14 Questions About that Terrible Joni Mitchell Quote

Yesterday, a graphic with a Joni Mitchell Quote went massively viral on my Facebook and Instagram feeds. Lots of my most brilliant and usually quite observant and clued in music friends were sharing it unquestioningly as a useful comment about the state of music now. The quote itself is apparently from 2004, and is as follows: 

“I heard someone from the music business saying they are no longer looking for talent, they want people with a certain look at a willingness to cooperate. I thought, that’s interesting, because I believe a total unwillingness to co-operate is what is necessary to be an artist – not for perverse reasons, but to protect your vision. The considerations of a corportation, especially now, have nothing to do with art or music, that’s why I spend my time now painting” 

Joni Mitchell, quoted in the LA Times, Sept 5th 2004

So, perhaps not surprisingly, I take some issue with this. So here are 14 questions/comments you may want to ask yourself or reflect on about this before going ‘yeah, Joni! I’m taking up painting too!’ (though obviously, painting is a really really awesome way to spend your life, and in no way an inferior choice to making music…!)

1) who was this ‘someone from the music business’ and which bit of the music business were they in? Why is this one unnamed person’s pretty gruesomely commercial focus being held up as a template for understanding the motivations and behaviour of everyone in ‘the music business’?

2) what the hell is ‘the music business’. I’m in the music business, clearly this person’s thoughts don’t reflect on me… were they in publishing? Sync? A&R? Running a label? A sub-label? The ‘music business’ is gargantuan – finding a person with really terrible opinions within its bounds has never been hard.

3) For every renegade artist through the history of music, I’ll show you a thousand successful and often brilliant artists how had a certain look and were willing to co-operate. Frank Zappa was a total one off. Find me the label that launched 500 Frank Zappas and we can have a talk about Zappaism as a business model.

4) I adore Joni’s music – Hejira is my favourite record of all time, and she’s easily in the top 10 or so most significant musicians of the last 100 years, but when she was signed, she was a beautiful young acoustic guitar playing singer-songwriter in the golden age of acoustic singer/songwriters. She didn’t need to co-operate, she was exactly what they were looking for. Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter was what she could do after a decade as a global icon, not the demo that got her signed in the first place.

5) Why are co-operation and artistic vision contradictory? Why do we view wilful obscurantism as a virtue? How many artists are doing exactly what they want to do AND making commercially viable music? James Taylor wrote some of the most beautiful, singable, hummable music of all time. I don’t see that as a flaw in his creative plan.

6) The 70-80 year history of the recording industry is LITTERED with stories of records being rejected because of a lack of singles. Some dickhead sent back Three Feet High And Rising for not having a single on it. Listen to Wasted Years by Iron Maiden and tell me that’s not an obvious attempt to write a hit. Big Yellow Taxi is arguably Joni’s most famous song, and by far the most poppy thing she ever did. And it’s great! It’s not worse art because people loved it! You can’t rate art on its complexity, less still argue about the ethics of a multi-national business based on how insane their commercial choices are.

7) The Major labels were once the only game in town, at least if you had any concern for global success. That’s not the case now. Joni said this, apparently, in 2004. Even then, that was not the case. Marillion had already gone it alone and crowd-funded a record by then, Joni could’ve done literally anything to make a record, and the more outside the mainstream she did it, the more coverage she’d have got (x-ref Radiohead and In Rainbows)

8) Joni’s reasons for quitting music are, by her own extensive admission in many many interviews, WAY more complex than this. All of them are valid – her life and work are her own. The validity of her choices is not really up for discussion.

9) Looks and commercial success have always gone hand in hand. The idea that ‘a certain look’ is a new idea is specious revisionism.

10) There has never EVER been a better time in human history to make recorded work as a musician, protect your vision AND negotiate a deal after the fact. Making records is orders of magnitude cheaper, labels do A&R via metrics now – look at Stormzy’s deal with Atlantic/Warner. He owns his entire operation, they just do the donkey work that he doesn’t need to do. But ‘recorded music’ is a tiny blip in the human timeline. Even if the model goes away, that’s not the end of anything. The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world.

11) If this is about there being an absence of successful ‘risky’ pop music out there, please explain Janelle Monae, the last ATCQ album, most Grime, Bjork, Kate Tempest, DJ Shadow, etc. etc. etc. Some are on subsidiaries of majors, some are completely independent and wouldn’t accept a deal if they were offered it. That’s a GREAT thing. A wonderful situation.

12) On a daily basis I come across incredible music, so much I can’t keep track of it. The world is laden down with people making extraordinary art. There are people making incredible art who I saw sharing this insane meme, in seeming ignorance of their own careers being the evidence that this is nonsense. Commercial success has been the death of many, many people. Riches are rarely ultimately a blessing. Sustainability of artistic practice is the only concern I have here, so a reduced capacity for stardom and supreme wealth is not going to make me sad… 

13) being an artist is hard. It’s always been hard, that’s what makes the art so special. A handful of people who remember selectively isn’t the story we need to be hearing or re-telling. Sure, there’s less money in A&R and artist development from majors now. The whole landscape has changed. But more people are making more music in more places, and that’s a fundamentally good thing, unless you assume that by the divine right of kings you should have their audience as well. There’s also a lot less record label money being spent on coke, turning every charlied pop star into an insufferable self absorbed bankrupt arsehole. Every cloud has a dusty, silver lining…

14) go make some art. If that’s painting instead of music, that’s not a step down. Joni’s music is unassailably amazing. Her painting is also exquisite. I’m glad that she’s had the economic latitude in her life to pursue both of those dreams in such extraordinary ways. But please don’t take a dump in our paddling pool because things aren’t they way there were in the 70s…

One Reply to “14 Questions About that Terrible Joni Mitchell Quote”

  1. Dear Steve… Most of what you said is true. As someone whose first real exposure to music was hearing Johnny Cash singing “Ring of Fire” on the radio the I was waking up for grade one. I was too young to know of Elvis. The next songs I heard were those singers between 1960 and the Beatles. (whoever they were) Buddy Holly, etc…??? From the Beatles onward there was unleashed hundreds of Bands over a short decade that still impressively move several generations, including the present ones. During those years, accusations of “selling” out to the Music Establishment were rampant. Many bands and single singers did (they knew which side their bread their butter on) so this situation was not uncommon. So, in some ways not much has changed. Since the late 70’s (and I may be generous with the next few words), the music Industry has taken a noticeable dive in talent and creativity. With very few exceptions, Main Stream music today is a terrible joke and a disgrace to the art itself.. Nothing new is said, no new topics of any value are discussed, etc… it has stagnated badly and has been in that state for some time. What Joni is really talking about is that the Music Industry has been taken over completely (for the most part) by the Corporate Agenda. It took a long time, but, the control is unmistakable. People like her and so many others would never make it or even have a chance in the music business now, and because of this the open doors for so many others (today)… remain closed and and those doors not even a potential.

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