You Cannot Serve Both Music and Money

Hey there, TWOG readers.

I enjoyed posting some thoughts on this blog last week and I think I’ll do it more often. I also have a blog about drums and music, and I frequently post there as well. Below is an article I wrote last year on that blog, which I thought the TWOG audience might enjoy. The post deals with the broad topics of “art” and “music,” but I definitely had the more narrow focus of “Christian music” in mind when I was writing.

You Cannot Serve Both Music and Money

“Capitalism kills art.” – Desdamona, Minneapolis hip hop and spoken word artist (via Facebook)

“No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” – Jesus of Nazareth (Luke 16:13)

Over the years I’ve thought a TON about the correlation between art and commerce, and those of you who read my blog regularly are familiar with my interest in the collision of music and industry. At this point I’m starting to arrive at the conclusion, perhaps better phrased as a question: Could it be that art and commerce, though inseparable in the 21st Century, are actually enemies?

Here’s my thesis: Introducing the possibility that your art will/could produce a financial profit irreversibly changes your headspace in making the art, therefore altering the end product.

Example: this article from Somali poet K’Naan.

Art is all about the headspace – what one is AIMING for. Why create? Why pursue art at all? Most artists will tell you it’s kind of like the combination of birthing a child and speaking your mind. It’s simultaneously something you want to say and need to say, while also being painful and even dangerous if said incorrectly or at the wrong time. What if nobody thinks your offspring is cute? What if speaking your mind leaves you at odds with your friends and loved ones? (Bear with me as I rotate metaphors.)

In the current landscape of music, the motivation to accurately and genuinely convey an artistic message crashes uncomfortably into the desire for approval from one’s audience. But what/who is your audience? What are you aiming for from the outset? This is the crux of the issue, and my theory is that it is more difficult than we might imagine for an artist to intentionally cater to both an artistic audience AND a market audience. In fact, it may be impossible. And I’m not using “artistic audience” to refer to a gathering of people who only listen to indie rock and only wear vintage clothes. I’m talking about speaking your message to those who wish to really hear your message (an artistic audience), as opposed to speaking a message to those who only want a certain kind of message from you (a market audience). Can both targets be simultaneously aimed at?

This is not to say that artistic success doesn’t sell. Many artists have set out to convey a message that they really believe in and found to their surprise that the market also enjoys the message. But that is almost beside the point – what the market is buying has never really been about art. Commerce is based on pleasure and enjoyment – preferring one thing over another and spending your hard earned dollars accordingly. And sometimes the market takes great pleasure and enjoyment from unexpected places.

Sharp-shooting metaphor: One cannot, with the same bullet, hit two separate targets… unless perhaps those targets are directly in line with each other. But then you would have your aim set only on the first target, which would be the only target you could even see, and the second target would be an after-effect. I’d submit that the order of those targets, in order to hit both, MUST be art first, with commerce hiding behind it. The commercial gamble of the artist is to aim toward the artistic goal, not knowing whether commercial success is hiding behind it.

Summary so far: I want to suggest that one does not (maybe even cannot) land on a both commercially successful AND artistically successful statement by directing one’s aim toward both artistic and market audiences simultaneously.

If you replace the word audience with “master” you can see where Jesus was going with the New Testament quote I included at the top of this post. Jesus digs a little deeper into the hearts of human beings by using hard-hitting terms like “hate” and “devoted,” but the point still stands. Jesus says his followers must choose who they will serve, the Kingdom of God OR the Kingdom of Economy. Interestingly, only a few chapters earlier in Luke, Jesus also teaches this:

“And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.”(Luke 12:29-31)

Worrying about wealth/provision isn’t your job, but is rather God’s job. Focusing on serving God’s Kingdom is a better use of time, and God promises to take care of the other department. Could it be that this is also true for the artistic/commercial tension in music? Aim for the artistic target, and the commercial target will be added unto you.

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