Ask The Readers: To Conform Or Make Music
Today, I read an article that argued the evolution of music has split musicians into two groups—the “artists who stay true to their music and those who conform in order to make money.” This is a fairly common argument, either you are making music that’s more artistic and nuanced—not for everybody—or you are going with the trends and trying to increase the commercial viability of your music, in hopes of breaking into the mass-market. If I understand the author, they are arguing that there is even more pressure for artists to conform now than ever.
That seemed like a good point to be made if it were 1999, when either you sounded like Limp Bizkit or *NSYNC; otherwise, you had no chance of getting your music heard. You know, the world was still ruled by commercial radio and MTV. To me, I would argue that there is less pressure for artists to conform to popular trends, because there are so many other channels to promote your music on. It depends on whether or not you are aiming to get your songs by the mass public. By and large though, we all exist in this space because we believe in maintaining artistic integrity and exist outside of the mainstream market.
Do you think that there is more pressure on artists to conform in order to get their music heard? Or, is the web fulfilling its premise and allowing artistic music to find its own tribes of loyal fans?
If you want to have mainstream success, then some element of conformity is almost always required, and that just doesn’t apply to music. But ultimately it’s the choice of the musician – do you want to be Katy Perry or Sonic Youth?
Even Sonic Youth made some conformist compromises when they signed to Geffen, they made videos that got aired on MTV and they simplified. They probably sold more albums during that time than at any other point in their career, and they didn’t lose any cred or their core audience, a pretty rare feat.
Even in the indie sphere, there is more tendency to conform now; if you sound like Animal Collective or Pavement, you will get more praise in certain blogs, which to say nothing of cash…”cred” has become its own commodity.
With all the media outlets now to discover music, tastes have been widened immensely. Given the law of truly large numbers, there will most likely always be a enough of a niche market for whatever kind of music an artist makes (so long that it is high in quality) to sustain a career from it. Today, it’s up to the artist to put their business hats on and figure out a way to discover as many avenues for music monetization as possible. The hard part of course is to be able to make the music you want to, without tailoring it to meet the “tastes” of mass media.
If an artist truly is an artist by nature, then they’ll make the music that their soul intended and requires them create. And with an effective marketing strategy, real quality music will always rise to the top.
Popular music has always followed trends to some extent. If the question is to stay true to yourself or follow a trend, there is always the option to try doing both at the same time. And a lot of the really big artists have succeeded at that. Remember the Rolling Stones doing Funk and U2 doing Electronica? They have stayed true to themselves whilst incorporating the trend into their own sound. That is called innovation.
Besides that, human beings learn by copying. It’s just when the pressure to produce a hit is too high when plain copies of other artist’s styles see a release. That happens when the artist in question either haven’t really connected just yet with the trend they want to follow or when they are desperate and release music that they don’t believe in. In both of these unfortunate cases, the listeners will notice rather sooner than later and the forgettable product will be quickly forgotten.
That’s been the case back in the days of the “LP release complex” as it is in the DIY world of today. It’s just that back then, the artist had help from the label in finding out whether their stuff worked (which often enough was not a help but rather the opposite, in case the label and the artist had different plans for the music) and the financial pressure came from the label whereas in DIY, the artist has to make all artistical and commercial decisions by themselves and the financial requirements concern their own pocket.
I have no idea on whether it’s easier to stay true to yourself when you’re indie or major, but it’s obvious that when a major label has a huge debt looming over them, they might not be as patient with their artist and promotion department as is needed to score a big hit.
Less pressure today with all of the various online media and new media to get your songs out to the public. Look at Devotchka, Gogol Bordello, Coheed and Cambria. These artists make good livings touring but get absolutely little to no radio support. Their music is definitely not mainstream but they’ve carved out niches for their sound that fans love.
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