No - and that's progressDavid Hoppe

Last weekend's Midwest Music Summit boasted 436 bands playing in more than 30 local venues. Over 1,500 bands applied to have the chance to play here - and it's safe to say there are plenty of other bands that weren't even heard from. Today, the Beatles would be pressing their own CDs and posting short videos of themselves on their Web site. They would have a cult following in the hundreds of thousands.

It used to be that a feast of musical talent like this begged a certain question: Was one of these bands the next Beatles?

That question has tantalized fans and dogged musicians for over a generation. For years, the Beatles have represented a kind of benchmark against which other bands have been compelled to measure themselves. That benchmark has consisted of a daunting number of interlocking elements. To be the next Beatles, you have to do more than sell millions of albums - that's a given. You must also achieve a staggering degree of fame - a fame that transcends the boundaries of classes, nations and generations. With that fame, you must be able to show an ability to exert an influence on the culture that reaches beyond your music.

It used to be that when asked if there could be another Beatles, a fair number of people would say yes. It's not that these folks thought that history would repeat itself, so much as they believed in the inevitability of a cultural force. For them it was a matter of playing the odds. As far as they were concerned, it was simply a matter of time before another extraordinarily powerful artist or group came along.

These people believed in a particular kind of artistic progress. Progress was defined as a game of creative oneupsmanship in which successive artists topped each other and things forever grew bigger and better. Thus Bing Crosby was topped by Frank Sinatra who was topped by Elvis who was topped by the Beatles. It followed from this that someday, someone was bound to top the Beatles. For a while it seemed as if that someone might be Michael Jackson ...

In the past few years, the idea of the Beatles as benchmark has faded somewhat. While a few curmudgeons are bound to say this is because bands today have simply thrown in the towel, that assessment seems unfair and inaccurate. It's more common to observe the many ways in which the means of producing and distributing music has changed. There's nothing like The Ed Sullivan Show anymore - a TV campfire that families throughout the country gather 'round for shared entertainment on Sunday nights. There's no Top 40 radio. Perhaps most important of all, the record companies are no longer the gatekeepers of popular taste, determining which bands get heard and which ones are sent packing. The Beatles themselves were turned down by almost every record company in London. If their manager Brian Epstein's last hope for a contract, Parlophone, had refused them, we might not be talking about the Beatles today.

All these elements have played a part in changing the dynamics of how we experience music and the people who make it. But something else is going on as well. The very idea of progress has changed. The idea that art - whether that be music, filmmaking, painting or poetry - is a story that is constantly moving forward toward some notion of "better" seems as dated, if charming in its way, as the tailfin. Art that is specifically connected to its time and place, to a community, makes more sense.

In a recent article published on the Web by BBC News, Stanford University's professor Lawrence Lessig, a founder of Creative Commons, a set of copyright licenses intended to help creators share and protect their works, notes that new digital tools like blogs, podcasts and digital photos are creating what he admiringly calls "amateur culture." He says, "If you think of the 20th century as this period of professionalizing creativity - you've got the film and recording industries which become the professional creators, separating and stifling in many ways the popular culture. I do not think you are going to see the elimination of the professional creators but you are going to see it complemented by a much wider range of amateur culture in the original sense of the word amateur - in that people do it purely for the love of creating."

Today, the Beatles would be pressing their own CDs and posting short videos of themselves on their Web site. They would have a cult following in the hundreds of thousands.

For those who think of the arts as a stairway to riches and fame (as the Beatles, early in their career, most certainly did), this contemporary scenario probably looks pretty dreary. For them, there's American Idol, the jackpot fantasy of being spewed rather than chewed by America's industrial starmaking machinery.

But for the creative people putting on gallery shows, starting theater groups and showing up to make music in local clubs - people, that is, trying to find the imagery, the language and the sounds that will animate this time and place - it's called progress.


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