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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

To The Ones Who Have Failed

Somewhere in the city, somewhere in the room,
a silent man, a work undone, a plan that went astray.

Somewhere in the limetime of a yearning reverie,
Words have lost their meaning on the fragile stage of fame.

- Sieges Even

This is the first in a series of articles I wanted to write about the state of making music today. In this article I want to look at a few of the reasons behind why bands break up and musicians quit. Progessive bands today seem come and go at a steady pace. For every band who releases music I can't begin to estimate how many bands have disappeared before they produce anything tangible. In music it takes a considerable amount of time energy to develop the technical skills required to write and record good music. Those who would care to make music today had better take note of those who came before them because most who have tried, quit.

I've been practicing art in one form or another for most of my life and have hit roadblocks and gone through dry spells along the way. We often leave our work unfinished, put things off, and we get frustrated. Bands break up, musicians stop practicing, artists stop producing art, photographers stop making pictures, and the list goes on. To explore why this happens I want to look at some of the obstacles that get in the way as musicians go about accomplishing their work. I think it's important for us to understand why making music today is not easy.

Musicians differ from most other artists like painters, sculptors, poets, photographers, and writers in that they typically must form a band in order to practice their art. For them good communication and interpersonal skills are essential in the exchange of ideas between the band members. But sadly it's an area where many musicians are lacking and can be a source of friction. Let's face it, people can be downright nasty with one another. They can be egotistical, selfish, socially withdrawn, narcissistic, stubborn, or have many other negative traits that create barriers to effective communication. In addition to that band members may can have differences in their beliefs or religions, political ideology, level of perfectionism, or on the use of drugs. Human beings are just often times conflicted. But if we were all perfect, there wouldn't be much point in making music in the first place because writing music about our flaws is often what connects listeners with their music.

Developing the skills necessecary to play an instrument takes time, and those who take up the challenge must sit and practice alone for countless hours. For this reason it's a task best suited for the introverted. After all, the socialites would rather be out with others than sitting in a room by themselves. It's a sad irony then that lots of these people who have taken the time to get good at playing an instrument have insufficient social skills to work effectively as a part of a team in a band. I'm generalizing here. There are probably lots of cases of introverts being good communicators. But generally speaking it's not the case. According to Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen, "People with introverted personality traits feel overwhelmed more quickly than extroverts do - especially in group settings." In any case, I'll cast my ballot that human conflict is probably the biggest reason why bands break up.

Aside from communication, unrealistic expectations might play a part in why bands break up. Imagine for a moment a young new band who are eager to write and release a record. After a great deal of practice, toil, and expense they finally create a finished product. With great excitement and anticipation they send off their CD to some reviewers, radio stations, music stores, and of course friends and family. Then they wait... and they wait. After some time they may find their original expectations were unrealistic because sales of their work are only coming in at a trickle. They did not gain the notariety they expected, or maybe they received some less than flattering reviews. They may be discouraged at having gained only a small fan base. The harsh reality of the situation is that for a new band with a new album there is no good reason why anyone should deeply care about their music except for the band themselves, their managers, and perhaps their close friends and family. Why should the listeners care when there are hundreds or thousands of others CDs out there just like it that they can choose from? The listeners have not witnessed first hand everything that went into it's creation. But these young bands have a certain degree of naivety and might start to question themselves and whether they made the right choices when they made the album. This scenario is probably an all too common pitfall for a new band and an easy excuse for them to break up.

Let's talk for a moment about a much deeper topic. Fear. There are many reasons why fear might have a bearing on why bands quit. Making music or any art is a very self-revealing activity. A musician must bring forth the skills that they've developed over the years and are typically expected to reveal some very personal feelings in their lyrics. This makes them vulnerable. It's natural to be uneasy about how their very personal work will be received by others. They might have an underlying fear that they aren't good enough or as good as others. It might seem to them like making music comes much easier for others so maybe they are just faking it and aren't 'real' musicians. Making music is hard after all, and they're just ordinary people. They might even begin to fantasize that these other bands that they look up to are extraordinary or have some kind of magical gift from which all of their work flows out of them effortlessly.

Statistics show that young drivers of motor vehicles are much more apt to get in accidents. These drivers are new to the rules of the road and are a little unsure of themselves and how to control their vehicle in a variety of situations. As a driver matures they learn, hopefully through more trial than error, how the car behaves and how to effectively anticipate and avoid hazards. As musicians writing music we begin the same way. It's only through lots of hard work that people can hone their abilities, omitting what doesn't work and sticking with what does. It's also called style. The only way to make good music is to start making music and lots of it. Ansel Adams once said that no good photographer is worth his salt unless he has 10,000 bad negatives under his belt. The problem is that we often fault ourselves for our mistakes and use it as a reason to give up.

But what if, as in the previous analogy, the rules of the road kept changing? We now drive on the other side of the road. Stop now means right turn only, yellow light is go, you must stop for all turning cars, and the rules kept changing all the time. You could try and stick with the basics but each time you drive your car you make mistakes and you begin to doubt your ability or even wonder if you really know how to drive a car at all. It sounds silly but it's an even worse situation when you write music, especially progressive music, because there are no rules. It's a stifling affair and it's easy to see why there are so many 'clone' bands out there who are following the rules of others instead of inventing their own.

Another big factor is when musician's lose the venue or audience for their work. For me this was the day I went to college and I moved away from my bandmates and friends. All of the reasons I had for making music were suddenly gone. I did continue studying music in college and eventually received a music degree, but getting a college degree for many art and music students can also become a loss of venue. After carefully cultivating their talents with hard work, peer support, and critique over four years, graduation day comes and they are suddenly left all alone in the world trying to make a living. It's very difficult to write music in a vacuum with little support, encouragement, or feedback from others.

Bands might also quit when their vision doesn't meet reality. Artists have vivid pretty imaginations and it can be frustrating to have the perfect idea floating around in their heads that they can't seem to bring to life. Its's a constant chase trying to form reality around the visions from their mind's eye, but the reality is the mind's eye is always faster and better. As a result they might convince themselves they will fail before they can finish so they give up trying.

Lastly, people quit because they get bored. Part of the joy of creating something is learning how to do that something well and to explore all of the avenues to achieve technical perfection. It's a sad fact then that once we master the medium and it's time to get busy, we lose our motivation and quit.

When people suddenly stop making music or art it's often a subconscious act. That is to say they don't just decide one day "that's it, I'm finished." Instead they lose motivation, postpone, and delay. It may be after some time before they consciously realize what has happened, but by then it may be too late. There may be little motivation left to try and go back to where they were because they might have already move on to something else or grown out of it.

With all of this adversity, is quite remarkable that some bands can stay together, or importanly they have learned how not to quit. Many bands can get along together quite well and have learned how to get beyond their past mistakes. They have accepted who they are with all of their flaws and still continue to plod on despite whatever differences they might have with eachother. They realized that their job is to make music and not to care so much about what others might think. Rush is still together after 35 years and 19 studio albums, J. D. Salinger continued to write novels until he died at age 91, Monet was painting water lilies in his 80's, and Ansel Adams pursued photography until his death. Learning how not to quit. That's the key.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

In Praise of Small Groups Within the Prog Community

Clive Thompson wrote a short article in the Feb 2010 issue of Wired Magazine called "in Praise of Online Obscurity" where he talks about how social circles begin to break down as they increase in size. He says that in small groups people are more intimate as they are part of a community where they can contribute and express their feelings and ideas openly, but in larger groups they become just another member of an anonymous mass. The article got me thinking about just how valid his points related to the various prog circles on the internet.

He writes:

"After all, the world’s bravest and most important ideas are often forged away
from the spotlight — in small, obscure groups of people who are passionately
interested in a subject and like arguing about it. They’re willing to experiment
with risky or dumb concepts because they’re among intimates. (It was, after all,
small groups of marginal weirdos that brought us the computer, democracy, and
the novel.)"

In a related research study, it was determined that 150 friends is upper limit on what the human brain is able to simultaneously keep track of.

I frequently visit certain small forums dedicated to prog music where people discuss new and old releases, give short reviews, and alert others to good bands that they have recently found. The interesting aspect of all this is how close-knit the communities are and the wide variety of people within them. Friends in these groups can be musicians, record labels, graphic designers, album reviewers, management agencies, web site representatives, and of course fans. The importance of these communities is that there's a feeling of togetherness where they can speak out with relative impunity and the rest of group will listen to what they have to say. When a hotly anticipated new release comes out everybody weighs in their thoughts on it and the people who made the CD are right there to read the critiques. These groups function as a think tank that can effectively sort out the good and the bad, so they become a self-correcting influence on the people within the group who are making the music.

Another interesting aspect of these small groups it that people in the group become advocates of certain bands and act like their personal promotion agency. From what I've observed it's an amazingly effective way at getting the word out about new music, more so even than the various web sites dedicated to reviewing CDs. I think a person is more apt to take the advice of a friend they know and trust over others on other web sites who they don't. I have little doubt that I have increased the visibility of some bands and even helped a few get signed by agencies or labels as a direct result of my own posturing in some of these groups.

If there's a downside to all of this it's that within these small groups there's a familiarity between members and they tend to view newcomers as outsiders. Depending on the person's background it usually takes a long while for somebody new to gain enough respect within the group for people to start calling them a friend. Another potential downside is that these groups tend to be somewhat rigid in their ideals, so the focus of one particular group is often for a similar look and sound.

It's interesting to think about how these small groups might play a role in how music is written and composed. From my experience some of the most creative and unusual music was created in a relative vacuum of outside influence, while 'popular' music generally must conform to a larger community/industry standard. The prog world is filled with thousands of niche bands with their own unique sound. I think a good deal of the individuality of prog music comes as a direct result of the bands interacting with a very small number of influences and supporters.