Don’t make more; make better

Of all the suffering artists in our midst, feel most for the actors. The Hudson valley’s painters and novelists barely notice the difference. Alone is alone is alone. Musicians, bummed by the canceled shows and endangered venues, turn to the virtual modes of creation, collaboration, and presentation that were already a large and growing part of their mode. Even dancers can hope to develop their technique in quarantine, and to present online.

Congregation is of course an essential dimension of all the arts, but only in theater is it the art itself. Entire schools of modern acting are based on little more than glorified droplet exchange. The region’s professional and amateur theaters—Shadowland, Denizen, SUNY New Paltz, Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck, County Players, Bridge Street in Catskill, the grand theaters in Kingston, Poughkeepsie, and more—are all dark, its actors darker still. And strangely quiet.

In music, my art, I predict the opposite disaster: a glut, a boom, a festering surplus of new material like babies in the ‘50s, more than anyone will know what to do. To understand the scope of the impending crisis, we must look back. Way back. Before Dylan and the Beatles, singers were singers and writers were writers, the latter a small professional class who schlepped to work in brill buildings and tin pan alleys and seeded the industry with its songs. Then the singer-songwriter era of the ‘60s and ‘70s created the expectation that the writer sings, and doesn’t even have to sing terribly well. They just have to mean it.

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Flash forward to the digital age, where two distinct consequences of the new technology now join forces in a perfect storm that threatens to swamp us all in song. Famously, digital distribution ended up defunding the industry, first with downloads (if only we could have THAT era back) and then—total obliteration—with the streaming services. Digital distro signaled a traumatically sudden amateurization of a large percentage of the music profession.

Meanwhile, in every bedroom, the tools of production fell into l the hands of the commoners. Anyone with a decent computer now owned a viable studio and could apply themselves to the science and art of recording. Further, Asian manufacturing made not-utterly-terrible microphones and preamps affordable on all budgets.

Now enters the scene, as if on cue, a generation of young people who find they can not be happy without painting their own pictures and writing and recording their own songs. A triumph of arts education! But they have less chance than ever of making a living at it, so the only truly rare and precious commodity is, of course, the lavish amounts of time that the elusive, bedeviling, torturous arts require of anyone who would. And now, suddenly, time is cheap and abundant. The days are long. The songs will flow. Do I disapprove? No, no, what would be the point of that? But how is this for a working mantra, friends: don’t make more; make better?

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.