your job, but is rather God’s job. Focusing on serving God’s Kingdom is a better use of time, and God promises to take care of the other department. Could it be that this is also true for the artistic/commercial tension in music? Aim for the artistic target, and the commercial target will be added unto you.
Just read this SUPER interesting article from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal on the intersection of art and American culture. Pretty much says what we’re all thinking.
Something I’ve been thinking about…
Art (and therefore music), at it’s foundational level, is expression through non-standard means. For example, email correspondence isn’t artistic, but poetry is. Even though both email and poetry use the printed word, nobody uses poetic cadence and rhetoric when all they want to do is deliver facts. Similarly, singing to someone can provide a different message than simply speaking to them. So art is expression of more than just facts, and it uses more than just language.
It seems to me that the advantage in using non-standard means to communicate artistically is that art aims at an emotional level, not just a factual one. In other words, when artists work at making their art, they are striving to communicate emotion. Artistic mediums provide a new/unusual method of communication (over standard communication), which lends itself to the expression of emotion rather than facts.
That’s my starting point in this discussion. Bear with me for now if you happen to disagree with any of that.
What I’m really thinking about in this post is how to determine an artist’s success at communicating the emotion they intend to communicate. My thoughts on this are stemming from last weekend’s discussion on good songwriting. If we are to call songwriting an art form (which I wholeheartedly do), then as we attempt to judge the effectiveness of the art we are really just trying to determine the artist’s success in communicating emotion. Regarding that, I think we have to recognize a few different levels of artistic success. Here’s what I’ve come up with…
Level One: “Get It Off You Chest”
Artists don’t make art simply to make money. If that’s what you do then you are merely an entrepreneur and a business. True artists always make their art because they have an emotion that they want to express, so the first level of success in that effort revolves around the artist as an individual. Does the artist feel like they said what they wanted to say? Does this song send the message that you wanted it to send in the way you wanted to send it? For me, as a drummer, I always immediately feel good or bad about a performance – like I either accomplished what I wanted to accomplish, or I didn’t. I don’t really need to talk to anyone in the audience in order to determine how my heart feels about the performance. The first level of success in art is achieved when the artist feels good about their work.
Level Two: “Somebody Else Gets It”
The next stage in successful art is realizing that other people now feel the way you felt when you made the art. So, if a songwriter is sad, and they write a song that they think communicates sadness, and people listen to it and become sad, then the songwriter has achieved this second level of artistic success.
Level Three: “Other People Not only Get It, They Like It”
This level of artistic success mostly revolves around subjective taste and other people’s opinions. For instance, if I have an emotion in mind that I want to communicate, and I perform something that I feel successfully communicates the emotion, and the emotion is successfully communicated to others… and they couldn’t care less… then I’ve failed at the third level. In other words, people can get what you’re saying without digging it. If they understand your message AND they like it, then you’ve achieved the third level of artistic success.
Level Four: “Everybody Loves It”
This level of success is pretty self-explanatory, and is normally parallel to fame and fortune. Somebody who makes art that everybody loves will soon be a big deal. The Beatles, for instance, are almost universally loved, and it’s because they achieved the fourth level of artistic success.
Now, the interesting part to me in all this is that the levels of artistic success aren’t a ladder. Despite my misleading use of the word “level,” you don’t have to accomplish the lowest one in order to get to the higher ones, which I think provides important clarification on the “good songwriting” issue. I constantly hear about bands who are not happy with the music they write/produce, but they keep doing it because so many other people like it. In addition, most well-known artists have to deal with the fact that many listeners get things out of their songs that they never intended (i.e. they like it, but for different reasons than the writer likes it).
It seems important that these varying levels of artistic success be considered in weighing “good songwriting,” or even “good art” in general.
UPDATE: Another Twin Cities music blogger read this post, picked up the baton on the idea, and re-wrote the four levels in a very clarifying way. Nice work, Ari. You can read his full post here, but the meat of it is below…
Level 1: Reach Yourself
What you created are satisfying and fulfilling to you, the artist. You feel good enough about it that you start to share with other people. This is the foundation of artistic success — of course, perfection is seldom attained, but we must be good enough so that we ourselves think our output is satisfactory.
Level 2: Reach Others
When other people like what you like, then you have created an effective piece of art. It communicates something. Now, what is being communicated is in the eye of the beholder — ultimately, it is a self-conversation that is sparked by the art inside the receiver’s head. But the more people get it, the better, at this level.
Level 3: Reach Experts
Elementary art is easier to understand, but it takes a certain level of mastery to reach others who are experienced/masters in the art. Now, these “experts” don’t necessarily mean other artists — they can include critics, fanatics, and other enthusiasts. When you start to reach these people, you begin to be regarded as a mature artist. But many artists who reach this level, unfortunately, lose touch with the foundation and cease to create art that can also be appreciated by the mass/uninitiated.
Level 4: Reach Everyone Where They Are At
This is the ultimate, and only precious few artists attain this level. The Beatles, Beethoven, Bach…. they were able to create art that the uninitiateds and enthusiasts alike marvel at, for different reasons. It has layers that appeal to more people, wherever they are at.
Been thinking this week about how, historically speaking, artists are normally slightly ahead of their audiences. In this way the artists themselves are always the ones responsible for the “progress” in the medium. Technology is driven by the market, Sports are driven by the competition, Politics are driven by the culture… but Art is driven by the artists, often to the dismay of the market/competition/culture. In this way Art plays a huge role in forming/influencing the future.
Sorry for being overly deep. I’m just really impressed with artists that take chances and intentionally move away from the comfort zone that brought them their success – pushing themselves into new areas that don’t necessarily promise the same results. Case in point: this cool interview with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois about the making of U2’s The Unforgettable Fire.
10/25/09 UPDATE: I’m watching the Youtube live broadcast of U2’s Rose Bowl show. I am really struck right now with how HUGE this band’s footprint is on music/culture. It’s hard to believe one band can accomplish so much.
While this video doesn’t directly deal with music, it certainly addresses of the nature of art and how it intersects with culture. I found it on another cool music industry blog I discovered last week. Music Marketing (dot) Com is written by industry guru David Hooper, who I recently met on Twitter. His blog first drew me in with this post on time management, which is a helpful acknowledgment of the reality of the way time affects our goals in life. I can definitely vouch for his points as it pertains to gigs, rehearsals, personal practice, and networking.
Also worth checking out is this post that features a video tour of one of the vibey-est studios in Los Angeles.
In order to get to my studio space at Northwestern College, you have to walk through the Visual Arts department. This morning, as I walked through the art space with my first student of the day, there was some blaring music coming from an art student’s boom box. It would be fair to describe the music as “artsy” (which is the kind of music that art students ALWAYS listen to it seems). Once we were past the art department and in my studio, my student commented to me that he thought the music from the other room was really weird. I thought the music was pretty cool, so I asked him what he meant by “weird.” He said that he didn’t really know… he just thought the music was “really different” and he didn’t like it. So, I proceeded to share something with him that I learned from my former teacher…
Everybody brings a subconscious “list” to their listening. This list contains the things that you’re looking for in music – the things that you expect the music to have if you’re going to like it. Normally, the items on someone’s list will be broad and far-reaching, like “good groove”… or maybe a little more specific like “lots of guitars.” The specificity of the list items might get out of hand though, and I’ve often heard people say things like “I only listen to stuff that has odd time signatures and lots of double bass.” Well, that’s fine I guess… except those people will normally go on to decide that if a given song doesn’t contain the things on their list, then that song “sucks” or “isn’t cool.”
It’s important to stop at this point and recognize that, in the example I just mentioned, the music in question has been written off simply because it doesn’t match up with the listener’s expectations. This is problematic, because it’s fair to ask if the artist who made the music was ever really aiming to hit the things on odd-time-double-bass-dude’s list. It’s not at all fair for odd-time-double-bass-dude to give a failing grade to a musician who was never intending to do anything that odd-time-double-bass-dude wanted to hear.
What I’m trying to say is this: the fundamental element in appreciating art is understanding what THE ARTIST was trying to say with a particular work. This means that it’s the artist’s “list” that matters, not yours. It’s very helpful, when encountering new music, to try and wipe your head clear of all your expectations for what you’re about to hear. Try and take the music on IT’S terms. Sometimes it’s helpful to do some homework in that regard – like looking up who the artist is, what genre the artist is known for, and what kind of influences they cite. But even if you can’t do any background work, you can at least give the artist the benefit of the doubt that they are probably not simply trying to cater to your needs as a listener. True musicians make music they want to make, not music that they think others want them to make.
What’s amazing about all this is that if you take the time to understand what the artist was aiming for when they created a particular work of art, you’ll probably like it more. Or at the very least you will appreciate it more, and you’ll be less likely to give it an automatic thumb’s down.
SUMMARY: It’s safe to assume that most musicians aren’t aiming for (or even aware of) the items on your subconscious “list” of expectations. So try to figure out what a musician is trying to do with their music BEFORE you decide if they’re succeeding, and you will probably learn a thing or two in the process. (PS… It’s also helpful to try and trim down your list as much as possible).
UPDATE: “Part 2” of The Subconscious List can be found here.
Man… Brian Blade is definitely one of my favorite drummers right now. He has so much control, his ideas are so musical, and his groove is so comfortable. Love it.
Brian Blade is on my mind today because I’ve been listening to Danial Lanois’ “Shine” quite a bit. Blade just destroys that record. His feel, his comfort and vocabulary… unbelievable. The album is a singer-songwriter style, and so Blade is of course playing appropriately within that realm. BUT, he is also a widely respected jazz player. THAT is the main point of this post.
I’ve had more than a few musicians whom I respect tell me that my best bet is to pigeon-hole my efforts on the drums into one genre/sound, and just try to make that as killing as I can. I understand the logic: don’t waste time trying to improve your weaknesses, just focus on making your strengths even stronger and soon you will be the only fish in the pond that anyone wants to work with, when it comes to those strengths. This idea is big in the business world, and it makes sense to a degree… but I’m not sure it applies to Art.
I studied jazz music extensively in college, and I’ve also spent a lot of time in pop/rock settings. In fact, I’ve done quite a bit of gospel lately, and some alt-country, and even some electronica/drum-n-bass. Therefore, I’m obviously in danger of spreading myself too thin according to the “ignore-your-weakness-promote-your-strength” mantra, but I don’t see it that way. I feel like I have learned concepts in studying jazz that I can apply to rock… things that make my rock playing different from another rock drummer who has never studied jazz. Conversely, I can bring rock elements into my jazz that sound hopefully make my jazz playing unique. Of course, I have to have a solid understanding of the difference between rock and jazz, but having a presence in both worlds is a challenge that I enjoy taking on.
Actually, I believe learning about and participating in many different styles/genres is an essential element to feeding creativity in your playing. I guess I just disagree with the advice I’ve been given. Maybe I’ll recant in a few years when I am wiser, but for now, I encourage every musician who reads this blog to surround yourself with as many different-sounding records as you can find, and soak them all in.
I’m in the studio right now… doing some of the final touch-ups on the forthcoming Look Alive album.
Look Alive is a band I’ve been in for 7 years. We started in college, at Bethel University. We released our debut album not long after the band formed in 2003, and we started work on our sophomore release shortly after that. We’re still working on that project. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the process of making a record… 4 years is a REALLY long time. Life happened to all of us, and the band had to take a back seat. (Update: You can find a free download of Look Alive’s completed 2nd and final album The Already Not Yet here).
So anyway, I’m sitting here listening to my buddy Tim do some guitar overdubs. It’s really interesting to hear the drum tracks on these tunes, which I recorded in January of ’05. I am a very different player now. I have different instincts, different opinions, different preferences. Most of my drum tracks actually annoy me. I feel like I’ve learned so much about WHY to play the notes that you play, not to mention all the nuances of playing to microphones under the microscope of a studio setting. I hope that my playing is smarter now than it was 4 years ago… BUT… I think I have less chops. Some of the things I played back then are things that I can’t do anymore, or at least I’d have to practice a little in order to not be sloppy.
So now I might be weaker physically than I was back then, but I’m confident that I’m stronger mentally. I think I’ve come out ahead overall, then – because I believe that music is primarily a mental game and not a physical one. Those who put too much emphasis on the physical side end up treating music like athletics, and not art. But there’s a balance on the mental side as well… between data (left brain) and emotion (right brain). Too much emphasis on the data and music becomes mathematics, not art.
Listen, I know this is my 3rd post in one hour, but I just started this blog today so I feel like I need to fill it up a little. Actually, I think I’ve figured out how to add pictures to the posts so I’m going to try it.
This is a work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, an 80’s Neo-Expressionist from Manhattan. It’s titled “Max Roach,” after the Jazz founding-father and drumming legend of the same name. Roach had a massive influence on the evolution of jazz drumming, and Basquait just nails the essence of Roach’s sound in depicting him as cloud hovering behind the drumset.
Basquiat was heavily influenced by Jazz and Jazz musicians throughout his career. If a painter (visual) can draw inspiration from a musician (audio), then that transaction can definitely take place the other direction as well. In college I studied with the internationally-acclaimed, avante-garde drummer David King. Dave was CONSTANTLY referencing paintings and films in the lessons (which is where I first learned about Basquiat), which didn’t make much sense to me at first, but over time I began to see the connection that he was drawing on – the connection that exists between all forms of art. Creativity is art’s essence, and the creative process is so much bigger than any one genre of art (or music, for that matter).
More on this to come…