In Defence of Artistry by Errol Michael Henry
I have been a musician for as long as I can remember. My love of music inspired me to learn everything I possibly could about the art of creating music from its initial conception to the end-users who consume it – and everything in-between. I have been fortunate enough to write and produce music for world-class performers like Bobby Womack, Lulu and The Jones Girls. My exploits as a creative being also gave me occasion to do business with some of the largest music companies in the world including: Universal Music, BMG Music, EMI Records, Sony Music, Atlantic Records, Island Records and Warner-Chappell Music. I have been fortunate enough to collaborate with some of the finest talent here in the UK, in France, Japan and the USA, yet despite a wide array of experiences from a divergent range of perspectives (songwriter, musician, arranger, producer, music publisher, record label owner and business consultant) I am left with uncomfortable memories about much of what I have observed to-date.
I thought long and hard about how to make sense of a topic that seems to make little sense to those outside of the artistic ecosystem but the subject matter is too important to leave alone, so come with me on a journey as I offer you a ‘birds-eye view’ of a day in the life of a creative being. NEWSFLASH! Artists are just like everyone else – but a little different. They start their days just like anyone else. The bills need to be paid, the kids need new shoes, the car needs to be repaired and food needs to be procured, prepared and served with the minimum of fuss and fanfare – just like everyone else. The principle difference is that the product that needs to be created in order to generate the requisite funds doesn’t exist – until it is imagined, quantified, recorded mixed, marketed and sold. No pressure there then!
ART FOR SALE
There are people who sincerely believe that ‘art should be free for everyone.’ When I ask the clueless dolts who talk that kind of trash if it is right and proper that they get paid for doing their job they always answer the same way: “Yes, of course I should!” When I explain that creating music is my job and that creating music is ruinously expensive and impossible to maintain as a venture if no revenues are generated, those same dim-witted idiots often respond by saying “but music is a gift to everyone so why should I pay for it?” I cannot publish what I usually say afterward so let’s just pretend that I smile meekly and walk away!
Sadly, it’s not just ignorant ‘consumers’ who consider creative people fair game: there are entire industries set-up for the sole purpose of exploiting individuals whose central drive is to create artistic wealth as opposed to pure fiscal wealth alone. Greedy, deceitful, manipulative crooks target people who are keen to further their art and compel them to follow a number of roads – none of which lead to anywhere good.
Before I explain in more detail why people need to be a little more appreciative of makers of art, I’d like you to do this exercise with me: close your eyes. In your mind, play your favourite record. Recall why you first ‘engaged’ with that song or the artist who created it then begin to ‘edit’ the recording one bit at a time. Erase the lyrics and then ignore the vocalist. ‘Turn off’ the bass, the guitars the keyboards and the drums. Mute the strings and override the brass section. What you should be left with by now is utter silence. Welcome to my world…
Before that wonderful record that you love so much containing the power to stir such deep emotions ever made it onto your personal playlist, into I-tunes, or your local record store – there was just silence. Someone wrote a lyric that you considered worth listening to. Someone wrote a melody that you considered worth learning so that you could sing it to yourself at a later date. That infectious groove that get’s you up and dancing was invented by someone who went to great lengths to ensure that your feet would start tapping the moment the beat hit your ears. That funky guitar riff that you look out for was played by someone who knew that if they got that performance ‘just right’: their efforts would mean something to you – a person they have never met and are unlikely ever to encounter.
How many hours, days weeks, months or years does it take to be good enough at writing lyrics that otherwise ‘busy’ people are likely to give a damn about? How many years of practice does it take to play an instrument well enough in order to be considered an expert? At what costs do studio technicians become proficient at their jobs: learning how to skilfully capture and finesse sound in order to ensure that you enjoy a pleasant listening experience? Somebody has to know what needs to be added to a composition in order to transform it from a rough ‘sketch’ into a product that others might consider worth purchasing. At what cost do these mysterious ‘music shapers’ learn not only who to call (in terms of creative collaborators) but what type of performances to extract from them in order to create something that consumers will appreciate? How long does all of this expertise take to master and who pays for this extremely complex education?
How much of their own money do musicians routinely invest in music that others seem to devote their lives to stealing? NEWSFLASH! File sharing is stealing. Taking anything you haven’t paid for is stealing – yet when it happens to ‘creative people’ it really doesn’t matter because they are ‘arty’ and not real people at all! Please don’t get the wrong idea. I am deeply honoured that people trust me with their ears. I am still awestruck when I hear my music coming out of the radio and I still don’t know what to say when people tell me the effect that my music has had on their lives. I am often reduced to a gibbering wreck when up-and-coming musicians tell me that my accomplishments inspired them to make a career in what is a tough and unforgiving business. I am not bitter: I have managed to escape the worst that the music industry can inflict on unsuspecting ‘talents’ but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that a sense of sadness also resides in my thoughts.
I am constantly mindful of the immensely gifted people I have encountered who were eventually ‘broken’ by a world that considered them a ‘luxury.’ Countries are quite content to spend billions on weapons of mass destruction: armaments designed to kill as many human beings, as efficiently as possible, yet consider ‘art’ (in its many forms) a waste of money. I have been to Tokyo, but I can’t speak word of Japanese. During a visit there in 1996, soul music fans got wind that I was being interviewed at the offices of a well-known magazine. By the time the interview was concluded, there was a sizable crowd waiting for me outside. I couldn’t understand what they were saying to me but they had copies of my music in their hands and pointed at me, then pointed at the vinyl discs, before pointing toward their own hearts. The rough translation would be “we love your music!” I learned from my time in Japan that art speaks a universal language.
THE ART OF FREEDOM
Art is not gender specific nor does it give a damn about race, creed, social background, economic status or anything else for that matter. “Is it good?” “Does it inspire?” “Does it intrigue?” “Does it enrich the end-user?” “Does it invigorate the emotions of the human soul?” Art asks these questions of those who create it. Art brings people who otherwise have little in common together. Even divisive art has the power to unite – because people feel compelled to agree to condemn it: rightly or wrongly. Good art will most certainly have ‘cost’ its creator more than ‘ordinary’ people are willing to pay. I can personally attest that I would need to charge thousands of pounds for each copy of the recordings I make if I were to even get a‘minimum’ wage for the man hours I invest in each and every piece of music that I release.
My reality is that I have never considered fiscal remuneration as a good motive for being ‘creative.’ The pursuit of a goal that resides entirely in my imagination until such time as I find a way to extract it has been an all consuming ‘driver’ for me from the beginning. Sharing ideas with others who then add their own creative prowess to the process never gets old for me and the lack of sleep or food whilst this difficult feat is accomplished always feels worth it once I declare: ‘I’m Done!’ By the way, whilst I am trying to make sense of an idea that exists only in my mind until I transform it into tangible audio – my bills just keep on coming. People say things like: “Oh you can do everything on computers these days.” I am afraid that simply isn’t true. Granted you can collect a seemingly endless battery of ‘samples’ but my particular brand of artistry requires real musicians, to play real instruments in a physical location big enough to house them all at once and also requires the use of a large format mixing console that needs sufficient space to live in.
My business is just like any other. The building in which my products are created needs to be maintained and staff wages need to be paid. The promotions experts who ensure that my music gets a fair shot at being heard, also need to be paid – yet the product that generates all of the income necessary to keep the whole process going simply does not exist until I and those with whom I collaborate transform silence into music. All of this would probably be tolerable if I didn’t have to suffer the inane ramblings of unwashed Philistines who rabbit on about ‘free music’ and the arts being ‘free for everyone’. Artists are mere mortals: made of flesh and blood with the same ‘life’ problems as everyone else. Except true artists are quite different to nearly everyone else. Knowing the suffering involved, the treachery, theft, abuse, disrespect, the lack of appreciation or downright contempt they endure for pursuing what many others deem a ‘lesser’ career – they still do it anyway.
A society robbed of creative people is a world no decent person wants to inhabit. A country devoid of artistic expression betrays a deep (and sinister) secret that dares not speak its name. A world that cannot appreciate the benefits of creative power that resides with a few: who study, practice, persevere and excel – in order to add tangible value to the benefit of many, is a world that ought to hang its head in shame. Art is one of the purest forms of freedom known to mankind – which is precisely why governments, giant corporations and other global powerhouses seek to control or influence artistry wherever possible. Freedom of expression represents evidence that true liberty has not been marginalised – despite the best efforts of others to do precisely that.
Some people won’t listen to a single word that leaves the mouth of any politician, but will pay close attention to a well-written and performed song. Why? Because any sleaze ball can hire a spin-doctor and get elected to high office, but true art can’t be faked. Genuine ‘artistry’ communicates an honest thought, emotion or experience that others can relate to on some level. Sharing your deep personal heartache, disappointments or failures with total strangers is not ‘normal’, yet artists do it every day and don’t care if people think less of them as a result. This article is entitled ‘In Defence of Artistry’ but in truth, true artistry doesn’t need defending from decent, sincere, reasonable or caring people – they already know why it matters and appreciate that someone has created something that would otherwise simply never come into being. Alas, art does need defending from boorish morons who have no artistic ability of their own, yet consider it worthless. Sadly, art also needs defending from ‘fakers’ who simply mimic others in order to participate in a world that they will never be qualified to inhabit.
With regret, art will always need defending from dictators, deceivers, speculators, thieves, manipulators and the serially ungrateful. I am not worried though. Art has somehow withstood the worst that mankind has managed to throw at it and genuinely artistic people soon develop strong resilience to external pressure and design their products to do the same. Where you find a thriving artistic culture you will also find a thriving community of people who share values that transcend economic, social, racial or historical divisions. I start my days with bills to pay just like everyone else, yet somehow through the trials and tribulations I face (problems that affect everyone who participates in modern society), but my passion for creating art ‘speaks’ to me and assures me that creativity is my best defence against all threats. Art in its purest form is a powerful expression of human faith – because without genuine faith ideas would remain locked away in someone’s imagination: never to be seen or heard by another soul.
“Money makes the world go round.” That sentiment is too true in too many instances, yet upon closer inspection you’d be amazed just how much money washing around the global economy is linked to artistic endeavour. I am committed to redressing the balance that currently sees people who contribute absolutely nothing to the creation of art profiting at the expense of those who do the heavy lifting. No records are kept of those who don’t quite make the grade and the arts can be a vicious, competitive, murderous environment if the ‘wrong types’ are permitted to exert influence over it. I actually agree that art is for everyone, but I could never agree that it has no worth. I ask for no special treatment or praiseworthy recognition. I create art because I like it and if you also draw pleasure from art in whatever form you consume it, just remember that someone else went through a range of feelings, thoughts and experiences to deliver that slice of pleasure into your life.
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