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The art of music

Country Standard Time Editorial, October 2002

Many an artist - no matter what kind of music they play, including country, bluegrass and roots music - faces a dilemma of where art begins and ends and the business of music begins and perhaps interferes.

The record labels - at least to an extent and understandably so - are businesses concerned with making money. The major labels are publicly owned and answerable to stockholders.

Without wracking up boffo numbers at the cash registers, the folks running the record companies aren't going to be around for very long. And as we have seen in recent years - in the country market, most recently at MCA Nashville - the record company rank and file aren't going to be around for very long either.

So, how does that affect the maker of the music?

You can rest assured that there is pressure on the artist to come up with songs that could be potential hit singles. Rebecca Lynn Howard, for example, who made a very pop sounding first album for MCA, said in an interview with The Tennessean that she had to fight to include some more traditional country songs on her follow-up.

Lee Ann Womack, who certainly has had a hit or two in her career, said she also is very much torn between making music that she is happy with and satisfying her record company at the same time.

But some take a different view. An informal conversation with a Nashville-based singer who has gained critical acclaim, but not commercial success, said for her, the choice was an easy one - art instead of business. She wants to make music on her own terms.

That may be a hard pill to swallow for some artists, but ultimately the credibility of the music matters most. An artist can't be a chameleon, holding up his or her finger to see which way current trends blow because if they do, the career won't last long. Of course, the flip side is that the artist also wants a career, make a living and have people listen to their music.

And it is even made more difficult in country because of the overwhelming importance of getting music played on the radio. The idea of constant touring to build a fan base just doesn't happen in country, outside of Texas maybe where many singers have careers by practically only playing in the Lone Star State.

The record companies are looking for the hits, but the pattern is in recent years is not to look towards building careers.

If Dylan were starting his career now, he'd have been off Columbia a long time ago based on his career sales patterns.

Ultimately it's up to the singers to figure out for themselves whether they are Artists of Integrity or hit making machinery.