This morning I was listening to The Howard Stern Show and he had 60’s icon/songwriter/musician Donovan on for an interview and some impromptu acoustic performances. Since it was Stern it was, of course, a great interview (say what you will about the man, but he is, hands down, the single best interviewer I have ever seen or listened to. Especially when it comes to musicians.). Donovan spouted off stories about his days hanging with The Fab Four, recording his hits with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones as session men (pre-Zep), and then showed Howard how this one descending chord progression is used in tons of songs you know and love (he went on to play “Dear Prudence”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “House Of the Rising Sun”, and more to prove his point–they all use the same type of progression). Then Howard asked him questions along the lines of, “Does it amaze you that so many people know the lyrics to your songs and sing along? Were you aware that would be the case when you wrote them? How do you know when a song is good?” Donovan’s response was insightful. He told Howard, “the first thing you need to do is please yourself. The second is impress your peers. The last thing you think about is the fans.”
It reminded me of a conversation I had many years ago with some fellow musicians. We were ranting and raving about bands that “make it” vs. ones that don’t (including ours, which is why we were so bitter at the time). Then a sentence was uttered that has stuck with me ever since: you have to start making music for yourself.
Most bands and musicians start out with the goal of “making it.” And by “making it” I mean, in simple terms, being able to make music as your professional career, i.e. get paid to make music. Very few fulfill this dream. When starting out, most artists are all about pleasing the fans, mainly, because they are trying to get some. But for those that really hit it big (U2, Metallica, The Stones, etc.) they basically get to dictate their own careers once they do. After Metallica’s Black Album sold a gazillion copies they essentially earned the right to do whatever the fuck they wanted. You think U2 cares if you think Zooropa sucked?
Growing up, the term “selling out” was one of the biggest insults you could hurl at an artist. This was mostly applied in the hardcore/punk/metal scenes. When Metallica came on in the early 80’s they were underground, dirt-bag metalheads wearing jeans jackets, ripped jeans, and sneakers while playing the fastest, most maniacal music on the planet. Now they play the Grammy’s and get mentioned on Good Morning America. Ozzy Osbourne was the devil incarnate back in 1982–now his music appears in car commercials. Does that mean Metallica and Ozzy have “sold out” or that a.) the powers that be are now people of the age that grew up loving these musicians so they are celebrating that love, b.) in this day and age you do whatever you can to get your music out there, or c.) there is no such thing anymore as “selling out.” (I think Ian MacKaye would disagree with c.).
If you know me and you’ve read some of my postings on this blog you know of my love and devotion to Neil Young. I cherish his music first but also have to admit that part of my loyalty to Neil is a response to his philosophy regarding making music. He is an artist that I will never ever have to worry about showing up on a reality show, selling his music to a car company, or doing anything for commercial gain (this is a guy that walked away from two hugely successful bands at the height of their popularity–Buffalo Springfield & CSNY, followed up his most accessible, chart-topping album with one of his darkest, and literally wrote a song about not selling out while calling out his peers for doing just that). I will never have to worry about watching him play to a pre-recorded track at the Super Bowl halftime show with whomever today’s biggest pop stars are (could you imagine Crazy Horse busting out a 27-minute “Cortez The Killer” while the executives at FOX have a collective heart attack?). Does that make him any better than the Dylan’s (who, by my account, has now appeared in at least 4 commercials I can think of) or the RHCP’s? No. It doesn’t. They are different artists with different approaches to their careers. And let me be clear that I don’t think Tom Petty or the Boss sold out because they have played the halftime show. They are artists built for mass-consumption. The ideal situation for them is to sell out. Literally.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t find it somewhat dispiriting when I see certain artists pimping themselves out in various commercial forms. I cannot be the only one that finds it odd to see Bob Dylan (or Wilco or The Flaming Lips) in a car commercial or pushing financial advisement companies. And while I get why the RHCP played the Super Bowl (I mean, come on, you get to perform for 1/3 of the world!) I can’t help but think about the first time I saw/heard them: In some old, low-budget, skater movie called The Search For Animal Chin. Back then they were the anti-Bruno Mars (let me insert a note here that I don’t know much about Bruno Mars but I do respect the fact that the dude has some musical talent and I am sure the RHCP are lovers of all types of music). Bands are allowed to mature, to open up their music to new generations, to jam with any pop stars they like. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, I get it. I really do. I don’t hate on them for doing it. It’s just…disappointing.
This debate has and will go one for years to come. The landscape of the music business has changed so dramatically in the past decade that what used to be considered “selling out” is now simply referred to as promotion. I don’t expect every band to take the anti-commercialism stances that the Fugazi’s, Pearl Jams, and Neil Young’s of the world do. Plenty of artists out there want to make it big, they want to be mass-consumed, they want to be huge rock stars. Let them. Let them be the Coca-Cola’s of the music business. I’ll take my Shasta and be quite happy with it.
I think what ever works for them. My music mates write their own music. One is the drummer in The Cinematic Orchestra but also gigs with his mates doing a few easy covers. One is a session musician who played guitar on Corrin Bailey Rays album when normally he’s in a funk rock band. Most musicians I think reach a certain age where they have families to support and bills to pay but also just enjoy having a laugh with their old mates.
Thanks for your comments. I fully appreciate the “working musician” and I am a big proponent of doing what is necessary to make the most of your creative abilities. This post was mostly about bands that have already “made it” pedaling themselves once they really don’t need to (for financial survival). Playing a studio session to help support your family is on a much different plane than Bob Dylan pedaling Fidelity Insurance. And in the end, it’s really all about what you enjoy doing and listening to.
This is really fascinating to me, and really great post! Personally, I think that ideally musicians would like to make music to their hearts content, however the reality is that there is also an element to making music where you DO end up thinking about the listeners (as a musician myself, I think of both more or less equality). And in many ways, most musicians end up having to make music made for mass consumption in order to ultimately make the music they want. This could be both a good or bad thing. There is such a fine line between selling out and just “doing what you have to do” in the music industry.
Anyway, wonderful post! very thought provoking. Thanks!