Earbud cocoons and the plight of live music

IMG_2652Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything. ― Plato

I’ve been pondering the crisis that many professional musicians are facing — a crisis, not only of income but of artistic survival. A few years ago I watched a YouTube video of songwriter/performer Marc Cohn in a reflective moment during a concert. Marc was saying, in so many words, that the recording industry is dead but that musicians are returning to performance for a living, which in some ways is a very good thing since that is what it was all about in the first place. I could relate with what he said. The problem is, there are ominous signs that live performance is headed in the wrong direction as well. To any honest observer, we in America are deep into a cultural drift away from art for the sake of art, for what it brings into our lives, and into art for the sake of celebrity and fame. The divide has always existed, but through periods of ebb and flow we’ve seemed to maintain some kind of sustainable equilibrium. Today, it seems to many that our preoccupation with fame has become an epidemic. You might call it the Americanidolization of our culture. With music, you can see it in a growing indifference to the value of local live music, and increasing decay in the ability to differentiate between substance and exhibitionist display.

I don’t understand our cultural obsession with fame and why it is so confused with quality. But I can see the toll this increasing confusion is taking on my colleagues in music. They can follow the trend and prime the social media pump day-in and day-out, but to what effect? The truth is, online life has massively increased the intoxicating allure of fame and is fracturing our attention. Ironically, because everyone is on, doing everything, it’s like no one is on, doing anything. It reminds me of when the villain, Syndrome, in the Pixar movie, The Incredibles, says with sinister delight, “I’ll make it so everyone can be super. And when everyone is super, no one will be.” I used to get an occasional kick out of seeing a YouTube video someone shared of a little kid shredding some passage on guitar, blowing up a drum set, or doing their impression of Celine Dion. But I’m starting to think people believe that stuff is as good as the real thing; that they can watch a few dozen exhibitionist YouTubes and forgo checking out the local live show by some seasoned, accomplished performer in their own town, without consequence.

We aren’t paying attention to where we are, which is where most of life which truly concerns us is going on. I’m not even sure we’re all that conscious of how unaware we’ve become. I was in one of our coolest Austin, Texas performance spaces recently when two legends — multiple Grammys and world tours between them — joined the band for a few numbers. An inspired set rose to an even higher level and the dozen of us in an otherwise empty room got to enjoy performers in an intimate setting instead of from a 100-dollar seat, 50-100 yards from the stage. In fairness, the impromptu jam hadn’t been advertised ahead of time. But I noticed, through the glass door into the adjoining coffee shop, a room full of people with earbuds in. Inspired, live music was happening, literally feet away from them, and they were unaware or indifferent. We’re allowing digital life to steal our natural curiosity and awareness of our surroundings, and at a cost we haven’t even begun to understand.

Somehow, we need to both encourage the next generation of musician coming up and value the one in it’s prime, and the most neglected opportunity is local. In a strange way, the real-time global reach of the web and social media, and the absolute free-for-all of DYI online entertainment, is exposing the fraud of “making it big.” We don’t need any more contests and advice on how to “make it big,” which is a complete mirage to all but a sub-atomic fraction of us. We need sustainable local scenes for professional music. We need venues with audiences who listen, challenging and encouraging both the musicians and themselves. We need to value quality in music like we do our broadband speed. We need to rediscover the difference between background music and music which “expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent,” to quote Victor Hugo. We need to decide if we want soul-enriching music in our communities, or if we do not. This is about admitting that our cultural obsession with fame is destroying our awareness of both the local and the truly sublime.

Making inspiring music requires a certain fearless individuality, open-minded receptivity and expression, and a desire to transcend the limiting sense of self that is concerned with fame and celebrity. A live, in-person experience is the most powerful setting where this happens. And this is because the interaction of audience and performer is a dance, an exchange of energy, emotion, awareness. It’s an experience of being fully present, together. It is living, breathing community. Choreographer Martha Graham’s description of being who we are captures the role all of us play in this dance.

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

A culture that confuses fame with quality, celebrity with success, cannot sustain an atmosphere that encourages great art. It could some day find itself awash in a cycle of mediocrity, the veteran music scene a shell of its former self as seasoned players will have turned elsewhere to make a living, having little or no time to give to their now neglected craft. And new students, having lost all reasonable prospect of a sustainable career in music, will be content to learn just enough to produce YouTube clips of impressive riffs, music reduced to the status of a six-second Vine video. Then, we would learn what Martha Graham meant when she said, “the world will not have it.”

Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.  ― Maya Angelou

If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.  ― Albert Einstein

Without music, life would be a mistake.  ― Friedrich Nietzsche


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