Rules are for businesses. The great thing about art is it has no rules.
We live in the era of data. Everybody wants to break it down to numbers. But that’s just what they are, numbers, they don’t reference feelings or soul and never forget this about research and numbers, they can tell you where you’ve been, but they absolutely cannot tell you where you’re going. It’s the new and different that drives the music industry. And the fact that me-too has supplanted bleeding edge has resulted in music becoming a second class cultural citizen, whereas it used to always be the bleeding edge.
But that’s because most performers, most music-makers today, are not artists.
This is how it has gone throughout history. Something works and everybody copies it. So we had hair metal and grunge and… There’s a breakthrough, everybody copies it, and then the assembled multitude, the listeners, wake up one day and move on. And no one can predict when this will happen. Something is in the air and change occurs, and it always comes from the bottom up. It’s the people who embrace change, not corporations, and not most musicians.
The most legendary musicians are those who kept exploring, keeping it interesting for themselves, the two prime examples being Neil Young and David Bowie. They did not always hit the mark, but we were (and in the case of Mr. Young, still are) interested in where they’re going. A new album by either is an event, a new album by a classic rocker or MTV era act is not, which is why most have stopped making new music.
In truth, most musical acts have a relatively brief window of success. And then they’re supplanted by something new.
But the strange thing is in the internet era this has not happened. We’ve got hip-hop and pop. And they sustain. Forget those who made it in the last dying days of the old system, like Coldplay and Dave Matthews Band, VH1 and radio banged them, but these outlets don’t exist in the same way anymore. Now everybody is starting from scratch, and to make it easy, they just follow the trends instead of bucking them. That’s how you get started, by being featured on someone else’s song.
One can say Billie Eilish was embraced so strongly because her music sounded like nothing else. And K-Pop is a similar. It’s different from the trends, which is why it’s so strongly embraced. And the funny thing is it happens seemingly overnight, when in truth it’s a long process before the public embraces you, if this ever happens.
The difference was in the past, the record companies supported these seekers, today they do not. The labels are run by data. If you don’t have the socials or the touring numbers they’re not interested. It’s considered too heavy a lift. They’re moving towards homogenization, whereas music was famous for blowing itself up on a regular basis.
TV networks are similar. There were supposed content rules. And then they were supplanted by the grittier and more real HBO shows. And now HBO has been supplanted by Netflix and other streaming-only enterprises. Disruption happens, the past dies, and if you don’t adjust…
Also, because the major labels only sign a small amount of product, there’s a morass of hobbyists cluttering the channel, who say they’re artists and usually are not. Not everybody can make a living making music, just like everybody can’t play in the NBA.
Artists are all-in, there’s no safety net, they don’t complain about their situation, they’ll starve to continue. And that’s a very small slice of the population, indeed.
And artistry is a viewpoint, which is rarely taught in today’s teach to the book world. Some people want to cut down sources of inspiration, ban books, they don’t want kids to think. But in truth it is the thinkers who change the world. And it’s the liberal arts colleges that teach you to think. If you’re majoring in business, you’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.
And insight and inspiration are the key to artistry. Which is why the greatest stuff is done by those who both write and play. The songwriters have gotten the short end of the stick with streaming, but I must say, writing songs for others… There are some artists there, but very few. People go to camps, they’re just trying to compose something an existing star will cover, they won’t even give it to a newbie act.
To be an artist you must have input. You’ve got to read, travel, experience life to write about it. That’s what the hip-hop breakthrough was all about, turned out the rappers complaining about the police in Southern California were right, Rodney King told us that, but that was thirty years ago. And Woodstock over fifty. Repeating the old saws is not artistry.
But people want someone to tell them what to do. Free-thinking is anathema in today’s society. Education is so rote in Japan and China that innovation is low, whereas in America… And the reason so many of the innovators dropped out of college, if they went at all, is because college was constricting them instead of inspiring them, they were more aware than the teachers. Really, how many of the big disrupters have MBAs? An MBA teaches you how to fit into the organization. Getting a degree is all about networking, so you can rely on these relationships… Don’t confuse this with artistry.
And music schools like Berklee can’t teach artistry. No one can teach artistry. Artistry is about freedom, and higher education wants to achieve the opposite.
Being an artist means going your own way.
I’ve got to tell you, artists didn’t complain like this in the pre-internet era. There are enemies today, Spotify, Live Nation…as if everything were business and everybody was entitled to a clear and level playing field.
That’s not how it works. When you’re a newbie you get the short end of the stick, and if you are successful enough and last long enough you gain the leverage. If you’re not willing to give to get, you will never be able to make progress.
As for data… The labels sign TikTok stars on it, and most of these signings are here today and gone tomorrow if they have any traction at all. Because data is not about artistry. And really, TikTok is not about music, even though there are some musicians on it.
Stop being a brand, stop complaining, those are avenues to stasis and irrelevance.
Concentrate on your music and the people who get it. And ignore those who don’t. You’ve got the tools to record and distribute cheaply, see if what you do resonates. And if it does… People are dying to spread the word, it thrills them to turn others on to new work. It’s just that there’s little artistry around. People keep searching for it, and when they find it…
I know it makes it easier if you get direction, pay attention to the data, but then you’re a slave to the rules and numbers. You make all your judgments based on the data. Step out of your set paradigm and you lose fans, and almost no one is willing to do this, so they just repeat what they’ve done ad infinitum, driving themselves towards calcification.
Great art usually pisses people off. Most people don’t even get it at first. And in today’s world, all the corporations play it safe, do it the old way. But you can do it yourself. But you must be an artist. The rules never apply to artists, they make their own. Set yourself free.