Friday, June 05, 2009

Good Music VS. The Music Industry

As I write this post, I'm listening to Derek Webb's "I See Things Upside Down" album right now. It's really good. It also wasn't carried in most Christian book stores when it was released. Webb uses some, um, language in his music at times. I doubt he'd get much play there anyway, although he might get more sales: he's best known for his work with Caedmon's Call.

I was recently asked by a church member regarding why I don't care for mainstream, top 40 Christian music. It's a hard question to answer in some ways: many followers of Jesus love this music, and many of the artists who record that music are doing valid ministry. To me, much of it is lyrically vapid and redundant, musically repetivitve and smacks of product, not art. But, that's me. If that's not you, that's alright. I don't want to denigrate your taste in music, or the ministry that these artists do. It's just not for me. If you're still fuming from my mini-indictment of CCM, launch your tomatoes at me in 3....2.....1.....go!

I listen to artists like Webb because he tells the Christian (and human) condition as it is, much like Scripture does. Most of what is popular, most of what sells in Christian music, talks about that condition in very vague and cliched terminology, if it deals with it at all. It seems that although ministers can talk about the sex life of their parishoners (see this post), you cannot write songs about it. We can preach against lust, drunkeness and for justice and mercy, but when your lyrics get specific about those topics, you're musica non grata.

Many artists translate the current music industry downturn into an indictment on the overt commercialism of music. I'd agree, although that's not the only reason for it. I do know that a lot of people my age don't buy a lot of new music, but listen to the old stuff. They say there is no new music that's good. I submit that there is, but labels aren't pushing it, even if there are labels behind it at all. Most of the artists I listen to are self-releasing their stuff.

This article in Christianity Today tells the tale. It's hard to feel sorry for the labels; they've been entering artists into what is essentially indentured servanthood for decades, as this article points out (WARNING: There is some "colorful" language in it). I hope their business and distribution models die with them, for the most part. They've created a culture where honest expression, which is what art really is, has to fit their rigid requirements so that they can return an investment. I've submitted a couple of songs for review to Nashville songwriters, and, while the feedback was constructive and true, it shows you what Nashville is looking for: simple minded songs, easily understood, with simple melodies and a bridge that is no longer than two lines. I can't fault the guys who reviewed my songs, they were right in telling me what I needed to change to get a hearing. But they've also bought into the thinking of music as product, not expression.

In July, a great artist, Michael Roe, will be coming to my town to play for my wife's birthday party, in a living room. A living room! At one time, I was sad that one of my musical heroes was playing in houses when he should be playing in stadiums. And, although I'm sure he wouldn't mind a little more success than he has, I'm not so sad about it. He talks to his fans on his website, he gets to spend time with people when he plays these small shows, and as a fan, I get much more out of the whole experience. Mike, too, is one of those Christian musicians who speaks to contradictory nature of the Christian life, and pulls no punches.

When I'm really struggling with an issue of faith, when life has beaten me down, I don't want to hear some vague anthemic catchy tune about how it will all be just fine. I want to hear a latter day Psalm or lament about the struggle. I want to be encouraged, but I also want to mourn. I don't always want to find the nearest escape for pain, but I want to be transformed through the pain. And I want my soundtrack through that transformation to reflect it, not try to avoid or ignore it. That's part of the reason why the music industry as we know it is dying a slow and painful death: it's escapism without a portrait of what you want to escape from.


Brian Malcolm said...

Absolutely incredible post. I've never checked out Webb's solo stuff, but it's been suggested to me MANY times, so I need to.

It seems like someone, about once a year, links that Albini article, and I always re-read it. Such a great article.

Tim said...

Courtney Love did a similar article to the Albini one for Salon awhile back too.

Its like shooting fish in a barrel with that type of argument. Totally, and utterly ridiculous.