Harmonious Creativity in Country Music Songwriting:
A Theory of Consonance in Creative Work
This figure shows my network-based sampling frame of successful songwriters, with interviewees indicated in blue. You can see that I interviewed one isolate, some from small components, and many in the main component. Further, unlike snowball samples, you can see the there are no direct ties between my interviewees.
“One day I was feeling really sorry for myself, you know, like oh I’m not making a lot of money and nobody is cutting my songs. And I was driving to a writing appointment and so I thought: ‘Well ok if you had that big string of hit songs on the charts right now, what would you do?’ It’s like, what am I doing today? I’m going to go over to somebody’s house whose creativity excites and inspires me. And we’re going to sit down in a room and make something out of nothing. And if I had three songs in the top ten right now, what would I be doing today?
I’d be going over to meet with somebody and make something out of nothing.”
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. No one member of these expanded songwriting teams is cast as the primary leader, creator, or artist; rather the group shares credit in equal proportion and likewise shares their creative workload. Conceptually, songwriters understand their co-written songs to be a product of the team as a unit, something that is distinctly “ours” rather than “yours and yours and mine”. This conception of the nature of co-writing is such that songwriters describe their collaborations as a transformative creative process that harmonizes individual perspectives, artistic tastes, skills, and efforts into one unified cultural product.
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. Conventionally, sociologists understand creative work to be collective but distributed, according to the “art worlds” perspective. This theory casts creative work as patterned, following established conventions that efficiently divide aspects of the creative process between individuals and collectives who fill distinct artistic and support roles, stacking efforts atop one another until the artist unites their efforts and declares it complete, officially marking the work as a piece of art.
As is the case across art worlds, country music is made through this kind of 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 subject to intra-occupational action, shared creative work, within teams of songwriters. This type of arrangement in creative work is separate from established understandings of collective action. 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.
This new concept of consonance or consonant action accounts for the antecedents, processes, and implications of shared effort, shared creativity, and shared credit in creative work. I demonstrate this theory 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 conventions of consonance structure status attainment in commercial art worlds, allowing individuals 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 people and ideas from co-writing groups.
This theory is distinct from others that explain the convergence of an artistic community’s adoption of aesthetic and non-aesthetic conventions and is distinct from theories describing collaborative circles that align thinking and aesthetic choices across collected bodies of individual creative work. Contributing primarily to the sociologies of culture and work, Harmonious Creativity elaborates and empirically demonstrates a new theory of creative work that accounts for collaborative cultural production, an essential perspective as the gig economy expands and collaborative creativity is proposed as a solution for resolving precarity across numerous industries in and beyond the arts.