Making art

The letter below, from Bob Ezrin, record producer extraordinaire (Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”, Jay-Z’s “Fade to Black”, among others) is about the music industry, and Trent Reznor. I found it here. But, even though it is about another industry I think a lot of his points about art and the need for a shift in our current business models, away from the bottom line and toward a concept of the value of art, has real merit. I found the letter inspiring and encouraging, and wanted to share it here:

Trent Reznor is a true visionary. He has broken and reinvented the rules of engagement on every level, from recording to touring to interacting with his fans.
He’s an intensely determined person—aware and on top of everything that happens in his name, from his music to his marketing. Trent controls all things Trent. Yes, he’s had help along the way, but he’s the captain of the Trent ship and his career is a product of his imagination and drive. He is not manufactured, homogenized, manipulated or packaged. He is Trent—and the rest of the folks get to react.
There’s a clue in here to how to run one’s life as an aspiring artist. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in situations where aspiring artists (as you know, I hate the designation but will grant it to a few sublimely talented folks like Trent) have created something and have had a vision that has not resonated with their “handlers” from management to producers, to the record company to even sometimes their lawyer—and have succumbed to the pressure to conform to the taste and judgment of these people at the expense of their own intuition—and have failed either immedately or ultimately because, in the end, they simply weren’t distinguished enough to connect to a large group of people in a lasting way. They may have produced a “hit song” but they typically did not create a career.
If Trent had done what everyone wanted him to, he would not have become a better selling act or bigger star as some of his advisors may have secretly thought. Instead, he would have disappeared long ago.
No one knows the heart or genius of true artists but the artists themselves. No one can predict them or imitate them or even steer them towards success. They are, by definition, single-minded people who cannot—and must not—see things the way the rest of us do. Once upon a time, we had a business built by passionate amateurs who revered the artists and who became their protectors, advocates and promoters. These folks didn’t presume to tell their artists what to do. Oh, every once in a while, they might beg and plead for more or different to help them to do their job, but they never imposed their creative will on the people they most admired in all the world.
And so we had a landscape of determined individualists who made very individual music—lots of it. We all know who they were—and some still are. But now the biggest part of the business is run by cold-hearted professionals whose reverence is for the bottom line first and last—and who think nothing of imposing their ideas and will on the people they sign. And most of those signings are not because they are enthralled by genius or art but because they smell “a hit” or know that someone else does and that they’d better get in there first.
Now, when I say stuff like this, all the record company people get pissed off at me and say I’m an asshole and that they are there because of their love for music, etc. And I don’t doubt that this is what propelled them at the start (though I suspect the notion of getting rich and hanging with rockstars may have had a bit to do with it too), but how many of the new leaders of our industry are able to resist the pressures of making their numbers in favor of supporting their artists? In fact, isn’t their primary job to “increase shareholder value”? So, they really can’t resist those pressures honestly and still be doing what they’re being paid to do. The problem with this is that it takes more than a [business financial] quarter to build something of value and real art cannot be scheduled or projected—only commodities can. But if we’re just a commodities business, then by definition we cannot build anything of real value—for the shareholders or the world.
So, what’s the biggest lesson here? It is that, if we can all agree to do as Ahmet [Ertegün, co-founder of Atlantic Records] recommended and surround ourselves with brilliant people and help those people to develop their craft, their own voice, and become artists making things of real value, we might see our way into the next golden age of popular music.
Thank God for Trent—and for all the others like him who will not compromise and will fight to realize their vision. In the end, they might save us all.
Bob

3 thoughts on “Making art

  1. That sparked some half baked ideas for stories inside of me. It kind of reminds me of how lawyers most likely start their careers with the idea of making a difference, but are slowly whittled down until they comply with the stereotype.

Leave a Reply