Friday, March 8th, 2013
And his new album, The Next Day is amazing, and streaming free on the iTunes store.
Sixto Rodriguez is older than David Bowie. Despite his talent, his life had a very different path. Fame is a fickle and capricious thing, and watching Searching For Sugarman, the documentary about Rodriguez’s life and career, made me question, yet again, the way capitalist economies make space for the arts. Even though I’m a poet, and have never operated under the illusion that I could achieve what nineteenth-century-Americans called “competency” just by writing poems, the way our culture treats its artists is something of deep concern for me, partly because I am still an artist, but also because my father is a musician and has been trying to maintain a competency by means of his music for the past ten years. He too, is incredibly talented. He too was never kissed by the fickle lips of fame, partly because, like Rodriguez, and like me, his chosen art forms (in my dad’s case: traditional Irish and Scottish music and Old Time music; in mine: poetry), are not those that generate a lot of attention by market forces, since almost all of that music is in the public domain.
The celebrity-based system we have now for artists (and athletes, and writers) has two pretty devastating effects; firstly, it means artists live in fear that if they’re not as fortunate as David Bowie, they’ll end up poor as Rodriguez. Some artists, like the controversial (to some) Amanda Palmer are trying to do things in new ways. Of course, some of the tiny, tiny percentage of people who have been fortunate enough to benefit from the celebrity-based system find this threatening. They’ve invested a lot in the older systems that have been in place for about a century that used to guarantee artists could maintain competency; the idea that artists are a professional class is part of that, for sure, and there is still a lot of merit to treating artists as professionals, except that, increasingly, being a professional means less and less in terms of economic security when employers are allowed to do things like deny prospective hires jobs based on bad credit reports. And as Rodriguez’s career shows, even being fortunate enough to gain entry to the class of artists who “make it big” is no guarantee of economic security.
Something has soured in America; on the one hand, we have come to see excellence in the arts as a glorified hobby. That mindset is what those who cling to the identity of themselves as professionals hope to protect themselves against. On the other hand, we have come to see gainful employment in a very narrow sense, and are incredibly judgmental against anyone who chooses to forge a path outside the employment system. Unless they are celebrities. Then, having been blessed by the “market,” they’re the exception to the rule. But most of us are not really satisfied by this, which is why we have to invent myths for ourselves to justify the way we treat artists who haven’t won the fame lottery, like, for example, the 1995 film Mr. Holland’s Opus, the plot of which features a talented musician forced to choose between practicing his art and supporting his family. The film’s perspective uncritically takes the conservative point of view that the emotional rewards for such a sacrifice make the sacrifice worth it, that Holland’s “opus” was really a well-lived life and not his music. But why should such a choice be necessary at all? Only because we have chosen, and continue to choose to accept the celebrity/professional model as legitimate and sustainable. But what if hard working, talented artists like my father could operate small cottage industries practicing their art? What if we agreed that art is less a commodity and more a public service, and that, like all civil servants, artists should be able to make a living doing what they are very good at doing?
There’s hope, though. A lot of musicians are starting to attempt different models. One of my favorite bands, Over The Rhine, funded their last album entirely by a Kickstarter-like campaign through their website and were so successful at it that they’ve chosen to do so again. Another favorite, Mike Doughty, is selling individual, unique recordings of songs. That works for them because they already have fan bases.
Secondly, the idea that the arts are the domain of trained professionals and large corporations rather than something to be practiced and enjoyed by everyday people ultimately means less art, less fun, and more boring junk for sale in place of art. Singers compete on reality show contests like “The Voice” and “American Idol” for the chance to win the fame lottery, but the best, most memorable music rarely comes from immediately predictable sources. I’m reminded of an anecdote I heard recently about how, when Sam Cooke played Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” for Bobby Womack, Womack wondered what Cooke saw in a song performed by a singer with such an unusual voice. “From now on,” Cooke replied, “it’s not going to be about how pretty the voice is. It’s going to be about if the singer is telling the truth.” Cooke, inspired, went on to write “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
But would a young Bob Dylan even have a career in today’s music industry? I wonder. Thanks to the Internet and the growing gap between the incomes of the super-rich and everyone else, the celebrity-based system is crumbling, and the fame lottery doesn’t yield a lot of quirky, interesting, truly creative artists. Mike Doughty, who I mentioned above, is worried about the effect that this shift will have on future musicians. Record labels used to rely on the personal relationships between their A&R people and the artists, and used to offer artist contracts long enough to allow them to grow and develop a fan base. That, in turn allowed bands like Radiohead, or Doughty’s original band, Soul Coughing, to make music that appealed to a niche group of fans while they grew as musicians and learned their craft.
But over time, the labels have put less and less money into artist development, and most resources are focused on creating celebrities. The idea that a band can sell forty or fifty thousand albums a year and make a middle-class living under the old system is dead or dying.
Which is why I’m always excited when I learn about a new musician, poet, or artist whose work really gets my heart beating faster. This week it’s Bhi Bhiman, who I saw perform at City Winery as part of The Roots’ tribute to Prince. His version of “When Doves Cry” took my breath away. And Prince, who’s bought into the celebrity model so much so that he very famously has been opposed to musicians covering his work, supposedly approved. The result: I got exposed to a new artist’s work. That’s good for everybody. Here’s a YouTube video of Bhiman doing his own song, “Guttersnipe.” Just beautiful.
Which brings me back to Bowie. The Next Day has been streaming for free on iTunes for two weeks. I’ve listened to it three or four times a day since it was first made available. (Yes, it’s that good.) I’m going to buy it when it is released next week. That small idea, that by offering something for free, an artist can create a relationship with a fan, and encourage the fan to buy product, has been one of the few ideas that has kept artists afloat in the Internet age. But it isn’t enough, because that sort of offering tends to usually reward the already-famous. What we need is a new approach – a more humane system that treats artists like what they do matters and is a public service – because it does, and it is.