Daniel B. Cornfield : Beyond the Beat: Musicians Building Community in Nashville.Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015. 218 pp. $35.00, hardcover.
Drawing on rich interviews with 75 music professionals in Nashville, Cornfield develops both a typology of artist activism and a theory of its genesis. He distinguishes among three types of artist activists: “enterprising artists” produce their own and others’ music and mentor early-career artists; “artistic social entrepreneurs” create social spaces, such as schools and performance venues, that promote professional development; and “artist advocates” reshape unions to meet the needs of independent musicians. The majority of the book—four out of seven chapters—is dedicated to deep introductions of 16 individuals who exemplify these types. From Tina, a Nashville native in her late teens who is dedicated to her Asian–European multiethnic identity and her musical authenticity, to Rick, a union activist who has lived in Nashville since the 1950s, we learn about these music professionals’ artistic visions, audience orientations, and beliefs about risk.
These individual perceptions, contends Cornfield, explain the emergence of artist activism but have thus far been largely neglected by a literature overly focused on structural and institutional factors. Members of the artist community who conceive of success as artistic freedom and who think of their peers as their audiences, he argues, are most likely to become artist activists. How they understand risk—whether as attributable to the individual, a product of interpersonal relationships, or a property of the market—determines what type of activists they will become.
This typology and theory of artistic activism is both elegant and useful. It provides the analytical clarity necessary to disentangle what would otherwise seem like an organic hodgepodge of loosely interdependent musical professionals into its constituent components, and it points to the necessary conditions for the emergence of artist activism. As Cornfield concludes, cities dense with music producers and consumers are more susceptible to activism-oriented artists coalescing into a community of the kind that emerged in Nashville. I wonder, however, where the individual orientations that catalyze artistic activism come from and whether they precede activism, as Cornfield suggests, or cohere retroactively as narratives that activists tell themselves about their experiences. If the latter, then other factors are necessary to piece together the puzzle of Nashville’s musical community.
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