Saturday, February 18, 2012

Cheap Seats 2: Non-Commercial Music

I'm 11 studio days and nine songs deep into my next album and thinking hard about how the work so far measures up to my standards, where I'm going next, and what's coming in the distant future in terms of post-recording production and an eventual release.  Though writing, arranging and recording is a challenging and difficult process, it's mostly straightforward to me and is still ultimately rewarding even when it's frustrating.  When it comes to thinking about how I can best represent my music once it's released and how to reach the kind of people who actually might be interested, things get a lot foggier. That's what a lot of this Cheap Seats series is about--what else (and there's potentially a lot of it) besides writing, recording and performing goes into the average independent musician's quest to be heard.  One of the fundamental issues that continues to plague my thoughts is the issue of non-commercial music and how it fits into today's bizarre musical marketplace. 

The struggle to define the phrase "non-commercial music" instantly reminds me of the classic US Supreme Court opinion on obscenity and pornography--creating a concise definition is all but impossible, but "I know it when I see it."  In the case of non-commercial music, it might easier to define its opposite--commercial music.  To me, "commercial music" is broadly music that is specifically created to appeal to the widest audience possible and consequently maximize sales.  This is neither necessarily a bad thing nor an absolute category, but under this definition, it's pretty easy to "know it when you see it."  In terms of musical characteristics, commercial music is almost always concise (songs under, say, six minutes), utilizes conventional harmony (major or minor keys with occasional implementation of jazz-related harmony), lyrically appeals to specific emotions that most people feel on a regular basis (romance-related, nostalgia, euphoria, sadness [use sparingly]), is full of easily recognizable elements that are catchy and memorable, and often identifies strongly with the conventions of a particular well-established musical genre in order to provide listeners with a clear connection to music they already like.  If it hadn't started becoming such a pejorative term and associated exclusively with corporate-produced mass market music, I'd even say that "commercial music" is synonymous with "pop music," but let's not narrow the definition unnecessarily with negative connotations.  Like I mentioned before, none of these characteristics are inherently bad and they describe a lot of great music, but surely they don't describe the only way to make good music?  It would seem that problems arise when the characteristics that describe commercial music become the only guiding principles in making music.

Indeed--they aren't; all kinds of great music has been made across the years with varying levels of non-commerciality including attention-span-testing song lengths, unconventional dissonant harmony or atonality, unconventional song structure (or complete lack of structure), inaccessible lyrics, a focus on less straightforward hooks, expression of less attractive moods and emotions, lack of easy identification with recognizable genres, and all-around weirdness in the sound of the music and especially the sound of the singer's voice.  Naturally, the list goes on and these descriptors have and will be freely combined, mixed and matched with each other as well as with characteristics associated with commercial music.  The point is, the more non-commercial elements you employ, the tougher it's going to be to achieve significant commercial success.  However, just as making the decision to produce purely commercially-oriented music doesn't guarantee commercial success, plenty of non-commercial music has (eventually) achieved widespread commercial success.  Tom Waits is an artist who immediately springs to mind; these days he's a hallowed saint of the independent/weird music world, but it took him a long time to break past the cult status to which his now-classic 1980's albums initially resigned him.  So, commercial and non-commercial music aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, and non-commercial music can succeed commercially, it just has a bit less going for it in terms of accessibility.  However, it seems reasonably undeniable that certain types of music will never be commercially successful by the conventional measures (like, say, the Billboard charts)--but they have to have some kind of value, right? 

I think the Tom Waits example speaks well to the tough-to-quantify value of non-commercial music.  Simply put, if you're slavishly working toward the goal of creating music that's as commercial as possible, there's a good chance it's going to come across as boring.  There have been innumerable artists treading the exact same path, and the characteristics that define strictly commercial music limit your artistic options from the get-go.  Yes, there's joy to be found in those options, but there's also the soulless thirst for the lowest common denominator that makes so much commercial music hackneyed to the extreme.  There are many artistically-justifiable reasons non-commercial music is valuable, including one that can even be connected to the all-sacred dollar--the fact that it plays a key role in refreshing what qualifies as commercial music.  It's been happening throughout history, from Beethoven to Elvis--the avant-garde does something weird and against the rules, enough people like it and prove that it can make somebody some money, then it becomes an acceptable convention for the mainstream.  Tom Waits is a great example, especially considering the fact that a lot of his Captain Beefheart-influenced material introduced just enough commercial elements for Waits to eventually succeed where the Captain utterly failed commercially.  Good ideas have a way of rising to the top, and in addition to being aesthetically enjoyable for its own idiosyncratic reasons, each type of non-commercial music is always ultimately connected to the mainstream, whether it's valued monetarily or not. 

After working on this music for several months, I have no illusions that nearly all of the songs I'm working on qualify as non-commercial music.  Personally, I find an exciting freedom in non-commercial music (which explains why the majority of albums I review here display varying levels of non-commercial characteristics) that means anything goes, as long as it's expressing an interesting idea.  If you're not afraid of breaking a rule that'll cost you sales, then your options are unlimited.  Of course, it's a double-edged sword and each non-commercial choice you make further limits your potential appeal to the average listener.  And aesthetically, the further you tread from the established rules, the more subjective the evaluation of the quality of your work becomes--who says what I think is an interesting or dull idea is interpreted the same way by others (a principle amply demonstrated by the response I've gotten to some of the critical reviews I've written)?  This ambiguity is one of my favorite parts about art, since I believe it's ultimately true even when evaluating art that abides by strictly established rules. 

So, I personally believe that non-commercial music is valuable both artistically in terms of the potential for innovation and the unlimited scope of expression, as well as for the role that it plays in propelling forward the slower-moving behemoth of popular music.  Choosing to make non-commercial music means I'm subject only to my own artistic whims, but it also means I'm further narrowing the already-limited avenues through which I can seek success as an unknown independent musician.  It's not a matter of "being discovered" at this point (since there's no major pop label that would be interested in trying to sell this kind of music), but rather a matter of finding ways to connect with the disparate but very real audience that could potentially be interested in the music.  It's the how that continually occupies my thoughts--how does any non-commercial musician access the narrower and diffuse selection of people who are interested in non-commercial music, and what does it take in the present day to achieve enough commercial success with that audience to sustain and continue the artistic process?  The answers are probably extremely complicated and different for every band or artist, but repeatedly considering these questions will be a key part of this series as I continue trying to outline the labyrinthine choose-your-own-adventure that faces today's independent musicians. 

Cheap Seats Part 1


ElectricThoreau said...

I do think you express your views with clarity and you often seem to express some of the views that I've had with more eloquence. I'd add one further dimension: non-commercial music can thrive if you can somehow make this music communicate to the people. I find it interesting how you linked to the Zappa compilation of his more "commercial songs". Now FZ was definitely a composer and a musician who could find a happy middle between overt commercialism and flat out weird avant-gardisms. Watching him to concoct all sorts of weirdness on, say Baby Snakes proves that this was a man who could make his non-commercial aspects communicate to people more accustomed to strictly commercial bits.

Then there's Penderecki. I've heard a story that initially his 8'37 didn't mean anything to anybody really, but as soon as he changed the title to "Threnody for Hiroshima Victims", he became an international star. I don't know if it's true or just an urban legend, but there is one way how to make avant-garde music to communicate something to someone.

Elliot Knapp said...

Thanks for another thoughtful comment!

I agree that you have to provide some element of accessibility to your music if you want to achieve connection and success (even if it's limited). Zappa did it musically, but also with an extremely distinctive persona--I think he grew a cult of supporters partly just on how crazy he looked, sort of like Peter Gabriel's contributions to early Genesis with the costumes and everything.

It does help to give the average listener an insertion point into difficult music (re: Penderecki), but I find one of the most difficult things in present times is to get people to even give the music a chance in the first place. Avant-garde and progressive music, by their very nature, take more time and attention to become acquainted with, and these days people want to decide they like or dislike something based on a 30 second online clip, neither experiencing the whole piece nor hearing in context of the rest of the music, let alone giving it a chance to act upon them past their surface expectations and preconceptions across the multiple listens needed. More on this challenge in later Cheap Seats installments...

See you around!