An Essay In The Meanings, Business, Culture, And Future Of Music….

By Dr. Bill Banfield

Berklee College of Music Professor

Todd and his crew at the Music Business Journal asked that I share some thoughts, culled from my workings in music, questions relative to my take, feelings, observations in and around popular music culture today. This is an awesome task because I think there is so much to think about, and so much that has been done and more importantly, so much is changing.

So I share here some of my takes on these themes, understanding, of course, my dear reader that these values are shifting.  And I’m old. The question(s) we ask then is: 1. What has become, 2. What is, and 3. What will a path forward in public music culture look like?

Music is a principle carrier of community value, agency, and identity which shapes and nurtures our spiritual streams. Music is more than music, it’s a measure and a matter of life. Your music/arts become something when they match the amount of living you have done. Then its formula is complete. Music is tones organized to tell human stories.  That’s the has been part.

So we ask what then is today’s story, and what kinds of tones, technologies and where today in which territories are such music stories most meaningfully told?

For many of us, a problem exists today, as people find it difficult to distinguish between what’s popular and what’s poisonous, and that money drives every cultural popular convention. Since money drives most popular industry and media, some argue that there is a saturation of sugar-coated produced poison that is fed to the public as normative, good for you, and of value.  So where are today’s value(s) in music-making?

The media cultural prescription is clear: from reality TV shows, venomous partisan politics to terror-teased news landscapes, our spiritual nerves are unraveled. This affects everything including how parents are blindly compelled to oblige, how people invest in programs that are aligned to corporate status quo formulas, and most dangerous, how young people are coming to see themselves shaped and molded into very narrow and low identities and value codes.

The very, very good news is that this is nothing new and that too, the gene pool for talent, excellence and the ability to move the world with music has not gone away.  Today’s young musicians and artists and this generation, in general, have so many tools, talent, territories, and energy at their disposal.

Today’s young musicians are so much more flexible and adaptable to numerous landscapes. They have multi-diverse and technological skills that allow a different kind of rationale for what is of value. And the capacity for ears and understanding is greater because the bandwidth for what you can take in and deal with on the table is wider.  And the table is even wider. Today’s younger people’s worlds are wider at a glimpse and a touch. That’s a very powerful position to be in . . . if they know what to do with it, and why.

Now here is the rub, onto the third question, where are we headed… are today’s young musicians asking the right questions, navigating the tools to make the next great music and move their world, and do they ask why? And from my read even if they do the right things, turn the right dials, are the people today, the general public ready for such informed creative capacity?

The market seduction of music has gotten even deeper. Everyone still loves music and entertainment, and they ingest and choose to purchase it at a greater intensity and spend more money to have it, all their way.  I think though it is a matter of having more connections and conversations consciously with the artists, the people, and the industry that disseminates all this creative loving matter.

For the training of musicians, you have to show that musical relevance is transferable and that artistry has adaptable tissues weaved through all history.  The young artists who see that and “ get it”,  generally will get back to absorbing those great examples and processing that into their aesthetic to be delivered “their ways” in their own time.

The problem that exists is that we have to dismantle the thick walls of industry and corporate controllers who have near-zero interests in the values of humanities, art, and culture.

The new paradigm is old school. It’s reaching back regaining older substance values of relevance, resource, and reverence. It’s being in touch with the impulses and needs of the times you live in looking forward, creating expressions and understanding them as such and assessing their impact.

This will be the work of the new paradigms in education, industry navigation, and conscious creative works that again look to bring our worlds together.

We need a revolution of sorts, a rising up is inevitable of a group of “thinking artists”, who together forge the new paths unaffected by market trends. In some ways with technology that is happening. To believe music/arts can alter and affect the thinking and actions in the world, communities we live in,  as an artist, educator, a creative thinker you see so many examples of proactive creative work that changed people’s lives. “Today’s art”, song and that creative dreamscape can be beautiful, powerful, compelling, and contain meaning.

All of us have seen our political landscapes now poisoned by mistrust and venomous attacks, and we’ve seen media, movies, TV, and popular culture plummet in terms of content and values, leaving an escalation of irresponsible choices for the public to scrape and sort through, and all for the love of money, greed, and pointless power.

These issues are important: the new expressive paradigms, digital age design and apparatus, identity, pop culture and how the youth narrative is being drawn. 

The reason I have tried to share here is that from my view, when a young teacher or student reads about Bessie Smith, Woody Guthrie, or John Coltrane, they see “music meaning” in different ways. That inspires the next songs.

That kind of new song or innovative art idea moves people and changes the world. As Margaret Mead reminded us, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Music meaning through culture is about broad-minded thinking, exposure but making choices about your choices, dedication, and passions. Scholarship and artistry must be focused on illumination and lifting people into relatable, sustainable, and usable facts, information, culture, and history.

Our civic, social, political, and community concern is important. Artistry is armed for engagement as it counts for many things. As the dancer and community activist, Wyatt Jackson who I filmed said, “There is an intersection with what the arts can do and what the people do with the art. I think you have to be clear about how powerful music, dance, and poetry is. Then, once you realize how powerful that is, you have to make a choice. . . . So, what ya’ gonna do now?”

Our communities are places where people live and where we must bring artistic engagement. I believe above all the other aspects of our creative sharing, that’s where and how we become most relevant, our “human-sounding in the world” and our belief in the ideas that we all have to make music into experiences of “living music.”

Today, many are feeling that the raising up of more creative spirits, forces, workings in our world with sustained ideas about making differences that count, is our revelatory, revolutionary, and necessary move.

About Dr. Bill Banfield

Dr. Bill Banfield serves as Professor of Africana Studies/ Music and Society, director of the Center for Africana Studies/ Liberal Arts.

In  2002, he served as a W.E.B. Dubois fellow at Harvard University and was appointed by Toni Morrison to serve as the visiting Atelier Professor, Princeton University, 2003. Banfield was appointed in 2019 as a research associate with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH), one of the Smithsonian’s 12 research and cultural centers.

Having served twice as a Pulitzer Prize judge in American music( 2010/2016), Banfield is an award-winning composer whose symphonies, operas, chamber works have been performed and recorded by major symphonies across the country.

Bill Banfield is the founder/director of JazzUrbane, a contemporary jazz art recording label, dedicated to producing creative new artists. The seminal project released in 2014, was produced by legendary icon George Duke, and included such leading artists as; Christian Scott, Terri Lyn Carrington, Najee, Greg Osby, and Grace Kelly. The label has already produced and released, 8 albums now heard internationally.

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