A few weeks ago, on summer evening, while I was enjoying a beautiful evening and ignoring a painfully loud and poorly mixed live music show at the outdoor performance theater in my hometown, I was again reminded of the connection between money and art. Mostly, I was reminded of how much money it takes to survive in the arts. Live music doesn’t require a lot of money, but musicians and venues will pick money over quality and talent every time. Concert riders are all about demanding a fair amount of money be spent to “earn” the right to suffer a collection of musicians’ egos. Venue budgets, especially publically financed venues, are all about building empires and bragging rights.
A feature of getting old is that everything reminds you of every other thing you’ve lived through. Listening to the mess of a mix that night reminded me of my first show in West Hollywood’s Roxy Theater. This is a bit of a convoluted memory, but most of mine are. Our band, Sum Fun, was scheduled to go on fairly early in the show and the house mixer was a little pissed that I wasn’t willing to let him do his usual damage to the band. There was no real sound check, since the audience was mostly there long before any of the bands showed up. The house FOH guy had removed the console’s labeling, with an eraser and fingernail polish remover, from every control on the console; as job security. I got through the show, but it wasn’t much fun. When we were loading out, after the last act played and the crowd went home, I saw the house sound guy climb into a new Mercedes and drive off. No way could he afford that on the pittance the Roxy paid him, but it is par for the course. You just have to assume that anyone who can afford to diddle with music for a living is either willing to live on the edge of catastrophe or is someone who has a pile of trust fund money as a security blanket. More often, these days, it’s the second case.
I’m not the only person thinking that rich kids are becoming the only people who can afford to be in the arts. Actual artists have been dropping out of the game for decades, leaving the field to those with trust funds and no real pressing need to create anything other than something to fill the time and ward off boredom. Making art is expensive, especially art that requires technology; like live sound. The problem with stuffing the arts with bored rich kids is that those kids are rarely particularly talented, motivated, or even interested in art. A typical artistic compromise is for an actual artist to marry someone with a paying gig. That “solution” has its own set of problems, of course.
Unfortunately, having money and having taste are rarely combined. Like that summer evening’s sonic disaster, the big bucks spent to acquire the necessary equipment to make the rider author happy did not result in a musical event. The combination did produce the usual boom-and-screech mess we used to call the “Peavey smile” theory of sonic madness. A combination of a speaker system with lots of 100-250Hz and the usual combination of harsh sounding horns and SM58’s that results in a 6-15dB peak at 3-6kHz often results in a kneejerk EQ response to supplement those characteristics with other non-musical frequencies. Most AM radios can do that job perfectly awfully, although you can usually understand the words on an AM radio.
I’m becoming convinced that the connection between money is negative. Artists are people who are driven to do something—things like play music, paint, sculpt, write, sing, dance, and even play sports—they will do those things with or without money; if they are artists. If they are just self-promoters, money is a requirement. That’s why you will often find some of the most amazing talent in the most obscure places; like small town open mic evenings. Likewise, characters like Kanye West or the vast and talentless array of posing, Auto-Tuned, lip-sync’ing metal and pop singers who, apparently, are swimming in money demonstrate no talent at all. Every time I hear someone claim some big money star is the “greatest [fill in the blank] ever,” I suspect that person doesn’t get out much.
I was reminded of this when a small Unitarian Universalist group my wife and I belonged to suddenly decided it need to “progress” beyond being a friendly group of like-minded people who got together to talk about life, the universe, and everything to an “organization” with salaries and financial committments from the members. Initially, the group was roughly formed around a retired UU minister who decided he wasn’t yet ready to retire because he still felt the need to “preach.” Some friends of his decided it would be ok to be an audience, so he wouldn’t feel like one of those crazy dudes on street corners in L.A. shouting about the Apocolypse or some such silly crap. After a few meetings, the retired minister decided he needed to be paid for talking to us. Minnesotans are notoriously passive-aggressive and while several people expressed disappointment that the group was morphing into something different than what they were hoping to build, most went along with the change. My wife and I decided that this wasn’t what we’d signed up for and we’re sort of drifting, community-wise. The problem with declaring that you “need to preach” (or play music or paint or dance or toss a football or catch one) is that your need does not inspire me to pull cash from my wallet. In fact, if you really need it, I just have to wait a bit and you’ll do it for free. [Just like anyone reading this blog realizes about my “need” to write. As a great American author once said, “I write for the same reason cows give milk.”]
The word “need” is often confused with “want.” The things we need are food, shelter, clothing, energy, medical care, and a very few other items in declining importance. Entertainment is a want item. We can not only live without entertainment, but we have no reason to do so since talent and inspiration lives all around us and is just waiting to find an audience. Maybe the whole idea of art for money is flawed at the core.