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.).