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Music: community and commodity

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Ian Tamblyn has written more than 1,500 songs over his lifetime and released more than 30 albums, earning a Juno nomination and a Canadian Folk Music Award in the process.  So we were thrilled here at Roots Music Canada when he offered to share some of his wisdom with us.  Ian has reflected on and written about many facets of artistic life over the years, and we’ll be publishing some of those writings in the coming weeks.  Thank you, Ian!

Last year I had the opportunity to read a wonderful book by Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. It begins with an anthropological look at the giving and receiving of gifts around the world and the cultural expectations and associations surrounding them. For example, on the Kula Ring in the South Pacific, a shell necklace sent off to a neighbouring island to an unknown recipient carried no expectation of return in kind to the giver. And yet, there was a serious expectation that the shell necklace would find another unknown recipient. On Haida Gwaii, tribal chiefs held Potlatch ceremonies and gave away extravagant presents as a show of wealth and generosity and, by extension, the power of the gift. Chiefs could effectively bankrupt themselves several times in a lifetime as an expression of their wealth. In many cases these presents were art pieces. 

Hyde then turns his attention to art and the creative act that spawns an art form as the wellspring of “the gift.” He goes on to talk about the nature of the creative act as a gift in the first place, which comes from “the muse“ – you name it – harnessed and shaped by craft, and this becomes an artifact and the creator an artist. How this original act of creation remains a gift and the degree to which it becomes a commodity has become a fascination for me. How is intention and integrity maintained?  At what point is original intent completely lost?

Now some might say that the purity of the gift is compromised the second you leave the house. When I left the house some 30 years ago, I knew very little of this. I naively hoped to become a folk musician as it seemed to be a good way to attend to one’s life. I believed I had a gift to share. Truth told, I was merely part of the folk music revival that grew out of New York and Boston in the late fifties. The thrust of that explosion hit Thunder Bay somewhat later, but nevertheless, I was still swept away by it. I was attracted by the music’s intimacy, the sound, its sense of history, the social message many songs imparted, and, to no lesser extent, the community associated with it. It was a community in which there were like-minded folk who supported acceptable commodification of the gift of song. And yet, what happened to folk’s big bang speaks to Hyde’s concerns about the commodification of the gift and the ongoing dilemma of one’s relationship to the music industry.

As the folk revival gained momentum, it became more popular in the mass culture, and with that popularity came the prospect of making a lot of money. This prospect was enhanced by the phenomenon of the singer-songwriter, where the money from the gift could be doubled by both the publication of song and the performance of song by multiple artists as well as the author. The partnership of Bob Dylan, artist, and Albert Grossman, manager, set a new mold for gift-giver and venture capitalist. Up until that time there was a music industry, and there were pop writers who wrote songs for pop artists. But the folk music community was not part of the music industry because there wasn’t enough money to be made in it. However, with the folk music revival and the post-war baby boom to fuel and add numbers to the equation, suddenly the economy of scale was such that the sharks became interested in the goldfish bowl.  What took place in that folk revival and to the artists associated with it, continues today in microcosm with each person who enters the trade.

I would like to go back to the gift of music and song as one is about to leave the house . Within the community of folk music there are those that would contend that the compromise of the gift begins with how you leave the house—as an amateur or professional. If one leaves the house with an amateur’s intent, there is less danger of commodification, for the gift is often given freely at sessions, open stage nights, etc. It is better for the person of amateur intent to avoid writing songs because of the slippery slope of commodification. The compromise is set in motion when the amateur is asked to play a folk festival, and remuneration is offered. The amateur is tested further when considering recording and selling an album. The very entry point of recording an album using microphones is enough to send the true of soul scuttling back to home and closet. And yet, there is all that time that has gone into the amateur’s craft, the increasing call for a higher level of craftsmanship by fellow amateurs, and folk festival directors who are looking for a degree of, heaven forbid, professionalism when choosing a roster of artists.

Then, there is the professional who leaves his or her house. The professional is professional, no doubt about it. He or she has put a lot of work into the craft and yet hopes to maintain a level of integrity similar to the amateur.  But jeez Louise wouldn’t it be nice to make a little money, maybe even a have hit. And there’s a record deal if I just sign on the dotted line, and wasn’t that a shame about the small print, and now the whining in the bar about being screwed by the record industry. At some point along this sad road, it was also said the professional sold out—the gift they offered was compromised. 

I would suggest that between these two extremes walk you and I on any given day.  And yet, no matter who we are leaving the house, the gaping maw of North American society awaits all of us. Even if we go forth with the best of intentions, the bearer of the gift is struck with overwhelming attitudes towards the value of the gift, the most prevalent being the relationship to numbers.

“Have I ever heard of you on the radio?”; “How many units have you sold?”; “Have you had any hits?”; “Are you playing under the lights?” Or the corollary “If you’re so good, why are you playing here?” 

I could go on here, but you get the drift.  The most insidious of these assaults is the notion of the restricted commodity heightening the value of the art. I say insidious because it is so all-pervasive. It is the rubric that stands behind art in cathedrals. It creates hierarchical relationships among artists based on their drawing and selling power. It encourages commodification on one level by restricting the sharing of the gift. It is a system that we all buy into. If, for example, a musician shares his gift freely in the community, playing benefits, political events, etc. it is considered a detriment when that same musician tries to get a concert in the same city. The audience who has benefited from the musician’s gift in the community will turn around and say that they will see that musician at the next benefit.  The concert promoter will say the musician has played too much in the area. Some may say if the musician was playing for some such cause, he or she can’t be that good. The irony is that, in North American society, the restricted viewing of the artist comes with the purpose of greater financial gain and increased product sales. When this is running at its max, the gift is thoroughly corrupted if there ever was a gift at all. And yet we are all seduced; perhaps by the gift that remains: the song that said it all one time on late night radio. 

The result of all this in the folk community is often confusion and a measure of schizophrenia between both artist and audience.  I would like to return to an earlier comment.  I stated that I thought the folk musician’s world was a good way to attend to one’s life. I still believe that firmly. I like the gentle level on which the gift is received and the level at which it is commodified. I think integrity can be maintained within this community. But if I am responsible to the community, then I think the community is responsible as well. If I attend to my work, if the gift I offer is good, if I support the community in every way I can, is it not incumbent on the community to support me in kind? Is it not important for the supporting community to be aware of the pitfalls of North American cultural thinking and to resist patterned processes? Or do you take the gift from the artist yet leave them to the vagaries of the marketplace?  Should numbers count?  I would like to understand better the expectations and responsibilities of the gift and the relationship with community. I think it is important for citizens of this folk community to care for all of its constituents if it is to be considered a community at all.

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