Is it just me, or is there something intrinsically out of whack with the idea of bands “battling”? Having been born in 1960 into the era of peace, love, and flower power—a time of prosperity and optimism, rife with the thinking that a Clapton or Hendrix could come from the lower classes and gain international success—the idea that music could change the world and perhaps even heal it had a prominent place in my youthful heart.
Not for me, then, going into battle with a guitar amp cranked up to eleven in order to prove I was “the best.” I knew I wasn’t, at least not at what was deemed commercially appropriate, and I’m probably still not.
What does “the best” mean in terms of the creative spirit anyway? Can creative artists within a community be sorted according to a hierarchy of winners and losers? I think not. Profound musical experience is a type of sharing. It can move us to ecstasy, it can reduce us to tears, it can rekindle the humility essential to love and balance. Its channelers, shamans if you will, trigger an appreciation of our humanity.
At this point, it is probably prudent to acknowledge the difference between the creative artist and the entertainer. One is not necessarily the other, especially when we value entertainment and spectacle over personal development and a stroll down the path less traveled. Ergo, reality TV, where contestants battle each other psychologically, emotionally, and sometimes physically, in order to prove themselves “the best.”
What should musicians make of the offer to partake in such battles? Banners advertising these events as temples of opportunity brightly exclaim: “Battle of the Bands!” Be loud, be hard, be fast, be hip, be catchy, be marketable. Despite the bold type and eye-catching graphics, the phrase gives no weight to the creative process. In fact, it strongly implies subtlety will not prevail. Yet it is nuance that makes for sublime creative experience.
There may be a fleeting opportunity to “win”—in a process always open to question—and thereby receive recording time or a product endorsement. But is that worth the self-subjugation endured in such an attempt? Many artists’ lives are already fraught with difficulty. (Van Gogh—I wonder what competition he would have won.) Poverty, self-destruction, and narcissism frequently rear their ugly heads in the musician’s life. This is partly due to societal attitudes that seem to view creative endeavor as less-than-serious, assuming that art “just happens” somewhere so that the fortunate can enjoy the results at leisure. But life as a creative artist? Well, the Hollywood machinery regularly regurgitates rumors of rags-to-riches, but LA restaurants are fully staffed by the rejected.
This does not mean that someone who feels called to the creative life should quit now. Not at all. But they might want to contemplate, deeply, the reasons they seek such a life. Otherwise they may find themselves picking up the leftovers. Which is where even the winners in battles of the bands have generally ended up: scavenging for the few scraps tossed their way by an industry infamous for its callous manipulation of myriad performers.
The purpose of this spiel is not to discourage eager acolytes of consumerism in their lemming-like leanings. Little can quell youthful optimism in full flight, and that’s sometimes a good thing. But it is important that we remind ourselves that winning a competition does not a musician make. I have never entered, much less won, a musical competition, yet after more than 30 years of musical growth, my guitar gets more use than ever.
The creative spirit offers vastly greater scope than commercial opportunity would have us believe. At its best, music speaks to our human vulnerability, our connectedness, our soul journey. At its worst—well, it has no worst, just as it offers us no winners or losers.
Shaun Saunders lives in Carpinteria and teaches literacy skills at Santa Barbara City College. Music is his first language.