Art, Music, and Social Media: Why John Mayer and T-Bone Burnett are Wrong

by Ken Mueller on October 13, 2010 · 13 comments

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Within the past month, two big names in the music industry have had some rather harsh words for Social Media and the Internet.

In case you missed it, singer John Mayer quit Twitter (leaving behind 3.7-million followers). Initially he said he was more interested in his blog and Tumblr site, but in a blog entry (which seems to have mysteriously disappeared from his blog), Mayer wrote:

…since the invocation of Twitter, nobody who has participated in it has created any lasting art. And yes! Yours truly is included in that roundup as well…Has any artist, since they’ve begun to give you daily insights into their life created their best work yet? Are the best writers of our time on Twitter?…Those who decide to remain offline will make better work than those online. Why? Because great ideas have to gather. They have to pass the test of withstanding thirteen different moods, four different months and sixty different edits. Anything less is day trading. You can either get a bunch of mentions now or change someone’s life next year.

Then, just a week or so ago, one of my musical heroes, T-Bone Burnett, went even further while addressing the Future of Music Coalition Policy Summit. I’ve been a fan of Burnett’s since his days with the Alpha Band, through his solo work, and on to his film work with the Coen Brothers, so it pains me to find an area where we disagree. But here are a few statements from Burnett’s session:

“Stay completely away from the Internet…..Don’t be on Facebook, don’t be on MySpace…as soon as you’re on MySpace you’re one of 6-million.”

“Don’t go near the Internet because you’re degrading what you’re doing to such a low point, it has reduced its value to zero.”

He then somehow equates the Internet and MP3s to America’s exporting of jobs and manufacturing overseas only to then buy our own products back. He talks about how this contributes to a trade imbalance…but I’m still not sure what that has to do with recorded music. These are the thoughts and words I would expect from someone who has let the industry pass them by, but Burnett continues to be relevant as a musician and producer.

I believe that both Mayer and Burnett really miss the mark. They seem to be working under the assumption that, while new things are not necessarily bad, they are less pure, perhaps. Mayer challenges us with the statement, “Has any artist, since they’ve begun to give you daily insights into their life created their best work yet?” Well, Twitter has only been around for 4 years, and really only in the “mainstream” for perhaps half that time. How can we evaluate what will stand the test of time? And it’s rare that we determine that someone has created their best work until years, if not decades, later. In other words, the jury is still out. His argument buys into that argument that Twitter is nothing but narcissistic, pointless babble. Mayer seems content to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because something doesn’t work for him doesn’t mean it won’t work for others. And how do we define terms like “lasting” and “art”?

And as for Burnett, how do we determine whether digital is inferior to analog? True audiophiles (which is only a small minority of music fans) debate the best sounding media on a regular basis. If you look at the early history of radio, there were major battles over the use of recorded music as opposed to live music. Playing recorded music on the radio was seen as inferior. And with the introduction of each new medium, purists argued that newer was inferior to older. Does Burnett record only on vinyl as opposed to CD? Does he not understand the nature and value of newer distribution models?

Being present on social platforms and creating art aren’t mutually exclusive. We need to resist the temptation to vilify the new, lest we become like the guy who yelled “Judas” when Bob Dylan plugged in his guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. We need to move forward (with caution), and not be afraid of change. This is an exciting time, and I believe the digital age has made it possible for more good music to be created. Yes, there is also more bad music, but the cream will rise to the top.

I began blogging about this recently in The Changing Face of the Music Industry over on the Whitaker Center’s website, and will be posting over there more often as I examine the relationship between music and the Internet.

Are Mayer and Burnett right or wrong? I think that perhaps, while they may be right in terms of their own careers, generalizations like these are more symptomatic of the bias created by personal prejudices, rather than endemic to the Internet and Social Media in general.

What do you think? Are the Internet and Social Media the enemies of art and creativity? Or can they co-exist or even thrive together? I’d particularly love to hear from those of you who are musicians, writers, or artists. How has the Internet or Social Media impacted your art? Has it hurt or helped?

 Art, Music, and Social Media: Why John Mayer and T Bone Burnett are Wrong
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12 comments
Ken
Ken

Nice call, Reid. I did my research on that in haste, and I paid for it. Good to have music friends reading. And...I should've known this from my time at MT&R when we screened "Eat the Document."

Reid Davis
Reid Davis

One small factual correction. "Judas" didn't occur at Newport Folk; that was when Pete Seegar allegedly tried to shut down the power. (The reality is less poetic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_Dylan_controversy.)

The dude in the crowd yelling "Judas" was at the Manchester Free Trade Hall (popularly known as the "Royal Albert Hall" concert.)

None of this detracts from the actual point, of course, but now that we have the Internet, it's easy to look these things up. ;)

Jason Deeds
Jason Deeds

You know ken I thought even more about this, and hope to prove John Mayer wrong with my own "Social writing project." I think it's interesting when artists start to work with Social Media as a tool to not only listen to their audience but get them involved with the work.

Ken
Ken

Stacy and Jason, I agree in part with your points, but don't think they get to the heart of the matter for what either Mayer or Burnett is saying. They are both denying the value of digital and see them as the anti-thesis of creativity.

And Jason, the democratizing effect is a great thing, in my mind. I've written on this both here and on other blogs in terms of music. It give voice to more people, but puts the onus on us as consumers to find the good stuff, rather than having gatekeepers make arbitrary decisions for us. Strong messages, and art, WILL rise to the top.

Jason Konopinski
Jason Konopinski

Digital exchanges are fleeting and impermant, especially on Twitter when the sheer volume leads to low reader conversion (and, of all the social networking sites I use, Twitter sees most of my personal and professional energies), so I can understand Mayer's frustration and apparent disavowal of social media. Like any technology, social media networks are still being navigated in hopes of understanding them more fully; a certain level of attrition and full-blown rejection is to be expected. And by that same token, they can be ineffectively and unhealthily used.

As a writer, I see and celebrate the value in digital publishing like blogs and microblogging via Amplify, Posterous, Twitter et al; however, the democratizing effect of the internet has diluted really strong messages because they easily get lost in the deluge.

Stacy
Stacy

With social media there is a danger, as with any commercial/media outlet, that an artist will tend to cater to what he thinks his audience expects, or project the person he thinks his audience wants. Since the nature of social media fosters an almost constant, relentless, intimate, personal connection between the artist and his audience, the danger is much more clear and present to the point of being overwhelming. Artists are constantly doing battle in an effort to remain true to themselves. It can be an exhausting battle, and it can take quite a concerted effort to find that balance between using social media to your advantage and not letting it control you. I think John Mayer sounds like he's just gotten to a level of frustration where it's much easier to give up on social media altogether rather than try to find the balance. And fortunately for him, he's at a place where he can probably afford to give up on it. Some artists (like him for instance) may even benefit more from remaining more reclusive and mysterious.

Ken
Ken

Jason, I see your point. And I don't dispute his thoughts for HIM. But to make a blanket statement like "Has any artist, since they’ve begun to give you daily insights into their life created their best work yet" is wrong on so many levels. I get bothered when anyone presumes to speak for all of their peers, and I think both Mayer and Burnett are painting some rather broad stroke generalizations.

Ken
Ken

Jason, I see your point. And I don't dispute his thoughts for HIM. But to make a blanket statement like "Has any artist, since they’ve begun to give you daily insights into their life created their best work yet" is wrong on so many levels. I get bothered when anyone presumes to speak for all of their peers, and I think both Mayer and Burnett are painting some rather broad stroke generalizations.

jason deeds
jason deeds

Ken,

While I agree with you and love social media for what it has done for my community, family and my own art. I can understand John Mayer's small point that maybe some artists (like everyone else) are becomming so additced to the need for current and constant information and interaction that it takes them away from their time to create art. One could say the same thing for any form of digital distraction. What I don't think he understands is as an artist Social Media less about social interaction on any personal level and more a window for your fans to understand the creation of that art.

If he wants a great example of a Muscian who is using Social Media and creating their greatest works he need only look to Amanda Palmer. Her use of Social Media to reach out to her audience is heartfelt and amazing. The interplay between fan and musican has even created some of it's own art.

Ken
Ken

Thanks for your comment, Brent, and I agree. I guess it comes down to the fact that, as creatives, we all work differently, and all of us are inspired differently. I greatly appreciate your opinions from the perspective of a graphic designer. And I love your final thought about "real art". Well done!

Brent
Brent

I don't see how one could detract from the other. I'm an artist in a sense, a graphic designer. I feel that things like Twitter have only enhanced my ability to be creative, giving me that much more access to resources and insights. Beyond the possible time-management problem that some might fall into with an overuse of social media, I don't see how using it could negatively effect creative pursuits. When you consider the possibilities of increased collaboration and influences from an increasing array of sources, I can only see social media as having a positive influence on creativity. Some artists do tend to see themselves as working best when they're isolated from outside influence and daily criticism, but in my opinion that is an illusion. In reality art always benefits from existing in a community where it can be enhanced and evaluated. This leads to continued growth and improvement of the artist. Occasionally it is good to get away from the masses and just focus on creating, but real art doesn't bloom until it's exposed to, criticized by and appreciated by as many people as possible.

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