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How musicians benefit by being artisans


…all of this was difficult, amazing, perplexing, astonishing—but so was the laying of the railroads and the sending of telegraph signals across the ocean. [Edit] From the first, and in no small part because of its fervent supporters, it has felt less like a technology and more like a social movement—like communism, like feminism, like rock and roll. Internet as Social Movement n+1 magazine.

I have just finished reading a book by John Williams called Butcher’s Crossing. It’s a western. In her introduction Michelle Latiolais writes: “I think it’s worth mentioning that Williams was writing Butcher’s Crossing as his country advised and aided Ngo Dinh Diem, President of Vietnam, and that Butcher’s Crossing was published as the first American troops landed on Vietnamese soil.” The book is about change. It is deeply foreboding. Williams couldn’t have known when he was writing his novel what was about to happen in Vietnam, yet when read metaphorically the book is eerily prescient.

At the heart of the novel is a hunt. The men who make up a team in search of buffalo and their valuable hides are skilled hunters, skinners, oxen drovers and riflemen. They know no other work. The repeater rifle, a fairly recent invention to them, makes it easy to kill the buffalo. The skinner prepares the still attached hide with the methodical use of knives. A rope is knotted to the hide and looped to a horse saddle. The horse is driven forward removing the hide in one fell swoop. The oxen drover leads his charges back to camp with each load. After being trapped in a valley for six months, snowed in, they return to find that they are no longer the same hunters who had left almost a year ago. They are drastically changed men. Beyond the pages of the book, to men of their ilk, another technological invention would soon affect the way of the hunter, the skinner and the oxen drover.

It was the locomotive; a new technological marvel.

In 1828 Charles Carroll broke ground for the first railroad line in America. The line was built in competition to a proposed new canal, ‘a canal that would bypass Baltimore’s thriving harbor and potentially hurl the city into an economic abyss.’ Instead the new railroads would ‘relegate the canals to the dustbin of commercial history.’ [Reference.] That is a historical example of a new technology challenging the old. Transportation in America changed forever and yet as we know, canals didn’t disappear and the waterborne shipping industry still thrives.

The internet is our century’s new technological marvel.

It is clearly obvious that the internet challenges old paradigms. Society, culture and business have all been transformed by its effects. This leads to a thought: if the hunters in Williams’ book had returned to a locomotive-transformed hunting industry, and had decided that they would not change their work and way of life, could they have still made a living? Similarly, if musicians and other creators decide to ignore the changes brought by the internet today, could they still make a living?

I would answer yes in both instances.

The skills of the hunter and the skills of the musician remain intact. The hunter has yet to be replaced by a robot, and although there are technologies that try to replicate the role of creating a song, the results are rather shabby. What has changed for the hunter are improved products for stalking and killing their prey. For musicians the greatest changes have been in how music is now distributed.

The hunter and the musician are still able to carry on their craft as artisans.

The hunter adapts by using new products for his work. The musician adapts by using the new distribution methods. In both cases not adapting will have consequences. The hunter may catch less prey and make less income compared to other hunters who use the new products. The musician will reach less music fans if she doesn’t use the new music distribution models; she will sell less music and make less income. The hunter whose hunting is his income source will benefit if the field of hunters declines. The availability of freshly caught prey will shrink creating a market premium for the price of prey.

The musician too is in the marketplace. There is more music available today than ever before. The market price for music has fallen. The chances of there being less music not more are slim.

The hunter/musician comparison is a story of two trades. One that might be considered cruel and ugly to some, another a trade from which many people in society, if not all, derive much pleasure. These skills formed at the very beginning of humanity: early humans were hunter gatherers; the newborn child slept to the rhythm of its mother’s heartbeat.

You might say that both of these crafts formed a major part of who we are, yet as time progressed the two diverged culturally; while music has always been a critical cultural binder, for thousands of years hunting was what kept people alive. Music remains a cultural binder while hunting changed form; initially held up as a symbol of first-world excess, commercial hunting transformed into the horror we now call commercial farming. Modernity has sanitized the eating of animals by making meat available in shrink-wrapped packages in supermarkets.

Throughout history technology has changed more than the hunter, it changed our relationship with the land, with nature and with our food. It affected blacksmiths, scribes and cobblers – professions that went from “challenged” to “critical,” or to simply “gone.”

The transformation of music followed a different path, one that hewed closely to its emotional powers throughout its history. The very essence of music has been debated often, perhaps because of how it can be heard around us almost all of the time – try thinking of an hour, a day, a week where you went without hearing music. In an abstract to their paper What is the Essence of Music? Homei Miyashita and Kazushi Nishimoto wrote “…we found that subjects with experience in music tend to be more open to new forms than subjects with little or no musical experience. They are also inclined to put much faith in human-ness when they estimate the worth of beauty, pleasure and liking as well as evaluating whether a piece is “music” or not.”

Forgive me if I leave out your favorite avant-garde composer, but to avoid going back through the entire history of music I’ll give just a few examples of musicians who have transformed what we call “the essence of music.”

WagnerMahler and Shostakovich challenged polite society. John CagePhilip GlassSteve Reich hung music from minimalist skeletal scaffolding, and Terry Riley’s hypnotic loops in turn inspired Brian Eno, the father of Ambient Music. Lou Reed transformed rock and roll as an art/life/propaganda experience; first with The Velvet Underground and later on his solo albums, one of which was non-ironically titledTransformer.

Throughout popular music’s history the shadow of commerce always hovered in the background. The early classical composers were supported by patrons. Music publishing and copyrighting began to take hold in the mid-15th century thanks to mechanical techniques of printing music to paper. In 1910 the first recorded discs arrived putting an end to the sales of sheet music by 1925. By the mid-1950′s the recorded music industry had created the business of music.

The musicians who were scratching out a living, just as commercial hunters and farmers were, found themselves in an interesting predicament: when presented with a contract they had to choose to sign or not to sign; a devil’s bargain; adapt or die; give away a lot for a little in return?

Let’s stick with adapt or die.

Today’s music industry is not alone in its efforts to embrace the change that new technology has brought. For coal miners new technology has lessened the backbreaking work of mining but the chance of dying underground is still high. College professors may feel challenged by the rise of MOOC’s. Do they leave their tenured positions for more pay as MOOC consultants?

College professors, like musicians, are beneficial to society. Faced with the rise of MOOC’s a professor might look at it this way: she loves teaching young people and her skill and talent is in demand at the college level. Problem: the cost of college plus the reduction in the quality of education may result in low demand for a college education in future, jeopardizing her job. She loves teaching and wants to remain a teacher. What is she to do? She could work toward improving the current college system while gaining support to reduce the cost of college. Or she might become a consultant to a company that is in the MOOC business and help to improve their online offerings and learning experience. Either way she remains an influence on young people who desire a good education.

Many industries saw massive contractions in the 20th century as a result of technology. Some industries were reborn in the 21st century as a reaction to the results – cultural, environmental, political etc. – that society was left with after a century of mass production.

Which leads me to artisans. A force for good and the betterment of society in the 21st century.

I’m thinking about the reemergence of cobblers making hand sewn shoes. Ateliers once again making bespoke suits. The return of butchers; urban farming has led to people keeping chickens in cities or raising cows just outside city limits, animals that they have a respectful connection to. Society’s cynics might brush off these new artisans as the fads of a well-heeled creative class but I don’t believe that is the case at all.

Nothing just drops out of thin air. I believe the new artisans are reacting to a society that mistakenly embraced over-development in many areas of industry, and they are working to reintroduce the idea of craft as an essential component of culture.

Even though it is not a like-for-like analogy to music, it suggests strongly that even for industries shaken to their core, if people are creative and innovative and are able to understand the changing relationship of the thing they make and the society around them, then there is a future for everything.

Of course there’s a but; you have to be creative and innovative, and you cannot turn your back on technology.

My friend Justin Spohn, who I give much credit to for giving me many constructive insights as I wrote this essay, has an example:

“I just bought a pair of boots from a company called Oakstreet Bootmaker out of Chicago. They make all their shoes here in the USA. The product is very traditional and that’s part of what I love about them. They really promote the idea that these shoes are made to last a decade or more, and that they can be repaired and resoled – all things my grandfather would have done. But I found them online. They’re very connected and terrific at using technology and the web to get their brand out there.

So as you and me have always talked about – it’s both things. It’s holding on to the roots of something you love, but using the tools around you and being aware that society has changed and you have to adapt. You can hold on to the traditions, but you have to understand them in the context of now.”

Like many art forms music can lead to the betterment of culture. That is important. Musicians should focus on creating their best works, then they should use all of the tools and platforms available to them to get their music heard by as many people as possible. The marketplace will determine the value of their music and reward them accordingly.

Pointing fingers and declaiming the internet’s ills is an odd choice of activity for musicians. Music fans are not some offshoot of society, music fans are all of us and we enjoy using the products and platforms provided by technology companies. We use the tools that are freely available to us and there is something really remarkable about that.

Musicians who disagree with Google, Spotify, YouTube et al, will fail to take these companies down. Rightly so. The conservative mindset of a few creators against change should not be allowed to determine the benefits of a social movement; the internet is a people-powered construct peppered with new artisans.

Cognitive dissonance is the normal human condition

Tarkovsky, music and possible-zones