Via my favorite maven Bob Lefsetz comes a letter from Bob Ezrin that addresses the reasons why there’s so much commerce and so little art in music today. It’s not on Lefestz Letter yet, so I’ll quote rather than link.
Ezrin praises Trent Reznor for refusing to capitulate to his handlers’ demands over the years. Like Lefsetz, he sees this as the reason for Nine Inch Nails’ enduring success. Single minded vision defines true artists. By contrast, the business is now the enemy of art; it wasn’t always this way, Ezrin says:
Once upon a time, we had a business built by passionate amateurs who revered the artists and who became their protectors, advocates and promoters. These folks didn’t presume to tell their artists what to do. Oh, every once in a while, they might beg and plead for more or different to help them to do their job, but they NEVER imposed their creative will on the people they most admired in all the world. And so we had a landscape of determined individualists who made very individual music – lots of it. We all know who they were – and some still are. But now the biggest part of the business is run by cold hearted professionals whose reverence is for the bottom line first and last – and who think nothing of imposing their ideas and will on the people they sign. And most of those signings are not because they are enthralled by genius or art but because they smell “a hit” or know that someone else does and that they’d better get in there first.
We need a few more “passionate amateurs” – but really, there are many already. With a focus on blockbuster hits and conventional wisdom, we tend to miss the fact that there are a lot of artists who manage to be true to their vision. Everyone else is auditioning for American Idol, but who cares? Ezrin ends with a nod to the O.G. of music men, Ahmet Ertegun:
So, what’s the biggest lesson here? It is that, if we can all agree to do as Ahmet recommended and surround ourselves with brilliant people and help those people to develop their craft, their own voice, and become artists making things of real value, we might see our way into the next golden age of popular music.
I’m not saying that blockbusters aren’t “things of real value,” but there’s not much on the charts these days to convince me otherwise. Even today’s blockbusters are selling poorly compared to the last golden age – when Ezrin was unleashing Alice Cooper on the world and producing “The Wall” – so it seems that I’m not alone in my thinking.