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Popular and Unpopular

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Popular and Unpopular

Time was when composers, John Cage for example, luxuriated in their unpopularity, thinking that if they were liked they must be doing something wrong. That seems to have entirely gone away. Everyone wants to be popular now. How do you do that? It seems by largely feeding people what they expect and are used to with just enough novelty to seem fresh (while not exactly being fresh).

So what I want to talk about is how to be unpopular. Now there is a right way and a wrong way, obviously. The wrong way is to simply be bad: clumsy, incoherent, meaningless drivel. This is wrong because, judging from recent films, you can still see some mainstream success even if you are quite bad. No, in order to be unpopular in the right way, you have to be truly original. You have to be doing something that is either new, or something old refreshed. New wine in old bottles or old wine in new bottles. Or, heck, maybe new wine in new bottles. I don't think old wine in old bottles would work because we have lots of that lying around already.

The best way to be unpopular, I think, is to follow your own instincts and intuitions and if it results in some fame or even notoriety, then keep trying until that goes away. Yes, there will always be a few aficionados that will figure out what you are up to, but as long as they remain few in number, you are safe.

So is your main goal simply to be unpopular? No, not really, you strive for unpopularity in order to avoid the perils of commercial success which is the surest way to destroy any actual quality in your work,

Does this seem cynical? Well, I am certainly trying for that, but I worry that I am not nearly cynical enough!

I offer as an envoi, a piece by a composer who really did a achieve a considerable unpopularity in his career. This is the String Quartet No. 4 by Arnold Schoenberg, composed in 1936.

UPDATE: I ran into an interesting coda to this on another blog. A tech writer points out that:

The world largely runs on open source software, but not only is 99.9% of the revenue swallowed up by huge corporations, those corporations work tirelessly to make sure that the people that made that revenue possible will never see a penny of it.

This echoes what I see in the music world. I have a vague feeling that a lot of the real creativity that goes on is completely unrewarded while, again, huge corporations work tirelessly to make sure that the revenue goes almost exclusively to them. There seems something very wrong with this! 

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