Saturday, August 1, 2009

"Uncle Johnny's Tips for Musicians" (Scene) August 2009

Update: This entry is from my column that originally appeared in the Northern Colorado entertainment magazine The Scene. While I'm not doing this column anymore, I'm still as involved as I can be in the Fort Collins area music scene in general.
This edition’s topic: Art is FREE. WHEE!

I'm not going to pretend to be an economist. I’ve already shared some theories on why our country is in financial decline, and who knows if I’m right. But right now I’m in a somewhat obsessive phase of reading world history, especially the history of Stalinist Russia. I’ve begun to think that one very disturbing symptom of decline may be people’s gradual numbness to art itself. In this regard, the internet is the modern miracle that is simultaneously saving and destroying us.

It’s hard to say whether the internet has done more economic harm than good. I would think harm, but I honestly can’t say. While it has put millions of travel agents, car salesmen and realtors, etc. out of business, I’m sure it has also provided some jobs, exposed more people to global concerns, and let people telecommute, among other positive things.

This nation was once a major exporter of goods in the world. Now, not so much. American workers have earned themselves a reputation for being lazy, most everything is made overseas, and mega-corporations constantly price-set and put local competition out of business. I meet more and more people who are employees in retail, and fewer who are business owners or who actually manufacture something. I ask: what exactly are we making here in the United States that the world is interested in buying anymore? And for that matter, what are we making that WE are interested in buying? Our spoiled and selfish consumers favor quantity over quality, and seem to gleefully use the internet to pirate that which they can’t legitimately find for free.

New movie coming out? Buy it? can burn it...for FREE! WHEE! Music? Get it FREE! WHEE! Piracy “feels” less dishonest than shoplifting, even though it’s not. Consumers are totally desensitized to the effects of their own behavior. For those that bother to compare and pay attention to the lessons of history, today’s commodity-hunger and devaluation of art are eerily similar to what happened to Rome. That super-power ate itself up in a hedonistic orgy of food, sex and entertainment. And after the implosion of a society, it is usually left to some restrictive regime to pick up the pieces.

Music, art and literature were once highly valuable commodities in the United States. Now writers, artists and musicians here are vying for any attention they can garner.....for FREE!! WHEE! Ask most young people today if they believe they should pay for fine art, literature and music and they will look puzzlingly at you. Who can blame them? It’s there – FREE! WHEE! Many young, budding musicians I know give away music that cost them to make, somewhat reluctantly, but their attitude is “that’s the only way to promote it anymore.” Sometimes their self-promotion pays off, sometimes not. The diminishing desire to create art that gives voice to the pains and desires of a society is part of the decline of that society. The concept of the starving artist is somewhat romantic for a while, but artists have dignity too and want to get a fair reward for their work. Authors have mortgages and actors have car payments just like everyone else. Art for art’s sake is a lovely idea, but one still has to eat. If this trend continues, the result could very well be a society that has its arts completely funded and hence dictated by its government, much like the art of other countries throughout history. If that happens, the handful of remaining artists will end up on government payroll, which will certainly lead to two things. One, the art they produce will be created in an atmosphere of fear of job loss and will grow ever more stale and predictable. Two, art will most assuredly NOT be FREE!! WHEE!! Does undervaluing the arts still sound inexpensive? Uncle Johnny, over and out.