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Art advanced as capitalism and technology crept forward, taking giant steps during the Renaissance, when the Church and the ruling class began to finance visual artists, musicians and composers on a whole new scale.
Art became a job. The personal tastes of those who financed artists dictated what art survived. Skip forward roughly five hundred years to the 1990s, and we still had basically the same system: art financiers became record labels, publishers and film studio executives who acted as gatekeepers, determining what art the public would see and hear. Then the digital age took the financiers and middlemen out of the artist/ audience relationship. We are witnessing evolution in the arts.
In the digital world, there’s no shipping or printing cost, no retail space to rent, and usually no production cost. A homeless person can go to the library and write fiction that can be read by millions. A kid in Vietnam or Des Moines with a borrowed camera and a guitar can recruit legions of fans eager to download everything he or she posts. We are getting back to a world of art for art’s sake. Because there are no production costs, revenue is optional.
As a professional musician and writer, I feel a little like the high-class hooker whose earning is threatened when a sorority house of eager hotties moves next door to my brothel. Free art is omnipresent: 80 percent of Japan’s most popular books in 2007 were thumbed out on cell phones for free downloads. MySpace and YouTube offer more free music, video and art content than Virgin, Tower Records and Walmart combined could ever hope to put on their shelves. What’s truly amazing about our new world is that the free art is often as good as the stuff we buy. Regrettably, without gatekeepers, one needs to sift through a lot of garbage to find the gems. Without the record labels telling us what is good, we clearly miss some jewels in the rough.
Recently in Washington DC, Joshua Bell, arguably one of the best violinists in the world, busked a 45-minute, rush-hour subway set on his 3.5 million dollar violin. Six people stopped to listen, and he collected $32. Two days prior, Bell sold out a Boston theater where the seats averaged $100. The Washington Post organized this incognito concert as part of a social experiment about perception. Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context? Yes and no.
The other night I spent an hour on YouTube watching what looked like a twelve-year-old boy painstakingly explain how to play part of “Cliffs of Dover.” As I fumbled slowly along, trying to memorize the seemingly random series of notes, this kid monotonously instructed, “fifteen fret on the B string, twelve fret on the B string…” Though his performance wasn’t flawless, I respected him. According to the brutal slew of messages posted below his video, I was alone. It made me wonder: who are these assholes who post these condemning comments? And why would anybody go to this much trouble to record and post a video knowing there’s no monetary gain—knowing they’re exposing themselves to vicious attacks by semi-anonymous critics?
Tyne Daly said, “A critic is someone who never actually goes to the battle, yet who afterwards comes out shooting the wounded.” As I scan YouTube, I have to admire those brave souls who, in spite of these venomous attacks, soldier on to literally share their art with the world. Motivated by the guilt of taking and not giving back, I videoed a few clips of some of my favorite guitars doing what they do. (Search “John Bohlinger” on YouTube, and feel free to degrade me in the comment section.) I’m not much of a technical guy, nor am I patient, so my homespun videos are replete with errors, both in my playing and recording—which seems right in keeping with the art’s evolution. It’s fast, messy and free. Ideas are shared, unfettered by big business polishing it up to make a buck.
Which is not to say there isn’t money made in free art. Back in December, The New York Times reported that several YouTube favorites, such as Michael Buckley and Cory Williams, are now earning mega-bucks from product placement and the YouTube Partner Program, which sounds like a profit-sharing program for video posters with gigantic audiences and a lot of content. Which is not to say there isn’t money for the small-time posters. I recently contributed a track to a B-Bender guitar album called The Bendegos. One of the other guest artists is a great player named Sol Philcox, who launched his career on YouTube posting some blazing tele-pickin’ videos he made as a kid. There are thousands of examples of commerce serendipitously working its way in to free art.
YouTube and sites like it are the venues for art’s evolution. The best work will be rewarded, if not monetarily, at least through notoriety. Players play, writers write, painters paint—it’s in our blood, and we can’t stop. Regardless of financial gain, it’s gratifying to have an audience. We are lucky to live during a time when every artist has a means of sharing his or her work. It’s like we are all in kindergarten and the entire world gets to admire our finger paintings thumbtacked to digital bulletin board.
John Bohlinger is a Nashville guitar slinger who has recorded and toured with over 30 major label artists. His songs and playing can be heard in several major motion pictures, major label releases and literally hundreds of television drops. For more info visit johnbohlinger.com.