Soul and Commerce

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

An issue of Esquire magazine published in 1945 (vol. 23) includes a razor-sharp quote from tenor saxophonist Greely Walton. Asked about the impact of money on artistry, Walton replied: “If he’s a musician at heart, good music gives by far the most personal satisfaction…But anyone who completely forgets what he’s doing, or does what he’s doing cheaply by selling out to sheer commercialism—such a musician is a nitwit and worthy of neither respect nor money.”

Walton’s was among the first printed references to “selling out” in the ugly sense of sacrificing integrity for financial gain. He was careful not to idealize the opposite extreme: the musician need not starve for her art. If authenticity and appeal are in alignment, then good music—in the moral sense—can bring riches. Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, who sang “Never for money/Always for love,” is a perfect example. Aesthetic-ethical problems arise when talented musicians surrender to the dark side of branding, marketing, and empty consumerism.

Critics bemoan the depletion of meaningful music in the “post-album” age of YouTube, digital downloads, and television competitions. The manufactured, market-driven sounds of pop music are incessant reminders of the dysfunctional relationship between corporate capitalism and the arts. This does not mean the talent pool is any drier than in periods past. However, the pressure to “sell out” is far greater than it was in Walton’s day, and continues to trend in the wrong direction. As a result, creativity is curtailed in favor of monotonous conformity.

One of the loudest critics of this apparent cultural degradation is Berklee College of Music professor William C. Banfield. He sees profit-obsession as a kiss of death: “death of quality, skills, value of human expression, individuality, creative innovation, and a lack of spirit-soul.” Instead of an expression of one’s innermost being, music becomes a superficial vehicle for pursuing material rewards.

Banfield draws a contrast between songs with enduring socio-cultural value (which can be financially successful) and the largely formulaic and vapid offerings of contemporary pop. He calls the first category “long-term cultural relevancy,” or expressive art that deeply affects and influences the lives of people. This would include folk-derived traditions, like spirituals and the blues, as well as “banner songs,” like the protest anthems of the 1960s. The second category is “market relevancy,” or the manufacturing of sounds and personalities for wide audiences. This is “music industry” in its most negative connotations.

Banfield is an unabashed scholar-activist, but his idealism is not unrealistic. As a working musician, he knows the importance of resonating with the marketplace. Balancing short-term and long-term relevance is a worthy goal. Yet, he argues, “the wrong people are at the table, and they drive the industry and make the bad decisions. It’s all a game of dollars and greed, which again is a disastrous formula for art.” The key, it seems, is to sell without selling out.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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