I've been thinking a lot about this particular topic lately.
At first glance, it would seem that it has to do with the ability for art to be sold, but it goes way beyond that. Can true artists expect to make a living in the DIY age? Can musicians, and songwriters in particular, be expected to be able to survive after the music business as we knew it has ceased to be?
One of the first things that has to be grappled with is the idea of quality...now, don't go all Robert M. Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) on me and wind up in the laughing academy for thinking about this...but pondering the question "What does Quality mean?" is extremely useful and will teach you volumes about what kind of artist you are, and about what kinds of art you want to make. Obviously, you have to keep yourself from disappearing down the rabbit hole forever, because the questions you start asking are have ambiguous answers that only lead you to more and more questions (that also have no real answer)...and so on.
So here we go: what is Quality? Is there QUALITY inherent certain pieces of art that cause them to be universally accepted as such? That's the trap Mr. Pirsig fell into, I think, because he assumed there was SOMETHING that all great art has that is so OBVIOUS to anyone that experiences it they automatically can tell the Quality art from the Shitty art. I can already tell that you're way ahead of Mr. Pirsig, because, obviously, that kind of inherent "goodness" doesn't exist...even art that is in high popular esteem is hated by SOMEONE. The inverse, of course, is also true...art that is popularly hated is loved by SOMEBODY.
Basically, Quality comes from what YOU (as the receiver) bring to it. You bring your tastes, your experience, you relate the art that is before you in the present to art that has lived up to your definition in the past. The relativity of Quality.
Never has this been more apparent than in the current popular music scene. It becomes really strange when the entire focus of a particular style of art becomes DRIVEN by commerce. In the music industry, only those songs that record companies thought they could SELL would be recorded and marketed. When there is huge money to be made, there tends to be a watering-down of what I would call "True Art." Naturally, I probably have to define what I mean by that....from the above definition of "Quality,"
you can tell that I have my work cut out for me...but here goes anyway:
Something is "True Art" (to me) if: it is something that is consistent with my own internal quality compass independent of its commercial viability.
When a definition is worded in this way, it is changeable. Your definition probably changes as your experience or education or mood changes. Finally, the point of my post: there are songs that sell millions of copies that I would claim are not congruent with my personal definition. And here's the rub: in the town in which I've chosen to live, there is a certain credibility lent to songs that have been recorded and had some success whether they have met the "True Art" definition or not. It's as if some of these songs are somehow imbued with QUALITY having made it through the publishing, pitching, holding, recording, releasing, and charting phases of the hit-making process. I don't think so. If a song does not fit within the bounds of my "Quality" defintion, it deserves to be treated as a waste of time.
That is why I tend to drift towards artists that are internally consistent. Artists that are TRYING to make ART. Artists that are walking in their own definition of quality. Artists like Lyle Lovett, James McMurtry, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, John Prine, Willis Alan Ramsey, Jason Isbell, Joe Pug...and lots more...
I guess the lesson is be internally consistent. Know what YOU mean by quality. Don't think a song is a quality song just because it has been cut...or even because it has had chart success....and make sure that when you are writing, you are trying to write things that fit within the bound of your definition of quality...write songs because you have to, not because you think there's going to be a huge payoff waiting for you someday if you find the magic song success formula...
Just write and keep advancing your quality until you are proud of what you're doing (or at least don't hate it so much...).
...And I think you will be rewarded...somehow...
...and even more obviously, I've only answered one(?) question from the beginning of this post....much more to talk about...like the state of the music business and the problems and benefits of the DIY revolution...and how that all relates to the problem of "Quality."
oh! and it seems like I'm avoiding the intersting and seemingly Buddhist cosmological dichotomies that beg the questions, "but Seth, aren't the people writing these lame songs that end up selling zillions of records operating from their own definition of "Quality," and therefore, by your definition, they would be internally consistent and therefore, true art?"
well...no...think about quality as not being measured by dollars....please...
Finished recording a song of mine that I've recorded like 3 times in the past...but this time I think I got it!
Ray Wylie Hubbard
Jerry Jeff Walker
ubuntu 11.04 natty narwhal