Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Taylor Swift and the Future of Music

Taylor Swift, of "We were both young when I first met you" fame, wrote a thoughtful, heartfelt column featured in The Wall Street Journal yesterday. Leonid Bershidsky of Bloomberg View responded to her in today's Chicago Tribune.

For those of you who did not follow those links, a summary of each: Taylor Swift expressed optimism in the face of declining sales across the music industry. Bershidsky expressed pessimism, noting that the changing methods of accessing and even discovering music signals that the music industry's heyday is past.

I should pause here and note that this conversation is specifically about the music industry, and not the broader shifts in the role of music, let alone the arts in general, here in our twenty-first century globalized society. (Shout out to Tony Payne, my boss at Wheaton College, for his recent essay on the WHY of the performing arts, for that general perspective.) And that is not my specific area of professional expertise; I focus more on presenting the fine arts, if you will forgive me for using such a broad term.

That being said, I agree with Taylor and her optimism. The music industry is not the only industry undergoing extreme changes. Retail. News. Travel. Education. Ministry. (Yes, I know those last two really should not be considered "industries.") All of those areas and more would be unrecognizable to people who worked in those fields a century ago as they are today. But I would not consider them dying.

Certainly, social media and the constant flow of information has reduced our attention spans (I will not say how many times while writing this I have broken away to look at my Twitter feed). But that does not mean we as humans beings actually prefer quantity over quality. It just takes a higher quantity of interactions with something for us to realize its quality. And, as Taylor writes, each successive interaction needs to be inventive, or boredom will ensue.

And I think that need for constant creativity is a reason for optimism. We will never get to the end of all there is to see and hear and smell and taste and touch in our world, and thus we will never get to the end of creativity. I believe that that is because human creativity comes the infinitely creative Lord of Creation, Jesus Christ. And I think those of you who do not share my faith tradition will accept my point that we will never get to the end of creativity.

Without question, the economics of the creative enterprises is changing. But that does not mean that the heyday of the music industry or its counterparts must be past. But the bottom line and popularity must not be the ends. The end must be to celebrate the creativity, the diverse creativity, of the people with whom we share our world, and that becomes increasingly easier as our world becomes more and more connected. If the music industry can support that effort, it can become an agent of healing the brokenness in our world. It is no substitute for the redemptive power found in Christ, of course. But I believe in common grace, and it is my prayer that musicians from multiple-Grammy-winner Taylor Swift to the five-year-old beginning piano student, and the firms and technologies that bring their music to other people, will be channels for that grace.

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