The State of the Union (musically, that is…) Part 5

Certainly, the collective mind set is ok enough with the current state of the musical union that things just keep rolling along without any drastic change in sight.  Of course, there have always been a multitude of artists and styles out there in any time period.  However, nowadays there are far more artists, styles, and records being produced than ever before.  New websites designed to get music to the world at large seem to pop up weekly, from file sharing sites to free services that make their money through advertising, to monthly paid subscription based venues.  The effect of it all can be dizzying to keep up with. 

But that reflects on our current state of the union culture:  rocket speed pace of life, more people with individualistic needs than even before, less semblance of unity, and each person wanting to define their experience with music exactly the way they want it.  But how much of any of the music created today is groundbreaking and great art?

If one is frustrated with the overall way things currently are, the question might be asked, “What might change all of this?”  As with anything that is culturally sweeping, it is multi dimensional, convoluted, complex, and not easily changed:

1-When the economics are as bad as they currently are, it puts a stranglehold on the industry, especially new and innovative art.  If the bills can’t be paid, money is certainly not going to be spent on an artist with a risky vision by the record labels.

As it stands now, many more artists are financially struggling, which cripples or destroys their careers, because they can’t make a living.  Innovative artists who could have enough of an audience to keep their work going in a better economic climate, have a harder time keeping their careers alive.  Let me add, that I have never been a materialistic person at all.  I have lived through horribly debilitating poverty most of my adult life.  What I’m speaking of here is simply the ability to make a living, so you can do what you do and do it correctly without having to worry about the “keeping a roof over your head” thing.

If the artist themselves can’t make enough money to at least keep it all going on their own, one has to take that most dreaded thing to every artist – the mundane day job.  If you can’t devote a full time effort to your artistic career, it will become more or less, a hobby, no matter how talented one is.

If the economic portion of the industry became solvent again, it would benefit all artists to one degree or another, as prosperity allows everyone more of a chance to thrive.  If there could be new vehicles for artists (especially innovative ones) to reach a mass audience, those who can really make a change are given more of a green light.

2-With the jaded cynicism and narcissism that is so ever pervasive in society as a whole, there aren’t many artists with a daring message, and the willingness to risk it all: not afraid to be mocked, criticized, and attacked. Most artists play it safe, and the ones with a tiny little itty bitty stylistic twist, are hailed as geniuses.  But that isn’t good enough to really affect a sweeping change.

Let me say, that as a supporter of all art and all artists, I endorse anyone who is creating and trying to get their work out there, and I respect everyone!  I am not a critic – I’m the one who has always been criticized, LOL!  There is always great art in any time period, and it can be found somewhere and sometimes between the cracks.  However, the overall state of the musical union is what needs to improve – to bring back the excitement that has shown itself at various times throughout history.

But this time around, I fear that it is not just cyclical as in:  early 1950’s pop boredom then followed by the explosion of rock ‘n’ roll – early 1960’s pop safety suddenly replaced by the British invasion — 1980’s hair metal clobbered by Nirvana, Seattle Grunge and alternative.

It won’t probably be major label artists shaking it up, as they are more formulaic, but rather, independent artists who only have to answer to themselves.  Yet it remains to be seen if an indie can have the impact of an Elvis, the Beatles, or even Nirvana.

3-With major labels collapsing, more and more artists are leaving the majors and doing it for themselves and / or striking new types of unique deals, including:  Nine Inch Nails, Madonna, Radiohead, The Black Crowes, Smashing Pumpkins and The Eagles.  However, they already have huge name recognition, which makes it easier for them to sell records on their own terms versus new artists who are virtually unknown.

Back in the day, recording an album in a proper studio used to easily cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.  With the revolution of home recording, one can actually own their own studio which can be purchased for thousands of dollars, and record themselves.  Now that physical distribution of product is not that big of a deal, there’s only one hard part that still remains: MARKETING!  Getting your music out there and heard, noticed, and ultimately bought is still a tough and difficult challenge, especially for indie artists.

For unknown artists, of course it is harder to build a sizable audience, but there’s a trade off:  With a major label, you may get more exposure initially, but you’ll sell your soul for it and lose control of your catalogue, potentially forever.  (Your songs might show up in a window cleaning commercial).  On your own, it may take more time, but at least you have your integrity, don’t owe anyone anything, and you’re in control of all aspects of your work and the way it is presented.  Plus, the more time goes on, the more the musical state of the union is becoming increasingly indie friendly, and the portion of sales the indie market occupies is ever increasing. This allows even the smallest of artists to have ways of getting their work exposed internationally through avenues such as My Space, You Tube, CD Baby, and Amazon.com to name a few.

4-With illegal downloading, theft, and piracy dominating the industry, small artists are like the poor – they get nothing and still have nothing.  If stealing wasn’t present, these artists might be able to at least have small careers – and to a lot of us, that’s at least something, and certainly better than nothing.

Medium sized artists who could have had decent careers spanning a long time prior to the rampant theft so commonplace today, collapse, or struggle to barely get by.

And just like the super rich of society, mega starts still make lots of money, and for the most part remain unaffected by the illegal piracy that is intended to get back at them — the perceived over inflated rock star.  Wouldn’t you agree that Mick Jagger and Madonna won’t ever go broke from any of this?

It represents a consciousness – that the consumer has taken control and gets whatever he or she wants – anyway they want it – hidden anonymously from behind their computer.  An artist’s copywritten music becomes THEIR music, all for free.  There’s a perverse sense of power that comes with ripping the artist off, especially the rich and famous.  And as with most people, when left to their own devices, do a lot of bad things.  If you had 20 hamburgers and 20 people, and someone said, “Ok, everyone, there’s one hamburger for each of you,” many wouldn’t eat, as folks would be gobbling up two, even three burgers.

The consumer now becomes king, where they select their playlist, and take it all for free, as they can’t get caught.  There’s a gluttonous pleasure in stealing and getting away with it.  And since it’s art, it’s ok to steal it, right?  There is still the ludicrous concept that if it’s really art, no one should make any money from it, or it’s no longer art, but commercialized crap.  However, if one can’t make money from their art, they won’t be able to produce it, plain and simple.

Most people who steal music won’t snatch a loaf of bread.  Why?  Because it is culturally acceptable to steal music and one probably won’t get arrested, as they most likely would when stealing a loaf of bread.  One can’t make the moral argument that it is unfair to rip off artistic creations; it is too culturally ingrained that it is A-OK to steal music, and hey, you won’t get caught anyway, so why not?  I like this one that I hear quite often:  “But if I steal your work it’s because I like it, so I’m giving you free promotion by telling my friends about you!” Please don’t do me any of these type of favors!

These people present themselves as the carriers of a new torch — this false “Brave New Frontier” thing where everything is just shared with the world on anyone’s terms for free and how wonderful that is.

But in reality, these are just people who steal from others, while killing the art and the ability to produce it.  Oops, I almost forgot – how silly of me — I mean, if it’s art, it should never be allowed to earn a penny, LOL! 

I personally like what Eric Clapton said best when he stated, “It’s as if I’m supposed to feel guilty for trying to make a living.”

Thankfully, that consciousness doesn’t represent everybody!  There are those who are happy to pay for the work, and know that it is unethical to rip people off.  However, the ones who steal make up a huge portion of the music audience out there.  Recent credible studies reveal that illegal downloading is 4 times more prevalent that legal downloading.  That is a sobering and staggering ratio!

This time in history may be quite different than other times when the music industry has suffered and bounced back strong.  Why? Because of the ability and celebration of the world at large to rip off artists and steal everything for free.  Plus, many of the countries who host this theft via the Internet and through illegal physical sales, are not bound by our laws.  So who is going to go after them to stop the thievery?  Many of these countries don’t acknowledge or respect our copyright laws in the first place.  We’ve never had this international problem in this way ever before and that fact changes everything!  This may not just be a matter of the music business being cyclical – this could be a long-term issue!

However, at this time, many in the industry are trying to scramble to find ways to stop the theft, whether through ISP’s going after thieves, to creating new laws on the books.  If somehow the theft problem could be solved, the industry would become healthier. 

In addition, and perhaps more importantly, is that artists need to go beyond what has been done before – not just through technology, but through message, craft, talent, discipline, passion, innovation, and the true champion of the human spirit – new ideas!  Yes, I believe in commitment, discipline, hard work and a lot of sweat. (After all, what would you expect? I was raised abusively Catholic, LOL.)

In those times of fresh innovation in the past, the entire music industry and world was elevated to a much higher level through groundbreaking art being produced!  When a phenomenon occurs, whether by an artist and / or a movement, we all benefit.  Let’s keep that in mind, and aim for the sky – not only much higher than where we’re at now, but so far beyond where we’ve ever been before!  It falls on the shoulders of those who have the guts to do it – independent artist and thinkers, who are beyond the borders of the sickening conformity that strangulates and suffocates the revolution and transformation produced by genius.
 © 2008 Skafish All Rights Reserved

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