Wednesday, June 20, 2012

In Which I Chime In on a Matter Under Discussion...

Letter to Emily White at NPR's "All Songs Considered"

If you haven't already encountered the essay linked above, please take a moment and go read it. I haven't much to add to its argument, except to say that I think it states well the problem of trying to produce new music in today's climate. One of the troubling matters of our time is the ease with which recorded musical content can be "shared." So-called "free culture" has inculcated a sense among many that only the stupid pay for stuff like music or videos. Musicians have forever been cheated out of income, but the scale upon which it now happens is new and more vast than ever, and never before has the audience itself colluded with the usual cast of shady managers, sleazy record labels and other unscrupulous figures to bilk the artist of rightful income. This is a problem that cuts across all styles and genres.

I have a personal stake in this issue, as I am a composer and operate a small label dedicated to electronic and minimal music. Together with my friend R. Andrew Lee we've released four physical cds so far. We've recorded standard-setting discs of piano music by William Duckworth, Tom Johnson, and Ann Southam. We have yet to get a single negative review and our efforts have been lauded as being among the finest recordings available in this genre. We are really good at what we do. And we have wonderful ideas for future projects that would help shape the understanding of the genre we love and build a legacy from which new music could be created.

All of this is rewarding and artistically satisfying, but for one thing: we don't break even. Not even close. This summer, we will record three more albums of minimalist piano music (over seven hours of music), all of which has yet to be either recorded by anyone, or recorded professionally. Our recordings' technical standards match the best in the business, despite being recorded on a shoestring budget. We produce albums for what other labels would spend on pizza and Mountain Dew. But we don't break even. This doesn't come as a surprise to us, but that doesn't make it any easier to swallow. One producer and label owner (far more experienced than myself) told me flatly: "New music recordings do not recoup their production costs."

In the big scheme of things, this is not a catastrophe of any sort, merely the current norm of how the world works. My own attitude is primarily one of exasperation rather than anger. It comes with the territory. But I think our world could be so much richer if listeners understood and acknowledged that their role is not a passive one. They are part of the creative process, whether they realize it or not. Audiences shape their artists' path just as much as the artists themselves. If an artist or group feels supported and empowered by their audience, wonderful, magical things can happen. (Ask any jazz or rock musician.) If not, the artist may give up or be forced to stop without ever realizing their full potential.

So here is one more heart-felt plea from some artists who do not care to get rich, do not want anything more than to be able to continue: If you hear a stunning original recording, a performer that intrigues you, that moves you, perhaps even irritates you; take note. If you truly respect their work, the highest compliment that you can pay them is to spend your own money on their efforts. Go hear them perform, buy their stuff. Give it to others for birthday and Christmas gifts (the only kind of "sharing" that really counts). It will do more than help keep those artists going. You may find that their work will keep you going, too.

No comments: