The Localist: Public Service As A Genre
I want to reconfigure public attitudes towards artists who write outside of the industry and proposed the term “pro bono musician” the other day but I think the concept deserves some more thought and I’m proposing that we have a genre term which I will call Public Service Musician.
By Public Service Musician, I refer to a branch of musician that (1) reaches an equivalent standard of artistic quality roughly equal to major label musicians, (2) who does it without relying on music making for their general income (3) and doesn’t rely on an external source of funds for their careers.
The genre category excludes major label musicians but also excludes what we normally refer to as “indie” music because indie, as covered by the industry, has de facto become associated with financing by independent investment wealth.
The genre designation is equally as legitimate as the category “indie” which is itself an economic genre term. “Indie” served as a genre term because the idea was there were artistic properties associated with independence from a major label, which carried with it connotations about business practices and the influence of money. (Hence when R.E.M. moved from IRS to Warner Brothers, some accused them of selling out).
Public Service music is a term which merely acknowledges that very similar economic factors and business practices affect the artistic properties of what is currently covered in music journalism as “indie music”. If indie musicians are predominantly financed by independent wealth and have social connections that allow passage through gatekeepers that others aren’t allowed, that affects the artistic properties in just the same way that major labeldom affects major label artists.
In contrast with major label and indie music, public service musicians have less economic pressure to make certain kinds of music, and they also are not selected based on ability to pay for boutique services that filter musicians based on economic and social status. They are making music that is considered equal in artistic merit to major label music, are praised in spite of not having the advantages of independent wealth and social status, and make music with little to no financial incentive that might otherwise tarnish it – i.e. they are creating something that functions as a public service.
I was talking with a friend about aspects of what we now call “indie” that suggest a new genre category is needed. Barriers presently keep many non-white artists from entry into indie coverage. Indie artists generally need to have over $10k to run a proper album release which excludes most musicians who come from middle and lower-class families. I’d even go so far as to suggest that what the industry covers as “indie” has started to take on a certain “sound” over the last decade which itself lacks diversity. And certainly, we want a genre of music that authentically represents people from middle class and lower class incomes?
Public Service Music as a genre category helps give breathing room to an artistically distinct and thriving group of musicians, defined by fundamental artistic and economic factors. It also helps give meaning to a brand of musician that is incorrectly deemed hobbyists simply because they don’t make a significant income off of the music – which is really a capitalist conception of musicianship. These are musicians who make music with little to no financial incentive, and create work that is on a par or exceeds the work put out by major label artists which benefits the public – they are literally doing a public service.
The Localist is a column focusing on issues relating to aspiring local musicians in New York City. In his free time, the author performs as St. Lenox. St. Lenox’s most recent record, “Ten Fables of Young Ambition and Passionate Love” was placed on Best Albums lists at Pop Matters and AllMusic. AllMusic credits St. Lenox with “some of the most unique and unconventionally thrilling pop music in the late 2010s.”