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August, 2005

Vision and the Fight for a New World: To Be Heard

By Danny Alexander

“Cuz Martin Luther King had a dream/Aaliyah had a dream…” —The Game

Both of my jobs come with a blessing and a curse. Writing about music and teaching allows me to see and hear everyday people turn their dreams into words and music on a regular basis. My jobs give me the opportunity to steer these voices toward wider audiences. The curse is that hundreds of the best poems, stories and musical performances I’ve encountered over the past 18 years never reach more than a handful of readers or a few hundred listeners. The capitalist system itself fights to keep these voices from being heard.

One of capitalism’s fundamental myths is that the competitive system rewards the most talented, but the opposite is most often true. It’s a crapshoot, first and foremost. The odds are better if an artist knows the right people or learns the rules of the game, but the odds are never good.

And the tolls are high. Among the best musicians I know, several have given up performing after a decade or so at a career plateau, others keep at it with drinking or drug problems, some conquer these demons but grow defeated, losing the fire and inspiration that once made their music so special. Most of them have day jobs and play late into the night when they have to go to work in the morning. Most of them get paid next to nothing for a night’s work, often owing the club’s soundman more than they’ve made. Most of them can’t afford health care themselves, yet almost all have played a musical benefit for a peer, a number of whom died without health insurance.

The truth is capitalism punishes far more talent than it rewards. Profits rise if talent stays in short supply. Now that music can be freely shared over the Internet, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) sues hundreds of fans each month (784 on July 1 alone) for the supposed crime of sharing music. This is just one of many ways the music industry works to make sure most artists are never heard [see Music & Revolution at http://www.lrna.org/league/mr/mr3.html for more]. The industry also benefits greatly from the enormous amounts of free labor musicians and their fans — who serve as journalists, publicists and promoters — provide to support the art they love.

The industry also takes advantage of the romantic ideal of the starving artist. Many artists have bought into the system’s propaganda that great art only comes from economic suffering, but the historical record clearly shows art flourishes when it receives financial support and the artist has the time and ability to focus on what he or she does best. For instance, almost everything we think of as “classical” art was subsidized by the patronage of great wealth. Pope Julius the II sponsored Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, and Dukes and Duchesses, Lords and Queens supported Leonardo Da Vinci, Mozart, and Shakespeare. While a handful of artists still find rich patrons or commercial success to keep them going, imagine what might happen if everyone who wanted to paint, write, or perform had adequate support to develop their talents.

Instead of accepting a world where profits drive our choices, imagine what art could be in a world where profit is not an issue, where survival is not in question. Many more artists, currently silenced and spiritually crushed, would emerge and many would be making better quality art. Some artists would certainly reach broader audiences than others, but the system could also be much more sensitive and supportive to that art which speaks to and for smaller groups, those many fractions that get trampled over by the current dictatorship of the dollar.

My vision of a truly cooperative society is one that makes sure our many individual voices get a chance to be heard. It seeks to unlock the creativity capitalism fights and destroys. It allows us to focus on the values of art that go beyond making a buck—like the value of minority voices that offer perspectives the majority would otherwise overlook. It asks that we not forget art’s unique ability to speak truths that sometimes can’t even be put into words, from and to parts of the human spirit that we don’t quite understand, with effects that bring us closer to one another and help us grow stronger, individually and collectively.

And all we have to do is share our abundance so that an artist can be an artist, so that our friends and loved ones can freely pursue their dreams. If the past 18 years have taught me any one thing, it’s that an unheard choir yearns to raise its voice. Until that voice is heard, my work will be an ongoing reminder of the tragedy of the current system. When that voice is heard, the frontiers of imagination will be blown wide open.

Danny Alexander writes and teaches in Kansas City

This article originated in the People's Tribune
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