Purity Test

It's been a little longer than usual between blog posts here, as you might have noticed. It isn't so much that I've been too busy to write for the last six months or so, but it's been more of a professional pause. There's much to ponder these days...

Think for a moment about the job you do. If you weren't receiving a living wage for it, would you find a way to keep doing it?

I'm guessing most of you would not – while a lot of people might find their jobs fulfilling, the vocation may tend to lean a smidge closer to 'necessary evil' than 'lifelong passion' for the vast majority of workers; and compensation in itself is a strong motivator for many. If you can't make a living as, say, an insurance broker anymore, why not find a good wage in loan management? I'm not passing judgement on what people do to pay the bills, but artists tend to take a somewhat different approach.

Some – and perhaps most – artists feel they can only attain fulfilment by practising their art. Writers must write, dancers must dance, composers must compose, in order for their lives to have meaning. This is why some artists are willing to live in poverty indefinitely. Some may hold out hope for the big break that allows them to stop worrying about the bills, and a few might not even care about success beyond non-starvation. 'Pop Art' in music, dance, visual art or whatever else is a bit of a grey zone in this regard – it often attracts practicioners who care much more about mass acceptance and/or financial rewards than the art itself. I think this approach tends to make for inferior art – even pop art – as the impure motives make for muddled or obviously insincere artistic statements. Sometimes the phonies are a little harder to weed out, such as when there's big promotion money hyping an 'artist', providing inspired production and making it appear that his art enjoys mass resonance with the public. Enter the acid test: the death of copyright and the ultra-corporatization of art (music in particular).

While western society does have some voluntary, benevolent social conventions, such as tipping wait staff at restaurants, applauding stage performance and queueing up rather than forcing one's way to the cash register, the act of paying for a musical recording voluntarily is unfortunately much more the exception than the rule these days. Brick-and-mortar music shops (where you could be stopped for shoplifting) were the last bastion of real artist compensation. Meanwhile, the couple of surviving music labels do what big corporations always tend to do: muscle out the competition by keeping the playing field far too expensive for anyone's use but their own (adherents to capitalism – and I was once one of them – theorize that a free-market system allows the better product to dominate. I sure wish it really worked that way). By buying the loyalty of radio and TV, major labels ensure that the public is saturated with major label product. The internet is a little more of a wild card, but that, too, can be influenced by the highest bidder. It is unfortunately a very human trait to develop a liking for a piece of music to which one has been repeatedly exposed, no matter its artistic value; the major labels exploit this trait in order to peddle musical junk food...and we know what happens to you on a steady diet of junk food.

So we now have a generation of music consumers who believe they're entitled to a reliable supply of free, new music, and also believe the musical equivalent of McNuggets with fries and a shake is haute cuisine. We have a generation of musicians who can't afford to stay in the business or can only scrape by in corporate cover bands or tribute acts – that is, ironically, musicians that ape artists that actually could make a go of it thirty or forty years ago. Meanwhile, audiences are just as likely to pay their hard-earned money to dance to a DJ as they are to see a live band, so musicians' wages have been in decline for decades now – especially in Vancouver. Touring bands are as likely to sleep in fans' basements as they are to get (even a cheap) motel; and with most radio airplay sewn up by the corporations, there's not even much money to be made in licencing.

So, enter the purity test – would you remain a writer and performer of your own music if these were the conditions with which you were confronted?

The straw on my camel's back was a gig we played a few months back. This was a competition (yeah, I should have known better right there) for which it was stipulated cover tunes were required to have permission of the copyright holder – otherwise, all songs performed in the contest were to be original. Four bands performed that night: one of them played all cover tunes, from CCR to Katy Perry, and had no flesh-and-blood bassist (an automated sequencer handled all bass parts, keyboards, and, I suspect, some of the guitar parts), but they did have an attractive and energetic young front woman. The musicianship was workmanlike at best. The other three bands – a 20-piece Afro-beat ensemble, a garage band, and us – played live originals. Take a wild guess who won.

Yep. Cover tunes and sequencers prevailed.

I had a long talk with the organizers of the event afterward, and in fairness, they were somewhat apologetic and pleaded ignorance; this was their first attempt at organizing such an event, after all, and there were no professionals from the music industry among them. Their panel of judges were made of of very small-time journalists and used-to-play-on-the-weekends 'musicians'. They hadn't even noticed there wasn't a bassist in the winning band.

Mostly unconsciously, I started scaling back after that night. Instead of working on my music over most of my summer's free time, I built a couple of rail bikes. I wrote less frequently and with less purpose, called no rehearsals or recording sessions, and made no attempt to get gigs. It felt good to sit still for a while.

The underlying questions for me was: if Joe Public can't tell the difference between a very mediocre amateur cover band and a group of seasoned, professional musical veterans with accessible yet distinct artistic vision - or places higher value on the former - what's the point of continuing as I am?

As the months passed and I'd drifted further from the fray of music business, my thoughts quieted enough for me to hear the answer: the point is that Joe Public is ultimately irrelevant to my making of music. Sure, I'd prefer to be making a living at it, and I'd love for my bandmates to be receiving their due for the artistry they bring to my/our music – but that's all ultimately icing on the cake. The cake itself keeps me writing and recording, and appreciating good musical collaborations. While the process of writing and recording is often dull or frustrating, it can also be invigorating, elating and cathartic; and hearing the finished work, immediately or years later, is often profoundly satisfying. I do encounter the occasional old cringe-inducer in my back catalog, but they make the successful songs that much more gratifying and teach me a lesson or two in the bargain. A vanity exercise perhaps? Considering how my songwriting and recording is about four parts self-ass-kicking to one part self-back-patting, I'd say not. My day job – which is, at least, music-related and fulfilling – keeps me from pursuing my own music full time; but stolen moments are often the sweetest. Purity test? Passed. Sanity test? That's a whole different story...

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