Other peoples opinions on your music…

I’ve just been reading a thread over at BassWorld.co.uk. One guy posted a link to a recording of a solo of his, and another guy posted the following response –

“I have to do a solo during “Into The Arena”, a rock instrumental we open the second set with, and I hate doing it, mainly because I’m not up to it, it’s really difficult to fire off some quick licks while keeping the momentum of the song going, and when there are musos in the audience, you just know they’re watching your every lame move, and thinking to themselves, “I could do better than that”. “

and here was my response –
I’m not sure how serious this feeling is, but if musos are in the audience are sat thinking ‘I could do better than that’, they really ought to F*** off. It’s such a non-response to music, such an irrelevance to what’s going on. For a start, ‘better’ is such a nebulous concept, given all the variables, it’s largely taste-driven so not really valid in terms of assessing whether the band are doing what they want to do, and the simple fact is that you are doing it, and they aren’t.

It’s like people who say ‘you really ought to do such and such’ – no, YOU really ought to do such and such! If you think it ought to happen do it, don’t go projecting your own musical wishes onto someone else who almost certainly doesn’t share them.

So, play the solo you want to hear, and remember that if there are musos in the audience, it’s because you’ve got a gig that night and they haven’t, so any complaints are moot.

It’s why I refrain from commenting on most of the stuff I hear online – there’s very little of it that really does it for me (all of us actively dislike most music – making great music is really hard, that’s why it’s such an addictive life-long passion. If it was easy, it wouldn’t feel special), but in the grand scheme of things, I don’t want to discourage people from making music by telling them that it doesn’t do it for me. That’d be a complete waste of my time and theirs, because no-one in their right mind should take what I or anyone else says about their music on an online forum as being worth the pixels it’s written on.

Play the music you want to hear, learn all that you can about the process of music making, never stop studying, try to stay focussed and ignore the opinions of people who haven’t actively earned the right to comment on what you do by demonstrating clearly that they understand fully what it is that you are TRYING to do. The relationship that matters is the one between intention and outcome, not audience expectation and outcome.

…that was my response on the forum.

This is something that really bugs me about the way things have gone with the net, and I’m caught in a paradox. Like any musician, I like encouragement. It’s lovely when someone says ‘I really like what you do’ – that doesn’t really require qualification, it just says that they are enjoying the music. It’s pretty much vital that a reasonable number of people feel like that, otherwise I’ll be looking for a new job rather quickly.

However, when people feel the need to qualify their comments with ‘but I don’t like this, and you should do this, and why don’t you do a whole album of funky stuff, or a whole ambient album or whatever’ there’s an assumption behind it that I’m in someway trying to meet their criteria for what a good album is. And I really couldn’t give a shit what their criteria is for a good album. In the midst of the creative process, I don’t make music for anyone but me. I write the music that I have to write, the music that feels like it can’t not be written. Once it’s recorded and out there, I do my best to market it, to get it to the ears of the people who are likely to like it. Of course I want people to hear it, and I really don’t mind if there are people who don’t like it – I’m a solo bassist, FFS, there are a heck of a lot of people who won’t have any frame of reference for instrumental music without drums or an orchestra. It’ll just sound alien and weird, and that’s fine.

The problem comes when I start thinking about those markets in the process of making music – ohh, maybe if I do something with a drummer, it’ll sell more. Or, conversely, I’d better not work with a drummer or solo bass purists will think I’ve sold out.

It’s all utter bollocks. As I said in the response to the email above, the relationship that matters is the one between intention and outcome, not audience expectation and outcome. – that’s a really really important notion for musicians to grasp. Your audience don’t understand what you do. Even if they like it, they as a mass of people don’t understand it. What they hear is different from what you hear, and their reasons for liking it are almost certainly not your reasons for recording it in the first place. That’s not a snobbish musician thing – I don’t understand a lot of the music I listen to, and I don’t need to. It’s become part of MY soundtrack, so has my own set of very specific and utterly subjective resonances and meanings and the thing I liked about it in the first place may well be something entirely un-musical – it reminds me of a place, or time, or person. None of that could or should have any influence on the person making the music. You can’t control it happening, and you certainly can’t recreate the effect.

Stil, loads of musicians try. Most of them disappear, some become very rich because of it. But in my limited experience with such people, they aren’t the happy ones. They aren’t the fulfilled ones. To sell millions of CDs for making entirely unfettered music is clearly ‘the dream’. Does anyone manage it? I dunno. I’ll tell you when I sell a million. :o)

The problem with worrying about sales is that small-artist-syndrome kicks in, and the music can become willfully obscure, as cynically influenced by public opinion as someone ripping off Britney. I can’t play that, it’s too pop. I can’t make that album, it’s too mainstream. it’s too happy, not dissonant enough, it’s got a singer, it’s fun, it might actually be an album that should by any commercial estimation sell thousands, and it doesn’t. Which makes me face up to the fact that great music doesn’t sell CDs. Great marketing sells CDs, and the music just has to be sufficiently inoffensive to stay out of the way of the marketeers.

OK, that’s a touch cynical, but still 95% true in the industry. That doesn’t mean that great music doesn’t sneak through – I thought Crazy by Gnarls Barkley was an outstanding pop record – but it’s not a prerequisite of selling records. Otherwise, Top Of The Pops would still be vital viewing, and it hasn’t been for well over a decade, and that’s why it’s been axed.

Anyway, musical bloglings, be true to yourselves, make the music you want to hear, need to hear, and be open to the advice and counsel of those who have earned the right to give it.

One Reply to “Other peoples opinions on your music…”

  1. I enjoyed reading this, Steve, because it reflects my own opinions pretty accurately and has also been my argument against people who complain about “self-indulgence” in music. As far as I can see, if self-indulgence is the pursuit of your own pleasure in what you are creating, then it results in the most honest works. Anything else is just bending in the wind.

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