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Local Vocal: Democratization of culture or impoverishment of talent

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By now everyone has heard how the amateurs-only ‘“American Idol’” drew more viewers than the Grammys, which featured performers such as music veterans U2 and a rare appearance by the Howard Hughes of R&B, Sly Stone. Pundits have praised this development as a high-water mark in the history of American socio/cultural egalitarianism, the triumph of the talented masses over the elitist purveyors of corporate rock, but as a cash-strapped member of the unwashed hordes, my question is: ‘“What’s in it for me?’”

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always been a sucker for the rock n’ roll myth, that a swivel-hipped boy from Tupelo, Miss, or a group of haircut-impaired young men from a backwater city in England can, through sheer willpower and talent, turn the music industry on its ear, change the course of world culture and become obscenely wealthy in the process, all the while proclaiming their staunch opposition to the machinations of ‘“The Man.’” Is there really all that much of a difference between ‘“Idol’” and the ‘“Ed Sullivan Show,’” whose cultural dominance was such that an appearance by the Beatles or Elvis influenced entire generations? But again, my question: ‘“What’s in it for me?’”

It’s not the financial security of Bono and company that worries me, but my own. Thanks to home computers, downloads and blogs, the means of media production and distribution are available to more people, at less cost, than ever before. One can now create their own Rubber Soul or New York Times in the privacy of their own home and distribute it, literally, to the digital ends of the earth. Much of this self-produced media is infinitely superior to the ‘real’ thing. But does this explosion of individual expression really ’empower’ people, or just make talent so commonplace that it ultimately becomes easier for corporations to financially exploit it? Does empowering the many mean undermining the ability of a few to make a living with their art, without creating a new and truly viable way of enriching the community, artists included, as a whole?

In an online essay, long-time recording engineer Walter Sears mourned the closing of New York’s famous professional recording studios, driven to extinction by the proliferation of home recording, and the loss of the traditions that went with them.

‘“Why do home studio folks think that just by buying a bunch of gear, they can make professional-quality recordings in their bedrooms? I would never go to a home-based brain surgeon just because he has a scalpel and has read a book or two on medicine,’” he wrote. As a musician who’s done my share of home recording, I felt it necessary to e-mail Sears and explain to him that most musicians today simply can’t afford to record in the studios that he put so much of his life and soul into. Between the competition from DJs and karaoke, it’s virtually impossible to support a family solely by playing music on a local level, let alone record in a professional studio.

It may sound as if I’m mourning the passing of the 21st century equivalent of the buggy whip maker, but steady financial remuneration is the bedrock of many people’s dreams of belonging to a community or raising a family. The buggy whip maker at least had the option of going to work at the Ford factory. Not any more. Andy Warhol said that in the future we would all have 15 minutes of fame. He never promised, however, that it would come with a paycheck.

Daniel Bayer is a musician, activist and award-winning journalist living in Greensboro.

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