There is an existential crisis within what has come to be called folk music in America.
We, as an artistic community, seem to not know why we make the music we do and if we do know why, we can't understand why it is the cultural ghetto that it is. There is an almost willful refusal to
consider the function or purpose of what we are creating. On the one hand, it feels as though the creative vision of the artist is held unimpeachably sacred. Compromise to meet popular taste or commercial success is not only distasteful but morally wrong. On the other hand is a sense of anger at the lack of support from the mainstream music infrastructure and the general population who only understand music as a thing to be consumed. There is a contradiction here. We cannot refuse to make art that meets others needs and expect to be relevant to more than a handful of people.
I think the refusal to have a conversation internally and amongst ourselves about what
function our music serves is caused by the friction created when personal moral
exceptionalism meets the perceived shortcomings of hyper-individualism programed into most of
us. Our culture praises the individual above all else. I think "folkies" are under the
impression that they are immune to the trappings of this hyper-individualism and the consumer
landscape it exists in. We want to be genuine and more altruistic than the unhealthy society
we see around us. This idea is bolstered by the fact that we peruse something that is
decidedly not popular.
However, we are not immune from hyper-individualism.
As best as I can tell, the main function of modern folk is almost solely self expression.
This is how hyper-individualism manifests itself in folk music and American acoustic music
in general. There is nothing objectively wrong with self expression. But unless you are
uniquely apt at expressing a broad range of the human experience, an individuals self
expression is not useless to the broader population. This may sound judgmental, but the
proof is in the pudding. Folk music is struggling in the cultural market. In other words,
I'm not saying that folk music is not useful to others; the consuming population is. We want
people to consume what we produce but refuse to produce what they want to consume.
I have been chastised by some in the folk community for saying that self expression is the
main function of folk but no one can tell me what else it does. This would be fine if our
music didn't need to compete in the marketplace, but it does. I'm saying we need to make
music that panders because the industry will always do a better job that we can at that.
What I saying is we need to find what function we can have in peoples lives.
Popular music seems to be mono-chromatic in subject, aesthetic and function. It tells one
story; the story of consumption. It is produced to be palatable to the broadest possible
population and reinforces the demise of regionalism.
I think we can start to find our function by examining our own communities and purposefully
exploring what needs are being neglected by mainstream music. We may have to sacrifice some
of our voice to meet the needs of our communities and become relevant. That's o.k. By
investing on others, they have a reason to invest in us. I have an unwavering faith that in
our increasingly mechanized and consumerist society that there is a role for independent
acoustic music. We just need to find what it is.