The Amateur vs. The Professional

I know I talk about my love for Quasi a lot on this blog — and I'll give you all a break— but I do want to begin this entry with a quote from singer/guitarist/keyboardist Sam Coomes. In a recent NPR piece on the band (one neither penned nor initiated by yours truly!), while discussing the state of contemporary music, Coomes says:

"There's an emphasis on professionalism, which was not only not so prevalent when we were younger, but it was frowned upon."

It does appear that bands have taken on a newly professional veneer. I would posit that two major factors accentuate and facilitate a more legitimate-seeming, business-like model for bands: The Internet and technology. Whereas in previous decades, only bands on major labels — or on larger indie labels — could afford Web sites, fancy CD/LP packaging, posters, glossy photos and other promotional materials, technology has leveled the playing field. The necessity of physical promotional items has all but disappeared; anyone can take a promo photo and upload it, and online music stores, MySpace and the like have democratized the ability to present music. In other words, good music, whether made in basements or in swanky studios, gets heard.

Furthermore, the Internet, with its countless blogs and critics that cater to the general and the highly specific, has diluted the cultural relevance of music magazines. Appearing in a major music magazine used to draw a line in the sand between big bands and little bands, significance and insignificance, legitimacy and illegitimacy. Now, without a center, or a singular or cohesive cultural influence, nearly all music exists in the same stretched-out elastic sphere. Consequently, the very notion of "professionalism" has transformed. Everyone's a professional.

Another element that contributes to the professional nature of music is branding and the desire (or necessity) for musicians to distribute their music via ads, and to align themselves with brands and corporations. Again, the ease with which this happens is the result of technology creating both a cultural and an intellectual shift. While the process of recording in one's basement with friends and then uploading the songs onto a Web site might seem organic, it actually skips several processes. Immediately, the music now exists not just in some hippie free-for-all called the Internet, but in a marketplace. The leap from musical inception to musical commodity is instantaneous.

And, though the current music climate is more evenly professional, looking back on previous decades, I'm not sure that what we used to perceive as musical amateurism was actually contrived. In the past, a lot of bands and labels were trying to emulate professional paradigms, but without the funds to do so. And the notion of professional is different from corporate: One can try to run a business or band using one mode, but not the other.

But whereas the context in which music is being produced and distributed has drastically changed — and professionalism seems widely accessible and easily achievable — thankfully, the amateur continues to exist. He or she exists because music is not merely about business models, but also about intentions and aesthetics. So, whether one made music 40 years ago or is making music today, there is the professional artist and then there is the amateur.

Personally, I think the professional is more interesting as an artistic choice than as a monetary one or musical one. I'm thinking of James Brown or Nation of Ulysses, both of whom tried on and played with the role. Compare their subversion of the professional with Kings of Leon or The Strokes, professional bands that cloak themselves in the amateur. Other bands don't try to hide the fact that they are musically professional: Radiohead is such a bunch of pros that Thom Yorke had to do a solo project just to "find his funk."

Iggy Pop or Robert Pollard have always peddled in the amateur. Not to to solidify credibility (like the aforementioned KOL and Strokes), but because it's a more useful vehicle for their obsessions. And a lot of the new garage-rock bands I've been writing about on this blog — and that we discussed during our SXSW coverage — seem to be making music that is reactionary and decidedly unprofessional, from Sic Alps to Grass Widow to Woven Bones.

With how easy it is to attain and create a professional music status and identity, it's harder to unearth the real deal. The ones — either professional or amateur — with passionate and artistic intentions; whose aim is, well, true.

How do the notions of professional and amateur pertain to your musical listening and to your thoughts about the music industry in general?

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