The following is a review of Real Love Versus Romance, a collection of essays by Jess C. Scott. The work can be downloaded free on her website here. I encourage you to read the free samples of her work, and if you like what you read buy and enjoy them. You can see her book list here. Putting my money where my mouth is, I’ve just purchased Primal Scream and am eagerly awaiting its arrival. Continuing on to the essay…
Scott’s apt summary is thus,
A 4500-word mini collection of (informal) essays on commercialism’s de-spiritualizing effects on society
I read this collection of essays in one delicious gulp. As I read I felt I was hearing a good friend speak, a kindred spirit, who understands how I feel about the world, and what’s become of it. Though I’m a bit older than Scott, and therefore likely much more of a curmudgeon, much of what she writes in these essays resonates with me. I’ll focus on the first essay, Commercialism, Consumer Capitalism, & Commoditization. In it, Scott sums up well the current state of affairs for all those slugging it out with trying to make any sort of living via creative endeavors,
In our post-modern era, the value of mainstream creative
work has mostly been reduced to its value as a commodity. […] By and large, it’s less to do with actual skills and (artistic) talent—it’s more to do with packaging/image, how well a product plugs into the existing “mainstream media” system, and a certain amount of marketing hype (hype has come to replace meaning).
Very true and to the point words. Amidst a wash of noise, mostly coming from marketers (social and otherwise), but also being spewed by authors offering advice about how to ‘make it’ in our current systems, it is rare to find someone stating, quite correctly, that things are perhaps broken and need examination.
“Music can save people, but it can’t in the commercial way it
is being used. It’s just too much, it’s pollution.” -Bob Dylan
She quotes Bob Dylan, and I include the quote here because it has me thinking deeply on something I find troubling. Years ago, I was in a band named Pontius CoPilot. We had a modicum of success, we toured, played cities like NYC and Chicago, were interviewed at Spin Magazine headquarters in NYC, and so on. I remember how things were then, and how different they are now. We didn’t have any huge commercial success, but we connected with our fans, got some radio play, and had a good time. Our entire concept was to make and sell records, and to tour. How much things have changed in a short time.
Currently I have friends that are in bands and the most commercially successful of them isn’t so because of record sales or radio play, but because they have music in Television shows and commercials. Talk about commodification. Don’t get me wrong, I have no ill-will towards any musician doing whatever they can to get their music out there and to make a living. I’m quite happy for them. What troubles me is that this seems to be one of the only remaining outlets for bands: to sell product. Bands are becoming background music for Apple and VW ads, paint, fast food, and any thing else that can be sold. Some bands only have commercials and Television, despite their desire to build an audience, make and sell records, tour, and have the kind of careers they’ve read about, dreamt about, and worked hard for. It seems that that kind of career for musicians is dying, and may in fact be a thing of the past for most. In order to make enough money to do the kinds of things that musicians would like to do, they’ll have to sell product. Granted, recurring royalties from shows and commercial spots can’t be the most terrible thing in the world, but I remember when the idea of doing that was selling out. Where did that go?
As an aside, I highly recommend you read this lengthy article by David Lowery (singer for Camper Van Beethoven) about the changed face of the music business after file-sharing and how artists really aren’t much better off now than before the change. Could writers be in the same shape in a few years, or are things dramatically different? I’ll let you be the judge.
I don’t judge musicians who do this, not at all. I totally understand, it’s just a way of life for them now. They’re exploring every available option, and if it puts food on the table and keeps them going as musicians, it’s better than the alternative.
Or is it? If they’re making creative decisions about their work which are influenced by the ability to get a song into a show or commercial, that’s perhaps a shame. Though, to play devil’s advocate with myself, I can see the wisdom of a musician making one song which feeds the rest of their efforts. After all, Elvis’ record sales (no disrespect intended to the King!) supported classical music recordings by his label for years.
I guess the real problem is the commodification of what we used to hold a bit more dear to our hearts. It bothers me. I suspect that millennials won’t understand this feeling and will think I’m just a crazy old crank (I’ve also been called a crab?) who is behind the times. Perhaps that is so, but I’ll stand my ground and put my two cents in the ring regardless.
So here’s what I think. You’re missing out on getting to truly know and be involved in the mythology that you could create about a band, and to truly be a fan of them. These days, people just grab a song that they like. (Yes, I know it’s a lot like singles and 45s of old, and all that.) However, I’m coming from the perspective of someone who was born in the 70s, who fell in love with bands like R.E.M. and built my adolescent identity around them. Maybe kids do this today, and I’m just oblivious. But do they really connect with the band whose only notes they’ve heard was on an episode of a CW show? Or when they only hear one song by a band? How well can you get to know an artist when you only peruse their top hit? Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong, but it seems to me that Scott and Dylan have it right. It’s just becoming noise, and pollution. How can we sink our teeth in, and enjoy all 12 of those songs on an album anymore if artists are being reduced to no more than jingles, and YouTube views? (Thought: wouldn’t it be strange if, at the record store, it gave a running tally of number of units sold? Would people buy more of the album that had sold more?)
I’ve gone on sufficiently long and haven’t covered the other excellent essays in Scott’s work, ‘Elite’ is not the same as ‘Elitist’, The Corrupted Publishing Industry, and Real Love Versus Romance. The common thread between them all is the thought that, there are things which are more valuable than money. In our work, Scott suggests that we should focus on substance, and not fluff. If we have nothing of substance to offer our readers, we may do well commercially (as the publishing industry is happy to ride any wave which brings in dollars) but there are more important things at stake.
The difference between Real Love and Romance is important to society, for we suffer if we end up valuing the cheap thrills of vapid Romance, and neglect things more meaningful.
Unfortunately, in our day it can be hard to know the difference. We’re sold one under the guise of another. How many times have you purchased something with high hopes, after reading a marketing blurb or some recommendation of the book only to discover you were quite well deceived? It’s happened to me. The book (or album or whatever it is) becomes a sunk cost, and we must move on. But the publisher has our money. What did we really get in return? And do we want to be the kind of artists who offer only fluff so that we can achieve financial gain?