The Ethics of Being a Musician
by T. Perry Bowers
Rock stars are not known for their ethics. They’re known for throwing couches out the windows of hotels, mistreating women and mistreating their own bodies. Even musical geniuses are portrayed in the public as stoners or naïve, peace-loving dreamers.
The Lizard King persona of Jim Morrison is genius to musicians. To the general public it’s a bit of a joke and a little scary. Robert Plant opening his shirt on stage and saying, “do you remember laughter?” is cool for the adoring fans, but to the common folk in the world it’s just a little weird.
What does this have to do with ethics? Well, Jim Morrison died before he had the chance to sell out, but I’ve never seen Robert Plant sponsored by “US Bank,” “Bud Light” or “Doritos”. This is because he has ethics and principles (and also, perhaps, because he has a shit ton of money!)
Perhaps you became a musician in order to bypass the traditional world. If you see the common world of cubicles and briefcases as a cage I’m with you. That’s why I became a musician too. But that doesn’t give us the right to live a life without any moral principles. I have two commandments — don’t harm and don’t steal. I believe if you’re able to follow these two rules, you’ll be living an ethical life. On the surface, it may seem like an easy thing to do, but sometimes the questions can get deep!
Recently my son’s band was asked to perform at the University of Minnesota. The event was a celebration for the University’s new smoke-free policy — no smoking is allowed anywhere on campus. On the surface this is an easy decision. My son doesn’t smoke, no one in his band smokes. But my son surprised me by saying he didn’t really support the ban. He thought it was too restrictive and prohibitive. (I agree). On one hand, he has the opportunity to ingratiate his band to the University’s administrative staff. On the other hand, he has an ethical dilemma. Does he play in support of something he doesn’t whole-heartedly believe in? I asked him if the ban was already in effect or whether they were trying to rally support for it. He told me the ban was in place and there was nothing anyone could do about it anyway. In that case, I told him, you can look at it as your job to bring awareness to the students about the ban. He agreed he could live with this decision and it didn’t cross his ethical line. I was proud to see him thinking deeply about these things and I was happy with the decision he made.
As a studio owner, I have small dilemmas every day. For example rehearsal space tenants sometimes leave their rooms trashed when they vacate. I used to require deposits, but I’ve given that up. I’d get into too many arguments about what it cost to clean out a room. I’d send them an itemized list of deductions from their deposit — $20 to vacuum, $100 to repaint the wall because of the massive beer stains, $50 to replace the broken light fixture, etc. Almost every time it would end in an argument. The musicians thought I was being greedy and I thought they were being selfish and disrespectful. Now, I just keep a close eye on the rooms and if I see anything wrong, I address it immediately with an invoice. Still, sometimes I walk into a room after a band has moved out and I find the same old story: trash on the floor, scum on the walls and stink in the air. Sometimes I also find a piece of equipment left behind — a microphone or a cymbal. Maybe the piece of equipment is worth enough to cover the cost of the cleanup. Maybe it’s worth a little more. So, do I give it back to them or do I keep it? Usually it depends on how disrespected I feel and how much I liked the band. It’s a matter of ethics. Legally, I should call them to tell them I have something of theirs and they should pick it up; or else I should inform them I’m going to keep it to cover the cost of repairs and cleanup. Do I always follow the letter of the law? Well, I’m a borderline anarchist, so you do the math. In business, and in art, there will always be small ethical dilemmas.
Of course there are also much larger issues. Take Miley Cyrus for example. She started with Disney entertainment when she was about 10 years old as Hannah Montana: a seemingly innocent character, (although she was constantly promoting toys and products that limit children’s imagination, but that’s a much deeper discussion than I have time to go into here). At ten years old, she kept all her clothes on and she wasn’t twerking. Children all over the country, aged 5, 6, 7 and younger, were watching her on TV. I wish they were outside instead, playing with natural toys or drawing, but the reality is most parents let their children watch this. If you ever really pay attention to a sit-com’s plot line, you’ll notice it’s usually centered on a lie. Strange things happen because of the lie and people get confused. Then the lie is exposed and people are angry. Finally apologies happen and forgiveness is granted. 90% of TV shows have a similar plot arch. Why are we letting our children learn about life like this? Anyway, I digress!
So, your innocent child grows up watching Hannah Montana on TV. They buy into the image and listen to the music. They want to go to the Hannah Montana concerts. Then one day, when you as a parent, have a little less control and influence over your child, their idol suddenly starts taking her clothes off and simulating sex and oral sex onstage. Your child, now 15 or 16 is being exposed to this! This is your fault because you haven’t been paying attention to the sick world in which you live. You should have known Disney is one of the most powerful propaganda and mind control mechanisms the world has ever seen. Your inability to recognize this has allowed your child to think that Hannah/Miley behavior is OK. It’s not OK. It’s unethical; it’s wrong; it’s downright evil.
I’m not talking about twerking or simulated sex acts or even lighting up a joint on stage (yup, she did that too). I’m talking about the indoctrination: the insidious way Disney and other children’s entertainment corporations drag children into the slime of the adult world. They had your kids at 5 and 6 with Hannah Montana and then they bring on Miley Cyrus. Children think this is a natural progression. They think twerking is something you do and being hyper-sexualized is normal. Some may ask, are you a prude? Well if not wanting 15-year-old (and much younger) girls taking life lessons from an anorexic/bulimic, narcissistic, drug-addicted, over-sexed pop singer makes me a prude then yes, call me a prude!
Miley should be ashamed of herself. Maybe one day she will grow up and ask for our forgiveness. Maybe the world will wake up too and we’ll stop feeding this entertainment monster that is abusing our children. Wouldn’t it be great if nature were our entertainment again? The sun shining and tadpoles became interesting and children poked the mud to see what turned up. There would be scraped knees instead of tormented psyches. I plead with parents, turn off your children’s TVs. There is no good coming from them. Let your child’s brain develop before you allow those sick messages to penetrate their minds.
Can we as artists change this? Can we re-route the paradigm? We can if we say no. We can if we live by my two commandments. There is a time and a place for sex and drugs in pop music — that time and place is when you’re an adult and in private. When your mind is strong and free and you have the power of choice. We can all express exactly what we need, but let’s do it with discernment and ethics. Let’s use the power of NO!