"Countercultural Hogwash"

That's gotta be the best phrase I've heard in quite a while.  It comes to me straight from the Twitter stream of the smartest friend I've never met, Fernando.  He had pointed out an article to me and 1217 other people on Music Think Tank, referring to some writing by Seth Godin.

Now, I know publicly disagreeing with Seth Godin these days is akin to what Newton and Galileo did to the church in their day. For the three of you who don't know who Seth Godin is, he is a business blogger, author and entreprener.   He's had some good ideas, some brilliant ones, and some not-quite-there ones.  Like most of us.

Seth recently wrote a book called Lynchpin: Are You Indespensable?   I haven't read it.  (I haven't read any of his books, actually.)  In an interview on MTT, Seth said:

"Feeling like a loser is part of being an artist, but I want to challenge the notion of “great music.” Sure, some music that’s great is great for the ages and it’s okay that’s it’s not being heard, but so much of what people call great art (whether it’s a book or a song or a way of doing customer service) isn’t actually great, it’s merely “very good.” Very good music is unheard every day, because very good music is not in short supply. There’s a huge surplus of it."

OK.  Not so bad.  But he also said:

"Great means unsettling. Great means open to criticism. Great means booed off stage. And great music, like great a idea, spreads. Ideas that spread, win, and so the goal today is not to make great music for 1970 or 1990, but great music for today, for a market that’s super picky and selfish and has ADD. Great is in the ear of the listener, of course, and the definition is simple: if it spreads, then for this market, it’s great."

So great is commercial?

"I’m not equating “great” with “commercial.” I have no doubt that there’s great art that doesn’t sell. But most musicians you and I know are TRYING to be commercial, if commercial means successful, heard, lots of stuff sold, lots of people at the concerts. And in the rush to be successful, sometimes great gets pushed out the window. "

So what exactly is Seth saying?  I'm not sure he knows.  I do know, that he doesn't know much about musicians.  While I will give it to him that he is very good at what he does (dare I say "great?), he seems to miss the point of artistry - of chasing the muse.   A "great" artist does not create to become great.  A great artist is great.   An artist does not try and become commercial - the market changes its perspective to accomodate the artist.  Sometimes this happens right away.  Sometimes this does not happen until time has passed.   Unfortunately, sometimes the "market" is, as one commenter aptly put, "stupid and lazy."   But yet, Seth says:

"Great is in the ear of the listener, of course, and the definition is simple: if it spreads, then for this market, it’s great."

We've become a "soundbite and single" community.  We like our information - and our art - in small bites.   The difference between artists today and artist of yore, is that they often had patrons - wealthy clients who would see their inner greatness and give them room to create.  Patronage of this type is all but dead. Musicians need to eat, so they need to "create" something people will pay for today.  Yet Seth tells us we have to create something "remarkable."  We have to change people's lives.  Hey, I'm all for that.  I aspire to that.  But honestly, most of the stuff that's "great" by Seth's definition - spreadin, read: popular - kind of stinks.

The distiction is this:  Some say an artist should create for himself.  Others say an artist should create to resonate with others.  I think that Seth is saying this.  But (and here's the link-bait) Seth Godin is wrong.  Great is when an artist creates for himself, and that creation resonates with others.  Stick that on your purple cow and ride it.

Of course, since I am criticising Seth, he must be great, right?   So come on and criticise me!


  1. Michael... I think the artist creates neither for himself/herself or for others. An artist creates because she/he must.
    When does that creation become great? hmmm... perhaps when it communicates something in a new way, allows others to see or experience the world in a way they had not before...

  2. Roy, that's a great point, and I think we're thinking along similar lines. I didn't mean that the aritst creates for himself selfishly, rather to "satisfy the muse" so to speak. But without the concern primarily being for other's impressions.

    And that "...allows others to see or experience the world in a way they had not before..." bit - that's EXACTLY what I'm talking about with "resonate."

    Thanks for your comments!

  3. a quote from Brian Eno... "My interest in making music has been to create something that does not exist that I would like to listen to, not because I wanted a job as a musician."

    yes, I think we are on the same page or at least in the same chapter. The one addition I'd want to make is that when the "audience" sees or experiences in a new way, in my mind, that doesn't have to be a positive experience for it to qualify as "great" art.


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