Music as art, entertainment and commerce

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“I do not think there are any wrong reasons for liking a statue or a picture.” – E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art

If music is art (and Gombrich is correct about art), the quote above should be applicable to music as well. And I certainly think that music is art. But it is also entertainment. It is also a commodity. That is where the quote may get into a bit of trouble (for visual art as well as music).

When music is taken as art, there might not be a truly wrong reason to like a song or album. There are perhaps better and worse reasons as there are better and worse ears, but by merely taking music, whether it be a symphony or a pop song, seriously enough to absorb it as art, should dignify a reason for liking said piece. The same is mostly true for disliking it. There are things that can cloud an attempt at serious judgement, of course. Prejudice and nostalgia often play a significant role if left unchecked.

How do we judge music as entertainment? In response to Messiah being complimented as such, Handel responded, “My lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wish to make them better.” So, what about music as entertainment? Certainly, music can be entertaining, but it seems that entertainment as an end in itself is only a shell of what music can be. Note that Handel would be sorry if he only entertained his audience. Entertainment is perhaps a peripheral benefit more than a principal purpose, a lesser virtue than art.

A steady diet of punk rock during my formative years has always made me skeptical of music as a commodity, but musicians have to eat too. So, there has to be a role for selling music. Barry Gordy made a fortune making great records. Does that fortune indict him or his stable of artists as a fraud? I don’t think so, at least not in Motown’s heyday. Commerce can, and probably must, be a byproduct of art whether it’s $1 dropped in the jar of a busker or $100 million advance from a record company. The appropriate question, despite probably only having speculative answers, is whether the commerce follows the art or vice versa.

I once had a discussion about great music not being commercial with my dad. I argued that music was often not commercial to which he responded, “So, they’re giving it away?” In the end, I think we both missed the point. Art, even great art, often has a commercial aspect, but the question is whether that aspect takes precedence over the art. Was the art made to make music or money first and foremost? Look back to the creative explosion of the Renaissance and every great piece had a patron. In fact, much of the subject matter of great Renaissance art was even dictated by its patrons more than the artists without apparently diminishing the artistic value of the works. Why would a rock band today not need a patron of some sort?

But the patron cannot significantly constrain the art. The Bangles wrote much of All Over the Place, but the label wanted hits and brought in professionals for the follow-up, Different Light. Kiss always brought in outside songwriting help. Later Aerosmith records are the same. Heavy-handed producers hone bands’ sound into what they think will sell. When do the commercial goals take precedence over the artistic goals? It’s not always easy to answer, but when they do, it is problematic to music as art. Bob Ezrin having Alice Cooper sing “Ballad of Dwight Fry” while lying down under a stack of folding chairs was genius, a direct participation in the art of that song. Ezrin polishing up Kiss Destroyer by co-writing eight of the 14 tracks was probably not so great. (Nor was his work with Pink Floyd, in my opinion). Clearly though, the line is not always a clear one.

Commercial involvement in art and music can also go well though. A little over a decade ago, OK Go released an incredible music video for their single “This Too Must Pass.” After dealing with fan backlash when the first video (the marching band version) was not embeddable, OK Go solved the issue with their label by getting a State Farm insurance to sponsor the Rube Goldberg machine version, all for the cost of a toy truck with the State Farm logo kicking off the chain reaction. Granted, this is an example of using one commercial element to fight another, but it does show that there can be potential for good even when music is a commodity for some parties involved.

Realistically, Elvis, the Beatles and the Sex Pistols would likely have all existed without Col. Tom Parker, Brian Epstein and Malcolm McLaren, but would any of us have heard them? At the very least, commerce is a necessary evil in music and art.

Back to Gombrich’s quote, it may be true that there are no truly bad reasons to like a work of art, but some reasons are better or at least more compelling. One key to good decision making in terms of the quality of any work is to ignore, or at least compartmentalize as much as possible, the lesser virtues of entertainment and commerce. Liking it is, of course, not always akin to it being objectively good, but that is another topic for another time.

About bobvinyl

bobvinyl, writer and co-editor of No Song is an Island, founded its predecessor, Rock and Roll and Meandering Nonsense (whose archives are found here), in 2005 and served as editor and principal contributor until it went on hiatus in 2010. He has also been published in AMP and Loud Fast Rules! (in print) as well as Glide and FensePost on the web. He has been an avid record collector since he was seven years old and enjoys sharing his love of music from the common to the esoteric.

1 thought on “Music as art, entertainment and commerce

  1. Chuck

    There’s a lot here. You touched on an idea that has always challenged both of us, which is how do you objectively evaluate a piece of music yet still allow for a personal response? You explored art as commercialization, the responsibility of a society to fund the arts as if they matter, and art as a purely expressionist medium vs. art as an opportunity to entertain the audience.

    I’m going to limit my responses today to that last point, and question why we still focus on entertainment instead of engagement. In healthcare, the concept of “engagement” is important. Engagement is a way to measure if the staff are finding joy in their work and if patients are becoming active partners in their own care.

    If your only goal as a musician is to make the audience better, then you’re probably not going to touch all that many people. To run with the healthcare metaphor, that ends up being like House: great diagnostician but miserable partner in health. What compounds this problem (in both music and healthcare) are the number of people who think they’re great are much smaller than the number who actually are great.

    If your only goal is to entertain, then your best bet–unless you’re lucky enough to perform a summertime one-hit wonder or write songs for a Nickelodeon TV show or a become the new drummer for Kiss–is probably to be in a local top 40 cover band.

    I’d pose that engagement is the ideal state. Engagement is an active partnership between the artist and the listener that leaves room for the artist to push the audience, and vice versa. Engagement is where Handel can make us better while still allowing us to be entertained. Engagement doesn’t dictate that your work must be so ridiculously intellectual that it’s virtually unapproachable, but challenges you to create a relationship with the audience that is based on truth. If engagement exists, then both “betterment” and entertainment become less important.


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