It’s Not All About What We Want

 “People tend to want artists to do the same thing, and it is incumbent upon artists to do something that the audience doesn’t want — yet.”

This quote comes from composer, artist, and producer T Bone Burnett in a recent Q&A with The Hollywood Reporter that has been circulating over the past week. The whole article is worth a read for several of Burnett’s observations about music, the music and film businesses, and the Internet industry, which he unapologetically calls a “con game.”  The above quote, however, is particularly resonant in that it says something true about both the artist and the technologist, who are too often poised as antagonists in the great debates of the digital age.  When it comes to innovation, real innovation, in either creative works or technological advancement, the endeavor is rarely about delivering what the market thinks it wants, but about providing something new we consumers didn’t know we wanted until we had it.  And although the creative artist and technological innovator are cousins related through this maternal principle, it seems they are frequently dragged into a blood feud over a contemporary misconception that we can only support the artist at the expense of technology or vice versa.  Perhaps the reason this feud persists is that it is perpetuated on virtual battlefields by people who misunderstand both artistic and technological innovation.

Specifically, Burnett is addressing the subjects of self-promotion and crowd-funding — two advantages offered by Web 2.0 to the independent artist that are presumed to obviate the need for legacy business models like studios, labels, or publishers.  But inherent in what Burnett is saying — and it is interesting that he uses the word incumbent to imply a kind of responsibility for the artist — is the reality that innovation in creative works, in technology, in science, in anything requires old-school, long-term investment (i.e. faith) in a process that yields mostly failures but also the unpredictable successes that spawn both cultural and economic rewards for subsidiary beneficiaries.  This is equally true for a miracle drug or a generation-changing novel.

If we want a rich, culturally diverse society with a solid middle class, I believe we have to resurrect the value of long-term investment and reject the fast-burn, short-money culture that has become the cultural norm over the past half century. But the persistent, blind faith in the digital revolution runs at full gait in the opposite direction. Web 2.0 success stories are largely wealth-consolidating, non-job-creating enterprises.  Nevertheless, while a sense of hopelessness persists among the generation now coming of age, this demographic maintains an unhealthy crush on the Internet, clinging to the futile hope that one day its reductive economics will magically yield collective prosperity if we just wait long enough.

To Burnett’s point, it may seem populist and terribly democratic for the artist to exclusively crowd-fund.  It may seem like this is the ultimate answer to the so-called gatekeeper corporations, portrayed by netizens with no experience to be sinister hoarders of culture and abusers of artists.  But even the smallest, independent imprint or record label or production company will tell you that the fundamental work surrounding the products — from investment to distribution to marketing — hasn’t changed at all. Crowd-funding and self-promotion have their uses and are wonderful opportunities for any number or artists or other entrepreneurs, but the mandate to sell ahead of production, ahead of discovery, is not always going to be the best path to innovation.  At the same time, the middle class has historically been sustained by business models that enable investment in a process — it doesn’t matter if it’s pharmaceutical research, auto manufacturing, or music production — and that process might employ dozens or hundreds or thousands of people whose continued livelihoods are maintained by occasional hits amid a lot of trial and error.

A drama professor in college once told us a story about the Irish playwright Sean O’Casey taking one of his comedies out to the country to perform for the local residents.  Early into the first act, the audience sat mute and confused until it occurred to someone in the company that these people didn’t know what a play was.  The performers stopped the show, explained the fundamentals of theater, and then restarted the play from the top.  Given context, the audience supposedly laughed its heads off at the show. 

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