I've written often about my feeling that people can be nurturing in the way they interact about creative expression. I think it' great that some folks laudably wish to earn a living or to achieve some excelsior within a field through writing or the fine arts. I pause a bit over the lost "art" of people entertaining themselves. I read novels from earlier centuries, when people joined together to sing songs, or listen to an amateur friend play an instrument, or other similar pursuits. Beyond the "picturesque" creative arts,
the simple art of shared conversation, though still abundant, seems to me to be rarer these days.
I'm not much for anti-television diatribes, nor for endless attacks on corporatist entertainment media. I love television, and buy CDs and computer programs from large corporations. But I do have a deep respect for things done in small ways in small scale. I like the folks who rent the local live performance venue for a poetry reading, or who
self-publish their book, or CD Baby their CD. I like the people who do "gigs" for little or no pay at the local coffee house, not because they need to be famous, but because they like to sing. I think that the past few years have shown that a lot of people make awfully good music in their basements and living rooms.
Ultimately, I wonder if the only scenes which matter are the small, self-created scenes. So many "movements" I found interesting really amounted to nothing more than bright people who got together in one another's living room and pronounced themselves important. I'm not sure it's necessary to consider oneself "important", but I do believe that one should "relent" from the need to see oneself as unimportant if one is not famous, rich or connected.
I respect people's different ways of creative expression, but sometimes I want to see more original fiction and less fanfiction. Sometimes I want to hear more new songs and fewer covers.
There's an old scripture tag that suggests that when two or more are gathered in fellowship, then the Spirit is present.
I'll refrain from the metaphysical, but I've come over time to respect the power of friendly folks pursuing creative expression.
One thing I love about a weblog is that it is a place in which one is sometimes read extensively but more often read by a few folks very intensively. I have this notion that a small appreciative audience is the most important thing for any creative expression. In a weblog, one is entirely liberated from any notion of "making a living" from one's weblog, which removes any pressure to "sell" or "achieve".
One writes to create a space of on-line community.
I've got this diatribe in me, about how the current culture will be reformed and redeemed only when folks who care turn away from its excesses and reconnect with a way of living that is neither shamefully reactionary, frighteningly acquisitive, nor needlessly self-destructive. But I don't mean that silliness is bad, profit and marketing are bad, or that a bit of individual confusion is any great tragedy.
I mean instead that I want "common people" to trust themselves as thinkers and doers, and not just write themselves off as "lesser" somehow. I suppose I am a great populist who believes that society will be converted to gentleness and fixity of purpose through bad poetry and small group sing-a-longs to new songs.
I don't want to minimize the importance of craft as one component of creative expression, nor to suggest that every song is a good song merely because somebody sang it. An angel does not really get his wings every time a bell rings.
But I do not believe that the search for "craft" should obscure the importance of expression as expression, as a way of bridging the gaps among people.
It's such an isolated, fragmented time in which we live. I see the arts as a bridge, not a pedestal. I no longer believe that there is an intelligentsia who Know and Guide culture as it exists today. I no longer believe that arts and repertoire agents know which bands are good and which are not. The only time I have spent much time around a "music scene" was a lot of weekend nights in the clubs, where bands from the local Dallas Deep Ellum post-punk/alternative scene and the then-vivid Austin scene regularly played.
I learned something from that era. All the truly great bands, which made one believe in the redemptive power of
music, either did not get signed to record contracts or did not thrive after they had signed. I always think of that band the True Believers. Fronted by Alejandro Escovedo, the True Believers delivered the kind of transcendent roots songs that reminds one of the liberating power of rock music.
They had a multiple guitar attack, less a matter of "jamming" than of tightly constructed rockers that had heard both London and San Antonio calling. Their lyrics were spare but redemptive. The one that stands out to me is "Ringing the Bell", which had an improbably "old west" rhythm line jaunting under a simple, melodic guitar assault.
The song's narrator describes "ringing the bell" as an expression of freedom, in straightforward language. "Ring out the bell, ring out the bell, 'cause now I'm free". On a good night, it was better than any tent revival altar call.
For a while, the True Believers were Austin's "great unsigned band". They could sell out clubs and small venues anywhere in the region, but record execs thought Escovedo's voice too harsh to be marketable. Ultimately, they did get a major label contract, put out a release, and got abandoned by their label, which did not put out their second album after it was "in the can". Record labels are not about communion so much as selling units--and that's okay. But what sells and what's good are not the same things, necessarily, to my way of thinking.
I read a number of websites about benefit gigs for Alejandro Escovedo. He had to take an extensive break from touring in 2003, due to raging Hepatitus C problems. He apparently hs no health insurance. At one point, his wife committed suicide, leaving him to raise young daughters without her. Other marriages foundered. He's the "artist type", whose has expressed that his love to writing songs is so seriou that he can't share it with anyone. Apparently, he took a bit of advantage as well as of the "people are attracted to rockers" factor, which can be a bit destructive of long-term relationships. But I like one thing he says:
"I never had any use for self-pity. My father and my brothers were that way. They had a great dignity no matter what they did, right or wrong. They moved through this world in a real graceful way without ever embarrassing themselves. I just watched them and learned from that."
Escovedo was involved in three bands that "made a difference", Rank and File's influential cowpunk (which, oddly enough, seems to have left its most indelible mark on the very kind of Nashville music that shunned Rank and File during its brief life), Austin's punk band the Nuns and then the True Believers. I like, too, that he did not take up songwriting until he was 32. I find too many people write themselves off if they have not achieved some grand goal by 30.
But the major record labels have never gotten Alejandro Escovedo, any more than they "got" that Peter Holsapple was, for a time, one of the greatest pop songwriters, but nobody knew just what to do with his band, the dBs. It really all comes to this--major labels produce some fine product sometimes, and rock music profited from the corporate push they gave to some acts. But I never forget that from that particular Austin scene and Deep Ellum scene, the acts that "made it" were the "video friendly, cute" bands that, while worthy, did not resonate for me like the True Believers did.
At least with record labels, profit drives the choices. I can understand profit. In some academic and literary circles, it's just plain "acquaintance nepotism", success through travelling in the right elitist circles. One sees the same dreary faces pop up over and over again. It's a bit like NPR, a radio network I enjoy, but one which decides to take minor celebrities and try to make them "old familiar names" through repetition. For myself, I want to hear more voices, not the same ones over and over. I think it's better to stay outside than to try to look in on clique-ish ways of creative expression that serve mostly to cross-promote friends and friendly acquaintances.
So maybe I like the idea of people amusing themselves with music or poetry in small groups because I like the idea that entertainment does not need to come in an XBox or a major label CD. The hold those large corporations have is that they have more money. If one can avoid being financially dependent on them, one can be free of their ways. In an earlier era, they controlled distribution. But that's changed, thanks to the internet.
The problem, of course, remains money. It's hard to earn a living as a musician or writer. My own view is that the solution is simple--don't worry about it. Don't be in thrall to patrons or corporations. But I recognize that this is a minority view. Work a day job, do what it takes, stay free.
I also don't ever want to discourage people from trying to earn a living from their music or their writing. Indeed, I think that people should market more independent work, and become business folks as well as artists.
The modern major label recording contract is for most artists constructively a cash advance of touring and promotion and studio money, on extremely unfavorable terms.
In many ways, an education and a day job are easier "dues to pay" than the hassles of having to conform oneself to someone else's notion of what one should be. I think of artists whose music I love, such as Sara Hickman, whose creative output was severely damaged when her record company undertook to convert her from a great folkie to a "mainstream" adult-oriented pop singer. She ultimately had to pay them to buy her masters back. I suppose being an
attorney who has, for friends, done a bit of work in small scale entertainment law gives me an advantage. I come to respect that studios and distributors and labels are in it for the money, not the artist. I frankly have no problem with that. But if I were an artist, I'd be in it for the artist.
I suppose in this ramble the thing that strikes me most is the importance of shared experience. A great rocker delivers to the audience a sense of connection--a sense that the songs either meet us where we live or take us to a place we wish to be. I think a lot of people don't trust themselves or their talented friends to provide transcendence. But
there's no Easter Bunny. Interconnection doesn't come in a bottle. Whether one is a creator or a reader or a listener,
one can seek out and find the connections one lacks.
It's those connections, that sense that one is among the real or the interestingly faux, that really matter.