by : Business, October 2011

Usurping Artistry

Artists are one of the fundamental parts of the music industry. So much so they are the chicken to the egg of the business itself; no one knows which came first. This exact question or rather confusion has crafted the current climate of music today. Who is the artist? The term itself is styled in such a cursory manner that anyone who walks within five feet of any medium is in danger of being titled so. No industry is more subject to this phenomenon than the music industry. We live in an age of instant fame, where attracting tabloids supplements talent more so than garnering admiration for their craft. It seems that “artists” are now those who create a buzz as opposed to creating anything substantive. It’s for that very reason the music industry has become complicit in the dilution of the term artistry and its function.

In the past, the term artist held enormous weight to a musician.  No matter what genre, anyone who dared to take up that mantel had to prove themselves worthy. That was made especially clear when it came to the music industry. To be an artist, one had to be undeniably gifted. Although those who simply performed had similar functions, those deemed “artists” provided the rare glimpse of vocal and musical perfection that all others sought in their craft. The likes of Edith Piaf, Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey, and The Beatles set the standard for the artistry we revere in the likes of Anita Baker, Elton John, Prince, and Celine Dion. There is no doubt that these people have actively embodied and expressed a unique and individual talent. The music industry served to foster and amplify these artists. There was no serious need to augment, manipulate, or create the perception of talent through production. This is not to say that the industry did not have any direct impact on the development of their talent, but it was a tangible product that was easily ready for distribution.

Being informed of the historical markers of true artistry, how have we found ourselves in this current predicament? The title of “artist” is doled out almost indiscriminately. It very well seems that anyone who so chooses can be an “artist”. The music industry recognized the desire of the masses to be uniquely creative as an untapped market. It shifted its model from promoting ‘exceptionalism’ to feigning accessibility. With the use of advanced technology and a well-oiled public relations machine, “artists” don’t have to be skilled. Couple this with the viral video and social networking craze almost anyone can stake their claim to fame. This has produced a crop of recording artists who cannot sing, write songs, or play a single musical instrument. They simply possess that “it” factor that for whatever reason garners the attention which generates sales. Now, the rarities are the child singer we watched progress or the café singer who got a lucky break. A career in the music industry is now an option for every celebrity and public personality regardless of singing ability.

When one thinks of an artist, one immediately thinks of the ability to create. When it comes to recording artist, we expect them to create a sound and persona that will entertain us. In short, we expect them to be able to sing or play and do it well! So if we are seeing individuals with the inability to do so being labeled as artists, one must ask: Who is doing the creating? Who is responsible for the voices and people now populating the music industry?

Not surprisingly, the answer is the industry itself. Once relegated to the role of supporting and enabling those who have natural talent, the music industry has taken on the task of creating it. Many music artists are now completely crafted by highly trained teams of producers, image consultants, managers, coaches, and handlers. These people even go as far as to feed them everything from who they are to what they believe. So by the time the consumer finally receives the finished product, it is very rarely an honest reflection of the individual performer.

Another growing black eye on the industry is the unabashed abuse of Auto-Tune. It has given the industry the ability to create perfectly pitched singing, no matter the performer’s ability. This radically lessened the mark of what being a viably successful vocalist required. It has allowed the industry to mass recruit and mass produce the artists we see flooding the market today. It has even expanded into the celebrity singer fad. In the past it wasn’t very common for entertainers and public personalities to venture into the music business. Outside of Broadway, most actors shied away from the recording booth. Now, every Real Housewife and reality show star can successfully cross over into “pop stardom”. It has become a very attractive quick money scheme to the industry, as these people already come with the notoriety that is needed to make them marketable. Just get a skilled team of producers and writers on it and run whatever “vocals” you can get through the box. They get to add another “talent” to their resume and record companies get more revenue. With these practices in place, we find ourselves inundated with songs that sound good, instead of singers who do.

The usurping of artistry from the individual to the industry is also made clear when it comes to the issue of artistic control. It is extremely uncommon for any music artist to have majority or full artistic control. The market created by those who run the music industry is clearly one based on the exchange of artistic control for access to opportunity. The industry has made it a primary goal to maintain and exert a tremendous amount of power over any “artist” it produces. It is often said that “more money equals less control”. Record labels are less willing to invest in a product they have less control of. That is why this desire is a major factor when it comes to the selection and progression of the performers who the music industry chooses to put its weight behind. The largest contracts are often awarded to those willing to accept equity deals in which they almost completely surrender all control to producers, promoters, marketing people, and managers. Artists who desire to be independent and exercise more creative freedom are often undesired or languish at a low level of success, no matter how talented. It has created a situation where the often less talented and more malleable rocket to stardom.

Examples of fabrication are not hard to find either.  We can look at the “Dream Girls” technique that has been repeatedly used to dismantle groups in favor of the more acquiescent “star”, or the “American Idol” method of picking winners.  When so-called artists are minted, sold, and replaced systematically, the true artist, in short,  is the music industry.

Brenton J. Williams is a J D candidate at the University of Miami.

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