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.
Is 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.