In 1970, the band Chicago , recorded a song about songwriting, namely about being an insomniac and writing songs in the middle of the night, with the somewhat odd title “25 Or 6 To 4.” The song happens to be an answer to a previous Chicago hit about what time it is when the band is writing their music, namely at 25 or 26 minutes to 4 . It’s a driving song and it shows the band’s commitment to art. Sixteen years later, the band re-recorded the song for Chicago 18, the soft rock follow-up to their massive hit album Chicago 17, made after Peter Cetera had split for a solo career and was replaced by Jason Scheff. The band would go on to have one last #1 pop hit with a song written by Diane Warren and their attempt at enforcing their own artistic integrity would lead their odd but compelling album “Stones Of Sisyphus” to remain unreleased for decades. Their re-release of the song was, in other words, a darkly prophetic and ominous reflection of the fact that even bands like Chicago felt greatly constrained by the music labels, as labels wanted them to make the music that sold lots of copies, while Chicago wanted to pursue their own muses.
This, as might be expected, is a common problem. Indeed, it is a nearly universal problem. Many very great songs have been made about the razor’s edge between artistic vision and integrity and the demands of record executives who pay a great deal of money to the artists on their labels to make music that will make them and their shareholders money. The tension between the two seems unavoidable, because so long as bands have careerist ambitions to make money from their art, and as long as companies wish to profit from the artistic achievement of creative people, there will be a tension between art and commerce. That tension can produce great art that sometimes makes a great deal of money as well—such as Lisa Loeb’s hit “I Do,” which is written about the fact that she heard a hit in her “Firecracker” album that her label didn’t, likely the peppy relationship song “Let’s Forget About It,” which was a really good song, if not as big a hit as “I Do.” Sometimes we get songs like Badfinger’s “Rock & Roll Contract,” written as they were utterly crushed by the financial shenanigans of their corrupt manger. Sometimes we get songs like “Have A Cigar” from Pink Floyd, “Pork & Beans” by Wheezer,” or “I Knew I Loved You” by Savage Garden, all songs written by bands who had been pressured by their labels to have a song on the album that could be released, that was hooky and popular, some of which are highly ironic in their intent and all of which are, on at least some level, immensely successful songs, either in chart success or humor or artistic worthiness or all of the above.
It should be emphasized that the marriage between artistic creativity and corporate profit is at best an uneasy one, but it is equally obvious that the attempt to harmonize these two words is inevitable, and ultimately beneficial to both sides, so long as the tensions can be successfully managed. It is easy to see why artists would want to profit off of corporate marketing and packaging of their works. Artists, being somewhat intense people driven by the compulsion to create out of the torment of their heart and mind and spirit, are prone to living short and unhappy lives and dying of romantic diseases impoverished in garrets. They create works of enduring value that end up being largely obscure and unprofitable during the course of their lives, while oppressed by torment, want, and the doubts that their creations will ever be appreciated by others. It is transparently obvious that people who are so driven by dark inner demons and compulsions would want to find at least some benefit and profit for their creations, and the negative repercussions of creativity while they live. If that profit means earning decent advances, recording glorious music videos, performing the same songs over and over again or signing books for adoring fans on tour, and going on television shows to promote their creations, or whether it means working behind the scenes for others who enjoy the attention of our celebrity-obsessed culture while they can spend their time more happily creating, no one ought to apologize for wanting to make a living for their art.
It may be less obvious, though, what businesses have to gain from promoting art. All too often simply making money is not very appealing. A studio can release sequels to Transformers by Michael Bay, or endless albums from One Direction clones, but most people, even businesspeople, are not like Uncle Scrooge who find their enjoyment in life diving into pools of gold coins. They want to leave something behind that will be worthy of the respect of others. So people like Carnegie and Mellon leave behind halls where musicians play and universities and libraries, cultural artifacts that will earn them the lasting respect of society. Even the divine right rulers of old left behind palaces and gardens, temples and monuments, and sponsored the works of writers and artists of all kinds, because to have money and power for a lifetime is a pale shadow of the immortal fame that results from having had a role in sponsoring and supporting art and literature and music that will endure for the ages. Art provides life with meaning and worth, and provides legitimacy and a sort of immortality, and so those who have money and power, but who crave love and respect and honor, are very willing to support artists of all kinds whose works can give them the legitimacy and lasting honor that they crave above all else, while providing those artists with the means to live productive and honorable lives. When the relationship works, it gives both sides something worthwhile and something that no one need apologize for on either side.
It is also obvious to see how such matters can easily go wrong. Sometimes artists, when given large amounts of money and fame, have a sense of entitlement, and lose sight of the artistic vision and creativity that led them to have such success in the first place. They write and create art out of their lives of privilege, their relationship and personal drama, and lose sight of the deeper matters that informed their greatest creations. They may hurriedly toss off substandard work for the money, or they may obsess over the imperfections of their works and labor through a lack of inspiration . For that matter, companies and businesses often lose sight of what they are getting out the deal and pressure too much, or cynically reject artists when the art that they make is no longer immediately profitable, rather than seeking the long-term and enduring value of something that may not be immediately well-received, like the Pinkerton album from Wheezer, to give one example among many. Just as artists may exploit the money they receive and fail to live up to their side of the bargain in creating art, and just as businesses may seek to exploit artists for their own corporate profits through dodgy accounting of recoupment in order to avoid paying royalties or taxes, so to the tensions between the distinct interests of artists and the institutions that seek to profit off of those artists often serve to drive people away rather than bring people together despite the mutual benefits that result.
How are we to better ensure a harmony between the interests of both sides, seeing that both have something that the other wants, and that the interests of both can be successfully harmonized in ways that are absolutely stunning to behold? For one, there needs to be a far better communication of expectations between the parties and a far more extensive practice of empathy and understanding for the legitimacy of the position of the others. For another, there needs to be a recognition of the essential parity between the parties and the different elements that are brought to the table by all parties involved. This works within bands and other groups as well, in that there are ways to deal with creativity and creative control and marketability. Granting artists the freedom to create according to their muses, while ensuring that companies can limit their financial exposure to vanity projects destined to lose money would appear to be an obvious solution, as is fairly structuring royalty payments and contracts to ensure that those who create great art profit from their creations, and that those whose works have been popular are able to not only make a great deal of money now but are also able to live lives of greater stability in the future, after the hits have dried up. Of course, better communication, empathy, and justice in our dealings would make our lives better in other ways, which is why we should care about how artists and business relates, as helping parties with distinct but possibly harmonious interests is something we could all do better in our own lives.
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