An agent I follow tweeted something today that caught my attention. “Gatekeepers don’t keep people out, they guide people inside.” This is in reference to the common tirade that literary slush readers often see from aspiring writers who feel they are being somehow unfairly excluded from the great global party of literary fame and fortune. Well, in all due respect to all three groups, no. Gatekeepers keep people out, first and foremost, and for good reason.
To explain why this is a good thing, consider my good friend Bob (whose name is not Bob) who I used to work with at GravyPants Inc. (where we made nothing in any way associated with gravy and only tangentially associated with pants).
Bob had him a music studio. The Yamaha DX-7 had brought FM synthesis to the nation in the ’80s, and now cheap computers and midi-editing software put studio-quality composition, editing, and mastering in the capable hands of any upstart gravy makers with a few gees and a few hours and a tolerant spouse.
Bob had him a music studio. Bob had him an orchestra, if he needed it, and a multi-track editor that would have made Walter Carlos weep back in the days before he became Wendy. Bob spent untold hours in his studio, then brought shiny new hi-fi chromium tapes in and handed them around the GravyPants office. They were technically excellent. The synthesized sounds were synthesized perfection. The recording quality was as good as, if not superior, to anything available on a commercial tape. Bob was a really nice guy. We liked him a whole lot, and he was set with everything he needed to be the next Aaron Copeland.
So we listened to his space music rambling futzing around until he walked down the hall and then counted ourselves lucky to have a brand new blank, ready for the next mix.
Bob had a big heart, and Bob had a music studio, but what Bob really needed was a gatekeeper, someone who knew at least enough about music to tell him he didn’t know enough about music to inflict his on an undefended world.
Gatekeepers are never perfect (they let Yanni in the door, after all) and it ‘s certainly a good thing that talented artists have ways around the gate. But without a filter, we consumers are left hopelessly mired in slush while artists with talent are left to starve.
Artists suffer another way too. If my friend Bob thought he was going to make it big in music (and many like him do) he had a far longer road ahead than he realized. Artistic success requires talent, skill, luck, and promotion. The last three, at least, can be purchased, but the investment in time, energy, and dollars can be large. The investment makes little sense without some hope of eventually reaching an appreciative audience, and the gauntlet of the gatekeepers (teachers and critique partners included, but particularly literary professionals) can be key to assessing artistic readiness and talent.
Another friend of mine owned a real-world, brick-and-mortar music studio. He had no particular talent either, but he made a good living teaching at the college and recording albums for church groups and artists hoping to make it big. It was a good, stable business, but it made him a little queasy. “Half of these groups,” he said, “I have to talk out of ordering hundreds of copies they won’t be able to give away.” In seventeen years, he reckoned, he’d only recorded one demo for an artist with a realistic shot at a career—much less fame and fortune.
The Internet is terrific. Self-publishing is a great advance. But for most artists, professional gatekeepers offer one thing that no technology can, a reality check.