Bringing together Jake the Cat, White Punks Dance Too Fast, Steve Miller vs. Mick Jagger and whether the market as an indicator of songwriting quality.

Ages ago, when I was living in L.A. and going to G.I.T., my roommates, Mike Northcutt and Erik Eff, and I got into a late night music debate about who was a better singer: Mick Jagger or Steve Miller. My position was that Steve Miller was just another dude who could sing on key, big deal, whereas Jagger was something much more. Mike’s position was a whole lot simpler, he just liked Steve Miller a lot more than he liked Jagger. I was aghast, appalled, surprised, befuddled. Steve Miller a better singer than Mick Jagger? I couldn’t believe anyone, much less a killer musician like Mike, would think otherwise.

I dug in my heels and laid out my theory about there being fundamental levels of talent in the world and Jagger was on a way higher level than Steve Miller. When I finished, I thought I had a made a persuasive, cogent argument for my position. But Mike’s response was emphatic: “I like Steve Miller more.” Finally, Erik weighed in... on Mike’s side. I couldn’t believe it, Erik Eff, co-writer of White Punks Dance Too Fast (listen below!) and Turkey Franks, two seminal punk songs we had recently penned together (listen below!), was voting for Steve Miller over Jagger? I took a huge swig of beer and prepared to deliver my argument again. But Erik clarified. He explained that he didn’t agree with Mike about Steve Miller being better than Jagger, just that art was subjective and Mike liked different stuff from me. I tried to argue that over time Mike’s opinion would change, he would see the light, etc, blah, blah. But in the end, I agreed with Erik and to this day, I struggle with why.

I can’t deny that one person’s art is another’s trash but surely some art is fundamentally better than other art. I mean, Blowin’ In the Wind is a better song than We Built This City On Rock and Roll, right? I think so, but plenty of people would disagree with me. In fact, I could argue until I was blue in the face about how Dylan’s tune is more innovative, has far better lyrics and incited social change while Jefferson Starship’s tune is rife with cliches, has a terrible melody and sounds like it was recorded by robots. But if someone simply likes Starship more than Dylan, I will never prevail. And this where discussions about the market always end up. Does a song’s popularity indicate its quality? I think not. I mean, there are so many songs I just love that have never seen much in the way or airplay or sales, and many, many moreI hate that are on the god-damned radio all the time.

And yet, if the goal of the artist is to create popular music, as mine is, the market can’t be ignored. But it is not, as I wrote in an earlier post “a reasonable judge of my abilities as a songwriter”. Nope, I’m with Bret now, who commented that the market is “a pretty indirect indicator of quality.” All the market really does is let people choose what they want and what they’re willing to pay. And what people want is often completely unrelated to quality.

So down the road, if no one buys my songs, either to license them or listen to them, I won’t necessarily think I suck as a songwriter. But I will be disappointed in not reaching my goal, which, for the record, is modest: at the very least, I would like to make enough money to buy a nice guitar, say, $3,000. At the most, I would like to be able to recoup my recording investment (about $50,000) and, going forward, be able to finance my music with the money it earns (probably about $15,000 annually). And either way, I’ll need a little cooperation from the market!

(By the way, in case you’re wondering about the photograph, it’s of Jake the Cat, who is sitting in the very room where that discussion from so long ago took place, possibly even listening to said discussion and thinking humans are odd.)

White Punks Dance Too Fast by jeffshattuck