The arts, but… (plus a new way to finance recordings)

In today’s Boston Globe (Sunday, April 12), a librarian named Karen Zundel is quoted, talking about why she loves the arts:

“The arts are what sustain us and bring individuals and communities

together and help us to connect with our innermost beings,” Zundel

says. “A new car won’t do that. When you buy a new car or a new outfit,

you get that little thrill that lasts very temporarily, and then it’s

gone. But I think art really sustains me. It lasts.”

Nicely put, and of course it’s exactly the kind of thing professional arts advocates like to say. But what artist got Zundel talking like that? Ellis Paul, a New England singer-songwriter, who’d dropped his record label and instead raised money from his fans to finance his next album. Zundel was explaining why she’s saved up money to make a contribution.

Which demonstrates the truth of what I said in my posts about the arts and popular culture. (Here and here.) In our time, many people — maybe most people, and certainly most younger people — don’t separate popular culture and art. Art is where you find it, and popular culture is just as likely to produce art as the formal, established, funded, capital-A arts. Certainly Karen Zundel seems to think so. Or, to put it differently, if we think of art the way Karen Zundel does, then popular culture (or lots of it) is art.

The Globe piece, by the way, is fascinating reading. And even better is one on the same subject from USA Today. It’s a model that, I think, can easily work in classical music. Get your fans to finance the recording you want to make, by paying for it before you record it. Some will even give you lots of money. Read the stories, and see.

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Comments

  1. Karen Zundel says

    Greg, my “Ellis Paul” Google alert delivered your blog report to my e-mail inbox. I must admit I was surprised to find my quote from yesterday’s Globe article in your blog. Frankly, I hadn’t thought of Ellis Paul’s music as being “popular culture” so you’ve opened a bit of a watershed for me….and I’m attempting to digest your two earlier posts on “the arts in popular culture”. Are you familiar with Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto? I love this passage from her novel (and share it often!):

    “Some people are born to make great art and others are born to appreciate it. It is a kind of talent in itself, to be an audience, whether you are the spectator in the gallery or you are listening to the voice of the world’s greatest soprano. Not everyone can be the artist. There have to be those who witness the art, who love and appreciate what they have been privileged to see.”

    Kind regards,

    Karen Zundel

    The speed of the Internet…it’s now the day after Karen posted her comment, and we’ve already exchanged enough e-mail to be like old friends.

    And note that she doesn’t think Ellis Paul is popular culture because he isn’t popular. Which reinforces yet another point I’ve been making for quite a while. Not all of popular culture — as we understand popular culture from the arts side of the fence — is popular. Which eliminates one of the last excuses — for those of us in the arts — for conceding that popular culture can be art. Although here we run into the toxic old supposed distinction between art and popularity. Some of us believe that if something’s popular, it can’t be artistic. And even the history of classical music disproves that. (Just think of Verdi.)

    All these theoretical/ideological discussions pale, though, around someone like Karen. She loves music, she’s devoted to the artists she likes. And that’s what it’s really about, isn’t it?

  2. brett says

    This has been going on for awhile. Jazz composer Maria Schneider has done something similar. And Prince even had a record club that you could join and get exclusive recordings. It seems as though this is something that works better AFTER a performer has established an audience the traditional way, because that’s still the best way to get widely known. I doubt if Jill Sobule could have gotten fans to finance her new album if they hadn’t first encountered her through the traditional outlets. Which leads to a world that’s exactly the opposite of what it used to be: first, get on a major label, THEN go indie! We’re in wonderland now for sure.

    Terrific point. I also think that many people have taken the major record label > indie route because they had to — because the major labels didn’t want them any more.

    And there are other models, too. You can develop a large following online, and make notable (if not gigantic) money selling downloads. And then develop a touring career from that. And then, I’m sure, you could finance an album.

    I think Seth Godin’s recent blog post — at http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2009/04/first-ten-.html — outlines the basic strategy. Find 10 people who support you. They’ll tell more people, and your fame will spread. If, that is, you’re doing something that connects with people. Of course, being on a major label (and being on the radio, etc., etc.) can start the process moving much faster, but the process — along with major labels — might not be available in the future.

  3. says

    Greg,

    I wanted to note that I think you are spot-on when you say “many people — maybe most people, and certainly most younger people — don’t separate popular culture and art. Art is where you find it, and popular culture is just as likely to produce art as the formal, established, funded, capital-A arts.” I have had those thoughts before, but haven’t been able to express them in words as affectively as I feel you have managed. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  4. Kay says

    Greg:

    Such a relief to read your opinion.

    I’m not sure that boat hasn’t sailed forever altho there are many artists who can’t accept the all encompassing definition of an artist.

    I am a contributing editor at Sculpture Magazine and I can see the end of my art writing career coming in the near future. The confusion of ‘art’ (something that has to do with making stuff rather than quoting it) with popular culture is already too extensive. The mix is just another part of a democratizing process which blends writing,art making, music, into one bland entity.

    The most interesting thing about this kind of genre blending is that there is fundamentally nothing that can be said about it beyond simple description. It’s everything and nothing.

    My grad students always seemed to want their work to exist in some arena beyond criticism or impervious to it; and now they have it complete with soundtrack.

  5. Kay says

    Greg:

    Such a relief to read your opinion.

    I’m not sure that boat hasn’t sailed forever altho there are many artists who can’t accept the all encompassing definition of an artist.

    I am a contributing editor at Sculpture Magazine and I can see the end of my art writing career coming in the near future. The confusion of ‘art’ (something that has to do with making stuff rather than quoting it) with popular culture is already too extensive. The mix is just another part of a democratizing process which blends writing,art making, music, into one bland entity.

    The most interesting thing about this kind of genre blending is that there is fundamentally nothing that can be said about it beyond simple description. It’s everything and nothing.

    My grad students always seemed to want their work to exist in some arena beyond criticism or impervious to it; and now they have it complete with soundtrack.

  6. Saul Davis says

    Popular culture is not Art. It is not Culture. It is culture. It is a byproduct of society. People go into popular culture to make money, to be popular, to “express themselves”, none of which have any place in Art. They also reinforce their attitudes when writing, by ignoring the existence of real Art. When writing about popular music, it is always referred to as Music or music, as if no other music exists. The definition of art has not changed, only its usage. Art requires the primacy of esthetic decisions, highly refined technique, great knowledge, great talent, and it usually based in some tradition, as it takes more than one generation to learn enough to make great art.

    That does not mean other creativity does not exist. There is still craftsmanship, and artisanry. Does that apply to making bread? I doubt it. One of the lessons an artist continually learns is humility. Those who market ordinary products as art or craft lack humility. Popular culture is a commercialized version of folk culture. It is the equivalent of junk food, and it is sad that more people don’t outgrow it and turn to serious Culture. But that also has to do with marketing and its brainwashing techniques.

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