Unrequited

I was thinking about a famous Beatles lyric, the other day; the one which goes, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”  Unfortunately, I don’t think this is quite right.  I think that, in life, in our present society, the vast majority of the love you give is wholly unrequited.

Think about life as an artist.  Your best works, I’ll wager you a fiver, are the ones that you poured the most love into.  That’s what made them special, better and memorable.  The love you poured into those works helped them to reach other people and to affect them emotionally.  Loveless works are not as lovable as works made with love.

Now here is where it gets interesting…

Some artists pour love into their works, or out into the world, in general, in the lively expectation of that love being returned and amplified.  Sometimes it is.  Most times it isn’t.  Most times, you don’t even get a hundredth of the love back that you put in (at least not immediately).  There are, of course, examples of artists whose fans love them so much that it becomes overwhelming and problematic for them to deal with.  After all, love without mutuality is unbalanced and having too many people love you too intensely is impossible to reciprocate.  You just can’t pour enough gratitude (a kind of love) back to those that adore you.  I can see how that might drive you crazy.  It’s easy for such people to become entitled and overindulged.  Those are not good things, for an artist.

For most artists, though, there is little expectation of love in return.  You pour the love out into your art and to those around you not because you expect any back, but because it increases the stock of love in the world.  Through your living example, you just might start a small domino effect, where your love inspires others to put their love into the world in turn and you get a giant chain reaction of love-giving.  I think this is what they mean by being the change you seek.  Heaven knows there is a giant love deficit in the world, most of the time.  Doing what you can to turn that around is always worth doing.

Sometimes, the love you give, but never see returned, can begin to deplete you, though.  If there’s never a kind word, or an expression of appreciation, or a small kindness, it can begin to feel like you’re uniquely unlovable, despite the love you constantly try to emanate.  Of course nobody has to like you, just because you like them, but being wholly unloved can feel very isolating and diminishing.  It can consume you, if you let it.  Everybody deserves to be loved, after all.

Miraculously, though, when you least expect it, love can find you of its own accord.  It might be through something as simple as a thought-provoking tweet, or a blog post that resonates with you, or a thank you note that you really had no expectation of receiving.  Sometimes, the love that other people put into the world finds its way to you all on its own and it surprises you.  It’s amazing how restorative, nourishing and sustaining those random acts of kindness and love can be.

My settled notion is that one ought to put as much love into the world as one possibly can, even if its ignored, cynically spat back at you, denigrated, unrequited or ungratefully consumed, without consideration.  I think you should continue to love those that don’t love you in return, despite their hurtful rebuffs.  It’s the only way of spreading empathy and kindness.  In short, it’s the only way to become more, not less civilised, in a world that has a seemingly insatiable appetite for destruction and killing.  If you genuinely treat your fellow humans as worthy of love, not as unwelcome “others”, “aliens” and “invaders”, you’ll find that’s how you will be treated too.  It is how your art will be received.  Your love will remain unrequited, until a tipping point is reached.

When that global tipping point teeters from hate, prejudice, exclusion and destruction to love, acceptance, inclusion and creation, it will be a great day for humanity.

But there’s only one way to get us there…

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Creativity and Entropy

It seems to me that everybody that sets their mind to creating things faces an incessant battle against entropy, which they can never win, ultimately.  Yet, we create anyway, because without creation, entropy is indistinguishable from decay.

Think about it.  In order to realise your creative ambition, you must first find the time, materials, learn the skills and study the craft and history of your creative field.  Yes, you can just dive in, with whatever you have available at the time and there is great merit in acts of spontaneous creativity.  However, if you want to do something of a particular quality, the spontaneous acts of creativity can help you learn and refine your ideas and technique, but in the end, you’re struggling to assemble the necessary means.

In a society that demands you pay for the privilege of living, without identifying whom you should pay and for what services rendered that enable you to continue living, part of your struggle against entropy is finding the means to pay for studio space, materials, sustenance while you devote yourself to your creation and so on.  Once the creative artefact is complete, then you have to find the wherewithal to make it available. This can involve publicity and promotion, exhibition, replication, distribution, you name it.  Again, you are struggling against the need to assemble all of these adjuncts before your art can reach its audience effectively.

There are so many things to solve, in the world that can interfere with creating a comfortable, thriving, prosperous life; you cannot possibly solve them all.  Indeed, history is littered with accounts of great, creative men and women who, having defeated the forces of entropy to a degree necessary to allow their ideas to flourish, were nevertheless consumed by the problems they failed to solve, either through lack of attention, lack of insight, lack of focus or the sheer difficulty of finding another waking minute to fight that battle too.

In the end, our lives are finite.  There are only so many fights we can take on and win.  Problems that are of importance will, of necessity, remain unsolved as we struggle to balance creating a life worth living with actually living it.  Even as we make creative progress forward, our bodies are in a state of aging and decay.  Just as we acquire the wisdom and deft dexterity to accomplish our finest creations, our faculties dull and fail, while our very bodies are beset by all manner of physical impairments.  The works we make, too, simply decay and despoil.  Our works are organic objects.  Leave them unmaintained and they fall apart, quite literally.  Nothing we make lasts forever, against the vicissitudes of time.

The laws of the universe dictate that all things tend toward entropy and disorder inexorably.  Chaos is the inevitable end point.  How miraculous, then that we, an unlikely life form living in a non-descript position in the galaxy, have found the means to arrest entropy, at least temporarily, in order for our creativity to be expressed.

Physicists would argue that we only ever displace entropy, trading the order we create for some other disorder elsewhere, as a consequence of our activities.  This is undoubtedly correct, according to the mathematics that describe the physics, yet none the less remarkable for that.  In shaping entropy to our wills, so that we create ephemeral beauty and order, holding particular forms of chaos at bay, this phenomenon is almost inexplicable.  I don’t know of a physical law or equation that adequately describes the process.  How, exactly, does creativity have the power to stop the relentless trend towards disintegration?

As an artist, you should take great pride and satisfaction in your creations, however imperfect.  After all, according to the laws of physics, interpreted at a macro level, they shouldn’t be possible at all.  Ideas are, after all, a reordering of matter within the universe (inside our heads) such that a pattern is discernible and so that beings such as us can make sense of them.  Understanding is an elusive occurrence, in a universe designed to destroy itself.  Being able to share that ordered construction with other life forms, which in turn create ordered models of that art in their own minds, in a shared understanding, is something that goes against all the known laws of thermodynamics.  Revel in its momentary brilliance.  It shouldn’t be possible at all.

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How Fragile We Are

Most people persist in believing two utterly discredited falsehoods.  The first is that punishment is necessary; ultimately good for the people punished and that it works effectively.  Further, we believe that people that “need” punishment, the application of various sorts of violence on those people in particular, leaves no lasting effects, other than to correct their previously unacceptable behaviour.  These two falsehoods are upheld as if they were true (or ever true).  In fact, they are the fundamental basis of our approach, at an institutional level, to dealing with so many aspects of society.

People live in fear of violent coercion their whole lives.  They fear the State.  They fear the authorities.  Do the wrong thing by them and they will physically or psychologically injure you, take away your livelihood, or worse, lock you in a cage.  Just about everybody seems more powerful than a lone individual and all of those mighty institutions are happily, blithely willing to deal out a bit of punishment for the most petty of transgressions.  We are their prey.

We deal with this fear by supporting the notion of “forces”.  We vote for them, in the hope that they will exercise their capacity for violence on our behalf, to protect us, yet so often all that happens is that those forces, which we created, funded, sustained and staunchly advocated, turn against us.  We create the predator which preys upon us.

It’s the logic of the strongman.  I am strong and you are weak, therefore you must bend to my will and if you don’t, I will exert decisive, coercive, violent force upon you, until you do what I say.  Every speech, by political candidates that rely on base, irrational fear for their support, argues along these lines, routinely.  Every one of their speeches is just a variation on this essential theme.

Strongmen believe themselves to be invincible and to have become strong by having been hardened (i.e. abused) themselves.  In reality, many of the biggest bullies in the world had it easy, though there are notable historical records of terrible madmen, who killed millions, by their dreadful acts and attitudes to others, who were not as strong as them.  These notorious monsters were, indeed, horrifically brutalised and abused in childhood.  Hitler and Stalin spring immediately to mind.

What is coming to light, from recent research, is how very fragile we are.  Increasing evidence is showing how very sensitive to adverse childhood experiences we all are.  We are so exquisitely sensitive to the abuse, that it changes our very physiology and psychology permanently, for the rest of our lives and not for the better.  We lose something forever, with every episode of abuse.  Those events are unrecoverable.  We never get the chance to regrow.  There are so many “once and forever” events in human development, but they don’t cease in the womb and the damage cannot be erased.

It’s the psychological damage that appears to be so decisive.  The physical scars resulting from violence and abuse often heal, eventually, but the memory of the injustice dealt to the psyche lasts forever.  It’s indelible and it seldom heals, like a physical wound does.  The mental scar tissue is far more complex than previously realised.

Yet, so much of the modern world is purpose-built to keep people under sustained psychological assault.  It’s unrelenting, ambient and inescapable.  Every waking hour, for some people, can be nothing but more psychological abuse heaped on a mountain of existing psychological abuse.  The manipulation, coercion and barely concealed threats of violence are incessant.  Obey, or bad things will happen to you.  Comply or die.  The interference in your life is unending.  Some people are actually so fearful; they believe that more of this is better for us than simply choosing to end it.  They are tragically, misguidedly, catastrophically wrong.

What accumulates, steadily, over time, is dysfunctional anxiety, chronic stress, burnout and even what, for all practical purposes, is equivalent to post traumatic stress disorder.  Every adverse event we experience, strong enough to scar our psyche, adds to the changes that take place in our physiologies, due to stress.  Our blood and brain chemistry responds by releasing fight or flight hormones.  If we’re constantly under some kind of existential threat, real or perceived, our reaction is one of constant over-stimulation of our instinctual responses to escape or defeat the threat.  Studies have shown that a wide range of adverse events that we experience, especially in younger life, contribute to this heightened sense of danger and distress.  Even being ignored by somebody whose attention really matters to you equates, physiologically, to experiencing pain.  We actually feel the hurt in measurable ways.

You may ask what the consequences of living life in a state of constant anxiety and upset are.  How does the human body react to the sustained assault on its wellbeing and peace of mind?  Research reveals that it wipes decades off your life expectancy.  Everything in your body is being pushed harder than it was designed to be, as you constantly fight for what you perceive to be your survival.  You experience a range of physical ailments, some of which will prove to be prematurely fatal.  As you experience each new adverse event, you feel as though you are dying, a little more, inside.  The reason is that you are.

If authoritarian institutions and culture were the only cause of adverse childhood experiences (and adulthood experiences, for that matter), we might be able to withstand the indignities and injustices, but we’re punished in myriad other ways, at the same time.  We’re not only punished as a means of coercion, by the self appointed busybodies that wish to straighten and correct the rest of us; we’re also punished for our poverty, health misfortunes, sheer bad luck and for trusting those who we ought to be able to trust.  They betray us.

Entire city populations are lead poisoned, by wholly avoidable corruption of their water supply, leading to permanent, irreversible, developmental impairments, so that a few privileged leaders can save about $100 a day.  We accumulate fat cells that we can never get rid of, which remain in our bodies forever, once established, because the food we’re fed from childhood under-nourishes and harms us; for profit.  We’re exposed to all manner of toxins and endocrine disruptors, stealthily unleashed upon us by people that do not acknowledge the fragility of the human organism, or the permanence and irreversibility of the harm they cause.  These assaults on us are perpetrated for the flimsiest, most pathetic of reasons: personal enrichment, so that the beneficiaries can live lives of opulent idleness and unearned comfort.  All of these “punishments” have the same root.  They are inflicted on others because the perpetrators believe everybody else is unworthy and undeserving of their consideration, care and better treatment.  We’re considered disposable, if our concerns are considered at all.

These adverse experiences lead to the diminution and dysfunction of key brain structures, such as the amygdala.  Our growth is stunted.  Our HPA axis is exhausted.  These physiological changes, in response to an avalanche of adverse events, throughout our lifetimes, give rise to a population that takes unreasonable risks, with poor impulse control, who gradually lose their capacity for feeling and empathy.  Slowly, by degrees, we’re transformed into mini-psychopaths.  The adverse events take their toll on our very identities, changing people who, by nature, would otherwise be loving and peaceable, into addicts, dangerous co-inhabitants of the planet and calloused creatures, capable only of inflicting unspeakable harm on their fellow earth-dwelling beings.  They hunt and kill for pleasure.  They conquer and defeat each other.  They use competition as a justification for cruelty and casual, insouciant torments.

In reacting to the harm and adverse experiences inflicted on them, as children, through bullying, broken relationships, betrayals, the meting out of indignities and injustices, physical, psychological, emotional and even sexual abuse, peer pressure, rules and regulations, from cold, distant parents, from isolation and loneliness, through institutional regimes that deliver only harsh cruelty in the name of discipline and order, they set their course of taking their revenge on humanity.  The victims determine to inflict the same, or worse, on other victims, who they perceive to be weaker or different.

This cycle of abuse and violence cascades down the generations.  There is strong evidence accumulating of an epigenetic inheritance of the effects of adverse experiences, passing the physiological and psychological damage down to one’s blameless, innocent, offspring, by detectable changes in the expression of key genes.  Again, “once and forever” developmental stages are disrupted or degraded, by adverse events and experiences visited upon the mother and/or father.

The way we, as a society, deal with damaged individuals, so dreadfully in pain from their adverse childhood experiences that they turn to petty or violent crime, substance abuse or sheer, anti-social defiance is that we punish them some more.  The punishment just makes everything worse.  Damaged individuals, already keenly feeling the injustice and agony of previous, punishing adverse experiences have even more injustice piled on top of their existing and accurate sense of injustice.  The pain simply becomes more excruciating and so the coping behaviours become ever more extreme and unacceptable to other people.  These people become magnets for the straighteners and correctors in society, themselves the product of childhood deprivation, violence and abuse, whose only motivation is to assuage their own psychological agony by trying to control totally their external environment and everybody in it, according to their will.

If you think about it, punishment is a species of adverse childhood experience.  It also becomes a type of adverse adult experience.  The result of punishment is a series of physiological changes that lead to a diminution of lifespan and quality of life.  Life, indeed, becomes nasty, brutish and short, due to the infliction and suffering of all manner of punishments, manipulations, betrayals, coercions and violence of all stripes.  In other words, punishment is tantamount to a very gradual form of pre-meditated killing.  In fact, it is murder, delivered in slow-cooker fashion.

What can artists do to draw attention to our fragility, the harm we do to each other and to our biosphere and the consequences of a culture that believes in harshness, totalitarian control and the settling of disputes through fights to the death?  The role of the artist, I submit, is to enlighten, soothe and heal.  By turning humanity’s attention toward creation, instead of destruction and toward beauty, instead of ugliness, artists can help ordinary people understand what has been done to them and what they are doing to others.

Artists can create works of art that lead people to question their assumptions about their irrational (and rational) fears and to challenge their fear-based addiction to punishment and authoritarianism.  Their artworks can lead people to understand the true source of their civilisation and to expose the liars that falsely claim to deliver it, while simply, criminally feathering their own nests.  In short, artists can help us question what prevents us all from flourishing and help us imagine a better world for all.

In the end, we’re all much more fragile and breakable than we’ve previously acknowledged and adhering to the idea that we’re not is pure bigotry, chauvinism and ignorance; nothing more.  It flies in the face of the evidence.  Next time you consume anything provided by the mainstream media, bear this in mind.

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What Are You Afraid Of?

What’s stopping you?  Do you feel like you’re standing on the wings of the stage, about to go on, yet you just can’t bring yourself to step out into the spotlight, in front of an audience that doesn’t know you?  Do you feel like you’re adequately prepared for this moment?

Sometimes, people can get caught up in playing the part of an artist, as an understudy, but feel unready to show what they can already, really do, in front of other people.  It’s called stage fright.  People get it all the time.  That fear is caused by being scared that your work will unmask you as a fraud.  That would be a crushing blow.  It would mean they were right.  All those detractors, doubters and underminers.  Everyone who ever rejected you, told you that you were weird, said you looked funny and made you feel wholly inadequate and foolish.  All those that willed you to fail, instead of to succeed.  It would mean that the thing you wanted to be the most, in life, is something that the rest of the world says, emphatically, that you are not.

When they told you that you were different and therefore unacceptable, was that the truth?  Isn’t being different the goal?  The alternative is to become invisible.  Doesn’t unacceptable really mean outstanding?

Is what’s stopping you that you want so much to be an artist, that you can’t stand the thought of being shown up as a poor one?

If so much of your self-image is tied up in portraying yourself as an artist, it can get you into a state where you don’t want to put your artistry to the test.  You don’t want the proof because you think you know what the proof will be.  You may be wrong about that, but you don’t want to risk it.

Putting your cherished dream into the hands of ignorant, cruel, heartless people, who lack understanding and authenticity themselves, exacerbates the fear of humiliation.  You’d have to rethink everything about yourself and your life, if they said you can’t be and are not the thing you really want to be.

Is that really what’s stopping you?  Do you really need approval and encouragement to be who you are?  How can they prevent you from being who you really are?  How can you be something you’re not?

Are you afraid to invent yourself and reinvent yourself, over and over again and to do something nobody else has ever done, courageously?  Is that what you’re afraid of?

Do you really only like pretending to be an artist, so that people treat you as one?  Is that the extent of your commitment to your work and to your particular art?  Rather shallow, isn’t it?  Do you want the trappings and attitudes, without having to earn the respect?

Maybe you fear you really aren’t an artist after all.  If you are one, there’s no choice in the matter.  It’s what you are.  You can deny it and try to suppress it, but it’s like a leopard trying to change his spots.  Your creativity is an indelible marking.  It will shine through all the cleverest of disguises.

However, if you constantly feel like there is more to do before you’re ready to exhibit your work, more to learn and more to perfect, then you’re setting too high a quality bar.  You’re also working in a vacuum, without any external guidance to what’s working for you and what’s already good enough.  That’s a bit like trying to paint in the dark.

The fact of the matter is that to be seen to be an artist, you just have to make your art.  That’s what an artist is.  An artist makes art.  Anybody that does not make art is not, by definition, an artist.  They’re something else; a fantasist, perhaps, or a dreamer.  The essence of being recognised as an artist is living one’s life as an artist, making art fearlessly and showing it.

You haven’t got time, or energy, or space, or peace and quiet, or the right art supplies.  Yeah, I know.  Lots of people focus on what they haven’t got, ignoring what they have.  What’s usually lacking is will and determination.  Why?  Fear is why.  Fear that making your art will mean everything will change.  Fear that others around you won’t like or accept the change.  Fear that you might actually succeed and then what?

Sometimes the fear is that you will make your art and nothing will change.

Are you a be, or a wannabe?  If you want to be an artist, do you want it enough?

Do you love the things you make or love making them?  Or both?  Or can’t you bear to part with the things you make?  Does the fact that you learn to make better things, in the process of making them, mean anything to you?

Are you all about the potential, or the living proof?

Make your art and get it out there.  It’s the only thing that will conquer your fear.  Every other course of action just makes it worse.

Fearless, brave authenticity is where it is at.  To accomplish that, please stop worrying about whether or not you will be seen to be an artist, or what other people think of you, the artist and of your artistry.  Just be what you are.  You can’t fear being who you are, can you?  Live the life that you know you need to live.

What are you afraid of?

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Nobody Wants New Ideas

Although there are spectacular exceptions to the rule, I can say with some certainty, having spent a very large part of my life paying attention to how new ideas are accepted and diffused, that nobody really wants new ideas.

New ideas are confronting and discomfiting.  They cause people to have to think and re-evaluate their old ideas.  It involves difficult work and the pain of cognitive dissonance.  People hate new ideas, in the main.

What they love are ideas that seem new, but confirm their existing ideas.  Evidence and proof makes no difference at all.  If an idea is a settled idea, then all evidence will be sifted and discarded in order to preserve the existing idea.

That leads to an interesting conclusion.  If your stock in trade and talent is in innovation and new ideas, you’re almost certainly wasting your time.  The only “new” ideas that take root are the ones that the whole herd slowly embraces.  Those kinds of movements are typically glacial, irrespective of the actual urgency.

This is why nobody is really acting to avert climate change.  This is why the disproven and discredited economic system is not being actively replaced by something more imaginative and beneficial to all.  This is why money is issued the way it has been for generations.  This is why we still blindly worship monarchs.  This is why the most privileged elites can maintain their hold on the rest of us.

We still love impressionist paintings most, even though that new idea is well over a century old.  Those that hate impressionism love a style of painting that is even older.  Perhaps the last great painters were the hieroglyph painters of ancient Egypt.

Rock and roll is now the music of septuagenarians.  Anything new is abhorred by the so called rebels that embraced rock when it was young.

The principles underlying the internal combustion engine are basically the same as they were, when these engines were first invented.  We really haven’t moved on.  There has been little genuine attempt to foster and nurture newer innovations, in the conversion of energy to motion.

Cancer research has been going on since the 1950s, yet we have little improvement in cures and not much by way of progress to report.  In fact, they seldom report their progress.  It’s in stasis.

When a UK politician stands up and espouses institutionalising and legislating fairness, with an unprecedented mandate, he’s treated as a national joke, like some kind of alien, saying words that nobody agrees with or understands.  None of these new ideas can be allowed to flourish.  They will upset too many entrenched apple carts, such as the media’s presumption that they can tell the electorate who to vote for, what to think and how to think.  Belief is manipulated, yet the idea that you can escape it is seen as too new and radical to be seriously entertained.

We live in a world that systematically crushes and weeds out new ideas and perhaps we always have.  Perhaps this is the very reason why history repeats.  It’s because we never fully embrace the alternative ideas that would prevent the repetition of past mistakes.  The fact that history is a reliable guide to the future is all the proof you need that humanity hates new ideas.

I don’t know why I am telling you this, as the likelihood is that you hate new ideas too.  You probably feel uncomfortable reading this idea.  Those people that try their whole lives, at great personal sacrifice and peril, to introduce new ideas are your enemy.  No wonder they get so tired of having to explain those new ideas, over and over again, to deaf ears.  You’re all arrayed against them.

Even people that have new ideas to offer often hate new ideas that other people bring them.  In the end, they, too, go mad both trying to get their new idea heard and accepted and in disputing and deflecting other peoples’ new ideas.  What dies, every time, is the new idea.

Sometimes, somebody will discover an old new idea, dust it off and realise that it still has merit and that, in fact, if introduced today, it would still be an new idea, despite its vintage.  It does no good.  Rediscovered ideas are automatically classified as discredited, even though all they really were was discarded.

I’d love to see proof to the contrary, but it seems unlikely.  People really do hate innovations and nobody wants new ideas.

Prove me wrong.

 

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Difficult Collab Conversations

In the Disney, fairy tale version of music production, the story goes something like this: a group of brilliant and talented musicians collaborate, in the studio, to voluntarily and cheerily create a true masterpiece.  No money changes hands.  The art is the most important thing and business concerns are never even hinted at.  On its release, the music becomes an instant sensation, earning millions in royalties and establishing the careers and reputations of each collaborator for all time.  Everybody involved in recording this miraculous music is compensated fairly for their contribution, so they remain the very best of friends, on exquisitely amiable terms and they go on to collaborate time and again, producing beloved classics and magical pieces of innovative culture, every time they do.

The reality is usually very different.

In actuality, talents come together under unusual circumstances.  Some are flat broke, so have very little bargaining leverage.  Others believe it’s their project and that everybody else is adding something minor.  Their collaborators often believe they’re buying into an enterprise, through their sweat and artistry and that this will automatically entitle them to more control and higher earnings, from whatever happens.  Some collaborators approach the process from the point of view of pure fairness and others are on the make, trying to get something for nothing, by sheer schmoozing.  Nobody thinks the song will earn obscene amounts of money, but everybody secretly hopes it will.  The collaborators involved may have only just met, having no other relationship or anything else in common, other than being at this place, on this day, to make this music.

The very worst thing that can happen to this group of people is that their song does become a major, remunerative hit.  In that case, similar to a lottery win, all the erstwhile claimants come out of the woodwork and acrimony ensues.  Assumptions, tacit agreements and verbal contracts, all without a shred of evidential substantiation, are thrown around like custard pies in a slapstick comedy.  It’s bloody.  It’s brutal.  There will be indignant winners and sore losers.  Reputations will be shredded and bank accounts drained.  Nobody will want to work together ever again.  Some potentially excellent music, therefore, will never be made.

You would imagine that this sort of thing only happens with no-name artists, in small studios, on projects that have no budget.  Sadly not.  Some very high-profile, well-funded, industry-backed projects have run aground on the rock of misaligned collaborator expectations.  There was no firm, binding agreement about who did what and hence, who would be entitled to the spoils, or control over the art and in what proportion.  Even their managers failed to work this out.  The prevailing atmosphere, at the recording session, of, “We’re all friends here, aiming to produce something excellent.  Let’s not be too formal about all of this.” flies out the window, when there is big money at stake.

It’s too late to come to agreement after a collaboratively produced song becomes a success.  The best and only time it’s possible is before anybody knows what will come of it.

There are some cases in point.  Success has many fathers.  The hit song “Uptown Funk” belatedly credits eleven song writers.

http://www.billboard.com/articles/business/6605616/how-11-songwriters-split-2-million-from-uptown-funk

Another example is the Dire Strait’s hit song, “Money for Nothing” – an ironically titled song, if ever there was one, considering the law suits that followed.  According to legend, Sting popped in and sang the melody line of the Police song “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” with the words “I want my MTV” substituted.  He didn’t want a song writing credit, but his record company sure did.

http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=1091

It turns out that one of the leading causes of bands breaking up is that, after a time, some members notice that other members are driving expensive sports cars and buying palatial mansions, while they are barely scraping by.  They call it “artistic differences”, but it is often a polite, euphemistic way of glossing over the fact that some people in the band are receiving song writing, production and publishing royalties, whereas others are mere paid performers.  Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones is perhaps the most famous example of the latter.

So let’s get back to the collaborative music production session, whether everybody convenes in person at a single place or, as is becoming increasingly popular, collaborators are collaborating over the Internet, separated in space and time.

What is the project instigator asking for?  Are they asking you to write a part, creating an important piece of their song, or play one they wrote and presented to you as a fait accompli? Are you here to improvise, write, produce, record, engineer, play, perform, what?

Will you be happy to write the killer lyric or the hook that sells the song, without a credit, or for appearance money only, or just as a favour, without payment, for a fellow struggling artist?  What is your expectation, if the song becomes successful?  Did you discuss it?

These are not easy discussions to have.  There is almost always a power imbalance.  It seems impertinent and lacking in gratitude to ask for your rights to be asserted and for your work to be credited.  People unfamiliar with agreements of this kind can feel suspicious, as if they’re being strong-armed into something that is not in their best interests.  It’s hard to talk about the uncertain future success of the song, when it hasn’t even been written yet.  It also seems like a total distraction to the work at hand, which is producing music.  Why are we even talking about who gets what?  There’s nothing to divide.  It seems absurd.

To my way of thinking, a musical collaboration means you are being asked to contribute your ideas, not just your performance skills or facility with your instrument.  If it is ideas you’re providing, they should be recognised, credited and compensated.  In fact, I would contend that even being asked to appear as a performer still means you are contributing ideas, as your sound will be something you came up with.  Your taste and approach to the performance of a line somebody else wrote for you will still require the input of your ideas.  Musical ideas are the currency of music production.

For this reason, it’s worth keeping careful and agreed records of who contributed which ideas.  An easy way to do this is to video the collaboration, if everybody agrees to it, but don’t forget that the “making of” footage has its own artistic value and rights, which can be important in the promotion of the song itself.  If you’re not in the same room, then capturing the Skype conversation might be important.

To complicate matters, does any money change hands during, before or after the session(s), relating to the music collaboratively produced.  If so, on what terms?  Did you sign an explicit release, or was it all done with a nod and a wink?  You might still be entitled to and want a song writing, or other production credit, even if you feel you have been fully compensated for your contribution, for reputational reasons.  How would you feel if the song you contributed to writing turned up on a television advertisement, promoting the production of land mines to kill babies, for example?  Wouldn’t you want to preserve your right to veto this kind of use, even if you got paid for the session?

I think that in a collaborative music production situation (and they’re all different), it really is very important to be clear, transparent, honest, up-front and in agreement (in writing) about who the song writers will be, who will own and control the publishing and what other production credits will be asserted.  In the Disney fairy tale, none of this would be necessary and fairness could be assumed, but in the real world, people rarely even agree on what’s fair, unless they hammer it out.

Are there any sharks in the music production world, who are looking to deliberately and systematically exploit fellow artists, by stealing their best musical ideas and claiming them as their own?  You bet there are!  It seems almost silly to have to ask.  There are multiple famous ruses played by producers of ill repute.  Everybody, it seems, wants to place themselves inside an earning opportunity, for minimal actual work.  There are people that will positively hijack a collaboration for their own purposes, if it suits them.

I know it’s a vibe killer and it puts everybody on the defensive, when rights and royalties are discussed at the outset, but if the song is successful, then the conversation will have to be had at some time.  It’s less damaging to reputations and relationships and far cheaper to do it all up front, before the stakes are high.  To preserve the happy, creative, energetic atmosphere of the artistic collaboration, it’s much better, in fact, to get all the expectation setting done ahead of the session.  Do that when you’re still just talking about it, so that everybody can approach the session with open eyes.  It is better to take care of business before you share a single note.

Likewise, if somebody presents you with something to sign, in the first place it should be done with enough advanced notice that you can read and understand it, or take advice on it.  It shouldn’t happen right before you play your part, or worse, after the song is in the can.  You don’t want you or your music to be treated like a hostage.  Was the agreement written heavily in their favour or yours?  No prizes for guessing which way it usually is.  If you have sight of the agreement before the collaboration, then you have time to negotiate.  You might choose not to collaborate at all, or else only to work together if your needs are respected and met, contractually.

The unfortunate part about all legal agreements is that they can act like arsehole amplifiers.  However, I would argue that the potential for bad behaviour is far worse when there is no written agreement at all.  Expect random and specious acts, if there is nothing written down.

Are you supposed to take a lawyer with you everywhere you record and write?  Lawyers would say “yes” (they would say that, wouldn’t they?), but taking some sound advice once, or educating yourself, or finding some good boilerplate agreements to base your agreement on, can help.  You might even draft your own terms and conditions, setting forth the way you are prepared to collaborate and what you are not prepared to give up, which you can present to potential collaborators, before anything takes place at all.

As an example, you might draft a royalty-free release agreement, which states how much you expect to be paid and what credits or recognition you want, if you play on a session.  That agreement might allow somebody to make a single payment to you, to get your performance, but your agreement can stipulate that the part is charted for you, before the session and that you are not being asked to write their song for them, for example.  There are lots of things you can do to protect your interests.  This is not theoretical, either.  Your interests in a piece of jointly created art can mean putting food on your table and feeding your children.

In the end, it comes down to what kind of human beings all the collaborators on a project are.  If they’re nasty, selfish, narcissistic and greedy, devoid of all ethics, then you have to wonder why you want to collaborate with them.  On the other hand, if they’re decent and fair, they’ll be happy to negotiate a decent and fair written agreement with you, prior to the collaboration.  By having the discussion, you might discover which kind of collaborator you’re dealing with.

My advice would be to always, diplomatically, have the difficult pre-collaboration discussions and get the agreement down in tangible form.  Don’t leave this to chance.  If you’re any good, as a musician, the song you jointly create could have real earning power and potential, spanning many years.  Don’t give that up too easily.

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Damn! We Missed It!

These days, a media sensation can rise, peak and vanish before you even find out about it.  We live in such a multichannel world, deluged in content of varying quality, that it has become easy to miss a rising star, their best work and their subsequent denouement.  It’s all over before you notice.  When you arrive late at the party, you feel deeply uncool and regret having missed out on all the fun.

I suppose it has been this way for a long time, only different.  In the days of television, if you missed it, there was little chance that it would be repeated.  Airtime was too scarce.  At least these days we have catch-up players on the Internet and things last forever on YouTube.  What you tend to miss is the shared experience of discovery and the buzz that comes from experiencing something new with other people.  Finding a gem on your own lacks that communal thrill.

Not so long ago, there really was no such thing as the long tail.  Once it was no longer available on television or in the shops, it was virtually unobtainable (unless your local library had a copy – remember libraries?).  These days, it is possible to obtain oldish books, music and films, long after you missed them, the first time around.  What falls out of our culture, though, are worthwhile things that are still in copyright, but for which the remaining market is too small to justify production and distribution, or else those that are out of copyright completely, so that nobody much cares about preserving and making them available.

The problem of our age is that there is too much choice and it becomes too hard to learn that good things are being done.  You can’t easily catch the wave of a worthy new artist.  There is just no way of suspecting they’re creating wonderful things.  Word of mouth is, unfortunately, too slow and uneven, unless you’re close to the unfolding action in the first place.  Advertising and promotion doesn’t work, because it’s just another log on the content bonfire, vying for limited attention.  You’re no more likely to notice the promotional material than the art it is promoting.

Whereas most content, in previous times, only saw the light of day once it was accomplished and polished, because opportunities for publication and diffusion were limited, now we have saturation of content, much of it made by amateurs who are still learning to become good, by putting their work out there, over and over again.  That can be fascinating to watch too, or deadly boring, depending on your outlook.  I don’t begrudge people learning to become good by producing their content and exposing it to audiences.  What troubles me is that it obscures and swamps things that might already be very good and fully formed.  I have no reliable tools to separate the two.

There is a guitar player called Keith Merrow.   He’s a young guy in Portland, Oregon who made his name and fame by posting his music to a growing body of fans, via YouTube.  He must have some following, because he is now the spokesperson and media relations guru, on behalf of heavy metal players, for a leading guitar pickup manufacturer.  There is also a whole range of signature Keith Merrow electric guitars available, made by a pretty reputable manufacturer.  In the old days, you’d have to have been a very high profile guitar player to justify such an accolade.  As a guitar player myself, I wonder how I missed this guy.  Yet, I had – completely.  I hadn’t heard any of his music or even heard of him, as a guitar player.  He just wasn’t on my radar.  Yet, he is now what you would call an established artist, in social media circles.  I am extremely late to this party.

It’s a statistical fact that most people who read this post will not have read even a small fraction of my previous blog posts.  That’s a pity, because there is, in my opinion, some surprising and interesting stuff there, written with openness, much of which would be an entertaining read, because it can change the way you see things, but who even knows it’s there?  There are thousands of blog posts posted every day.  Why would mine attract enough of an audience to gather some momentum?  I’m submerged in a sea of alternatives.  Some of it is way better than my stuff, but a lot of it might not be.  The fact of the matter is that there are blog posts I have written, on some of my sites, that my stats tell me have never been read by anybody, except search engine indexers.  Writing and publishing them had precisely the same effect and impact as never writing them at all.  That’s quite discouraging.

I guess it all just means that people have to work harder to unearth artists of interest.  There’s some excellent stuff out there, if you can find it and notice it.  It’s not served up to you on a silver platter, like it used to be.  There are no giant publicity machines to give it saturation coverage.  In truth, there are just too many places to look and no guarantees that any one place can reliably deliver something worthy of your attention.

Who knows?  There may be some good stuff in my archives.  You just can’t tell until you look.  ;)

In case you missed it.

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