What’s at the bottom of the Pandora box?

Once again, Pandora internet radio is attempting to use an act of Congress to lower the royalties it pays artists, and once again, musicians are speaking out against both the tactics and the two-faced approach being taken by CEO Tim Westergren to pay lip service to his respect for artists while sticking his already well-greased palm into their back pockets.  The members of Pink Floyd wrote an open letter to other musicians to beware Pandora’s recent “outreach” toward artists, and David Lowery famously got to the nuts and bolts of the matter by posting a royalty statement revealing that 1.1 million plays of one of his songs on Pandora earned him $16.89.  Opening up Pandora’s box, if you will, raises many issues, including the overarching question as to just how well digital-age models, at their best, are working for artists.  But while we’re still mid torrent issuing from Pandora, one question too often overlooked is where the songs come from in the first place. It’s been said before, but the generation raised on round-the-clock, free access to entertainment really may be as disconnected from the production of that entertainment as many of us through modern convenience became disconnected from the production of food. Perhaps, as we see a renaissance in understanding farming and other food production, a similar awareness might take place with regard to the creative works that feed the soul.

In this New York Times article, author/musician Wesley Stace describes his experience collaborating with poet Paul Muldoon to teach a class in songwriting to students at Princeton.  Stace poses the question as to whether or not songs (and by implication other art) can be produced on demand like any other homework assignment, leaving open the more whimsical question of being struck by one’s muse. While reading, I could not help but think of the famous Brill Building, that songwriting factory of the 1950s whence came many of rock-n-roll’s most famous hits.   Stace concludes that, yes, songwriting is a craft like any other, and that it has a process that can be taught and learned and accomplished, even by students with little background in creative writing or music.  By leading their students to delve into emotion in this otherwise intellectual setting, Stace and Muldoon found the results both prolific and astounding.  “I wish I’d written, or could write, some of the songs I heard on these Tuesday afternoons; sometimes it felt like my sole qualification to teach the course was that I was old and experienced,” writes Stace.

One might conclude from the article that “anyone can write a song,” and Stace would probably agree up to a point.  The 24/7 coffeehouse known as YouTube has certainly helped  feed this notion that “we are all authors” now, which in turn spawns the illusion that songs and other works are of lesser value today than they were 15-20 years ago. But to quote Stace, “Songwriting is a skill — best practiced, easily improved. If you exercise regularly, keeping fit becomes easier and less unpleasant, until it becomes a habit.”  In other words, it’s work.  And what makes the songs you and I want to hear over and over again is a combination of, yes, luck in the form of possessing raw, unique talents, and then a ceaseless investment of work, often by many people.

My Pandora stations include both a Camper Van Beethoven and a Pink Floyd, and if you ever heard me play “Comfortably Numb” on the six string, you would need no further proof that we are not all musicians.  But when we consider the combination of both effort and circumstance that yields just this one song about an experience most of us will never have, yet so many of us can understand, we should recognize that it is rare and therefore valuable.  In fact, not unlike the story of Pandora’s Box, the album The Wall itself concludes with destruction and then the sound of an accordion playing like a solitary flower growing though the gray rubble, and the voice of Roger Waters reciting a eulogy with just a tinge of hope.  I know for sure that I need Pink Floyd in my life and that I don’t need Pandora to get it. So, that’s what’s at the bottom of the box.

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