The Lure of Isolation

No, this isn’t an ode to introversion, though that is a tempting topic at times for an introvert like myself.

This little article from National Public Radio’s web site caught my eye as I was trolling for blog fodder this morning.  There are lots of aspects to the author’s disclosures that generated thought.  But most of those thoughts seemed like a rather predictable backlash of the old against the new.  These kids and their invisible music catalogs!  How can you call it your collection when it doesn’t really physically exist?  
She talks rather non-chalantly about the very real possibility of losing all of her music due to technical failure of one sort or another.  But that’s really no different than a house-fire melting all your LPs, or having a cassette tape get stretched out and mangled by an errant tape deck, or finding out that your wife has been selling off random sections of your CD collection at a garage sale while you weren’t looking.  Things happen, and loss is one of those things regardless of the form it takes.
What strikes me more is the focus of the article at the end.  “All I require is the ability to listen to what I want, when I want, and how I want.”  That reminded me of a t-shirt I had seen advertised the other day – this one.  Ms. White opines that hopefully artists will get more of the revenue from customers downloading (legally) their work.  But when their experience is that most music is available for free somehow, is this really honest?  What does the person wearing that t-shirt think of Ms. White’s practice (as opposed to her wishes)?
What doesn’t get a lot of play in the debate over music formats is the artistic process itself.  If albums/CDs/collections of songs linked together in some fashion are no longer the artistic model, what does this mean for the musicians who create songs and collections of songs?  Granted, not every artist approached a single album or collection of released songs as an artistic whole.  I’m sure many – perhaps most – musicians are simply trying to get enough stuff together to release based on their promises to their labels.  Maybe that’s a bad assumption based on my musical illiteracy.  
Artists are pretty forthright with their assertions that art has meaning and value and therefore deserves compensation (see t-shirt above) – by taxpayer dollars if necessary.  Some artists stretch this to a sense of entitlement – you must support me because what I’m doing is important and valuable to our culture, even if you personally detest it.  The Robert Mapplethorpe exhibits of  the late 80’s/early 90’s come to mind.  
But in the realm of music, the customer is demanding that the artists conform to his or her own preferences and needs.  The music must be cheap, must be available in any format, and implicitly is therefore removed from any larger context beyond the customer’s taste.  Visual artists carefully construct the context for their displays and showings in galleries and other venues.  The album is  the musical equivalent of that – even though the user has always been free to isolate particular tracks that they liked and ignore others.  But there was a continued awareness that for better or worse, that one song was part of a larger whole, and perhaps drew meaning and purpose from that position in the larger whole.  The individual song could be free to say certain things in a certain way because of the context it was in, even if people chose to ignore that context.  The artist could still point to the album context as a means of explaining aspects of the single track.
That seems to be rapidly disappearing, and I wonder how many musicians think of this as a bad thing?  Is it a bad thing to have your artistic format defined by your customers?  Is this an affront to the creative process?  Is it a greater or lesser affront than having a music label insist on a certain minimum (or maximum) number of songs for a particular album?  While much has been made of artist compensation in all of this talk of evolving formats and markets, what about the issue of the creative process of the artist?  
It seems that the logical direction of the trends that Ms. White indicates in her article is for artists to focus on creating individually-appealing songs.  Each song becomes a mini-album of sorts, the exclusive creative focus, an independent economic unit as well as a more independent artistic unit.  Will it even be possible for artists to insist that certain songs must be purchased and downloaded together because that’s how they function artistically?  Is this a curtailment of the freedom Ms. White demands?  Lord knows there are plenty of albums and CDs that I bought in high hopes based on a single song, only to discover the rest of the songs were awful.  But if I respected the artist enough, I was willing to take the risk.  Is that risk even necessary any more?  And if not, what about the risk of not discovering compelling music by accident, buried in between popular tracks on a CD?  
This issue of creation vs. consumption is something that I consider in my vocation as pastor as well.  It’s a popular trend for pastors to upload audio or video tracks of their sermons to YouTube or for download on their congregational web site.  There are any number of reasons why someone might choose to do this, and I certainly might choose to do this someday as well.  I haven’t thus far for various reasons.  I don’t think I’m a stellar preacher, for one.  Secondly, sermons (unlike music?) are created for a very specific audience.  They have a very particular context and not everything that gets said in a single sermon to a specific congregation will make sense to someone who isn’t part of that congregation.  Thirdly, this context is freeing for me (and hopefully the congregation as well!).  I can say difficult things if necessary, because I have a larger context of experience with the congregation.  And if some of my sermons are less than stellar, I am afforded a certain level of grace from my people because they know that sooner or later one of them will be a bit better.
I don’t feel that my congregation should have the final say in the format of what I create, while at the same time acknowledging that there are very real expectations and constraints that I agree to abide by.  Switching to 45-minute sermons every week would be ill-advised, and I know that.  But if I really felt it was necessary, would I have the courage to make that switch, despite knowing that my ‘customers’ would prefer it otherwise?  Can art really be conceived of apart from the customer?  
Thanks to Ms. White for making me feel old and getting me thinking this morning!  

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