In any job, there are days when you feel like the mountain is unmovable and days when you feel like you are in charge.
Working in music, everyday is a negotiation between these feelings.
In this regard, Music industry gurus will go on and on about power, and leverage, and networks, and conglomerates – the difference in response you get as a music manager/agent working with acts when they are yet-to-break or already known and in demand. Or the difference in being part of a large agency or management network, as compared to flying solo. And sure, we take all that in stride, believe in our clients, and trudge through. Because every artist in demand was once an unknown. Because artists who are already known have to reinvent themselves to reach more people. Because we either like being part of a big machine, or being nimble and independent – it’s something we know about ourselves – and we are willing to pay our prices. Keeping a balance in these things is good.
But lately I’ve been obsessed with a different kind of mountain.
Authenticity. And the lack of it in our culture.
I had an email exchange with a friend of mine the other day about reality television. What would a reality television show for Folk music look like? And would it be compelling?
I remember the year American Idol came out – I found myself conflicted about whether or not the producers and judges really knew the meaning of the word “Idol” and what it meant to be and American Idol. Now, seasons and international syndications later, the term “American Idol” has taken on its own meaning. Three years ago, I would have said to be an “idol” you had to have staying power, creativity, uniqueness, and you had to have the guts to push American people to believe in something they didn’t know they believed in. But now, I’ve learned that “idol” doesn’t mean that at all. Three years ago, I would have said Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley were idols. But now I don’t think that’s what “idol” means anymore. Because of this show. Wow. The machine moved me.
Still, so what is Bob Dylan if not an idol? Neil Young? Meatloaf? John Denver? Paul Simon? Ozzy Osbourne? James Taylor? Janis Joplin?
You know, Janis might be a good person to start with… She’s a great example of an artist who reached (and still reaches) mass audiences based on pure, authentic, raw Janis. She was imperfect – her band was out of tune, she said whatever was on her mind whether or not it made good press (and that’s what often made the press), and she was a self-proclaimed ugly misfit. But man did she mean something to people. And she is considered one of the quintessential artists of the hippie era, so she will always have a voice.
I can’t help thinking today almost none of these people I’ve mentioned would get heard. In the past, our idols weren’t pristine, pretty, singing nice songs, spending 3 hours in hair and makeup before the show. They didn’t worry about what HDTV would do to their complexion. They weren’t honing their performance to appease 3 of 4 judges – they weren’t even thinking about that. In fact, some of them weren’t even thinking about the fans. Most of the time they thought about doing their own thing, saying what they had to say, being what they had no choice but to be – because it was really (for the most part) them.
I’m not going to say work and marketing didn’t go into creating the personas our idols were. Certainly there were business machines a turnin’. But those machines took risks, and there was pride in bringing something truly new to light. Primetime wasn’t reserved for artists who already had legendary status alone – the Superbowl wasn’t about bringing back classic rock bands who already sell records. Events like those were about breaking new talent.
The people who influenced our culture most in the ‘60s, ‘70’s, ‘80s, even ‘90s were sometimes ugly and raw. They wrote songs that were tonally imperfect but culturally imperative to their moment on the airwaves. They had things to say that we didn’t always want to hear. We didn’t know why we loved them so much – we just knew we did. They made us feel like the world kept changing. Like some things would always remain. And most of all, like we were alive.
As a manager, I meet so many fine artists. All slogging it out in this newly fragmented media world, all cultivating their niche audiences like fiends, and doing everything they can to get their music heard. I am inspired by these artists every day. And I feel lucky to know them, to watch them grow, to celebrate their successes, and commiserate when times are rough. But I just can’t help thinking – our culture is missing out right now. In a time of great political debates and upheaval, war, environmental strife, natural disasters – we are not calling on our troubadours AT ALL.
Today’s Bob Dylan is accepting friend requests on Facebook and hoping he can afford to fly to Chicago instead of driving.
Today’s Joni Mitchell hasn’t had a free moment to herself because she’s been redesigning her web site and can’t figure out how to create a decent photo gallery without making a million little thumbnails and resizes.
Today’s Meatloaf is working an office job and hasn’t played a gig since ‘99 because his name was just too much to overcome. And forget the loss to music… What will Broadway do without him?
Today’s Tracy Chapman plays music when she can, but being shy just isn’t possible in this business anymore.
Today’s Bob Marley has a loyal cult fan following, and does really well in 3 or 4 cities, but can’t seem to get his music out beyond that niche audience. Radio won’t return his calls.
Today’s Elton John sounds great and everybody tells him so, but he can’t seem to get out of the cabaret rooms.
Today’s Janis Ian had a video on YouTube that got 300,000 views, but there was no promoter standing in the wings saying he’d support her no matter what the audience thinks, so she’s on her own.
Today’s Sting had some instrumental from one of his songs put in a snowboarding video game, and he’s thinking maybe he should write more songs like that, and maybe find someone who knows how to develop on open source so he can release a Hero game to his fans.
Today’s Woodstock happened and the lineup was killer but nobody got in their hybrid vehicles to drive there. (Really, it happened in Maine two summers ago. Were you there? I didn’t think so…) Anyway, none of the artists got paid, even though they played their hearts out. It’s just not kosher for an artist to require getting paid in advance since marijuana can no longer be blamed for “flaking out.”
So, what’s my point?
I dunno. Maybe we need an American Troubadour reality television show to remind America how our stories get told.
Another reality television show I watched recently was RuPaul’s Drag Race on MTV/Logo. In that show, drag queens compete for the title of the next super-drag queen. And RuPaul’s criteria are Beauty, Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent.
Hmm… What would be the criteria for the American Troubadour show? And who would be its Tyra Banks?