Outsider music are songs and compositions by musicians who are not part of the commercial music industry who write songs that ignore standard musical or lyrical conventions, either because they have no formal training or because they disagree with formal rules. This type of music, which is often bizarre and emotionally stark, has few outlets; performers or recordings are often promoted by word of mouth or through fan chat sites, usually among communities of music collectors and music conoisseurs. Outsider musicians usually have much "greater individual control over the final creative" product either because of a low budget or because of their "inability or unwillingness to cooperate" with modifications by a record label or producer.
While a small number of outsider musicians became notable, such as Florence Foster Jenkins, an American soprano, the majority of outsider artists do not attain mainstream popularity.
Gina Vivinetto points out that outsider musicians include Wesley Willis, a "schizophrenic former street person from Chicago with dozens of records and a cult of loyal fans to his credit." She calls the clan of outsider musicians "an elite group," even "a group of geniuses," and she lists Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd), Brian Wilson (Beach Boys) and Skip Spence (Moby Grape).
There are some links between outsider music and anti-folk: the emotional starkness, the lack of formal training and the humour. Jeffrey Lewis names Daniel Johnston as a major influence, Syd Barrett influenced antifolk's British strain, and there are similarities between the tuneless singing styles of Wesley Willis and Paul Hawkins. However, one major difference is that while many outsider musicians are famous recluses, musicians regarded as 'antifolk' are usually grouped in a collective.
The book Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music (2000), by music journalist and radio personality Irwin Chusid, is a comprehensive guide to outsider music. The book profiles several relatively well known outsider musicians and gives a definition to the term. The book inspired two companion compilation CDs, sold separately. The guide claims that fans of outsider music are "fairly unusual," "inquisitive" types who have an "adventurous taste in music." While the guide does not "contend that Outsiders are "better" than their commercial.counterparts", it does suggest that they may be more genuine, depending on how cynical a person is "about packaging and marketing as practiced by the music business", given that a "gangsta rapper... is considered an authentic 'voice of the street'" even though they sell millions of albums.
The guide argues that music that is "exploited through conventional music channels" has "been revised, remodeled, and re-coifed; touched-up and tweaked; Photoshopped and focus-grouped" by the time it reaches the listener, to the point that it is "Music by Committee" that is "second-guessed" by a large team of record company staff. On the other hand, since outsider music has little target audience, so they are autonomous, and able to go through an "intensely solipsistic" process and create a singular artistic vision. Outsider artists have much "greater individual control over the final creative contour", either because of a low budget or because of their "inability or unwillingness to cooperate with or trust anyone but themselves." The guide notes that "our inability to fully comprehend the internal calculus of Outsider art... partly explains its charisma."
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