There aren’t many things you can’t learn in school. You can learn to be a poet or a cake baker, a philosopher or an engineer, a composer or a chemist, a carpenter or a priest. But, in spite of Jack Black’s best efforts, you can’t learn to be a rock star. There’s irony, I think, in the notion that our identities are increasingly professional at a time when our professions are less likely than ever to satisfy our dreams of financial success. So there is satisfaction in writing about people in a creative industry in which the promise of money is fast evaporating. There is no bad weather for artists.
Our cover story this week focuses on five people who are trying to make a living singing and playing their own songs. It began as an exploration of our town’s musical ambitions, and it could have taken any number of forms, focusing more on the industry side, like the band managers, digital marketing crews, venue operators, and software engineers who are coping with a publishing landscape turned upside down. It could have focused on the different types of music that flourish here, jazz for instance, or electronica. Or it could have focused on a different subset of singer-songwriters than the one I chose, because for a small town, there are many. It went the way it did because I got interested in a question. People who stand up on stage alone with a guitar have no one to blame for their failures, and these days, little reason to expect a reward, or even a living for their efforts. So why do they do it?
It’s a deceptively simple question that can shake the foundations of heaven and earth if you let it. It might seem like a leap to link the file-sharing revolution in the music industry to the fact that, for the first time in generations, Americans are not likely to fare better financially than their parents, but there’s a sense in which every story I write comes back to one idea: We are all in the business of making dreams real.