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Saturday, September 13, 2003

finding value in music

i’ve been working in and around music for what seems like a long time (but, i have to maintain some perspective on the matter.) i am far from an expert. i am far from the “final answer” in all this. what i do bring is, i think, a different perspective. and today i’m going to attempt to share some of that perspective with you.

this is probably good for me, since i find presenting my material (particularly material that i’ve put a lot of thought into) difficult. i guess on some level, once i’ve fully embraced a way of seeing a problem or a solution, it seems odd to me that you don’t already see it the same way. at the same time, i’m probably notorious for tangential, oblique and seemingly barely-related perspectives. so, this is a bit of an exercise, and hopefully, in that exercise, i’ll have something to contribute to the ongoing discussion on the subject of music.

i’ve decided to focus very narrowly today, and address a “foundation” concept in my work with music and performance. that concept is: where is the money? and i limit the scope of this question to the performers and creators.

in a review of the history of music, a few things become clear (to me, anyway).

first, and critically important, is that people will make music. the drive in humans to make music is simply incredible and, i think, unstoppable. i don’t mean to step on any archaeologist toes, but something tells me that music is right up there with and maybe even a bit ahead of language at the birth of civilization. we’ve been making music since we realized we could bang on (or blow into) hollow logs and make interesting sounds (in any case, certainly long before the concept of a lawyer or a copyright ever existed).

second, this drive is also unevenly distributed. some of us don’t have a gift or talent for making music, and some are simply astounding. some of us have a huge drive to make music, and absolutely no talent to back it up (sorry, keith). some of the most talented among us have horrible stage fright, or simply no opportunity to develop their skills. the universe conspires in most interesting ways.

third, music is a specialization. it takes a lot of time, dedication and even some (occasionally expensive) tools to make music. the challenge for musicians, is to provide for the basic necessities of life (food, shelter, groupies) and still have enough left over for the music (strings, drumsticks, gas money). so, there’s the problem. how do you make enough money as a musician to be a musician?

in general, i find that there are three ways to make a living making music: performances, patrons and recordings.

performances: certainly the oldest tradition of the musician is the performance. this approach has the lowest barrier-of-entry – you can literally pick up your instrument (or clear your throat) and start making music. busking on a busy corner on the left bank, or playing in a stadium full of 60,000 people. no matter the scale, the point of performance is that you (the performer) meet your audience. and, if you’re talented, entertaining, or have whatever it takes to reach the audience you’ve found yourself facing, then maybe, just maybe, they will throw you a coin. long, long ago, maybe they would invite you to stay in the village for dinner and give you a little food for the road. if you were really good, maybe someone in the village would make you some new shoes (gas money) so you could make it to the next village.

patrons: there’s also a long tradition of patronage for the arts. this can take many different forms – you can track down a composing prodigy, and put them up in one of your country estates and give them expensive hand-crafted instruments and let them do what they do for the glory and status. you can commission a song for someone’s 37th birthday party that includes a few juicy tidbits from their life. or you can hire a composer to make the soundtrack for your big hit movie. the common thread here is that the musician generally has to be “established” in some way to get the good gigs. so the “barrier to entry” problem here is how to hone your musical skills to the point where anyone would be your patron?

recordings: the birth of the recording industry is generally credited to the 1877 invention of the gramophone. with a little bit of a stretch, we can push the date back to 1857 with the phonoautograph (but that is a stretch, since it didn’t really offer a way to play back the recording). so, we have 126 (or 146, if you’re feeling generous) years of “recording industry.” in that 150 years, the recording has become the centerpiece, the raison d’Ítre for most [american] musicians.

there is no shortage of businesses that are created to support and/or exploit (see the american idol clip above) musicians and performers. the challenge for these businesses, and for society as a whole is to keep the musicians fed, clothed, and doing what they do best – entertain and engage us.

the musicians among us will do what they do, whether they get paid or not.

posted by roj at 9:48 am