Good Music and the Other Kind

I have a rule that I started following a few years ago: I don’t submit my music to songwriting contests.

I don’t have anything against the contests themselves, or anyone who enters for them. I’ve just never loved the idea of a gatekeeper. The idea that someone, somewhere could determine the relevant value of my music to the world, and then for people to believe that my music does or doesn’t have value based on that one person (or committee) is especially hard to swallow.

I don’t know why we’re obsessed with being ranked, with having our music affect the most amount people instead of the right people. Well, maybe I do know why: it validates the work we put in, the hours we spend slaving away and obsessing over our music.

But gatekeepers are dangerous.

Years ago, I saw a post from a Facebook friend that I was barely real-life friends with. They were putting together a festival and booking a lot of local artists. Since the list of previous artists who had played this festival were all indie bands, and I’m a folk artist, I asked him: “What type of music are you looking for?”

In his response, citing Duke Ellington, he told me there are two kinds of music, good music and the other kind, and that this festival was looking for the good kind. So I sent my music in.

It’s always amazed me that Duke Ellington, a real artist, would ever say anything so non-specific. And that a gatekeeper would then use that quote as criteria for entering their contest/festival.

So I looked up this quote. Turns out it actually says:

There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind … the only yardstick by which the result should be judged is simply that of how it sounds. If it sounds good it’s successful; if it doesn’t it has failed.

I don’t know for sure, but I have to believe that Ellington meant that it doesn’t matter who made the music, or what style it is, or how musicals trained the players are… if it sounds good to you, it is good. And inherently, people will disagree about what’s good and not good. Success is a series of attempts. That’s all.

I was rejected from the festival, probably because it was more for indie bands than it was for acoustic artists. But I could’ve walked away from that situation thinking that my music was the other kind of music. The non-good kind.

But now I know that if it didn’t sound good to that gatekeeper, then I didn’t succeed… but only with that gatekeeper. My music isn’t categorically not-good as a result. I didn’t fail everyone; I failed one person, and one that is furiously flipping through demos and making quick decisions too. Not someone that’s there to really enjoy the music.

It pains me to think that anyone would take that person as an authority on the subject of music, at least in their capacity as a gatekeeper.

I’d rather listen to something has an audience of two (of which I am one) then a person who thinks they know the difference between good music and the other kind.