Great artistic success with great material gain

Rarely does great artistic success lead to great material gain. Much more often, these two are at great odds against each other.

Richie Beirach and I thought it would be interesting to write something about this important topic. Will it turn into a book? I don't know but I think that's what we're aiming for.

The idea started with Richie wanting to write something about three jazz albums that were great artistic successes that sold many more copies than any other jazz album of their artistic stature. The three albums were:

  • Kind of Blue - Mile Davis
  • The Köln Concert - Keith Jarrett
  • A Love Supreme - John Coltrane

Richie and I are very much still in the middle of untangling and editing our several recorded conversations on the topic, but I recently wrote something that may serve as the opening of the piece. I think it ties together the analysis of the three albums, our discussion about the emotional element of great art, and the moral implications of creating materially successful art. There will probably be more topics as Richie and I chew on this for a while longer, but here's what I wrote.

Great Art and Great Material Success

Great art does not necessarily or often lead to great material success. Art seems unique in its inability to connect material reward to great skill and accomplishment. Exceptional skill in sports regularly leads to fame and fortune as do innovative technological advances and inventions. 

What is it about great art that often defies the reward for its innovation and grand vision? Is it art’s subjective nature? It is because of its conceptual nature and therefore, the greater effort required for its appreciation? Seeing a football quarterback throw a 60-yard pinpoint pass for a last-second touchdown is much easier to appreciate by the cheering masses than a brand new contemporary string quartet performed by world-class musicians in Carnegie Hall.

It is this question of the relationship between great art and great material reward that Richie Beirach and I will chew in this book. Our focus will be on the music, even though we will touch on film and painting in order to draw comparisons and provide clear examples.

The conflict between art and money goes back hundreds of years. One notable example was the beliefs and lifestyle of the Bohemians, a group of marginalized and impoverished artists, writers, journalists, musicians, and actors in major European cities in the mid 19th Century.

The modern variant is the “starving artist”. Unfortunately, history as well as modern times is filled with artists who struggle to earn a living from their artistic passion and gift. Even more unfortunate, however, is the popular ideal that authentic and noble artists must suffer in order for their art to be “worthy”. In this view, becoming popular and earning a good living is in some way a compromise to their art and de-legitimizes their efforts as “true” artists. 

This view reverses cause and effect. Money is an effect derived from a cause. It is not earned money that marks a work of art as illegitimate or unworthy. Popularity in itself is not a sign of compromised artistic values. Instead, compromise is the act of manipulating one’s artistic endeavor for the purpose of gaining popularity and wealth. Using modern terms, we call that a “sell-out”.

But again, be careful not to label an album or other work of art a “sell-out” simply because it is popular. There is often a very thin line between artistic success and failure. Without Silvester Stalone’s dogged pursuit to sell his script for Rocky, it might have languished as a shoebox full of unfulfilled writing in the closet of an unknown actor with a dream for a boxing movie.

After failure and more failure, Stalone didn’t decide one day to rewrite it as an animation about a cute poodle who dreams of someday becoming a tough junkyard dog. He was clear on his authentic vision and maintained it until someone finally said yes.

Jazz is particularly prone to artistic compromise because of the relatively narrow community of jazz fans. Jazz, by its nature, is not a popular art form. So the temptation can be strong to just tweak this or add that for the sole purpose of attracting more people to buy it.  

Compromise in jazz often occurs when the defining elements of the music are eliminated such as authentic improvisation or live human interaction.

Given that jazz albums rarely sell in the millions, what is it about those few that do? What characterizes those very few jazz albums that capture the attention and dollars of a large music-buying public, and do so without any thought of compromise?

To answer that, let’s look at three top-selling jazz albums from three very different musicians in three very different circumstances and stages in their careers.

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