As opposed to his teacher Plato, Aristotle believed there were worthwhile roles for artists in society. In case you didn’t know — or care, although more knowledge is always better than less, right? — Plato had no use at all for artists and would have censored or executed them for the good of the community. See, artists don’t tell the truth, they confuse people, and they cause all kinds of upheaval and dissension.
On the other hand, Artistotle tolerated a far wider range of human endeavor than simply being leaders (the few) or followers (the many) in martial, governmental, or commercial pursuits. He did, however, have a standard he felt everyone should live by, which we refer to today as his “Doctrine of the Mean and Moral Balance”; briefly, it means that “the good life,” the most productive and socially useful one, is a balancing act, and that people must learn to fulfill each of their needs even as they avoid both extreme excess or extreme lack.
Balance in all things, okay?
Now, come on, how many music sites are going to give you a side dish of classical philosophy along with your main course of expression pedals, high-hat techniques, and analog synth reviews? Just this one, folks. And why? Because what you do, the art and craft to which you have dedicated your life, is one of the fundamentally important things in any human society. Like it or not, as an artist you are one of the philosophical heavyweights. You need to know this. You need to believe it. And you need to act like it.
The concept of balance is extremely important to the working band or solo artist. You have so many things to juggle, and within every one of the juggled balls there is another whole little world with more juggling going on. We’ve covered lots of topics together in this column, and this “balance thing” is weaved into each one, but right now we’re looking at it in terms of “message,” what you and your music communicate to people.
So we’re talking about song lyrics, sure — but you also send messages musically, and by your attitude on stage and off, by your dress and demeanor, by just about everything you are seen and heard to do. Keep in mind as you read (in case I don’t remind you every five lines or so) that you are striving for balance, harmony, naturalness — for authenticity, in yourself and your music.
The first Big Question is, What is your mission in music? To play freewheeling, high-octane rock and kick out the jams? To elicit a certain feeling (or two or three) from your listeners? To get people dancing? To teach? To preach? Convert? Subvert?
Of course, if you don’t take charge of your message, someone else will. Reviewers or marketing people or managers or agents or some keyboard-banging blogger from Bakersfield will end up saying something about you, right or wrong and accurate or not, that will stick to you, sometimes forever. You know what they say about first impressions. Anyway, the point’s been made: Define yourself or be defined.
And you do that initially, before you’re fortunate enough to get media coverage without begging or paying for it, by the “package” you present. If your band is counterculture punk, then you’ll need to look the part as well as sound and act it; every band gets one “sensitive” power ballad these days, but any more than that will dilute your countercultural punkiness. If you’re not yet doing all originals, don’t cover any Lindsay Lohan or Hilary Duff tunes. You probably knew that.
It does start sounding a little more like business than art at times, when all the advice you’re getting is about packaging and marketing and media and messages — but it is called the music “business,” right? It’s not the Music Welfare Program, and if you don’t reach anyone, if no one relates to your message enough to plunk down 99¢ per track on iTunes or $11.99 for a CD, then stick to the party and bar circuit doing the Guns ‘n’ Roses or Ramones act. (See, even if you’re not being yourself, you have to be like someone to let people know what they’re getting with their pitcher of beer tonight.)
Singer/songwriters have the same challenge. Sad as it is to admit, every time I see a thin, waifish, long-haired young lady with an acoustic guitar I know it’s going to go one of three ways: she’ll be like Avril Lavigne, Sheryl Crow, or the good ol’ country girl of the week. Sometimes I am surprised (sometimes even pleasantly), but this shows the power of dress and appearance in forming (pre)judgements, doesn’t it?
Perhaps you’ve never even thought about what your “message” is. You should give it some thought, frankly, because everything you say, sing, play, or do works on people, at levels both conscious and oh-so-deep, to define you, categorize you, and put you in their mental “cool” or “uncool” columns. If you w ant your checkmarks to go in the right place, you’re going to have to help people put them there.
Erik Jay is a writer, designer, and BMI composer/artist who lives in L.A. with one wife and two dogs. At his site, erikjay.com, you can take Door #1 for his editorial and design work, or Door #2 for original music.