"The soul selects her own society, then shuts the door."
Facing Transformation in Technology, Law, and Policy
Emily Dickinson couldn't have found a more perfect way to describe how so many artists and artist advocates approach the world.1 It is tempting to give ourselves over to the rare work that fires our inspiration, and shut the door on everything else. It is often only in nurturing isolation and fringe communities that new ideas find their full flower. But there is a danger in the isolation.
As an artist I have had hands-on experience with this self-preserving and creative isolation. When I first began to make and listen to what was then called "Hardcore punk rock" music in the early '80s, you couldn't hear this expression on the radio. You could not read about it in newspapers or magazines and you would never see it depicted correctly on TV. This music was decidedly outsider, utopian, political, and created in conscientious objection to the bombastic commercial art forms that thrived under MTV's blinding plastic spotlight.
As the music developed, so did the audience. We looked for new ways to record, manufacture, distribute, and promote our music and in so doing we created businesses that embodied the egalitarian ideology of our art. We established equitable contract structures with 50/50 splits, we let artists own their copyrights, we traded tour lists and radio station lists and lists of best practices. Slowly a fleet of spectacularly inspiring and deeply exciting labels emerged with innovative artists who toured the world to spread the punk rock message. We had created a parallel economy. In my punk life I ran my own label, I owned my own copyrights, I booked my own tours. I believed that by honing my art and building a parallel economy with my selected isolated society I would be protected from the devastation of the commercial economy that chewed up artist peers. I was right about that...but only for a time. Once the commercial economy became interested in my parallel economy all bets were off.
In the moment that the grunge band Nirvana crossed over from fringe to mainstream the parallel economies collided. Almost immediately we found ourselves competing with international corporations. The major labels cherry-picked the best Indie artists. The increasingly consolidated radio dial ignored emerging art that wasn't affiliated with major label dollars, the big box stores like Best Buy that sold CDs as loss leaders to draw in the refrigerator-buying crowd made it impossible for mom and pop record stores to compete and survive. In a newly constrained market, Indie artists flocked to majors where they fed their dreams, their art, and their copyrights as fuel into the machine they had once existed to defy.
Initially exciting and ultimately devastating as this was for punk rock, ours was not a unique history. Substitute the word punk with the word folk and imagine the rise and fall of a vibrant '60s folk music scene of coffee houses in Boston, San Francisco, and Greenwich Village. Change the word folk to jazz and watch similar histories play out through smoke-filled jazz clubs and juke joints in New Orleans and Chicago. Listening to the classical masterpieces of American Public Media's American Mavericks series, I see brethren innovators of classical music exploring and building parallel isolated communities and economies.
Call it navel gazing, call it community, but whatever you call it...the isolation and focus that is so natural and so necessary for building all genres of new art contains within it the seed that will ultimately destroy that art's own creative engine. It is not just a convenient parallel to say that our greatest strength is often our greatest undoing. Adrienne Rich said it best in her beautiful poem “Power,” which muses on the ironic tragedy of the radiation exposure death of Marie Curie, the scientist who first discovered radium.2
her wounds came from the same source as her power
When I look at established, genre-focused art communities turning in a determined and isolated way toward curating, commissioning, and creating and away from the impending structural transformation in technology, law, and policy, I see a younger version of my artist self, denying that the commercial industry could touch my utopian independent world. I see a dying woman denying her wounds.
Viewed from one-thousand feet up, individual artists from all genres and disciplines are struggling with similar needs. Yes, they need community and resources and space to create but, increasingly, it is the larger legal, commercial, and media structures that are undermining the future life of the work, even as it is being created. Artists need access to promotion, to audiences. They need legal resources, equitable contracts, and bargaining power. They need respectful coordination across genres and a good understanding of these and many other complicated challenges and opportunities. Most importantly they need the numbers to stand up to industries and hard data to tell their stories in hearings, in court cases, in board-rooms, in the press, and to themselves.
A tremendous and exciting opportunity faces both artists and arts supporters right now, one where energy and resources will mean the difference between simple access to the airwaves and actual ownership of them — the difference between diversity that is simply nurtured and diversity that is built-in structurally.
Never before have so many technologies offered so much possibility. But these possibilities will not establish themselves to serve the art we love without our focus. For a small percentage of our time, artists and artist supporters must turn away from the creation and support of the art we love in order to save the art we love. Taking time to shift our focus away from our own art, which can distract us from larger structural dangers and opportunities, also broadens our focus beyond the art world. For many artists, it is becoming clear that they must reach out in this way to survive. Why are some musicians so quick to engage the philanthropic efforts surrounding Katrina? Because they experience similar forms of abandonment and lack of representation. They understand the health concerns of the poor because they experience them. A coalition of doctors and artists working for universal health care is stronger than a group of artists trying to get a cheap artist-focused health plan.
By broadening our focus we expand our footholds, our numbers. We become more effective. We will not only see the connections between media and art, but build them into our structures of support. If access to local classical radio stations is a key indicator of the health of a local symphony orchestra (as recent research suggests), then research and advocacy concerning local radio policy must be an essential part of orchestra planning and support. If expanded copyright and sample clearance licenses are having a chilling effect on the legality of music collage so that only major-label affiliated artists can afford to sample, then lawyers, media justice workers, and researchers must be included in projects that protect this vibrant art form and that enable archiving international hip hop.
For every creative act there are policy platforms beyond NEA funding. And while these new arenas (copyright law, radio policy, etc.) are initially daunting for the policy-averse, they afford us new opportunities for coalitions that are far broader than those afforded us by single-mindedly focusing on the arts, even if we were ever able to get all genres of artists to agree to one thing.
Regardless of whether the exciting prospects offered by digital technologies are outweighed by the somewhat terrifying notion that the industry may be turned on its head, the reality is that a digital transformation is occurring. And the only way to ensure that artists will “lose” in this transformation of the landscape is if they and those who care about them fail to engage in the conversations that will lead to new policies, technologies, and business models.
- The title for this piece is the first two lines of poem 303 by Emily Dickinson, c. 1862.
- From “Power” by Adrienne Rich, from The Dream of a Common Language, (New York: Norton, 1974).