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A Response to the Query: Musicians as Artists or Entertainers

on davis
photo: Tyler Durrance Gamble


The reality of producing any kind of art is recognizing the frames of references by which art is fitted. Since we are talking about music here, I will not explore the dimensions of other art forms (dance, visual, performance art....eventhough a musical expression may allow for all of these aspects to be integrated totally as one musical experience..and usually does!). So addressing the point of view of a 'producer' of cd releases, then the dilemma of presenting the music is what is being discussed here.

Let's look at the natures of music by citing examples of different genres. In school, students are required to study the art of 12-tone composition. Considered a zenith of modern Western musical thought and innovation, to this day few modern composers directly borrow from the high development of 12-tone approaches.

For whatever reasons, the 12-tone approach fails to pull at the heart strings of human emotional response and perhaps for that singular reason, remains purely an academic conquest. The audiences for this music in its pure form are limited and for the most part a subset of the high brow music community, being mostly populated by the overboard music intellectual types. Compared to the shadows cast by composers such as Beethoven through Wagner, Schoenberg's 'science' is more often that not voted to the back row. But the 12-tone music is art....a pure art form.

Composers before stood at the crossroads between entertainment and art, because the culture of the times seemed to have equally balanced the two understandings. Music by the same composers existed as works for the 'state', for the 'folk houses' as well as for the church. Opera was pure entertainment while symphonies were art forms presented before the intellectual elite. "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" (Mozart) was a pop hit!

Even within the more prudent concert formats of European music, the 'stiffed' audience can follow the music forms and be appreciative of a well performed piece of music because they are involved enough with the performance to recognize the features of a cultural representation. Let's keep in mind, that it is only of today that the classical art forms are formal affairs when being presented. It wasn't that way when the 'great' composers were alive and relating directly to their people! Mozart, Beethoven along with violinist Nicolo Paganini and guitarist Mauro Guiliani (both of of whom were Beethoven associates) were the eqivilant to our modern rock stars, composing 'high art' with 'impossible' executions in sold out theatres with standing room only, all the while with throngs of women passing out to their performances and throwing to them their perfumed 'hankies'!! So was the world of our Western Classical music.

In our times, we recognize music traditions from America that stem from 'folk' to ragtime to blues and bluegrass to vaudeville. At the beginning of these 'art' forms, there was no separation between the idea of the art and the need to also serve as a resource for entertaining. Apart from the European concert format, all the world's cultural music forms have always included dance, costuming and audience participation.

So what can be distilled from the reality of creative music is that music is presented before an audience. No matter if the artists present themselves in formal concert attire and sit before their audience like bumps on a log, even to this end, to some extent, because the music is an experience of a live act, it is to a degree providing a means of entertainment.

It was not until the advent of the recording industry that the world could know music without the 'in person' presentation. That is probably why the marques of old would advertise with "Live in Person!" banners, because it was recognized that a large group of an artist's fans were miles from a theatre and only could enjoy a particular artist via a commercial recording.

To this day, by the very nature of human society, it remains important for the artist to have a visual-physical presence before their audience. And any kind of presence at all may be safely embraced as being on some level an idea of entertainment.

People are entertaining even without being stars. Just sit at a sidewalk cafe and is it not true that the passers-by are more entertaining than any reality TV show!!???

NOW, in the world of our modern music 'industry' we are confronted with the ideas of presenting music to the masses. This directive of targeting 'to the masses' is sustained for the obvious reason, ' to make as much money as possible'. This means that the artist has to be present to as many people as possible and with as much appeal as possible. It does not have to mean that the music being represented is cheap or insincerely dedicated to art.

True, there seems to be an over taking by the 'industry' with 'carbon copy' artists and 'cut-paste' music productions, which in my mind is a grotesque expression of competitive vying to usurp real culture. By implimenting the structures of popular cultural music (as witnessed by the forms that gave us infinite blues songs and 'tin pan alley' standard pop tunes), the 'machine' relentlessly churns out 'product music', irregardless of how it may afront the masses or as to how it artificially contributes to culture. Categories are neatly organized in packages for marketing. It seems that the more the 'industry' organizes music culture, especially in the world of jazz, with titles such as 'smooth jazz' and 'Today's R&B', the more disturbing it becomes to the creative musician and to the experienced appreciant.

Real culture reflects the needs, understandings and desires of the masses in accordence to what is found to be useful and effective expressions. The masses look to the artists for their cultural sustanance and revivals. Expressions that are no longer reflective of their 'modern' face are disgarded in favor of the new. This is where art becomes the door through which culture is both re-newed and preserved. 'Artificial' or 'contrived' culture therefore becomes an expression of a control, or in the extreme, a social slavery. Here, creative expression is emphasised to be entertainment because the modes of entertainment become the only viable means to purport the artificialities. Entertainment for entertainment's sake diminishes effective social messaging and the establishment of variant social codes.

To this front, the world of creative music culture has been forced to take a heavy blow. It is from under these influences and creepy shadows that the progressive, new cultural minded 'artistic' musician suffers for the light of day and for the ability to vent their efforts before un-washed out potential audience-receivers.

But who are these 'revolutionary' artist who see the music world as being either an art reality or a sell-out entertainment business? My answer is that they are the musicians who have relied on releasing cds with no idea of how to present the music before a live audience. If they did, then they would surely consider how to enhance a presentation with 'entertaining' qualities. And if they have thought as if the presentation does not matter compared to the music that is being performed (as though the music 'speaks for itself ' ) then they are dillusional, self absorbed and uncompassionate persons who obviously hold little regard for their ' yearning to be free ' audience "participants".

If nothing else, these musician-artist-producers are doing a good job of hiding behind their efforts as if they are part of some sort of artist elitist who are true to 'real' art, but have no clue as to what binds music and the audience together. Their popularity accounts for this as well as their bank accounts. By this standard, they are the exact opposite of the consuming money hungry modern 'industry' conglamorants by posing as arrogant 'real thingers'. This posturing is dull and boring and irritates most people.

I think what is being introduced by this article is forcing people to accept the extreme realities of 'real' art versus the inventions of five and ten cent musical entertainment packages. In truth, the full universe is and has always been present. Just as with the modern classical music artist, opera, Beethoven and modern composers are alive and well. So is Broadway and the pop song.

For the music artist who continues to fight the odds of being an entertainer ala a Michael Jackson or a Madonna (but haven't they given the world some of the greatest music of our times?) or like some obscured pure 'artistes' , the relief of their frustration could simply be to ask honestly of themselves what is the quality needed to get the respect and the praises of the masses, no matter how large the masses may be to your efforts.

The modern avant-garde musician is most often thoroughly convinced that what they are doing is real art. A quick check will reveal that their audience is limited to perhaps one in 200 persons who even nod their way. Yet, to them, everyone else around them is a cop-out artist, even if for only that they wear descent clothes to the gig. (But what about the avant-garde artist who sports avant-garde clothes designs?)

When bebop was first introduced, it was avant garde! But the people enjoyed it by dancing around the club like they was crazy!!! If Charlie Parker was the world's most famous junkie, then his music must be a reflection of himself, right? But who can listen to 'Bird' and nod out??? Nobody!!! Unlike most of today's modern avant-garde 'jazz' music, you need to be some how eliberated just to get through the experience of being either screamed at or in some other way having your senses abused.

Besides, the modern standard of music across the world is based off of the African-American model, accept it or not! And to express music absent of dance or costume or with an audience participation is not expressing music at all!

The trouble with explorations into the avant-garde is that this expression is aimed at combating recognized culture with more often than not futile efforts to find new cultural expressions. The failures are largely due to abrasive 'test' on their would-be audience members.

So to respond to the question of "is the music artist an entertainer or not?", my answer is that, " There is no full music expression without engaging your audience.....so how are you going to do it?....of whatever approach you may take to present yourself, the way that you may saunter to the stage may just be more entertaining than you could ever imagine!"

Now, let's all re-take our missions with a worthwhile presentation. It makes all the difference in the world.....literally!

On Ka'a Davis
April 1, 2009

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