Last week I attended the annual meeting of the Wedgwood Circle. Wedgwood seeks out and convenes people who are committed to creating and supporting art and entertainment that is “good, true and beautiful.”
It’s hard work being an artist. Jack Kerouac said, “Genius gives birth, talent delivers.” It’s oftentimes discouraging and unrewarding work spending years turning inspiration and imagination into something tangible for others to appreciate or value. However, it is even harder if your desire is to create something not just commercially viable but also “good, true and beautiful for the common good.”
Consider the odds just in getting your film into the Sundance Film Festival. Over 12,000 independent feature films are submitted every year to the festival, and only 120 are selected.
Every single year there are 650 films released into theaters, and half (about $30 billion) of the global revenues are generated by the top 50 films.
Writers may have it even harder. Over one million books were published in the United States last year with more than two-thirds of those being self-published. Ten percent of the self-published authors generate 75 percent of the royalties. In case you are curious, the biggest earning category is romantic fiction writers – by a wide margin.
And musicians. While there were more than 75,000 new releases last year, the average album sells only 13 copies. In a recent Atlantic Monthly article, “The Shazam Effect,” Derek Thompson writes that the top one percent of bands and solo artists now earn 77 percent of all revenue from recorded music.
The world of “culture shaping” is a world dominated by a few at the top, and the role of technology in predicting (and deciding) who will make it there is becoming the real story. It’s no longer about writing a good song but about writing a song that will be picked up by the data gatherers and identified as a likely success.
Shazam began as a service to help people quickly identify a song’s artist and title when they heard it somewhere, like in a restaurant or bar. All you need is a cell phone. It has been downloaded more than 500 million times and used to find some 30 million songs, making it one of the most popular apps of all time.
But Shazam’s real contribution goes much deeper, and the effect of what they are doing is far broader. It is more than the exhaustive analysis. It is also defining reality. It is telling us what the world around us values, and because we are shaped by that – either in fashion, ideas, music or film – we make our own choices to conform to others.
Thompson writes, “By studying 20 million searches every day, Shazam can identify which songs are catching on and where, before just about everyone else.” They can detect the smallest ripple and determine with remarkable accuracy whether it will be hit. Similar to an exit poll sample on election night, they can extrapolate a few plays of a song in a small town into a national “breakout.”
Concert promoters use Spotify and Pandora for some of the same reasons – and to see listening patterns to choose which songs should be on the playlist for each venue. One service, Next Big Sound, uses an algorithm to create a list of 100 most likely to be successful in the next year. They are highly accurate — and for a six-figure annual subscription, they can help you mine social media to identify future stars.
By discovering not only what songs we like, but the fact that we “want to listen to the same songs over and over again,” music executives are capitalizing on the human tendency to stick with what’s comfortable. Popular songs are being played more often, stay on the charts longer, and sound more and more alike.
Thompson writes, “That’s because familiar songs are easier to process, and the less effort needed to think through something — whether a song, a painting, or an idea—the more we tend to like it.”
We resist what is new and unfamiliar. That’s why we call it “comfort food.” Our leaning is toward what we know and what does not challenge or tax us. Our brains actually do choose the path of least resistance.
In Wendell Berry’s poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” he writes of people who have allowed others to put a “window in your head.”
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
Then he goes on to say:
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
I think that may be the credo for the Wedgwood artists and perhaps all of us. Do something that does not compute and makes it impossible — or at least less likely — that anyone can predict with any certainty the motions of our minds. Do something new and unfamiliar that may not become a “hit” or a “breakout,” but it will be your unique genius delivered by your talent. Allow yourself to grow and change.
For both of us – artist and consumer – we can resist the easy bent toward sameness and, instead, aim for and appreciate what is genuinely creative. After all, what could be more good, true and beautiful than that?