Sounds of Silence

Much of the finest poetry written today is published by small presses and seen by no more than a few hundred readers. That American poetry has historically found the sources of its greatest strengths in the self-published (Whitman, Charles Reznikoff) and the obscurely published (early Pound, early Williams, Olson) is an old story.

—Paul Auster

In the GarageIs the situation that Auster describes any different for music? No. But what’s certainly dissimilar about the situation is that there is no poetry “industry” per se, as there is a giant music industry. Outside of, say, Hallmark poesy or Oprah shilling the papery pennings of Maya Angelou, poets pretty much spend their time toiling in relative obscurity vis-à-vis the rest of the writing world (including those who write third-class postage copy and blogger websites). The bolder may show up on stages for a slam. Unquestionably, there are more “poets” per capita than any other category of artist—or at least there are people of people who perceive themselves as such. Be that as it may, those who may really matter probably fall below the perceptions of even people who are interested in the genre.

While self-publishing is generally perceived as being somehow less legitimate than having a commercial house doing the heavy lifting of tomes, without it, there would be every greater invisibility: poets would form a samizdat-based community.

But what about musicians? During the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies as edited for viewing on VH1, there was a lot of talk—especially as related to the Clash—about “garage bands.” Many, if not the vast percentage, of bands that fall under that rubric never emerge from the space next to the old beater that stands ready to schlep amps, cords, stands, and other ephemera.

Some bands have taken the route of establishing their own labels, which is a variant of self-publishing. The issue, of course, is that of distribution. It tends to be more limited than the amount of talent found in the vast majority of chart-toppers. There is the opportunity of putting up MP3 files on sites (like this), but once again, the issue is one of comparative limited visibility.

Thomas Grey once speculated on a cemetery and thought, “Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest.” In other words, there was someone who didn’t manage to get his or her poetry out in the broader world. The same can be wondered about musicians, not those who have died unheralded (although there are those, no doubt), but those who continue to play, unheard.

7 thoughts on “Sounds of Silence”

  1. Wow. I just woke up to this. Beautiful, is all I have to say. I actually feel motivated to finish my homework now. Great job, Stephen. Keep ’em coming.

  2. That’s what makes any life in the creative fields (music, writing, art, etc.) so difficult. The sad truth is there are a lot of really talented artists who will never be recognized, whatever the medium may be.

    It’s not enough just to create, you have to get it out there somehow.

  3. Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,

    And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

    – Thomas Gray, Elegy in a Country Churchyard

    I have so many albums/CDs in my collection (Mod Lang the group, Hoarse, Vitamade, Webstirs, Klugmanknotts, 92 Tales…) which fit this category, as well as recordings of groups that only I own (because I made them). And even though they are ones I cherish, the rest of the world (save their makers) have already forgotten about them. Scott Miller (he of Game Theory and Loud Family) has finally given up the ghost with music, realizing that no matter how hard he tries, he will never rise above a certain level of obscurity. As a fan of these recordings, knowing these facts breaks my heart.

    So what can we the music fan do? Cherish the recordings; include the songs on mix CDs we create for friends. Start webradio stations, broadcast them. Write about them in online magazines/archives. I’m aware that these might be small gestures, but they’re something. Just because something is ultra-obscure doesn’t mean it has to remain as such.

  4. Then there is people who like making music in their home/garage and make their own recordings for friends only, simply because they don’t want to ever be recognised.

    Then there are those that really only want to play live.

  5. “Start webradio stations, broadcast them. Write about them in online magazines/archives.” I agree. We now have a greater opportunity than ever before to direct each other to under-the-radar heroes. Occasionally I hear someone at a club in New York who just blows my mind. One such, not long ago, was a guy called I Feel Tractor. He plays with words the way that name suggests, and he sings with a wobble — not a ripping-off-Will-Oldham wobble, but a sincere, idiosyncratic voice. I’m gonna go see him whenever I can and I’ll write more about him when I can. Thanks for a poignant, well written article, Stephen.

  6. IMHO, the bottom line is, we have reached a point in time in which the damage done is at long last irreversible. The music industry has succeeded in appropiating an artistic medium and exploiting it to its utmost extreme, subsequently rendering the form completely devoid of significance and/or relevance, through the prominence of capital and the idea of celebrity among other reasons. Major record companies have never regarded the artists’ welfare as their top priority, but in this day and age, consumerism and contempt HAVE finally become the regnant culture. The record buying public doesn’t make matters any better, as they are the prime candidates for the exercising of this disposable mindset. The influence of the media has snowballed and developed into an unfortunate but ubiquitous process that inhibits the people’s ability to perceive. And sad to say, most people are sheep (particularly, young people, who are very naive). This is fact. As long as artists DEPEND (and they do, mostly because of distribution, promotional and monetary benefits) on labels to make their music heard, the problem will remain intact. At this stage of the game, only an attempt at a call to arms for a widespread grassroots/DIY campaign can save the music for fans and artists alike. The seed has already been sown by numerous lo-fi artists and the like. It is up to us to form the alliance, goddammit!!! The idea behind indie rock is somehow similar, but all the same, it’s been tarnished by its own community (YES! SHOCK!!!). Maybe I’m the one who’s naive, wishing for a utopic semblance of success by refusing to work within the confines of the system and our society, which does not reward true prowess. Thus in turn, talent goes unnoticed. And other poets, remain inside the lyrical closet. So…wow, that was a mouthful. Haha. What I meant to say is that I agree with Kristy’s above comment.

  7. I think we are entering into a good time for rock and roll. Many many people are sick to death of the cynicism and crass commercialism of the major record companies whose only goal now and forever more is to make as much money as they possibly can by any means possible, period. Lots of these people have already become so weary of the near total lack of substance and sincerity in modern America’s national culture that they have instinctively turned to the ‘small-time’ artists of their towns and cities for something that still feels vital and real. That can only be a positive thing for garage musicians everywhere who somehow still play for the love of music, not gold.

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