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Mary Bragg: Art vs. Commerce Became Art vs. 'Content'

Shervin Lainez
Guest columnist Mary Bragg

A few weeks ago I sat in the balcony at the Ryman Auditorium for “You Got Gold,” the third annual celebration of the life, heart, and song catalog of John Prine. The show was wonderfully curated, well-executed, and of course star-studded. I listened intently and was moved, frequently to tears (because I'm a sap), by Prine's incomparable melodies and lyrics. But it got me thinking about something else.

In the seats to my right were a couple of well-regarded songwriter friends from my generation. To my left were several other friends who are record label executives, managers- industry folks. It was as if the line between art and commerce could be drawn between us with a Ryman pew divider.

We were all there because we love songs, and like John Prine, we have devoted our lives to music. Prine’s catalog cut through with straight-forward stories that underscored the need for zoomed-out acknowledgements of commonly felt feelings. With crystal-clear images and a jaunty melodic rapport, he knew how to sketch a thread from human heart to human heart.

You can tell Prine’s work is the product of a mind shaped before the tech boom. He didn't write his songs wondering if he'd go viral. He didn't have hashtags on his mind. He didn't write to a clock or a social media schedule. For those of us in the field today, however, there's no mistaking or escaping the brutal metrics of the social media marketplace. Dopamine hit shops like Instagram and TikTok serve up congratulatory likes or affirming shares - the coveted engagement - giving you that sweet, short-lived buzz that makes you think your art is valid. The rules of the almighty algorithms change like the weather, but we are made to feel that our numbers are commensurate with the effort we've put into our art.

My fellow independent artists and writers clearly feel beset by these forces, because just recently my community shared and re-shared a moving post by our hero Gretchen Peters, one of Nashville's most influential songwriters of the past 30 years. "The music business has become increasingly, relentlessly demanding of artists,” she wrote. “The pressure to release new "content" (not a synonym for art), to churn out singles and albums and videos and reels and posts on a prescribed schedule, often utterly out of sync with the artist's internal one, isn't producing more or greater art. It's just increasing the noise and exhausting the artists.”

And we aren't making this up. In 2020, Daniel Ek, the CEO and co-founder of Spotify outraged the creative community by telling Music Ally that recording artists "can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough...The artists today that are making it realize that it’s about creating a continuous engagement with their fans. It is about putting the work in, about the storytelling around the album, and about keeping a continuous dialogue with your fans.”

It does not feel good to have the man who controls our puny royalties from streaming tell us to make up the difference with volume. Gretchen seemed to rebut this directly in her statement: “We need better songs, not more of them,” she wrote. “We need artists who want to make art that lasts, not content that’s digested in the time it takes to scroll through your Instagram feed.”

It's not as if I'm unwilling to change and adapt. During the pandemic, I went to grad school to study songwriting and production at the Berklee College of Music. It was riveting to be back in school, mid-career, alongside writers and artists who grew up with YouTube and digital audio workstations (DAWs) on their iPads. I taught myself to use Logic (one of those DAWs) in 2017 - at 35 years old - when I wanted to make a record and didn’t have enough money. I’d always obsessed over melody and lyrics; many in my cohort had obsessed over plug-ins (audio effects), signal chains, and social media. We learned a lot from each other.

Now, back in the clamoring chaos of the music business, I feel the relentless pressure to be everything all at once - the artist, the personality, the story, the writer, the language puzzle-solver, the melodic hook-maker, and the translator of meaningful things. At the same time, artists are expected to be entrepreneurs, marketers, merch sellers, travel planners, project managers. Sometimes we’re also the producer, engineer, video editor, tour manager, driver, graphic designer, and social media manager. Amid all this, how do we allow ourselves the space and time to focus on the actual work?

I remember walking out of a co-write with Maia Sharp recently. We laughed at the punchy directives we know we’re up against. “Be good at everything.” “Feed the algorithm.” “Always be creating content.”

Yet, this was my third 3-4 hour writing session with Maia over the course of a month, and all that time was devoted to one song. Because we wanted to get it exactly right. Because we both think it’s good and the work deserves and needs the time. The listener deserves the attention. I don’t know if it’ll trend. It’s about being human. Is that enough?

At the forefront of our minds is the work itself; in the back of our minds is the temptation to compromise for the sake of fulfilling manufactured obligations that muddy the creative waters.

Would I compromise if John Prine were in the room?

At the Ryman, a wave of fear came over me as the stellar performances shepherded us through his life’s work, three minutes at a time. The gulf between Prine’s “gold standard” and the content machine could grow ever-wider if we allow benchmarks of quality to be redefined by fleeting commercial marketing ploys. It takes discipline and even courage to put the art first these days.

But consider what we stand to lose if we don’t.

Mary Bragg is a songwriter and producer based in Nashville. Her latest album is Mary Bragg.