Thoughts on Making Music: The Art of Craft, and Snobbery
This is a repost from my old blog – a post I wrote on this day six years ago. It came up in my Facebook memories, and it seemed still relevant. I was just explaining this idea to someone the other day!
I should also warn you that this is a looooooong read. I am one verbose lady. Anyway….this is an oldie, but – I flatter myself – a goodie. ENJOY!
Commentary from other people
I recently came across a couple unrelated pieces of commentary from sources I respect, lamenting various aspects of the State of Music Today. Technology has progressed so much that any-ol’-body with a laptop can crank out a record. Our new-thing-is-the-new-old-thing consumerist flavor-of-the-moment culture pressures musicians to make lots and lots and lots of music all the time. A new album every year! Plus bonus content! And website freebies in between! Plus live cuts! Plus design tee shirts! Plus tweet and Facebook and cross-promote and network and street team and yada yada yada.
And all of this is why we have so little truly good music, with the staying power to be listened to for decades versus days. We have quantity, but very little quality.
There *is* a ton of crap music
I mean, don’t get me wrong. I know there’s a lot of crap music being foisted on the unsuspecting masses. I’ve been making my own music for a decade, and I have seen performers who couldn’t carry a tune, strum a chord, or string together a coherent lyric…and somehow still manage to assemble the nerve to get up in front of an audience and do their thing. (I will try not get into the sidebar discussions about the subjective nature of taste – I mean, I love bagpipes – or the capriciousness of musical success – which I firmly believe is 5% talent, 10% work, and 85% pure luck.)
I’ve also spent a fair amount of time combing through various sources in search of new music for my own listening enjoyment – particularly places like garageband.com (now defunct), Amie Street (now defunct), and the old mp3.com (also now defunct), where indie musicians could share their material without paying through the nose. I have listened to a lot of random tunes over the years, and I have found some really amazing stuff….but I’ve stumbled onto way more mediocre-to-awful stuff.
So, yes. Point taken that the instant nature of the internet and the relative availability of the means to produce and distribute music have made a lot more crap a lot more easily available to a lot more people on a lot shorter timeline. A profit-driven music industry has encouraged this because more new music means more money to be made, especially if the big labels aren’t shilling out on the front end. Toss on top of it a music blogging scene that puts every blogger on the hunt for a fresh discovery and the ego stroke that comes of finding that ever-elusive needle in an ever-growing haystack? Well, it’s not exactly an environment that rewards musicians willing to study, hone their craft, and lavish extensive time on creating music – especially not the kind of music that is universal and classic and stands the test of time (which, for purposes of this ramble, we’re going to use as the definition of Great Music).
Not everything has to be Van Gogh
But the world of music is not so small that there isn’t room for diversity in more than just genre. I mean, I think Van Gogh’s Starry Night is the most beautiful painting I have ever seen with my own eyes. It stole my breath and left me in tears, and seeing it was one of the most vivid experiences of my life. In my apartment, though, I have a piece of glass artwork, carved in a damask pattern in black and silver, made by a local artisan. Is it as beautiful as Starry Night? No. Does it make me cry when I see it hanging on the wall every day? No. Does it have less value in my life? Tough call….but I know that I like it enough to display it in my home, and that has worth. There’s room for lots of different types of art and beauty, and they are all valuable in their different ways….and the same is true for music.
Which is my way of saying there’s room for one-hit-wonders and cheesy pop songs and mediocre bubblegum. A songwriter friend of mine used to tell herself, whenever she was feeling like her lyrics weren’t meaningful or elegant enough, “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.” I mean, even Lennon & McCartney didn’t write nothing but “Yesterday.” Hell, my fave songwriter of all time wrote both “Time in a Bottle” *and* “Rapid Roy, the Stock Car Boy.” A songwriter’s catalog is likely to be as diverse as their experience….which, you know, goes for music in general, as well. Art, life, yada yada.
Art Is SUBJECTIVE
There’s a kind of snobbery that I see in a lot of this sort of conversation about the arts, and often it comes down to the idea that, essentially, there’s “good” and “bad” art. There’s art that has value (the Mona Lisa! Swan Lake! Kandinsky! Shakespeare! art house flicks! Beethoven! etc.), and art that is…disposable? Less meaningful? Lower brow? (Dogs Playing Poker, comic books, Britney Spears, stand up comedy, romance novels, boy bands, action films, etc.)
I know this snobbery exists because I fight the inclination in myself, particularly when someone mentions singing karaoke. But I recognize that that’s my ego talking. I want to feel superior because I’ve put in time and effort in service of my art. I want to feel like I’ve somehow earned superiority. And that is total crap.
Art is subjective, in both the creation and consumption. There is no One True Way to make music (or any other art), any more than there is only One True Kind of music to enjoy. The beauty of this diversity lies not only in the way people can sift through the maelstrom to find the creations that speak to them in the voice they want to hear….but also in the way different processes of creation can develop. Some artists need or prefer or have the *luxury* of hiding in a cabin for two years creating their masterwork…and some take whatever demo their manager hands them and spend twenty minutes pouring it into a microphone to be Auto-Tuned and compressed into submission in the mix. Much as I’m sure my own personal biases show in the way I phrased that…I don’t believe that one of these is a more valid way to make art, or yields music that is inherently more worthy than the other.
One of my least favorite aspects of this bullshit hierarchy is the concept of a guilty pleasure. You know, stuff you really like, but don’t want to admit to liking because some invisible authority looks down on it for some reason. Anybody who’s seen me roll my eyes at the slickly over-produced electronically-augmented “perfection” of Glee knows that I sometimes instinctively buy into that invisible authority myself….but since I have paid money for music by Hanson, the Spice Girls, Garth Brooks, Debbie Gibson, Chumbawumba, and the Black Eyed Peas, I’m not sure why I have it in for the latest incarnation of Pop Music Goodness. Obviously there are times when slick and overproduced don’t bother me at all. (Say it with me: taste is subjective.)
Music is for everybody
When I play out, I tend to get a lot of positive feedback. My singing, in particular, tends to garner me a lot of compliments, and one of the things I tell people is that a lot of my vocal skill is the result of training. “Anyone could do it,” I say, “if they spent ten years learning how.” I really do believe that is true, but I’ll tell you what I believe that is more important: I think people should feel free to sing even if they haven’t studied it for ten years. I think people should feel free to make music even if they can’t carry a tune, strum a chord, or string together a coherent lyric. I think making music is a birthright of the human race, and that anybody should make it if they feel like it, regardless of whether they’re “good” at it, or if the music they make appeals to anyone else. I think that music, whether I actually like it or not, is just as valid and valuable and worthy as the music I make.
Furthermore, it’s this bullshit hierarchy, this idea that there’s “good” and “bad” art, that keeps so many people from expressing their creativity. It keeps art of all kinds from being considered as vital to education as math or science or geography or language. It keeps people from trying, from taking creative risks, from exploring the full extent of their own potential as human beings.
There is value in studying a craft and learning from what others have done. There is also value in following inspiration, regardless of precedent. Excluding either diminishes the whole.
Case in point: any asshole can write a blog.