Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Museum Quality: Further Musings On Great Songs

There have been many times when I’ve felt a strong urge to write something that stuck around longer than a few years: a legacy song, or at least a song I’d be proud to sing until I die. Mostly I’ve failed at this, but a few gems survive. Rodney Crowell once referred to this type of song when speaking about Guy Clark’s work-- he used the phrase “museum quality”.

I find it takes a pretty intense desire to create something great. The forge has to get pretty hot. Aspiration leads to some desperation, which leads to a spark of inspiration, and then the song sometimes comes in a rush of elation, fulfillment. Or maybe there will be a sudden vision that crystallizes in the mind’s eye and ear. This is the mystical part of the art, and it totally eludes those who have little faith in the process, or those who are in too much of a hurry. Great songs require dedication, time, effort, desire, fire, and yes, faith that the task can be accomplished.

Nurturing a great idea involves finding one to begin with-- waiting until something great comes to you, or, metaphorically speaking, stoking that fire. There will be false starts, ideas that don’t hold water, concepts that lack some fundamental truth in them. Even when the right idea strikes you, there will be misdirected verses, or perhaps you’ll be using the wrong groove, or a minor mode when it should be major, and you have to scrap it.

Then suddenly the magic happens, and very often the song is born rather quickly. I’d guess that many great songs are written in less than a few hours, and this is not a contradiction with what I said about taking the time to write something great. A great song can be written in a few hours after you spend weeks finding out how it should be written.

I’m not knocking the efforts of the journeyman songwriter who goes to work every day and cranks out another collaboration hoping it’ll be worthy of Tim McGraw. God knows I did it for years, until I sensed that my marginal ability to restrain my more exploratory creative impulses was meeting head-on with changes in the industry. Sometimes a great one came along anyway, but most days there just wasn’t enough heat in the process.

For those of you too young to remember, there was a time when Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark were hit songwriters on the Row. Steve Earle wrote there, too,and so did Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett sometimes. We all had a lot of latitude in the 1980s and 90s. A writer was given at least 3 years to prove himself/herself, which meant I could experiment—give myself the luxury of patience while trying to write a great song, and still satisfy my contractual obligations. I tried to meet my song quota early in the year to buy myself a few months of true creativity.

But today that can’t be done. The pressure for the mega-hit begins on day one and continues unabated. Publishers don’t allow much experimentation, and they allow no patience. Failure in 18 months means you’re out on the street again. The money is now completely wagging the writer.

Where has this left the so-called “great song”? It’s an outcast, an orphan of better days. In the current model, most hard working artists come off the road and feel they must co-write their next record under similar pressure. Statistically, it’s impossible to write 12 great songs in six months, cut them all, and make a great CD. No one has done it yet, although I’ve heard rumors that John Prine came close with his first record. Yet we see some variation of this plan attempted endlessly in Nashville. And this is why the radio, especially country radio, pretty much sucks.

The artists, who are unfortunately conditioned to receive instant gratification, all want the songwriting income from their hit singles, so they insist on writing, even when they have no time, and possibly even no abundant skills at it. Many people will say they deserve to write the record, who can blame them? If a hot young starlet really doesn't need a great song in order to get decent airplay, why let someone else write anything on the record?

The problem is that the modern artist (and Idol winner) has been duped into believing that success implies greatness, when success really only implies popularity, like white bread and string cheese. A record can go to #1 without being great by any stretch of the definition. And just because it goes to #1 doesn’t mean it will sell, nor that the artist will have a career in 18 months.

Only the great song guarantees that an artist will be making money at the end of the long, hard road. Does it matter to the Drifters that they didn’t write “Up On The Roof” (Carol King and Gerry Goffin), or do you think Dion cares whether he wrote “Abraham, Martin and John” (Dick Holler)?

And let’s not argue that it’s only semantics, that an insipid contemporary radio ditty is “great for what it is”. Really? I say anyone who thinks there’s room for debate about this is a musical illiterate. The term “great” used to be reserved for songs by The Beatles, Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Cole Porter, Simon & Garfunkel, a few Motown classics and Brill Building evergreens. These days, according to an indiscriminate industry press, everyone writes great songs, which of course by deflation of meaning is the same as saying that no one does.

I’d like to believe this will change, but I’m not optimistic. The money comes too easily, even though the dollar is worth less these days. But the diamonds are still forged over time, and ‘museum quality’ is a standard for which we all should strive, at least once in a while.

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt


Arlen Sandes said...


Your April 7 blog about artists getting compensated for their performances like songwriters do for their songs may be reason for optimism.

Since , for most it's all about the money, if great artists can be appropriately compensated for great performances, then maybe the obsession with having to write on their records (for the money) could give way to the songwriters who can once again strive for great songs.

This may be the paradigm shift we need to see artists and pure songwriters get back to what they both do best and perhaps the almighty dollar can be appropriately shared. And maybe the art can be the better for it. Maybe it's naive to think this way, but I like to see the glass half full.

While the quick buck can make songwriters take shortcuts to get something out there, I think it goes much deeper than that. As I get a little better at this craft I am beginning the understand the way Jimmy Webb put it in his book (paraphrasing) that songwriting is pure agony, that is, when you're doing it right.

The desire for instant gratification, laziness and avoidance of this pure agony may be the biggest factors in why we don't have as many great songs a before.

But there will always be artists who will be creating art for art's sake and not for the money. The deeper I get into this profession, the more I believe the art should be paramount, but I'm sure I'd have my doubts if I hadn't eaten for a day or two. It's a balance, after all. like all of life, but I'm trying to stay more towards the side of art, the longer I write.

Your blogs are great as they may not make people happy or agree with them, but they do make people THINK!

Arlen Sanders

Anonymous said...

set this article to music!

richard murrey

Tim Wheeler said...

lol at the set this blog to music.

I recently saw a video of the keynote speech by Brown Banister at an ACU commencement. Bannister is humble to a fault but was key in producing and selling 40 or 50 million records in the Christian Music Industry. In the speech, he made a comment that was very enlightening and speaks to the issue you are talking about.

He said, "For the most part, what we (he and his cohorts) do is pretty much pop culture. The nature of pop culture is it comes.. and it goes and it becomes part of a book that we look at later and laugh about because of a funny style or whatever."

While he went on to say that his point was that message and mission is the key to significance, it enlightened a point that is key to your observation.

Writing something that will survive beyond the culture of today is rare, and in some ways is counter to the industry... that is the money side of the music business.

I remember making a comment in a writing forum about the song, GEORGIA RAIN by Tricia Yearwood, noting that is was possibly one of those transcending songs. The first reply back was, "yeah, but its kinda long, don't you think?"

I'd like to write more, but I need to go finish that mySpace song I was working on.

Tim Wheeler said...

Sorry. I forgot to mention the writers, Ed Hill and Karen Rochelle when referring to Georgia Rain.