Monday, October 31, 2005

Should an Artist Please Themselves, or Please Their Audience?

In a thread on another forum, someone said in answer to a question from me, "Writing music to please others is a recipe for disaster."

I don't happen to agree, but it's an interesting point on a subject where there may be opinions on both sides, and therefore there might be interesting fodder for discussion.

Frank Zappa played music that amused himself, regardless of the fact that it went against virtually every conventional wisdom about music and what will be successful. So did Yes, and King Crimson, and many other artists over the years. However, he said a record label gave him a chance in 1965, and they spent a lot of money promoting him and pushing it until it sold enough to break even. He later said that the industry was MUCH harder now, and no record company would ever give someone like him a chance anymore.

Those days are long gone. The music business is much more about business now, not music. New bands like that don't seem to penetrate the financial guardians of the mainstream music industry anymore. So, does this mean that different, unique artists, and unique musical projects toil in obscurity, never to be seen or heard by the public? Yes, perhaps. This is not 1965 any longer. Back then, it was different.

So, as an artist hoping to make a living writing and playing music, do you serve your private personal muse exclusively, and continue working at some minimum wage job somewhere and starve, and never enter the music industry at all? Or do you try to figure out what people want to hear, and what sells, and then try to work your way into the industry to earn a living as an artist/musician but always compromise your musical tastes to match the market? Some might consider it selfish to only entertain yourself, and consider your highest goal should be to serve others by entertaining them. Give them what they want and need. They might suggest that is more giving. Not only is it the more sensible thing to do economically, but it is also more unselfish.

However, others might argue that if you compromise your music in order to sell it then you have sold out, prostituted your artistic integrity, and are no longer a worthy artist. Still others might argue that if you stick to your own musical styles and ideas and it doesn't garner any sort of commercial audience, then you never even enter the playing field at all, and you are merely another hobbyist, and will never get anywhere musically. Both arguments have a point.

Personally, I could probably take either side and debate from that perspective, because there are compelling arguments in both directions, but I'd like to know what the consensus of opinion is. What do you think? Stick to your music and stay unknown? Or play what people want to hear and possibly become known and thereby get your music out there? Or do you do one then the other? Billy Joel became famous writing highly successful commercial music that sells well (and which I like by the way), but then he wanted badly to write an album of classical-sounding original compositions. As a new artist, he would never have been given a chance to write, record, and sell that album, but as an established famous artist, he had enough clout to get it done and get it out there for posterity, even if it only sells 100 copies. He wanted to write that music for the sake of the music, not for the sake of what would be accepted or what would sell. He achieved a personal musical goal he had for decades. It was a pure luxury. The personal self-indulgence of a star. And why not? Good for him. He deserves the right to do that after so many years and after giving so much to so many people.

But the industry is not set up to indulge the unknown artist with that same luxury. Will there be new Frank Zappas? New King Crimsons? New Yes's? New Gentle Giants? Big labels would never take a chance on them nowadays of course, but would small independent labels? Perhaps. But if they do, will they have enough money to market them to a large national or international market? No. By the nature of small labels, they are small specifically because they DON'T have the resources for that. So they probably stay local. And if it is geographically contained to a small local area, are there enough fans of that eclectic type of music to support a band trying to make a full time living at it? If some band with weird obtuse angular, different music could only play in your city and 50 miles surrounding, would they make a living? Are there lots of clubs hiring bands playing that kind of bizarre music? Are there lots of concerts in your local area hiring bands playing that kind of stuff? If you were running a small local label, would you make a business decision like that? Would you bet your limited resources on pushing an artist with such limited eclectic appeal to a small geography?

This is a philosophical issue, and a business issue, that concerns every musician, because most musicians seem to always want to play material that might not be popular. Everyone wants to play stuff that might be fun for them, but not necessarily to others. The drummer wants to play drum-oriented music where it's all about the rhythms and the percussion instruments, and the rest is less important. The bass player wants funky slap playing that features the bass, and the rest of the instruments shrink into the background. (Stanley Clark plays two bass tracks, one to hold the bottom end of the tune together and the other as a lead instrument) Vocalists want it to be all about the vocals, and the rest of the band is just background accompaniment, pianists want it all about a grand piano sound, and the rest is there for dramatic accent and a rhythm section.
These, of course, are not 100% true all the time. They are oversimplifications simply to make a point. But it does seem relatively rare that the personal choices of a musician coincide exactly with what is popular and sells. Therefore those two goals always seem to be at odds, don't they? So what do you think? What do you think is the best decision to make in this kind of choice?

Yes, life is all about the trade-offs. Every decision. Every day. This is another set of trade-offs. That is exactly what this is about. The reason it HAS to be competitive is that there are not enough seats on the bus for all those who want to ride. We have to compete for a seat. There are literally millions of people who would love to have their music played on the radio, but there is only airtime for a few.
Business is about survival of the fittest. In it's infancy, the music business made "mistakes" and allowed music that was good and unique and different to get out there even though it wasn't profitable. But these days, the companies that make poor business decisions are either quickly crushed by the competition, or they are 'consumed' by their competitors who are financially stronger and have more leverage. So the survivors have learned and they don't make those kinds of "business mistakes" anymore.

The purpose of any business is to make profit for it's shareholders. It's really just that simple. Anything that serves that interest is good, anything that works against that goal is bad and should be avoided. Professional management is all about managing the precious and limited resources of the company (money, people, time, equipment, assets, relationships, reputation, etc.) to optimum efficiency to achieve the highest profit possible for that company and to encourage growth and ensure survival. Anything else is counter-productive to their goals.

They have learned their lessons from years of spending large amounts of money on bands that flopped, or gave poor rates of return on the investment (known in business as ROI). They now know exactly how to spend money to get maximum returns, and they know how to write recording contracts with artists to squeeze every dollar out for themselves and leave the artists with virtually nothing - or even in debt in many cases. The record companies are protected, the artists are exposed. That is because the company negotiates from a position of strength and the individual artist has none, therefore it is not a negotiation at all, but rather a dictation of terms and conditions by the record label, entirely to their benefit.

This doesn't serve the purposes of the public, nor our culture, and certainly not the artists who create the music, but it serves the purposes of the record companies, and so that is how they choose to operate.

The unfortunate irony of this is that, as an artist, even if you do choose to create music that is popular, and even if you are very good, and honest, and diligent, and devote your life to it, the odds are so stacked against you by now, that you STILL might not survive as a musician and artist.

So it's no wonder that the making of music is falling more and more to the amatuer set. Those who would otherwise be full time musicians, now do other jobs for a living and indulge their passion and their muse as a part-time non-profitable enterprise.

I wonder if, one day, the idea of making a full-time living from playing music will seem like trying to make a full-time living playing Frisbee.....


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