The 'Artist'

Since setting out as a songwriter/recorder/releaser my social media feeds have become completely overrun with all things ‘independent musician’. This is a blessing and a curse...

Since setting out as a songwriter/recorder/releaser my social media feeds have become completely overrun with all things ‘independent musician’.

I suppose this is to be expected - our social media feeds are, as we all know, a little like a set of circus mirrors: they reflect back at us distorted versions of ourselves - who we think we are, and, perhaps more significantly, who we want to be.

This is a blessing and a curse.

The other day a sponsored post for a Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter called Don McCloskey interrupted my timeline. He reminds me of Paul Simon (Graceland-era) and I’ve been playing his latest album on repeat for the last four days.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that social media is probably the primary way I now discover new music.

I’ve never been into music on the radio - mainly because it is interspersed with banal chat and most of the music is rubbish.

I also think that music, for a certain type of person, has a lot to do with the human desire for self-determination. I don’t want to be told what to listen to. I like finding it for myself and then boring my friends and acquaintances about it.

Or, at the very least, I’ll tolerate being nudged in its general direction by a sophisticated algorithm.

In 2023, however, the barriers one needs to cross in order to be able to put one’s music into the ears of other people have all but disappeared.

Pre-internet, to achieve public recognition as a musician was a Sisyphean task. As such, it required an almost insanely vocational commitment. You would have to, at the very least:

A) Purchase an instrument.

B) Become relatively proficient (pre-punk).

C) Learn to write songs with pens, paper and the inner machinery of the brain (whilst trying to convince yourself and anyone you played them for that, with a baseline and maybe a string arrangement, they’d really blow people away…).

D) Play them in public for years, and for free, and to no-one, whilst also managing to feed and house yourself.

E) Hope that someone might fortuitously hear you doing so and like them/you enough to stake thousands of pounds on it.

F) Hope that they were also involved somehow with a record label/management team/radio station.

G) Sign your soul over to them, along with the rights to your future master recordings.

H) Assemble a band, rehearse them, and record a song.

I) Hope that the song gets traction on the radio.

At this point in the process - having dragged yourself, bruised and bleeding, over all of these potentially career-ending hurdles - you might end up with some people that were keen to listen to your music.

Today, you genuinely don’t need to accomplish even Step A.

Chorus, for example, is a songwriting app that can construct chord progressions for you at the touch of a few buttons. You can type your own lyrics in (it’ll even provide prompts and suggestions for when you get stuck). You can sing them to a melody over the top, record it on your iPhone, upload the footage to TikTok and potentially become a viral phenomenon.

Technology has had an unbelievably liberating, democratising effect on the way music now works. Gone are many of the circumstantial, financial barriers. Musicians no longer need be at mercy of the fickle whims of fate and good fortune. You could argue that music is far more meritocratic now that everyone can have a fair stab. The market can be left to decide.

You could, alternatively, argue that the traditional gatekeepers have just been replaced by streaming service playlist editors and the TikTok algorithm. But that’s a conversation for another time.

The other downstream effect of the independent music revolution that I’d like to focus on (petty and cynical as I am) is the now-ubiquitous misuse of the term ‘artist’.

I’m now bombarded by adverts for promotional services designed to support (read: ‘take money from’) independent ‘artists’. I’m also bombarded by middle aged men singing cover versions of Huey Lewis and The News to bedroom backing tracks and referring to themselves in their Instagram bios as ‘artists’. Spotify’s subscription platform for managing one’s own music online is even called ‘Spotify for Artists’.

It strikes me as a runaway feedback loop of pretension. Promotional services and Spotify would love for every bedroom noise-maker to believe that they are an ‘artist’ because that’s precisely the delusion of grandeur that pays their bills.

Flattering budding musicians into believing that they are ‘artists’ and deserve to be recognised as such is simply a quick way into their pockets. It taps into the human obsession with status and prestige that none of us can ever truly be rid of.

Now I’m not saying that all independent musicians are entirely hopeless and deluded. I mean - I am one, after all, and I only feel hopeless and deluded about 70% of the time.

I’m just not sure that one can refer to oneself as an ‘artist’ until certain parameters have been met.

I understand that we live in the age of self-identification - that we are, in many areas, encouraged to decide who were are, tell the world about it and expect it to treat us accordingly -  but I’m still firmly of the opinion that it should be up to ‘the culture’ to apply the title of ‘artist’ to those it feels have earned it.

The word artist’ is loaded with cultural connotation and significance. To me, seats in the narrow ‘Pantheon of Artists’ are jealously reserved for people like James Joyce, Pablo Picasso and David Bowie: human gateways to somewhere else; strange shamans of narrative, sound and image who operate in the liminal spaces where others fear to tread.

To be an ‘artist’ is to be a conduit: they help the rest of us map the collective human subconscious. They walk a constant tightrope between genius and lunacy.

I don’t even think the term can be applied to performers like Robbie Williams, Ed Sheeran or Cher (and that isn’t to denigrate any of their skills, or the things they have achieved in the music business - nor does it change the fact that I unashamedly love Cher), let alone someone like me whose only claim to the title is that they’ve recently set up a new Instagram account with a picture of themselves holding a guitar.

It’s a case of semantic slippage that I think is indicative of a general lowering of standards and expectations when it comes to art. Though the literary canon, Rolling Stone Top-100s and The Oscars feel stuffy and exclusionist - and too often get things badly wrong - art must be weighed and judged somehow. There have to be cultural filters separating the highest in human expression from the rest of human expression. Especially now, when we can express whatever we like in the most unimaginably public of ways at the touch of a few buttons. Not all ‘artists’ are created equal.

And I think that’s a good thing.

Because, In many ways, a world in which everyone is an ‘artist’ is also a world in which nobody is.

Keep dreaming,


Rob Jones & The Restless Dream

Get our latest news!

Sign up for weekly correspondence: thoughts, ramblings, exclusive mini-releases and more.