In flashback, the priest tells Charlie, “We all have our temptations, but giving into them, that’s your choice.” When Charlie’s brother Liam tells of the promise of a record contract, Charlie only agrees to proceed with the band if they can agree to walk away if things get too crazy. Charlie is keenly aware of the potential for bad things to come along with good things. Much to say about this moment.
First, before finding out Liam’s news, Charlie says he’s made his choice and knows he must quit the band. In Charlie’s world, the choice is between doing right and good on one hand and, on the other hand, doing what he wants, what he’s passionate about, what he’s good at. Is this a real choice? Is Charlie mistaken about just what temptation is? Shouldn’t there be a way to achieve a win-win between what works for him and what is perceived as good by others?
Secondly, on some level, we don’t have as much choice as we may like in terms of certain temptations. The physiological effects of heroin seem to deny Charlie some of his ability to choose. Likewise, the assumption that most of the survivors have that being off the island would be inherently better than staying on it also denies them some ability to choose, to understand their choices. In the end, it is true, we choose to give into our temptations, but it’s only once we can see our temptations for what they are and truly understand the alternatives that we can be truly free to choose, to give in or not.
Finally, there is power in the notion of walking away. Charlie hopes to find the win-win, to pursue the band while maintaining his values. He is willing to walk away if he gets to a point where he feels he cannot do this. This resonates strongly with Daniel Quinn’s suggestion that people walk away from civilization, acknowledging it not as evil but as something that brings much difficulty along with the benefits we perceive in it. When a situation cannot be resolved and one is left to decide between fighting and fleeing, if one cannot find a way to win, walking away is the only option, to try to fight another day and seek a win-win somewhere else.
Locke makes Charlie have a choice about the drugs. He believes Charlie is stronger than he thinks. Locke has seen himself confront things he didn’t think himself ready to — losing the use of his legs. He has seen himself made stronger by the island, in ways he could never have imagined previously. He has good reason to believe that people are stronger than the realize and can confront and move through and past their obstacles.
Kate to Sawyer: “It must be exhausting. Living like a parasite. Always taking, never giving.” Sawyer, a pack rat, claims ownership of things simply because he takes them. He holds things hostage, negotiating how he can get things for himself in exchange for what others want. Through his accumulation of material goods and sense of private property, Sawyer is recreating off-island hierarchy more than perhaps anyone else on the island.
Jin tells Sun, “What are you wearing? It’s indecent. Cover yourself.” She finally stands up: “It’s too hot.” Now that she has saved him from his imprisonment, she feels empowered and can assert herself. When she conceded, she met him on a common ground that she didn’t like. She is now moving somewhere else and saying, in effect, that Jin must himself move and change in order to find a new common ground with her.
Charlie’s temper — his yelling — brought the cave down. The cave may have been weak anyway, but the cave-in was spurred by Charlie. Weaknesses are only exploited when someone acts out against them before there is an opportunity to provide support for the weakness — in the cave, and in people.
At the cave, there is a leadership issue. Jack is trapped. Locke is away hunting. Others are away, and someone must assert some kind of leadership. Michael draws on his relevant construction experience. He is immediately engaged, using his knowledge and ability to guide the others in working with the broken structure of the cave, just as Jack did when applying his medical abilities right when the plane crashed. Crisis calls for action, and those who are able to step up and offer the best of who they are can make a difference for others.
Charlie finds Locke to ask for the drugs again, but Locke points out the nearby moth cocoon. If he opened the cocoon with his knife, the moth would die, too weak to live. The struggle to get out is what strengths the moth and prepares it for life. Charlie realizes he must face a struggle and volunteers to go in after Jack, noting that so many others are accountable to someone else — a husband, a sister, a son. He’s got nobody on the island and implores the others: “Let me do this.” This particular struggle is all the more important because he believes on some level that Jack is only in danger because of Charlie’s own temper. He is out not only to strengthen but also to redeem himself.
In the cave, the confined space reminds him of another. Flashback to Charlie going through a crowded backstage hallway. He seems uncomfotable. Claustrophobic. He goes to confront Liam, saying that Liam is killing himself with drugs and it is time to walk away as they’d promised each other. Liam says they there is nothing to walk away to and that Charlie is no use if he’s not in the band. This, too, resonates with Quinn, who offers something to walk away, who knows that people can’t move beyond civilization unless they have something else to walk toward. At this moment, despite his pain over the current situation, Charlie has no idea what could exist for him outside the band. He cries, trying heroin for the first time. He admits defeat — he cannot win in the band, nor does he know how to win outside the band, so his only remaining option is to accept that he has lost, to stay with the loss, and to cover up the resulting pain with drugs. For Charlie, the drugs are not recreational. Ironically, given that he just said Liam was killing himself with it, the drugs are Charlie’s only means for survival in the face of no other perceived options — just as so many in civilization turn to escapist activities as their only means of getting through what they perceive to be unpleasant lives with no alternatives.
On the island, Charlie goes through a related trial. He is traveling through a confined, uncomfortable place. At the end of the path lies another man, someone with whom he had a great disagreement, and someone he now feels compelled to confront, no matter how difficult, so that he can try to save that other person. But there is a crucial inversion. Liam brought the drugs on himself, Charlie wants to save him from the drugs but ends up taking the drugs on himself as well. In the cave, it was Charlie who brought the danger upon Jack. Because he is responsible, it is all the more crucial that he succeed now where he failed before. He must make sure that both he and Jack get out of harm’s way, instead of allowing himself and the other to both have danger get the best of them.
Backstage, he could only point out that Liam was killing himself, and that he therefore wanted to walk away. In the cave, Charlie say, “I’m here to rescue you.” He know Jack is not to blame, and he is here to make things better instead of just leaving. He faces trials. Going into harm’s way himself, he could get trapped and killed along with Jack. When Jack’s shoulder turns out to have been dislocated, Charlie doesn’t think he can pop it in. But just as when Jack helped Kate to stitch up Jack’s own wound, Jack is here to help Charlie perform this medical procedure on Jack himself. He tells Charlie that he can do it, that he is more capable than he realizes — echoing Locke’s own assessment of Charlie. With Jack’s shoulder, Charlie literally sets things right.
Flashback, Liam is cleaned up, but Charlie wants a comeback. “They won’t book DriveShaft without you.” Liam can’t get back into that scene, and is dismayed to find Charlie is still using drugs. Charlie puts the blame on Liam, saying that he only starting because of Liam. Was it Charlie’s choice to give into temptation, when he truly saw no alternatives at that point? Liam’s reaction is not to say that Charlie did it to himself. He understands that Charlie would not have turned to drugs if it weren’t for Liam’s own telling Charlie that he would be worthless outside the band. Liam offers to have Charlie stay and get help. He had somehow found a way to do it for himself, and now he knows that helping Charlie quite may be the only way that he can redeem himself in Charlie’s eyes, and in his own eyes. Charlie won’t have it, though. As so often is the case in Lost, there is no clear good or evil here. Charlie only knows how to have the music along with drugs now, and that is because of Liam. But music remains paramount to Charlie, and now Liam denies even that to him. Liam fails to convince Charlie to stay and clean up, but he also fails to help Charlie maintain the music he loves.
Charlie is concerned that Jack thinks him useless — as Liam thought him useless outside the band. But Jack assures him that he’s not useless, that it took a lot of guts to come into the cave after Jack. The recent circumstance haven’t called as much for Charlie’s talent for music as for others’ talents. But his lightheartedness has been appreciated in the midst of crisis, and now he is showing himself to have more in him as well. The cave then reminds Charlie of a claustrophobic confession booth — we are reminded that this is all about Charlie confronting himself and trying to get out the other side rather than retreat or be consumed in the process. And just at that moment, Charlie follows a moth to find a new way out of the cave. Jack tells the others, “Charlie found a way out.” Hurley: “Dude, you rock” — music isn’t the only way Charlie can rock.
Sayid is knocked out just as they are about to triangulate the distress signal. Is this somehow the island once again not wanting to be seen? Later we’ll find out it was Locke, who says he was trying to protect the group — why pursue a distress signal that warns that something killed everyone? Locke’s relationship with the island, though, makes the action somehow seem to fit into the island’s continued “efforts” to keep the outside at bay.
Walt says that the caves make for a cool place and wants to live here. Michael’s response is to look at Sun. We know that he wants to save Walt, to get Walt off the island. In this one moment, Michael is pondering avoiding all possible confrontation. Sun and Jin are moving here, and he has differences with them. The beach is the choice for those who want to be rescued, which is his priority, so why move to the caves just because they are cool? He thinks he knows best for Walt, and so he does not want to honor Walt’s request. It doesn’t matter that Walt has been moved around all his life and has never gotten to pick where to live, Michael cannot yet confront whatever in him makes him an authoritarian parent. And in the end, the caves, compared to the beach, represent embracing the island. And so, in this moment, thinking about avoiding these other confrontations, the prospect of staying here means the prospect of having to confront all that the island might ever make him confront, all he might ever have to confront in himself. Michael doesn’t seem into the idea.
Charlie comes over to ask Locke for the drugs, only to toss them into the fire. He’s made is choice, and Locke is proud, “Always knew you could do it.” He has come over with his sweatshirt hood up over his head, looking almost like a monk having made a powerful religious decision. But his guitar has been found — finally, here, Charlie has the opportunity to embrace his music again without drugs having to go along with it. He sees the moth again, and he knows that he has become stronger, having gotten out of a cocoon of his own.
But there is seldom just one cocoon for each character. Charlie will have to go through the unpleasantness of withdrawal from his heroin addiction. Others will have their own cocoons to get out of. And the fact that this powerful notion, of the moth getting stronger through the struggle to become free, is brought up here in this episode about an addict poses a crucial question: In what ways are the other characters addicts themselves? In what ways are things that we wouldn’t normally recognize as addiction actually very much the same in terms of the way we repeatedly cling to what is unhealthy?
Walkabout — as Locke describes it, “a journey of spiritual renewal where one bcomes one with the Earth and derives strength from it.” As the survivors are all lost and trying to find themselves and the island represents in so many ways the Earth, it seems the entire series is an epic walkabout.
Noise, rumblings in the fuselage, waking everyone up. Jack assumes it’s Sawyer, lotting. Sawyer nastily announces to Jack, “Right behind you, Jackass.” A tiny moment, but one full of assumption, of generalizing, assume the worst of people, or at least assuming people will do what you’ve seen them do before. How times will this happen in the show? How many times does it happen in our lives? When so many of us are caught in patterns, doomed to repeat ourselves, it seems reasonable — and yet isn’t this inclination to assume one of the very things that keeps us in these patterns? All are afraid, but it turns out to be a boar — Locke smiles, recognizing that what was frightful is now the potential for food, for sustenance, that things were not as they appeared.
Sayid expresses concern over burning the dead bodies in the fuselage, without concern for their wishes, their religions. Jack may be right that there is no opportunity to sort that out. Worth noting who was sensitive to this, though — not just the Muslim, whose creed decries cremation, but the Muslim, the Iraqi, who knows very well how so many other misjudge people with these labels. The outcast knows better than any how important it is to be sensitive, inclusive.
Flashback: Locke plays his war game while at work. The culture that itself creates war does not allow its members to feel power, to struggle for survival. That can only happen in a game. One must leave the culture in order to feel true power, to truly survive.
Michael is going boar hunting with Locke. Walt: “Why can’t I come?” Michael: “‘Cause I said so.” Authoritarian parenting, no reason given. Does he respect Walt so little as to deny a reason, or does he respect himself so little because he can’t provide a good reason, and this is the only way to avoid confronting his own self-disrespect?
Locke tracking the boar. Noticing clues in the ground. Explaining the habits of boar. Using knowledge, skill, for survival. A sharp contrast with paper pushing as he’d done at home. There is something thrilling and threatening about his ability to do this. So many work lifeless jobs, making money to buy food that is kept from you unless you hand the money over. How many would keep doing this if they had the skills Locke had? How much of civilization would crumble if people left those jobs and could get food on their own like this? Here on the island, Locke can truly experience his own power and channel it toward life, no longer just a game. Those who abandon the game and do this in reality are a palpable threat to civilization.
Shannon needs to prove to Boone that she can catch her own fish. She invites Charlie to go for a walk. She gets him to catch a fish for her. Boone frowns on this. Is this the same or different from Locke? She has tracked her quarry, used her knowledge of its behavior, applied her skill to obtained food for herself. But in this case her quarry was just a man taken in by her wiles. Is it the same when one gets someone else to provide as opposed to providing for oneself directly? Are Shannon’s strategies threatening to or supportive of civilization’s typical power structures?
Jack doesn’t want to confront Rose who sits alone, but he convinced to because he is the one who saved her. He sits with her, and he manages to truly care for her, beyond his medical abilities. He acknowledges her desire to be alone and says it’s okay, simply suggesting that she take care of herself, drink. She doesn’t respond, and he says it’s okay if she’s wants to be quiet, they can just sit together. He is providing empathy and connection, stretching beyond his usual behavior patterns — and it does reach Rose, who opens up for the first time since the crash.
John’s flashback, he is annoyed with his boss, and says, for the first of many times we’ll hear the line, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do.” This line is particular interesting and resonant. The problem-based mindset focuses on what is not being done — the appreciative mindset reframes to focus on the many things that can be done despite what seems undoable, and in the process it often extends what is doable. Focusing on what one can do allows one to cultivate ability, strength, talent, power — just as we’ve seen John doing with the boar.
Several more resonances with this very significant line:
Compare Charlie and Hurley in their attempt to catch a fish. Comical compared to Locke. But what might they be able to do that perhaps Locke cannot?
Rose guesses that Jack became a doctor because of his caring way — but he says he was just born into it. Jack’s caring approach to Rose stands in very stark contrast to his medical work, in which he is known to have poor bedside manner. It is not a desire to care that led him to medicine, only a need to fix. Perhaps the caring side of him may lead him away from medicine. But toward what?
Kate tries to boost the transceiver signal, and the Monster comes, crashing down trees. Once again, the island does not want anyone to attempt to make the island visible to the outside world. Locke then sees the Monsters, appears to confront it, and it spares him. Do the Monster and the island sense something special about Locke, understand his appreciation for the island?
Rose says her husband is not dead. Jack tells her everyone in the tail of the plane is gone. “They’re probably thinking the same thing about us.” Once again, there are assumptions based on one’s perspective, failing to consider how things might look from another point of view. Immediately after this, Jack sees his father. Is there significance in this being juxtaposed with Rose’s talk, indicating that people aren’t really gone even though we thought they might be?
Kate returns with the broken machine and asks Sayid to try again. He becomes angry and frustrated that he must do so while lying to everyone who wants to know what he’s actually doing. He is upset about the deliberate deception. Will those who want to speak the truth get their say, or will they be pushed down by those who want the truth hidden? Will we be convinced to hold ourselves down instead of speaking our truths?
Jack tells Kate about the memorial and sees his father again — just as his father appeared before, right after Jack mentioned the memorial to Rose. Jack may seem unemotional about the crash memorial, but even for Jack much can be evoked by the prospect of remembering the dead. Right then, Locke, who’d been presumed dead when he didn’t return with the other boar hunters, appears with a dead boar. Not only did the Monster fail to take him, he’s returned victorious in his hunt. Someone thought dead turns out not to be — resonance for Rose’s husband, for Jack’s father?
Charlie takes a hit of heroin during the memorial. Must he himself to be present to death? What about when it runs out? Just like the antibiotics will run out and Jack will have new things to confront, so will this drug run out for Charlie. Just like batteries and lighter fluid will run out. Soon enough, more and more survivors will have more and more to confront.
Michael asks if Locke got any kind of look at the Monster. Locke says no. More lies, more deliberate deception about the island. Is he guarding his own private island experience? Is he sparing the rest something that may concern them? Either way, it will remain unclear whether good will come from the deception.
Flashback: Locke in the wheelchair after they’ve refused him to get on the bus for the walkabout. The event planners interpret things so literally — Locke can’t possibly walk about. But it’s a spiritual quest, not a physical one. Once again, Locke says, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do.” It’s then we see him on the beach, moments after the crash, and he can wiggle his feet. He has full functioning. He stands. Why? How? We don’t know, and neither does Locke, but his point is certainly proved — we can’t say what someone can’t do, lest we be proved simply wrong in light of new developments. Locke is up on his feet just in time for when Jack asks him for a hand. Immediately, his first act as a walking person again is to serve others. Back to the memorial, the wheelchair is in the flames, burning — Locke is moving past something from his past that restricted him.
I’d resisted watching Lost for a very long time. Television had become less important in my life, and other things demanded my time. Taking on another hour-long series just didn’t seem wise. I’d hear about it. And what I’d hear was intriguing. But I’d never seen J.J. Abrams’ other lauded television work — like Felicity, and another show that I’d bypassed despite its appealing to me: Alias. And he wasn’t much on my radar for his film work.
But then, post-Lost, I started warming up to him. Mission: Impossible III was creative, exciting, and understandable — moreso on all three counts than either of its predecessors. Then, a few months ago, I saw the movie Cloverfield, produced by Abrams and written by a key Lost writer, Drew Goddard. I’d heard this was a love-it or hate-it affair, and I found myself immediately loving its innovative way of telling a story.
Then, recently, Entertainment Weekly named Lost one of the top ten classic television shows of the last 25 years. The Summer had just begun, the few shows I did watch regularly were on hiatus, and Season 5 of Lost wasn’t due to start until January. With DVDs of Seasons 1-3 available from the library and all four seasons streaming online for free, I found myself compelled to take it on and catch up in time for the new season. My wife and I decided to take it on.
This morning, we caught up, less than two months after starting.
The show is astonishing. There has never been a series like it on television. The drama, the conflicts, the three-dimensionality of the characters, the labyrinthine mythology, and the incredible ways they tell a story. The flashbacks and later the flashforwards, nearly always revealing something thematically relevant to the ongoing main storyline, made this show truly come alive, adding tremendous depth and richness.
As I watched the stories progress, I found myself noticing things that interested me greatly. Things that resonated thematically with me. This was only natural, because I tend to look for meaning in stories, and particular meaning at that. I’d tread this territory before, writing essay and papers on what I felt to be new looks at the meaning of different films and television shows, like Star Wars, The Incredibles, Monsters, Inc., The West Wing, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Seinfeld, Titanic. In a number of these, I felt like I really had something. But with several others, I felt like I was putting something there that really wasn’t.
But Lost was proving unique, showing me some things I really can’t remember seeing in a movie or television series, much less one so popular. And also uniquely, for the first time I’m really seeing these things in an ongoing way, and with a piece of work that is still in progress. The jury is out, but plenty of people find the show worth talking about now, on the way, rather than waiting until it’s over to reflect in hindsight. And there is so much to say, or at least so much to pose.
Seems like it’s worth trying.
And, addicted as I now seem to be to the show, with a good five months left until the next season starts, my wife and I find ourselves interested enough to watch the whole thing yet again, to mine its depths in preparation for moving forward.
Well, my gosh, what better opportunity to really look carefully again to see what’s there, or what I think is there? So here begins an ongoing look at the show. Over the next few months, I’ll go progressively from beginning up until the end of Season 4, and once Season 5 starts, I’ll follow the rest of the show along as it goes. And we’ll see what’s we can be found in Lost.
I may often refrain from much of the usual stuff people discuss about Lost. So much has been covered already, I don’t see much point in trying to reinvent the wheel, especially since I’d probably be worse at it than others have been. I’m going to focus on the meaning of the show from the standpoint of, well, the things I hold dear — the Potluck perspective. Of course, this perspective I’m taking dovetails with many others, so I’m bound to tread a good amount of territory covered by others. If it serves my purposes, I’ll go into commonly seen themes and mysteries and theories and details and reviews of acting and story and such and whatever else others go into elsewhere. But hopefully any retreading I do will only be in the details — hopefully the big picture I’m trying to paint will be unique. Whatever I come up with and whether it proves right or wrong in the end, hopefully this look into the show will provide a worthwhile contribution to “Lost scholarship.” And hopefully it will provide something valuable to those interested in making positive change in the world — hopefully it will shed light on how Lost can help us find ourselves. And hopefully, at least, it will be an interesting read for some, and an interesting and fun write for me.
Look for upcoming pieces, episode by episode, with somewhat freeform observations, the mosaic filling in ever more as I go. Seasons 1-4 will be covered with the benefit of hindsight. Beyond that, I’ll feel my way through whatever level of darkness or illumination we all share. Follow along at Lost, Found, a tag archive but essentially a blog within this site just for this project. Enjoy.
Off I go to watch the first episode again.
African Social Evolution
Ghana International Airways provided a complimentary October 2006 copy of the New African Magazine, the front page of which proclaimed boldly â€˜Africaâ€™s Glorious Heritage.â€™ My pre-African introduction to Africa was to be a 27-page, multi-authored expose on one of the most prevalent myths about the continent: that before Europeans arrived there it was a massive, sprawling backwater devoid of civilized people.
As American writer Adam Hochschild wrote in his 1999 bestseller, â€˜King Leopoldâ€™s Ghost,â€™ this myth is rooted in the racist perceptions of the colonialists themselves, who failed to see the complex societies abounding around them through their pre-conceived romantic notions of savagery. Hochschild writes:
To see Africa instead as a continent of coherent societies, each with its own culture and history, took a leap of empathy, a leap that few, if any, of the early European or American visitors to the Congo were able to make. To do so would have meant seeing Leopoldâ€™s [King of Belgium] regime not as progress, not as civilization, but as a theft of land and freedom.
From this perspective, it is plain why Africans want to make it clear that Africa already had numerous complex societies in place by the time Europeans found their way there in the 15th century, particularly the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa, places we now know as Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania. The New African magazine was making this point abundantly clear as a follow-up to Black History Month, and they were doing so to restore a most precious resource in Africa: pride.
African pride has been much maligned by the experience of colonialism and the unprecedented scale of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Nigerian writer Chinweizu described this phenomenon in his seminal work â€˜Decolonising the African Mind.â€™ Colonizing the mind describes a centuries-long form of psychological warfare aimed to separate the colonized from their cultures and convincing them of their own culturesâ€™ inferiority to that of the colonizer.
This practice is commonly used by colonizers and often leaves the colonized to love their oppressor. In 1964 Ghanaian novelist Ayi Kwei Armah observed this love of the white oppressor in his classic novel â€˜The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Bornâ€™ as follows: â€œThat is all anyone here struggles for: to be closer to the white man. All the shouting against the white men was not hate. It was love. Twisted, but love all the same.â€
Unfortunately, this mindset remains present among many of the Ghanaians I met during my time working there as a journalist, many of whom were desperate to leave their home and travel to the West for riches and glory. To live among the colonizers.
In order to decolonise the mind, African scholars, activists and writers are determined to re-write history, this time as told by the colonized, to create African pride in African history, while at the same time elucidating the great injustice that was done.
Scholars draw on archaeological, anthropological, historically recorded, and orally traditional evidence to distance Africa from the â€˜primitiveâ€™ ways of living. One journalist writing for the New African, when writing of Yoruba artworks (found in modern Nigeria) wrote that â€œuncivilised people cannot produce artwork of this high quality and sophisticationâ€ as one means of proof that the continent was indeed rife with civilizations by the time the Europeans arrived.
This fact of history is beyond reasonable academic debate. The evidence is overwhelming, and the Yoruba empire itself, complete with a large capital city, goes back to the 11th century. In many cases African civilizations pre-date European ones, and their knowledge of the lunar cycle was well developed before it occurred to any European to think about it. Many scientific and artistic firsts can be traced to Africa.
These truths are important, and I wholeheartedly support the effort to erase racist mythologies, but I lament that the source of African pride, or anyoneâ€™s pride, should be linked to civilization. Civilization, defined by large, centralized, hierarchical societies usually surviving from the toil of the few, is the most oppressive, unjust, cancerous system of human organization in all of history. Those â€˜pre-civilâ€™ societies that Africans (and most other people too) are distancing themselves from never committed genocide, never extinguished so many species, never destroyed their own environments to the extent that â€˜civilâ€™ised people do.
It is ironic that African scholarsâ€™ efforts to create African pride are so linked to the very system of living that created colonialism. In a sense this latest effort brings Africans one step closer to the oppressors that have become so beloved by so many who are oppressed.
Read on: Civilized Oppression
As I’ve begun to have a go at making a living as a musician and artist, I’ve thought at times about how difficult it seems for people who try this. So many struggling artists, starving artists, nobodies trying to become somebody, so little opportunity to make it into much more than a hobby, such small odds of really hitting the big time.
At some point, I realized something about this. It’s just like Barnes and Noble, Borders, Home Depot, Lowes, Wal*Mart, Target, Stop and Shop and Hannaford coming into town and putting out of business the local mom and pop bookstores, hardware stories, grocery stores, general and department stores, etc., etc. It’s the same old story, it just doesn’t seem like it. With all of these situations, we get giant stores purveying huge selections of stuff at low prices. What does that have to do with people who hit the big time as musicians?
I’m going to focus on music, but this could really apply to anything, maybe something you want to do, so keep that in mind as you read this. For the sake of argument, let’s look just at the business of recorded music — CDs and MP3 downloads and such.
According to various sources (like this and that), in the United States around 2003-2004, the average annual per capita spending on recorded music was, rounding off, about $45. Ballpark that again at 300 million people in the U.S. for total spending of about $13.5 billion.
That fairly modest amount per person supports every music sale made by U2 and Jay-Z and Christina Aguilera and Kenny Chesney and Michael Buble and every other huge music star you can think of. Plus every new copy sold of every old album by every other huge music star you’ve ever heard of. Plus every single these stars have ever done, old or new. Plus every album and single sold by less huge but still famous acts like Ben Folds and TV on the Radio and Diana Krall. Plus every album and single sold by everyone you’ve never heard of. All of it.
The U2s of the industry make gazillions. The Diana Kralls, who knows, but a plenty good living. There are probably some who get by. And most people who put something out probably barely sell any of it. It’s a lot like the economy in general — a few big haves, a ton of have nots, and the expected gradations in between.
Now, for sure, many of these artists get extra income — often very signficant extra income — from live performances, royalties from radio airplay and use of their songs in TV and movies and elsewhere, etc. So the money from purchases of recorded music isn’t at all the whole story. But imagine if it was. At all these levels from the rock gods to the nobodies, everyone would have that much less coming in, and there’d be even fewer actually making a living just from their music. How many would there be?
Let’s play with some rough numbers. According 2002 U.S. Census figures, for the entire economic sector of musical groups and artists, there was about $4 billion in revenue, $1.25 billion of which was payroll for about 50,000 people. Obviously this isn’t all for recorded music, and obviously the $13.5 billion spent on recorded music means a lot of money is going to distributors, retailers, etc., not to artists, and obviously not all artists are included in this 50,000 since many couldn’t possibly justify putting themselves down as musical artists for the census. But take this 50,000, then, as a ridiculously high estimate. Probably the number of musical artists making any substantial money from that $13.5 billion in a given year is much smaller. 25,000? 10,000? 5,000? Well under 50,000, in any case.
But now think about this. There’s a lot of talent out there. There are people every bit as talented as many of the most famous artists out there, or at least as talented as many of the less talented artists out there who have somehow found their way into making a plenty good living at music. And they are everywhere. There’s a Springsteen type somewhere in your region, whatever your region is. A Celine Dion type. A B-52s type. And so on. They’re out there. Could they all make it somehow? How many musical artists could really make a living if given the chance by the people around them?
Naturally, there would still be issues of manufacturing and distributing the recordings. But a lot of that would change if people were buying more locally. There’d be less markup needed for people and businesses to make money. There’s no way to really estimate it, but let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that $50,000 a year would be a pretty decent amount for an individual musical artist to get as their total income from making a living at recorded music and also having to cover all expenses. How many people, earning that much per year, could the U.S. afford? At $13.5 billion a year, a whopping 270,000 people.
Fine, the numbers are rough. Nothing is really accurate. There’s live performances and royalties to consider. There are foreign acts who account for some of those domestic record sales. But I think the order of magnitude probably can’t be denied. If the wealth was spread around, there could probably be anywhere from 10 to 100 times as many people making a living through recorded music.
Instead of everyone in the country having a Bruce Springsteen album, everyone would have an album by the Bruce Sprinsteen type from their region. Would it be as good as Springsteen? I suppose most probably wouldn’t be quite as good. But would most be so much worse? There’d still be real competition. Only the people with real talent would make it in every niche. There would still be quality. But with people focused more locally, the playing field would be leveled a lot. We wouldn’t all be competing with every world-renowned act out there. It wouldn’t be a lottery jackpot to get rock star success, with very few acts achieving superstardom. There’d be less of a chance of getting filthy rich, but far more of a chance for far more people to really have a go at it. And people would still end up with basically the same variety in their music collections, the same variety of concert choices. There’d still be rock and pop and jazz and rap and country and everything else. We just wouldn’t all know the same stuff. Would that be so bad?
Now imagine this. Keep the Springsteens and the U2s and the rest. What if only half of that $45 per person per year went to locals? Could we get 5 to 50 times as many people making a living at recorded music? How about taking just $9 of that $45, just one fifth, and putting it toward locals? How about on average everybody buy just a single CD per year from a local act, usually around this price for independent record sales or full albums from iTunes? Could we increase the number of people earning a living from music by 2 to 20 times? It’s sort of unbelievable to think that this kind of thing might be possible with even a fairly small change.
And now add in the royalties and the live performances. Surely the figures would multiply several times.
And now think about everything other than music. Think about filmmaking. Live theatre. Painters. Sculptors. Writers. People who make handmade clothing and jewelry. Woodworkers.
Now think about where this started. Bookstores. Grocery stores. Hardware stories. So think about what’s in between these and the artists. Almost anything you can think of, almost any line of work at all. This is why it’s all the same thing.
Whether chain retailers or fast food restaurants or rock stars or whatever else, the more we all put our money toward the same places, the less likely people will be able to make a living doing the things they are really good at. The more we’ll have to spend our lives doing things that aren’t as fulfilling. The more we’ll be subject to the whims of the relatively few who are providing the things we want.
The more we go local in whatever way, the more we all give each other the opportunity to share our real gifts with each other, the more variety there will be, and so on. If I felt like connecting this to big issues about economics and ecology, I could, because the connections are there to make and have been made by many before. But I think even just giving each other more opportunities to make a meaningful living doing things we enjoy is good enough reason to think this way.
On a more personal note:
I’d been planning to write this essay for a few months. Then, about a month ago, my buddy Howard Ditkoff and I decided to create, from scratch, a submission for the first American Idol songwriter contest. Over 25,000 submissions would end up being made, and they were going to pick only 20 for the public to vote on. That’s pretty bad odds. But we went ahead.
We experimented by writing the song using Appreciative Inquiry, a positive change process that is central to the work of Emergent Associates, the coaching and consulting company Howard and I had founded. We ended up having a really interesting time writing the song. There were ups and downs, highs and lows, as might be expected trying to work from scratch from concept to final recording with vocals, with a deadline only two weeks after the contest was announced. We should have started last summer when they announced that there would be a contest this season! But we ended up with a song that we thought was pretty good — Our Whole Lives. Top 20 for the contest? Maybe not, I don’t know, I’m biased. But it was worth having written, and worth submitting.
As soon as we submitted it, though, I started stressing over the contest. Gone was the enjoyment of the writing, the composing, the arranging the recording. Now, it was all dreams of winning and worrying about the low odds. No surprise, we weren’t chosen. Maybe the song just wasn’t as strong. Certainly the recording wasn’t quite as good as the ones they chose. But I remember thinking, it’s supposed to be about enjoying doing things we’re good at, doing what we do because it’s our calling, and that’s that. Now, it was about becoming the American Idol Songwriter. The first winner of possibly the biggest songwriting contest ever. An instant star with a practically guaranteed number one hit and probable lifelong career as a songwriter.
The lottery jackpot!
The top of the high high hierarchy.
Sure, it would have been great to win, but it was somehow muddling up the whole experience. I ended up feeling like I wished I hadn’t entered the contest at all, like I’d entered it for the wrong reasons. Hell, given the very nature of the contest, it seems like it would be impossible to enter it for any right reasons. Rather, if I could enter it and then let it go, without feeling that stress, then it would be fine to enter it. But obviously I couldn’t do that. Not yet.
So I think all there is to do is to do my thing. Do it enough, enjoy it enough for what it is, find my way through that, and hopefully I’ll get to a point where I can make a go at it, make a living at it, maybe even be able to enter contests like that and just see what happens and not worry about it.
And how’s it going to happen? Maybe by people starting to decide that one or two CDs they buy each year could be from people who are just about as good as U2 and the Dixie Chicks and Outkast but a bit closer to home.
Here’s hoping that you’ll be back to buy some new music of mine when I put it out in the near future!
Millennium: Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World
Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability