The music industry, for all the hate stirred up by file sharing, always manages to avoid the real issue. When did art become a commercialized product, part of an industry merely obsessed with record sales? Isn’t music meant to be something more? It’s a belief clung to by the purists, but they’re missing the point – it’s not about choosing one or the other. The music industry as a commercial beast is just as important to the advancement of exceptional art as Julliard – probably more.

Kelly Fraser
(PHOTO COURTESY OF ROC-A-FELLA)
Kelly Fraser
(PHOTO COURTESY OF WARNER BROS.)
Kelly Fraser
(PHOTO COURTESY OF ISLAND)

The word “artist,” when referring to a real person and not a historical figure, is almost inseparable from its assumed modifier, “starving.” Any student at the School of Music can tell you about the immense struggle of finding work in the concert hall, and no one goes into sculpture for the paychecks.

Of course, there are the betrayers, the musicians synonymous with excess: Madonna, Bon Jovi, Jay-Z. They’re practitioners of the dark art: commercialism. Artists who, in violation of some unspoken rule of the bourgeoisie, are not only outrageously popular, but profit by it just as outrageously. They’re artists who are no longer under the system, but instead, they’re dominating it. They’re the poster children of the music industry, an industry that churns out boy bands like circus mice, hoping for a miracle but content in letting them drop.

William Bolcom makes a disgusted sound at mention of the “music industry.” We’re in Zanzibar, where he’s showing me an immense sheet folio of his most recent piece, an octet.

“I hate that phrase,” Bolcom said. “Music isn’t an industry. It’s not. Over at Ford, churning out cars, that’s an industry – not music.”

Bolcom, in the School of Music, Theatre and Dance, is the Ross Lee Finney Distinguished University Professor of Composition. Bolcom is also one of the most celebrated living composers, and just last year he was named Composer of the Year by “Musical America” after receiving several Grammys in 2006. Bolcom has composed more than 300 works for artists such as Isaac Stern, the Emerson String Quartetand the Guarneri Quartet – all musicians of the highest caliber.

Still, the composer is no stranger to buying and selling music. He works on commission, after all.

“Does working on commissioned pieces bother me? No, no, it doesn’t,” Bolcom said. “It’s helpful, I think. It gives a place to start from, a motivation.”

Nonetheless, he insists on the importance of music as being something above money, above commercialism.

“Is it nice to be paid for doing something I love? Yes. But that’s not why you do it. You do it because you love it!”

Bolcom’s passion was obvious as he punctuated his words with furious gestures. To him, the idea of an industry built around music is obviously repugnant – a perversion of the artistic ideals which should guide it in the first place.

Bolcom, however, is the exception, not the rule. Not many classical musicians win Grammys, and even fewer cabaret singers become distinguished professors. Bolcom is in a position where he can afford to stand up for the purity of the arts, but few are afforded such a luxury.

Let’s face it, they’re called starving artists for a reason, and that reason isn’t a discerning palette. Most aspiring musicians don’t have much for money, and anyone who has tried eating passion can tell you it’s no steak. Those who are not in Bolcom’s position need money – money which is provided, depending on the level of success, by the music industry.

The music industry may be a perversion of the art, as Bolcom would have it, but there’s no denying its importance. The industry isn’t interested in the artistic value of a record, but rather in its sales. And that’s precisely the way it should be. Without some groundwork of commercialism, starving artists would stay that way, and it’s a profession with few opportunities for advancement. It’s a system that allows the talented – artistic and gold-seekers alike – to continue producing material without being in constant danger of dropping the profession for something more profitable.

Poetry and art have something to learn from music and the growing theater industry. While the “Legally Blonde” musical will never be called “enlightening,” the same entertainment industry is giving birth to shows such as “Spring Awakening” and modern lyrical masters like Feist. Decry mass-produced entertainment filth like the Backstreet Boys if you will, but the same industry is providing for those who do perform because it’s something they love. The sooner the rest of the arts learn how to finance their advancement through commercialism, the sooner we’ll be seeing the next Edgar Allen Poe – even if we do have to slog through a swamp of verse first.

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