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Music and Art

Musical Canary in the Coal Mine

It's been almost 20 years since Napster tipped over the boat. Although it operated only for about 2 years in its original form, the repercussions of what they started are still being felt and we've not yet come through all the changes that Napster wrought. Musicians can't make money. We didn't make any before Napster either. It's just a different kind of not making money. But some have managed to adjust, and more notably many bands and fans came of age in this era, so the idea of free music, "donated" support, and superfans is what they've always known. Computer technology also changed every other aspect of music. Anyone can make music, you no longer need an expensive studio. You don't need a label or a distributor. You just need a computer, some decent gear and software, and an internet connection.

I think music serves as something of a canary in a coal mine. What has happened to the music industry could happen to nearly every endeavor we are now engaged in. This isn't new, but after viewing some recent YouTube videos this idea formed itself in my mind more clearly. Video games have supplanted music as a dominant form of entertainment. Think now of all the video games you can play for free. If you're a semi-serious gamer you might also know about the modding community. These are people who made add ons for many games. Some of these modders might get a little money via donation, but are mostly just doing it for free and for fun. Skyrim is a popular game and one of the most modded I've seen. On the mod sharing site Nexusmods there are over 40 thousand files available. Sure, not all of it is great, but can you imagine the cost to the game manufacturer if they themselves had made even a fraction of those mods? Can you imagine being asked to pay for each one that you wanted to use?

It's not just games. Open source software is common, with some programs like OpenOffice easily standing toe to toe with giants like Microsoft Word. Though not exactly open source, I use Reaper as my recording software. I find it every bit as capable as other programs that would have cost hundreds more. There was a recent announcement that one of the most widely used game engines would be released for free, for all to use.

Back to the YouTube videos, I've seen a number of fan made videos of well known material, and I've seen people's original works. With the available technology, now filmmakers can do what musicians began doing two decades ago. They can make Hollywood quality films by themselves, at home, with their friends, for not much money. Youtube is huge, visual entertainment is massive, and I don't see this slowing down. Homemade videos might never upend the industry the way it happened in music, but with companies like Netflix and Amazon making their own (very successful) shows, less and less you'll need to go through some sort of gatekeeper to make your movie and get it out to the public.

I don't think this is limited just to entertainment. Businesses want to make as much money as they can, and cutting costs is one way to do that. Once self-driving cars become common, how long will it be until cab companies and trucking companies become automated? Already in Japan you can go to restaurants where the food is prepared by robots. Someone also just opened a hotel staffed by robots. When 3D printing becomes even more commonplace than it already is, that will further eliminate the need for workers.

Many people always have and always will make music and art and film for the love of it, not the money. But I really can't see anyone working at Walmart or McDonald's just because they enjoy the task at hand. Manufacturing in the US went through this in the 70s, and never really recovered. That was partly due to automation, and partly due to cheap overseas labor. The economy of the future is not a matter of training people for new industries, enacting policies that promote job growth, or even increasing the minimum wage. The economy of the future is us figuring out what to do with all the people who don't have jobs not because of any reason we have today, but because those jobs don't need to be done by people anymore. This issue becomes magnified when you consider the use of robots and other manufacturing in other countries. It's one problem to figure out what 100 million Americans will do when humans don't have to do those jobs anymore. Add to that a billion Chinese workers.

Where does this leave us? I don't really think any of this is bad, but our civilization isn't taking steps to be ready for these changes. If all of our creative work is done for free, are we all flipping burgers and stocking grocery shelves to pay the bills? If all the mundane work is done by machines, what will everybody do? Can we begin to move to a world where our needs are taken care of without a worry of money, leaving us to pursue our true callings?

For Neil

As I begin writing this post, I have just learned of the passing of Rush drummer and lyricist Neil Peart. It's actually been a long time since one of my heroes died, and none of my heroes stand as large in my life as Neil, Geddy, and Alex. I feel like I need to spend some time processing and sharing how much Rush has impacted my life.
Rush is a band that influenced me before I even had any concept of playing an instrument or being in a band. When I was young most of my music consumption was through my parents. They didn't have any Rush records, but the band was a staple on the classic rock radio that they listened to. Limelight, Red Barchetta, Tom Sawyer, The Trees were all staples in rotation. But it was 2112 that got into my brain and stayed there, fermenting and shaping my musical future. For those too young to remember, once upon a time (and maybe still, I haven't heard classic rock radio in ages), the Overture and Temples of Syrinx were played as a radio edit for 2112. The swirling synths and bombastic hits grabbed me much the same way John Williams score for Star Wars did, and the lyrics drew me into imagined worlds far from my own, just like the Star Wars films or my constant book reading did.
Later, in the early days of my guitar playing, I started to choose my own music, form an identity away from my parents. A few of my friends were introducing me to new music, including the 80s shredders and bands like Queensryche and Living Colour. One particular friend loaned me a copy of Presto. I think I was in 8th grade, so Presto would have been brand new. I already knew something about Rush from the radio, but this more in depth absorption was the wide-open gateway I needed. Looking back I think it's also interesting that my first deep dive into Rush was more "middle period (but post-synth)" rather than with albums like A Farwell to Kings or Moving Pictures.
To make a long story short, I began to absorb all of Rush's work and as I grew as a musician their influence showed through. A story I'm sure is very common. When I was 16 I even had the audacity (as only a brash teenager could) to write and record a sequel to 2112, imagining a story of the "Elder race" in parallel to the world depicted in the original song. I mean, there had to be a back story to "Attention all Planets of the Solar Federation, We have assumed control," right?
Their influence on me has so many facets. I'm inspired by each of them as instrumentalists. I'm inspired by the writing. Both the music and lyrics. The music is just cool. Neil's lyrics taught me rock music didn't have to be all "ooh baby" superficial tripe. Tell stories, make them both closely personal and universal. Play with words as much as you play with notes. I'm inspired by their process for creating. It took time, but I learned to appreciate that a band evolves over time. I like all eras of Rush, and I learned not to be mad at my favorite bands when they changed. Continual growth is necessary, lest you become a staple on the state fair nostalgia circuit. I'm inspired by their humor and genuine friendship. If you've never seen it, find the Dinner with Rush extended extra from Beyond the Lighted Stage. 40 years of a close and loving friendship. No posturing, no fake manliness, no rock star swagger. Music aside, watching Geddy, Alex, and Neil is a lesson in how to be a good human. A lesson on what really matters. I wanted my band to be like Rush, not just because of the music, but because of the people.
Neil was also an excellent writer. I've read his books, and Ghost Rider had a profound impact on me. Keep going in the face of incomprehensible loss. Keep moving. Even if you can only say you got out of bed today, you are victorious. I'd also pop in on Neil's blog from time to time and catch up with his travel stories. I like travel writings, and his were excellent. I would rank him up with William Least Heat-Moon. More than just "I went here and saw this". Also a snapshot of inner monologue and a view of the people that make up this world.
As I reread this for mistakes, I've noticed I refer to the band members by their first names. I've never met any of them in person, yet I feel this is how all of us fans can relate to them. They are not heroes carved in marble up on pedestals. They are us. Neil's death has hit me surprisingly hard. I know everything and everyone will eventually pass into memory, but this was sudden, thanks to Neil's famous guarding of his privacy. But as I continue to process this, I also feel like I've lost a father figure. I hadn't fully realized the he, and the band, meant that much to me beyond the music. I take some comfort in being grateful Rush was there for us for so long, and I know I am far from alone.
I leave you with the song "The Garden," the last track on the last Rush album. It isn't big and blasting, it is quiet and introspective. A little melancholic but always with hope at the end. I don't know if this was the last song they wrote and recorded, but it is an appropriate fade to black on this story.
The Garden
In this one of many possible worlds, all for the best, or some bizarre test?
It is what it is - and whatever
Time is still the infinite jest
The arrow files when you dream, the hours tick away - the cells tick away
The Watchmaker keeps to his schemes
The hours tick away - they tick away
The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect
So hard to earn, so easily burned
In the fullness of time
A garden to nurture and protect
In the rise and the set of the sun
'Til the stars go spinning - spinning 'round the night
It is what it is - and forever
Each moment a memory in flight
The arrow flies while you breathe, the hours tick away - the cells tick away
The Watchmaker has time up his sleeve
The hours tick away - they tick away
The treasure of a life is a measure of love and respect
The way you live, the gifts that you give
In the fullness of time
It's the only return that you expect
The future disappears into memory
With only a moment between
Forever dwells in that moment
Hope is what remains to be seen
Rush - Clockwork Angels Tour - The Garden

Neil Peart
(from Reverb.com)

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