Friday, August 06, 2004

Changing tack

My music collection feels somewhat like a jewel box. Selecting what I want to listen to, my gaze rests on different artist’s names and I begin a leisurely perusal that always seems to be a little decadent. I experience a small sample of a mood or emotion that I know each artist or track will evoke in me and I choose the one that I want. Sometimes I will choose a piece because it’s the most effective to help me work or something to help slap me out of a lethargy. Sometimes, I’ll just put something on for the sake of having something to fill a silence. Either way, I always know what I want and what I’ll be getting. I know my need will be satisfied.

I’m currently appreciating David Gray’s ‘A New Day at Midnight’ - slightly grizzled guitar, strong percussion and voice smoothed by soft piano. I always feel as if I’m alone at one end of a room and he’s at the other, playing live for me – yet somehow I can hear every nuance in his voice as if he’s leaning over my shoulder and singing the lyrics right in my ear. There’s an overall mood of melancholy longing from the abstract lyrics that doesn’t seem malevolent, it just is the way it is. It’s a reflection of certain things in life without glossing over them. The kind of music that would play in the background to some inspired gazing-at-the-horizon pondering on a Sunday afternoon, it calms me and seems to bring on the alpha brain waves I need to think most clearly.

I know this is what David Gray does to me, I know he’s good at this kind of music, I know that when he comes out with something new in that genre that sounds just as good, it will be happily nestled next to it’s brethren in my musical jewel box.

I also like The Crystal Method. Quite a lot, actually. Especially if I’m driving. (Mmmm, driving – one of the things I miss in London.)

Thing is – much as I like the type of music that The Crystal Method creates and much as I appreciate the artistry that David Gray seems to possess – I’d be highly suspicious of David Gray’s attempt at producing Crystal-Method-style music.

This might seem a rather obvious point to make (if it isn’t, follow the links and note the disparity in their styles), however it’s a mistake that I see many artists making.

Artistry is still a profession that relies heavily on the opinion of the art’s consumer, on reputation. In that way, it’s one of the few professions that still conform to the rules of a one-man business. One doesn’t have to hold a license to produce an album or a book, so it really is a case of sink or swim based on what you’ve done and what you continue doing rather than attaining a certain allegiance or certificate and coasting on that for the rest of your career (Accountancy, medicine, law….etc.).

The temptation, therefore, is to be consumer-driven. To look at what the marketplace wants and to give it to them – not just in packaging and delivery, but in the contents of the art itself. It doesn’t take a Harvard MBA to figure out that a Britney Spears will sell more than a David Grey – so where’s the harm in kicking off your artistic career with the fluffiest populist tripe possible then switching to what you really love mid-stream?

Because switching mid-stream is a nasty business.

Firstly, there’s the fact that your hard-won audience associates your name and reputation with the first thing you are successful at. Transferring can be awkward. Would you buy IBM orange juice? Would you buy Honda breakfast cereal? Would you buy Kellogg’s lawnmowers? Moving from classical to R&B is like moving to a completely different market segment, you’re not likely to take your audience with you.

So you have to build an audience all over again. And those that listen to the genre that you’re now creating for haven’t heard of you…or (even worse) can’t stand your work of old. A case of not just building a new reputation from scratch but perhaps having to undo damage from the old reputation.

Can’t you use your built up name from one genre to push your product in another? - I hear the alert readers cry. (Or it’s my imagination. Hard to know where the voices come from sometimes.)

Well, those that liked your initial offerings may be curious about what you’re up to now, but if the new stuff’s not their bag (baby), then they won’t stick around. You name will only carry you so far, if you’re not selling what your fan base wants to buy, watch your fan base disintegrate.

Then there’s the fact that you are entirely geared toward producing your first style of output. Whether it be music or writing or sculpture or drawing – that time that you spent producing something that didn’t resonate with you was wasted. If you look at the development of any artistic skills, you would have been honing entirely the wrong thing and may have let your true talent stagnate.

The solution? Obvious, really. Produce the kind of art that you love, create the kinds of products you want to create in the first place – don’t take the shortcut of going for the largest market at any cost. If you do, you’ll find you may have to stay there to survive…and that’s not a pretty future.

It’s not all cupcakes and caviar, don’t get me wrong. If you go out on a limb and create something unique notoriety will likely be slow in coming, it may be hard to pay the bills - but when you sit down to create or stand up to perform you will still have that glorious feeling of loving what you do for a crust. Few things tickle the soul like well-earned pride.

Your fan base may be smaller – but they’ll be a fan base to be proud of. When someone writes to you to tell you they like something you created, they’ll ‘get it’ and they’ll know what on earth you’ve tried to say. There’s rarely something more gratifying.

You won’t get that if you chase the dollars to the exclusion of chasing artistic mastery and you won’t likely be able to attain it by switching mid stream.

I suppose what made me reflect on this was the fact that:

a – U2’s ‘All I Want is You’ is playing. That song just does something to me.

b – I was thinking about all the wonderful emails I’ve received, all the positive reviews/links and all the worthwhile comments I’ve garnered in the last few months here. I suppose I got a tiny taste of what it’s like to have people express an opinion on something deeply personal that you create. I realised that, although there isn’t an army of you out there, I wouldn’t swap even one of you for a stadium load of indifferent, inane Britney fans.

Thanks for reading.

M

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