Art and life co-habitate, informing, imitating, and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship.
That title may be misleading, so let's clear some things up now: I am mainly speaking to the musicians out there, but this is not an essay about copyrighting or publishing or any other business aspect of music that was more relevant when music was actually a business. When I say ownership, I am referring to the responsibility for the personal, creative, and aesthetic aspects of one's art. It's a much heavier process than filling out a few forms for ASCAP.
Considering how much commitment is involved in playing music - time for rehearsals, money for gear, effort for writing - it is bizarre how often musicians are noncommittal regarding their craft. The lack of ownership of music manifests itself in many ways. We see it in drummers who are ignorant to tempo and lyricists who lean too heavily on predictable rhymes. We see it in pop bands who stick to well-worn structures as a default and in technical bands who write patchwork songs with no continuity.
The artist who eternally represents a lack of ownership is Reggie & the Full Effect, the project of Get Up Kids keyboardist James Dewees. Half of Reggie's material was an obvious joke (see: "Dwarf Invasion"), which seemed to give Dewees an opportunity to write off the serious tracks if necessary. I always thought if I told Dewees that I loved the song "Megan Is My Friend To The Max," he would thank me and maybe tell an anecdote about the track or what it means to him; if I were to tell him I thought the song was stupid, he could fall back on the humorous aspect of the group and duck out of the ownership. It's sort of like when a guy asks a girl if she wants to make out, doing it so inappropriately that he can say it's a joke but seriously enough that he would not be kidding if she said yes. I was in high school once, I know your tricks, Reggie.
I can relate to Dewees. It is hard to create something you care deeply about and then present it to others. But part of creative ownership is making art that requires no excuses. To reference another quasi-emo band, I interviewed Tim Kasher from Cursive for RFT Music a few months ago and asked him if he had any baggage with the band's older material. He replied, "When I started writing Cursive songs, I made a pledge to myself to not write songs I would end up hating a few years later." That's a fantastic attitude, and the reason a twelve year old album like Domestica still stands up today.
Disregarding that vague, mystical ability to write great songs, that trait Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin inexplicably developed back when its members could barely play any instruments, there are ownership skills that can be learned. The best bands have the ability to listen to themselves as bystanders and make necessary adjustments if an instrument could sound better or a lyric could be richer.
There are some groups who have put so much care into their craft that from a technical or aesthetic standpoint, they could not be any better. Anybody who saw Bo & The Locomotive play at the RFT Music Showcase should know what I'm talking about. Chances are, if your band or your songs could be better, you're probably already aware. If not, corner a friend after your show and ask. Phrase it in a non-confrontational way. "If one thing could have improved that set, what would it be?" Inquire multiple friends and you will either have a to-do list or one unanimous flaw to fix. I urge thee, do not look the other way. Do it for yourself, for your band-mates, for your friends, for your city, for that vague, mystical spirit of music that you contribute to in some small way every time you play a G chord.
It's your music. Now OWN IT.