I would have liked to have said, “So EFFING what?” in the header. Music – and art in general – has always been a business, at least since the Renaissance. Even art created for religious purposes was commissioned and paid for.
The iconoclastic assertion that commerce somehow “ruins” creativity is questionable, and easily disproved. Since the appearance of the phonograph in the early 20th Century, radio around 1920, television in the late 1940’s, the compact disc in the mid 1980’s, and the dominance of the Internet in the last 15 years, there have been COUNTLESS great songs and recordings produced and disseminated to the public, in numerous idioms, both “popular” and less so.
No doubt, however, that over those decades there have also been countless instances where the “bosses” exerted creative control, to varying degrees, over their artists. Many artists were not well pleased with such interference with their art. The classic example is the record “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” recorded by the band Wilco which their label, Reprise, refused to release, believing it to be “uncommercial.” The band then acquired the rights to the album, streamed it from their website, and then signed on to the label Nonesuch. It ended up being their best selling record and critically acclaimed as well.
You might now say, “You’re undercutting your premise here.” No, I’m elaborating on it – note I used the word “ruin” … there’s no question that commercial pressures can have an effect on aesthetic considerations, but not to the degree that an artist’s fundamental integrity were canceled out. If that were true, we’d have nevr had any Frank Zappa’s, or Indie rock movement, or any number of less commercially lucrative acts.
The fact that music is a business provides many wonderful opportunities in this short life we live, too many to list here, but I’ll mention a few of them. If an artist or band are even moderately successful in the artistic sense, it’s possible they can parlay that into a life-long career doing what they love the most… if there weren’t a financial angle, this would be impossible for anybody except the idle rich. Also, even if a person doesn’t chose music as his primary avocation, he can still be active in the music scene in any number of ways, some of them for pay, and some for just pure enjoyment. Most of us here have been in bands over the years and although we didn’t get rich, we made a little extra money doing something we enjoy.
Taking this line of thought a bit further, an artist or band that enjoys even moderate regional or national success can ride that success for many decades and earn a comfortable living. A perfect example of this occurred here last night. In a nearby town I went to see the performer Marshall Crenshaw, backed by the band Bottle Rockets. Some of you may recall that Crenshaw had a brief heyday back in the early 1980’s with the hit “Someday, Someway” which made it to #36 on the Billboard charts. That was the single released off his first album which sold moderately well and was heaped with lavish praise in the rock press.
His second album was also quite good but it was engineered by Steve Lillywhite who drenched the music in his trademark reverb and “slamming” snare drum… and the album pretty much tanked. From there, Crenshaw faded from the national scene, and has never had a hit since then. (Although he did cowrite the Gin Blossom’s hit “Until I Hear it From You”).
As for the Bottle Rockets, they’ve never been a big selling band, but greatly admired by those of us who like electrified Americana/rootsrock. So they have a small devoted following.
Bringing Crenshaw and the Rockets together to tour was a stroke of genius by whomever organized this tour. For Crenshaw’s part, judging by the crowd reaction to it, he’s still riding some 30 years later his brief and moderate success with “Someday, Someway” – something that wouldn’t be possible if music weren’t a business. Because of this past success, and the fact that music IS a business, both he and the Rockets have been able to have careers doing what they love the most. They’re not getting rich doing it.
Another relevant story concerns the legendary folk musician Fred Neil. Neil was a significant light on the NY folk scene in the 60’s and is best remembered as the guy who wrote the song “Everybody’s Talkin’” which was featured in the movie Midnight Cowboy. Fred had psychiatric problems… at a certain point he retired to the Florida Keys and lived in obscuity until his death a few years ago. My point is, he was able to survive – you know, feed, clothe, and house himself – for all those years solely on the royalties of that one freakin’ song – and it wasn’t a huge hit by any means. Wouldn’t be possible if music weren’t a business; he’d have been a ward of the state.
Lastly, I occasionally hear people bemoan the commercial aspect of music. But not one single solitary time have I ever heard a reasonable alternative from them. Not once.