Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond

The Earnestness of Being Important

June 3rd, 2009 | No Comments | Categories: Musing on Music · New Music Strategies · tips for musicians |

…AKA, What’s Important about your Music… To You?

Following on from the discussion about ‘what makes you interesting?’, I’ve been thinking about the other ‘value metrics’ for what we do as musicians, and the directions they flow in.

Interestingness is one bi-directional value:

  • What you think is interesting, or find interesting about what you do
  • What your audience find interesting about you AND about what you do.

The important element being that YOU being interesting isn’t a prerequisite to making great music, it just provides additional context for the music. It’s why we all bought music magazines – we didn’t buy them for dry descriptors of new music by people we’d never heard. We bought them to read stories, thoughts and opinions from the people whose music we love already, and to discover in the taste of the journalists some new music that they get excited about.

But from interesting, my mind leaps to important. (for some context here, please have a read of Jennifer Moore’s guest-post from yesterday, and this thread over at about new ways of thinking about collections of music).

What’s important about your music?

I wrote about this from a music learning point of view on the blog the other day – looking at the things that are important in learning how to play and what to choose to learn…

For someone who is creating music fit for human consumption, the question of what’s important becomes about the nature of the finished product rather than the process of learning how to develop the skills to make any kind of ‘product’.

So when considering what’s important, it takes a different kind of soul searching:

  • What are you trying to say?
  • Why are you trying to say it?
  • Who, if anyone, are you trying to say it to?

Here, I’m talking about the art itself. But the same questions come up when you start trying to describe what you do, or to talk about in such a way that people find it (at this point, if you didn’t take my last prompt to do so, please go and read Jennifer Moore’s guest post, which talks about a lot of the non-self-generated ways that people find our music).

A few big things need to be said here, then it’s over to you:

  • Being as ‘good’ as you can possibly be is a given. None of this stuff takes the place of making your art as well as you can possibly make it.
  • However, quality of production is not the same as clarity of purpose. Here we can use the process of ‘targeting’ what we do at an imagined audience to help us focus what it is that matters to us. This may even end up with us consciously excluding certain people from that mental process “I don’t mind if my music annoys the jazz-purists who enjoyed my last album, it is what it is” etc.
  • In other words, being able to play what you want to play is the preparation – that’s buying the ingredients – making decisions about the things that matter enough to you to be worth making publicly available as an artistic statement is the end-game – that’s cooking ‘em up and putting ‘em on a plate.
  • Notice I haven’t even mentioned considering the commercial viability of the project –
    that, for me, only comes in if there are

    • a) lots of people involved and
    • b) a fair amount of investment of the kind that expects/requires a projected return…

    if you’re sensible about your planning, and modest enough in your aims to not go into it over-funded, that can actually all quite happily happen after you finished making amazing music – at the marketing stage, rather than making marketing decisions that weaken your artistic vision.

So how do we decide what’s important? Or rather, how do YOU decide what’s important? The comments are open…

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  • Daniel Fredriksson

    This is a marvelous post, and it lies so close to me that I hardly can comment. This describes questions I’ve had in me for a very long time, but I never really vocalized. My field of music is nordic folk, which implies a lot of things – or in your words it is seen as important for a few reasons. None of wich, I have realized, I necessarily care too much about. So the last years I have struggled to create my own meaning for making this music. And it’s not so easy. For starters though, I have taken it as a habit of asking myself more or less those three questions (what, why, who) that you pose very often in my musical projects nowadays. Not always needing an answer, but the question create awareness to what the hell you are doing. Thanks for this post – I’m glad there are more people thinking this way about music. =)

  • Howlin' Hobbit

    I’m not so sure that my (and my band’s) definition of “important” is quite what you’re talking about here.

    We don’t much care for social commentary in our music — OK, we sometimes sneak in a bit of that in the lyrics — but we’re more concerned (as I mentioned in a comment on the “interesting” thread) with fun.

    We truly believe that raising a smile or a laugh or, better yet, getting folk up and dancing is important.

    There seems to be a horrid lack of fun and whimsy in today’s world. The media drums their message of doom constantly. Every time you turn around it seems that more of our so-called “leaders” are simply playing us for suckers (nothing new, I know). Folks are working harder just to break even than in any time in my life (a bit over a half-century).

    We think that a few moments of honest escapism is a good thing.

    So maybe we’re not really artists, unless you consider being a clown an art.

    We do. A true clown is a magical creature and we’d be quite happy to be accepted into those ranks.

    I think I may have said it better in an old blog post on the importance of being a ‘toon.

    Thanks for the opportunity to bloviate on one of my favorite subjects!

  • steve

    Daniel – so glad the post helps, thanks for your comment!

    HH – I’m definitely advocate for the importance of fun, frivolity, levity, silliness etc… I certainly don’t see any correlation between importance and ‘seriousness’ – given that most of my favourite social commentary comes from comedians anyway.

    I like your point about clowning. Good stuff 🙂

  • John Goldsby

    I think making broad marketing decisions before and during the creative process is productive to a point, but these concerns can sometimes distract from what musicians need to concentrate on—making the best music they can make. I think the market is littered with well-intentioned projects that seemed to be micro-driven by weird marketing ideas.

    Creative musicians need to play—document—grow, play—document—grow. The marketing can play a part, but should not drive the music in unnatural directions.

    Some great musicians do not have fun with their music because they are so passionate about what they are doing, they can’t step back and enjoy. Some musicians take the “fun” part too seriously—that is to say they do not put enough effort into their own musical growth. Those are just two extremely different mindsets.

    I think creatively successful musicians figure out which “type” they are, and make sure that they visit the other mindset regularly—disciplined players need to learn to loosen up and have fun, while “just-for-fun” players need to sometimes concentrate more seriously on the craft of making music.

    I know what type I am, but I ain’t tellin’.

  • Jennifer

    Woah, this is a big question!

    One thing I can say about it is that for me, communication with people is always a strand running through.

    So e.g. I don’t like to have things too obscurely cryptic or readily misunderstandable in my lyrics.

    And I don’t generally ever find myself concluding “Oh well, nobody else understood what I was saying there, but it was still worthwhile to me“. And not because I think that’s an invalid conclusion – I think it’s perfectly valid for some musicians/artists, or in some contexts. But because “the aim of the game” for me is to communicate.

    Not that everyone in the world has to entirely get every nuance of every song. But like I’ve always got one eye on “how is this going to land for the people in the audience? does one word sound a bit too much like another word so people are likely to mishear it? could this line be interpreted in a way that’s something I don’t mean to say?” etc.

  • Stumpy

    I think ”interestingness’ for most people is part of the consumption of what ever they find interesting.
    Interesting is something that makes you sing, clap, smile, nod your head, dance and enjoy. Now these arent necessarily and some would say necessarily ARE NOT, cerebral- that just takes too much thought energy to expend. And sometimes thats correct.

    A huge aspect of being interesting is creating something that ohers can enjoy, whether music, words, a conversation, a joke. If its not interesting, its boring and wont hold attention, unless its in a watching a car crash sort of way.

    I’m not necessarily advocating a balance between ‘fun and interesting’ , as whatever we do should contain elements of each to the best of our abilities; be the funnest you can for some work and more seriously interesting in others. for some that might be the difference between live work and studio for example.

    Its good to have variety, and also to experiment with other sides to your work (though dont force it..!), to create more depth, dimension and yes, interest!

  • Steve

    John thanks for the words of caution -I’m certainly not advocating writing music to meet marketing ideas – that’s surely doomed to fail. The consideration of audience is more, I guess, to provide some kind of internal filter.

    It’s like that feeling you get when you play something you thought was amazing to someone, and hear it afresh because someone else is listenign to it, and realise it wasn’t what you thought it was.

    For me, it’s certainly the case that when I think of who my audience is, it makes me realise that I want to write the music that’s inside my head for people who get that. I don’t want to play bass gymnastic games, or write for ‘ambient music fans’ or whatever. Considering my audience allows me to move beyond any constraints of genre, and into a place where I picture the people I want to connect with as an inspiration to be the best i can be.

    I love your play-document-grow process. Really helpful, thanks.