Monday, October 3, 2016

Contemporary Music: Industry or Community?

I have given attention for many years to contemporary music. This phrase is perhaps too broad to have more than a vague meaning. Much of this music involves highly diverse variations and styles. Yet there are some reasons why all these different types of sonic craftsmanship find themselves under the same big tent.

I have often struggled to identify the common elements that justify using the category "contemporary music" as something more than a merely temporal reference. One element, I think, is its usual creative vehicle: the electronic sound and rhythm ensemble, commonly known as the "band." (Yes, I am smiling and laughing at myself as I write these words --it seems rather nerdy to try to be so verbally complex about something like a band. But I am wearing my philosopher's cap at the moment.)

Contemporary music also straddles a line between three very difficult enterprises, artentertainment, and business. The result is that its most successful practitioners are under enormous pressure to be simultaneously artists, celebrities, and producers of marketable consumer products. They must create, record, perform, and sell not only music and songs, but also their own peculiar attractiveness as individuals and as a group, or at least their capacity to grab the attention of paying customers.

This is a lot to expect from often young musicians, and it's not surprising that "the music industry" crushes many of them, or compounds their own problems and raises them to a gigantic scale. This results in many wildly unstable artists who are physically and emotionally exhausted, incapable of sustaining healthy relationships, reckless in their habits, and addicted to drugs or alcohol. Too often it results in a musical "product" that is a glitzy sham, an arrangement of tricks and cliches packaged to enthrall the public appetite for cheap stimulation of the senses, vulgar novelty, and--of course--sexual titillation, distraction, and even violence.

Yet I not only pay attention to a lot of contemporary music. I like some of it very much. I've played a fair bit of it as well on my guitar, in bands and jam sessions. It would be superficial and unfair to simply dismiss all contemporary music. There is a lot of very good music being made today, music which succeeds on different levels depending on what it aspires to achieve. Even some artists whose lives have been broken by the excesses of the celebrity lifestyle have done remarkable work.

Contemporary music can be innovative, fascinating, fun, groundbreaking, exciting, and beautiful. Much of it is worthy of appreciation. In our time, I have new hope that artists will be able to break free from the dynamics of a merely functional "industry mentality" and express their creativity within a context that recognizes beauty as a value in itself.

Certainly artists need money and stuff, just like everybody else. Material wealth has its place, as do honor and appreciation. But the overarching motive of the musician must be to embody the creative intuition of beauty through the craft of shaping sound.

To ensure this, we need something more than a music industry. We need a music community.

[Stay tuned for more thoughts on music and the arts in upcoming posts.]