Form Huber Colloquium Series
“Harmonious Creativity in Country Music Songwriting”
With Dr. Rachel Skaggs
Friday, September 29th from 12:30pm-1:45pm in Room 248 Townshend Hall
Dr. Rachel Skaggs is a sociologist of work and culture who conducts research about artistic careers. Rachel is the Lawrence and Isabel Barnett Assistant Professor of Arts Management at The Ohio State University, where she teaches classes about arts entrepreneurship, the social world of the arts, and social science research methods. Currently, Rachel is conducting two primary lines of research. First, she is conducting two NEA-funded projects. One follows a broad array of artists and creative workers, with attention given to precariously situated artists, tracking the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their lives and livelihoods via qualitative interviews. The second is part of a larger study using data from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP). In this study, Rachel is looking to build foundational understandings about the impact of the pandemic on collegiate arts graduates in the United States. She is also writing a book, to be published on Princeton University Press, about the careers of Nashville songwriters in the 21st century, a period when collaboration increased between songwriters in response to significant changes and precarity across the music industry.
Abstract: All that is needed to write a country song is a pen and paper, a guitar or piano, and an idea. The tools and craft of songwriting have not changed much over time, but there has been a significant change in the work of writing a song. Despite a historic reification of the lone country songwriter penning a soulful hit, 21st century conventions of the craft expect auteur songwriters to eschew personal artistry and collaborate, writing songs together more frequently and in larger groups. An arrangement to share credit and share creativity among members of the same artistic occupational group presents a theoretical puzzle, challenging established understandings of the sociology of creative work. As is the case across art worlds, country music is made through collective action, aggregating the inter-occupational efforts and talents of recording artists, producers, session musicians, songwriters, and many others toward taking the new music from creation, to production, to reception. Though the creation of new songs requires collective action between individuals with distinct roles and skills to take it from an idea to the radio or concert stage, the creative act of writing a song is increasingly also subject to intra-occupational action, shared creative work, within teams of songwriters. I call this distinct pattern consonant action, framing a division of creative labor that accounts for true collaboration, unifying efforts, skills, ideas, tastes, and preferences in consonance toward the creation of a cultural product. In this talk, I demonstrate the concept of consonance through a mixed-methods analysis of the country music songwriting industry, using historical song success data, detailed co-writing network data, interviews with elite songwriters, and observations in Nashville’s country music industry. I establish that in art worlds with conventions of consonance, individuals are given the affordance to simultaneously attain high levels of economic and artistic status. This implication of consonant creative work presents needed nuance in understanding status attainment and mitigation of economic and artistic risk in commercially focused creative industries that are generally thought to value economic rewards over artistic status. Simultaneously, I demonstrate how conventions of consonant action keep collaborative groups and their ideas more homogenous, reducing dissonance in collaborations by informally excluding marginalized people and ideas from co-writing groups.