Small-scale music practice

A couple of things have me thinking about ways of cultivating small-scale musical practices, especially in places like Boston, where I live, where the cultural and economic situation can make that difficult. Watching celebrity-driven, culture industry events like the Super Bowl halftime show and the Grammys suck all the air out of the cultural conversation got me started thinking about this. Then I watched an interesting documentary – This Ain’t No Mouse Music – about Chris Strachwitz, founder of the folk label Arhoolie Records, who spent his life supporting musical traditions that were genuinely local – inescapably rooted in the rural South and Southwest.

But this piece, about the reasons why two local filmmakers and musicians are leaving Boston for LA, really struck me. I don’t want to address all of the really complex civic and cultural issues that the piece and the Facebook post that inspired it bring up. What I do want to write about is the kind of artistic practice I think we all could support better: small-scale, truly non-commercial practice.

One thing that I have observed over the past 20 years or so is that, as a society, we have a decreasing  interest and belief in non-commercial art, and especially in art that exists outside of our legitimizing institutions – outside of the major culture industries and their strange sibling, the international fine art market. This is reflected in our impoverished vocabulary for talking about this art. We don’t talk anymore about artists “selling out”. It’s hard to imaging using the phrase like “art for art’s sake” in a conversation about living artists, especially without air quotes. Online posts that simply point out the obvious vapidness of corporate pop are derided as “negative” or the product of jealousy on the part of less popular artists. We have been taught, gradually, to equate commercial success with quality, and to view art as a product in the market.

This ideology destroys small-scale art. With enough resources, it is certainly possible to create compelling work in the context of the international corporate economy. It is possible to use the vocabulary and resources of that world – to use celebrity, spectacle, and expensive creative teams to produce art that speaks to its audience in their role as citizens and consumers in our complex world. But that type of work relies on its proximity to the sources of that power – it feeds off the economic and cultural resources of a New York or an LA.

The art that exists outside of that context is different. Its scale and resources are human, not corporate. Its personal vocabularies stay personal; its inscrutable elements may stay inscrutable. I’ll put it this way: a new Beyonce video has more in common with a blockbuster movie or a Jeff Koons sculpture than it does with the music I work on. And yet I feel, strangely that my music must “compete” with and be judged against popular music. And, on its own terms, small-scale music does compete – it’s always been the best music, as music. But as spectacle, as cultural zeitgeist, as product – that’s a different competition.

I’ve thought a lot about how to develop my music so that I can sustain what I need to do artistically. For me, that’s meant learning to make the records I want to make on my own, in the time that I have. But one thing I find lacking in music is any sort of structure for legitimizing and rewarding really good work that’s not part of the music industry. And I think that stems from the fact that we don’t even have a vocabulary for that musical practice, even within local music scenes. We don’t believe, anymore, that there is such a thing as non-commercial art. We mistake non-corporate art for failed corporate art. Even when we recognize the difference, we are corrected and shouted down by a cultural consensus that, even at the most banal levels, equates momentary popularity with success.

And yet – how many of our cherished writers and artists were recognized in their lifetimes? Do we really think the future will be any different? I’m not saying I or you or anyone we know is making art that will last after their death. But I do think that it takes a lot of people trying to make that art to produce the one person who actually makes it. If we give up on that kind of work – and I do think that we are giving up on it – it won’t happen on its own.

The good news for musicians is that it’s actually feasible to work like a poet or a painter – to follow your own rules and create your own music. Recording technology has been at least partially decoupled from the music industry. There are more inexpensive recording and distribution options than there have ever been, whether you prefer to work at home or in a studio.

What would increased support for non-commercial art look like? Maybe it would take the form of shared infrastructure and facilities, or support for human-scale publishers and record labels. But maybe it would also include much smaller changes. Could Boston become a city where having serious artistic pursuits is normal, even expected – where it wouldn’t feel like something you should probably hide from your co-workers? What if there were a cultural understanding that sometimes art is neither a profession nor a hobby?

For me, Boston doesn’t necessarily need its own film or music industry to rival the ones in New York or LA or even Atlanta and Nashville. I mean, I wouldn’t turn it down, but it just seems unlikely. What it does need is thousands of people doing their own important creative work in a way that they can sustain over decades. I don’t know what it looks like to build a community where that’s supported, or even where it’s possible, but I do think one first step is to name and value the creative work that takes place outside of the culture industry and the art world. I’d bet everything that that’s the art that will matter in the end.