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Art & Perception -The Death of Culture in the 21st Century?

By Dr. Richard Niles

We’ve all heard that old Buddhist question that goes something like: If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?

Those Buddhists were hip but I have another question for you: If a tree falls in the forest, and everybody hears it, but nobody knows what a tree is, what will they think has happened?

When artists create, they do so assuming/hoping that others will relate to their work and understand it in the way that they meant it to be understood. They rely on the existence of a culture they share with their audience—a common ground of history, literature, art, film, music, science and technology. But artists today face a ‘dumbed-down’ culture. For many years the public has been culturally undernourished by the educational system. Instead of Shakespeare or Eliot or Mozart or the Beatles, many are brought up on a diet of sensationalistic press, movies with a high body count and ‘reality’ TV.

With the music business selling generic and highly processed ‘product’, it’s highly unlikely for a truly innovative new artist to get heard at all. But if they do (on the internet), here are some 21st century questions for creative artists: If you create a work of art that is supposed to look like a hippo, and the audience who sees it has never seen a hippo, or indeed any animal of any kind, what do they see? Did you actually create a hippo or what the audience when it sees your hippo?

This raises the question of aural and visual language. Must an artist share that language with their audience in order to communicate? What can a contemporary artist do without a shared common ground? The Beatles broke new ground and created new forms by blending disparate elements in a new way. Yet they were able to make themselves accessible to the public because most people shared their references. What shared references exist now, and what scope do they give the contemporary artist for sophisticated creativity?

What can an artist do if the audience doesn’t understand their language? How does an artist cope with an audience who constantly use the word “like”? (As in, ”And, like, Justin was, like, there and it was, like, awesome.”) My 10-year old son asked a girl in a supermarket for “dessicated coconut” and she said, “WHAAAT?”

And does this situation make it necessary for artists to seek out their niche audience and be satisfied with working towards the goal of earning a modest living – because the masses have never seen a hippo?

Richard Niles standing next to a hippo.

And how many artists themselves are working without knowing of the great innovators of the past? What can a bassist achieve today if he has not studied Ray Brown and James Jamerson Eddie Gomez and Jaco Pastorius? What kind of lyrics can a songwriter come up with if they have not studied Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart and Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell?

As always, I’d be fascinated to hear your views and your experiences.


5 thoughts on “My Blog

  1. Dear Richard,

    I can connect to your thoughts on the hippo, I often make similar experiences and think about it quiet often. I´m a jazzsinger and songwriter from germany, have studied jazzvocals in the netherlands in the nineties and found my own style releasing two albums so far and started working on my third this year.
    Of course, my audience knows that hippo, using your metaphore. But it´s a small audience. And it´s becoming smaller and smaller, I feel.
    As an artist you have to be so faithful in yourself, you have to invest – also financially – in your music and need to have a long breath.
    Only few of us are lucky to become more popular and make a good living from their art and craft. This is a question of talent and ,more determining, meeting the right people at the righ time.
    Talking about that hippo, that many don´t know and have never seen.
    I really don´t know what I can do about it except going on writing and performing and hoping, that things will become better. This is my contribution to the hippo.
    Like you write in your comment to Louie, the music industrie wants you to already be at a certain stage of success before they invest in an artist. This is so crazy. And it´s so sad.
    It will make the hippo dissappear.
    But it also has to do with money. Looking to norway, bands are supported by the country when they tour outside. This is a great opportunity for the bands to get more popular and make important experiences. A wealthy country can afford to have a hippo, that many people know.
    In France, there´s a fond for registered musicians. When you a have a period of lower income you are financially supported by the state. France also has a rate for french music on the radio.
    I´m not playing in france, but I suppose the hippo is not an endangered species in this country.
    I wish there would be more support coming from the music industry for talents.

    My best wishes to you, Andrea

  2. Hi Richard. You have had such an amazing career. Without doubt you are one of the most brilliant music arrangers in the World. How did you manage to make contact with all those Top Artists ? Did you contact their agents or was it word of mouth recommendations or some other method. ?
    What is the secret ingredient that makes some artists so successful when thousands of other very good artists never get a breakthrough ? Some call it the Lottery of Luck being in the right place at the right time. I have found organisations such as BASCA – The British Academy of Composers and Songwriters in the UK useless for making contacts with the right people. Equally, it seems that contacting the leading publishers such as Sony Music is like trying to break into Fort Knox !
    They ignore your letters or emails and downloads. Unless you are well known, placement of music on Digital Internet sites such as iTunes, Amazon, Virgin, Spotify. Google Play do not bring much income in spite of promotions via Google WordAds. Google VideoAds and the likes. Radio Airplay is also a poor return method. For example, 2 of my songs has had 11,000 plays all over the world with a large number joining my Fan Club – glowing comments – but no referral sales on the Digital sites.
    It seems to many artists an impossible task to make a breakthrough or earn a return on capital employed.
    So, how did you do it ? How did Cole Porter do it ?
    Any advice would be appreciated. Good luck in the meantime for your continued success.
    Ray Williams
    High Wycombe

    • Ray, There is no organization that will help. When I began in 1975 I had very little going for me except my degree from the Berklee College of Music. That was helpful, but I had to cold-call record companies, publishers, producers, managers. Out of 25 calls, one publisher offered to meet me. He liked an idea I had for a musical. I presented the completed score and book for the musical 4 weeks later, and he signed me. From that, a producer at that company asked me to do an arrangement, and because of that he, and others asked me to do more.Within 6 months i was hired as staff arranger at EMI Music. From that I started working with Cat Stevens. From that… See how it goes? It’s all about one thing leading to another. It was very difficult in 1975. Today it’s much, much harder because the business has changed. The only practical advice I can give is to read my friend Janek Gwizdala’s book, “You’re a Musician – Now What?”.

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