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Blog // Sounds
April 28, 2011

Standing In The Ruin’s Shadow

Esperanza Spalding is an extraordinarily talented young Jazz musician. Like a lot of jazz fans, I was thrilled when she recently won the Grammy for best new artist. I have no great love for the Grammies (as I’ve previously written), but it was great to see a young artist who has the potential to become […]

Weathered Table

Esperanza Spalding is an extraordinarily talented young Jazz musician. Like a lot of jazz fans, I was thrilled when she recently won the Grammy for best new artist. I have no great love for the Grammies (as I’ve previously written), but it was great to see a young artist who has the potential to become a legend in her genre recognised in this way.

However, not everyone agrees with that assessment. One can forgive the outrage that came from young Justin Bieber fans. But, less forgivable was the attitude of some in the music industry who dismissed Spalding’s success (and it’s kind of revealing when music “experts” and “professionals” admit to being unfamiliar with her work!)

In particular, Steve Stoute created something of a minor sensation by placing an ad in the New York Times, criticising the award of Best New Artist to Spalding. He then made a bit of a mess explaining his actions in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter

“…there are many people who hadn’t even heard of her. By the way, this was her third album, not her first, but she wins Best New Artist over Drake and Justin Bieber? How did this happen? I was sitting there watching the awards show with very prominent executives, one of them had to Google her. And I’m not saying I don’t like her music, because that’s not the point. What Drake and Justin Bieber did to cut through and become global brands, it’s hard for anybody to argue that they’re not Best New Artist.”

I think the New York Magazine’s Vulture blog nailed it with their interpretation of what Stoute’s argument, in both his original invective and his subsequent restatement,

“What he’s trying to say is, There does exist a general consensus on who should win, and when that general consensus is again and again not represented, something is wrong. What he is saying is, The people who sell the most should automatically get more consideration. The main takeaway here — that the voting system appears to be flawed and the option of changing it should at least be explored — Vulture agrees with. But saying that an artist deserves an award because they sold more, rather than saying an artist deserves an award because they had more of a cultural impact, doesn’t make sense.”

I’m not opposed to the commercialisation of music. In fact, I strongly agree with Jaron Lanier’s assessment, in You Are Not A Gadget, that when we allow a cultural form to become non-commercial, while the rest of society remains capitalistic, we create a ghetto. Music today, online and in society at large, is largely a ghetto now – full of counterfeiters and thieves, full of ads and full of desperation.

Of course, by jazz standards, Spalding is a commercial success. Moreover, as a teaching-artist (something I’ve commented on before) she represents a sustainable model for other musicians to follow. Regardless of whether that merits a Grammy award or not, it’s a important message for young people to hear.

When I was at school, the most dispiriting experiences I had often involved visits to our school careers counsellor. I remember one conversation where I talked about a career in music.

Him – you can’t make a living in music.
Me – our school employs two full time music teachers.
Him – but, you have to study to be a music teacher.
Me – well, you have to study to be a mechanic as well.

OK, so I was a smart aleck at school. But, the point is still valid. If you are willing to study, work hard, make sacrifices, there should be paths to a working future in a field where people make money.

Once thing that always feels healthier, to me, about the photographic industry when compared to the music industry is that the “path to pro,” is so solid. If you are in some other career and want to try and make it as “pro” photographer, then if you have a bit of talent, are willing to really invest time and money in your future and have a work ethic, then the industry bends to towards you.

Music is starting to become like that as well, but it’s many years behind the photographic world. There are online courses and an increasing number of ways to buy the services major labels once provided, on a needs basis. But, we still live in the shadow of the music industry’s ruins.

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