ON DIFFERENT KINDS OF MUSIC FREEDOM (part one)

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I would like to start this blog with some reflections on music and freedom. A basic question is, simply: what is music freedom? But a number of different possible answers come to mind. Let’s see them, one by one. I will try to give three answers for now. Three more, along with some general conclusions, will follow soon in a second part.

(1) Freedom relative to the client. This includes, most notably, cases of commissioned music works or contracts between artists and record companies. A lot has already been said on such question, but I think that a musician should be aware of a core fact: the bigger or important the client (institution or record company) and the more its marketing possibilities (promotion, distribution), thus the bigger the potential relative revenues for both the artist and the client. Therefore, asking for too much artistic freedom in such cases seems, in general, pretentious and unrealistic with respect to the demands of the market. In other words, if a musician is given the possibility of being heard by a large number of people or by an influential audience, then it seems reasonable to accept a series of limitations. Moreover, to really target a wide public, a music work should generally follow a number of aesthetic standards. The musician, of course, is always free to say, no, thanks, if he feels that the kind of music he has been requested is not satisfying personally. So-called “independent” clients, like small record or theater companies, generally guarantee more freedom, but also a more limited marketing power. In short: you cannot have everything. Moreover, for the first time in history, it is possible today for musicians to produce their own music and distribute it globally themselves, thanks to the Internet. It has been a terrific revolution, even if itself not free from certain limitations. Actually, competitors are not only traditional actors, like the big record companies (the “majors”), but also those private Internet users who upload and download illegally tons of audio files ripped by official CDs.

(2) Freedom relative to the audience. Actually, we can reasonably ask if the audience is a musician’s ally or enemy. Leaving aside the issue of listeners illegally downloading or streaming copyright protected material (which, by the way, is clearly economically damaging for the musicians), it is interesting to consider the audience’s influence on the musician’s creative process. In general, should a musician write for a public or not? How to accept the limitations imposed by the audience’s tastes on the process of writing a piece of music? Traditionally, we can oppose two extreme attitudes. According to the first attitude, a true artist should be intrinsically free to produce what his “inspiration” dictates, any other conditioning resulting in a contamination of authenticity. We might call this point of view “romantic”. According to the second attitude, a true artist should only produce what is marketable, any other conditioning resulting in a contamination of professionalism. We might call this point of view “pragmatic”. Both these attitudes are in fact rather utopic or, perhaps, dystopic: in practice, very few musicians adhere to any of them. Most musicians are actually interested in both authenticity and attractiveness. Which seems the most reasonable attitude, because it balances two fundamental tendencies: the tendency to a sincerely personal expressiveness and the tendency to a satisfying social experience. The risk of making blatantly commercial music of poor or no artistic quality, only to satisfy an incompetent but economically powerful public, seems to me largely a myth. Certainly, commercial music varies a lot in its levels of artistry, and, sincerely, there is also a lot of garbage music. However, the belief that a profit-oriented and therefore audience-oriented approach has generally the direct effect of producing bad music is a non sequitur (and it is often used as an excuse by some musicians who are unlucky commercially).

(3) Freedom relative to music critics. These include professionals who write about music made by others, often greatly influencing the audience’s tastes. The relationship between critics and musicians has always been important, the ones having the power to determine much of the others’ success. The relationship works in both directions, since not only critics affect a musician’s reception, but often new music genres fuel new styles of criticism by new generations of critics. Therefore, even in this case, extreme positions by the musicians, such as ignoring or despising critics, do not seem realistically advisable. My personal point of view is that, in general, a musician should not try to make music only to satisfy the critics’ tastes. However, I also believe that musicians and critics should work together toward a novel form of relationship. Musicians should take into account critics’ opinions on their music, but they should also be allowed to reply to such opinions, and critics should take into account such replies. Thanks, again, to the Internet, people today can interact much more easily than in the past, and it does not seem so difficult to develop a form of interaction between musicians and critics which is similar to the regular interactions between scholars in other fields. For instance, the critics’ websites might host the musicians replies and a constructive discussion might follow and be published. In the long run, such exchange of opinions might also lead to both a better, more focused, music and a better, more informed, music criticism. The only difficulty I see is that for years musicians and critics have not been particularly polite against each other. I think that both categories should work toward a more civil and respectful relationship. The awareness of each other’s role and importance can be a strong motive to accept freedom limitations and to establish mutual respect.

In the second part of this post, I will attempt to give three more answers to the question “what is music freedom?”. They will be of a different and, to me, even more interesting kind.

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