What I Want is important. It makes us do what we do! However, ignoring What They (the audience) Want, is immature and unsustainable.
In our minds, it seems like a constant battle between What I Want and What They Want. That’s why artists making original material hold cover bands in lower regards. To them, cover bands are musicians that have given up the fight for great art and settled for us just entertaining people in the easiest possible way.
Truly great art is original and often provocative. It challenges the audience. Straight ahead cover bands don’t challenge audiences much – usually. Maybe an all GG Allin tribute would.
It’s interesting, though, that after a while, What I Want and What They Want start to find things in common. Even GG had a symbiotic (if warped) relationship with his audience. He had a desire get violent and truly disgusting on stage while a band backed him up with some of the least memorable and poorly performed music I’ve heard. His audience had a desire for abuse. It worked. If he hadn’t found that intersection, what would’ve separated him from any other gross dude cutting himself on stage?
(I’ll refrain from putting his pic here)
For the rest of us unwilling to abuse or be abuse to that extreme, it seems inevitable that What THEY Want will have some influence on What I Want at some point. I mean, we’re all up there seeking attention. Why else would we BE on stage or doing our art in public if that wasn’t true?
Heck, even GG complied with this idea. His audience wanted him to get more and more extreme. He sure as hell did and it wound up killing him. Tough act to repeat again, though.
Many great works of art were created for someone else. It makes sense – why does it always have to be all about you (the artist)? Because you don’t want to sell out?
I think you’re only coming close to the idea of selling out when you create work that’s totally unfulfilling in order to please others – when your work is soulless and devoid of your personality. Michelangelo didn’t love the Sistine Chapel. It was a pain in the butt! Still – he maybe better known for it than anything else. I wouldn’t call that even close to selling out. Slash has said that “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is his least favorite Guns ‘n’ Roses song. It’s also the one that made him rich and worshipped by guitarists worldwide. Even if Slash were to say the he hates the song altogether, it’s not soulless. The guitar on this tune is dripping with Slashness! His tone! His tasteful licks!
Regardless of Slash’s feelings about the opening lick of that one song, What He Wants generally seems to share lots of common ground with What They Want – otherwise, he’d just be another really good guitar player no one ever heard of.
Looking locally at this, I’m reminded of my friend Chico Jones who runs Ohm Recording Facility. When Chico and I met, we were listening to a lot of post punk stuff like Jesus Lizard, Shellac, etc. He recorded bands in town that sounded like that but no big acts knew who he was. He was even forced to record a bunch of horns and accordions and lots of voices all at once by me. I got a lot of complaints from him in those days.
In order to make a little money doing what he loved, Chico recorded radio commercials and jingles. It was hardly the artistic path I believe he wanted to travel but it was paying work and he got to use his talents. Over time, he had to record and work on music he didn’t like. Lots of it.
Eventually, bigger acts started hiring him and using his studio. The jingles and ads vanished from his schedule and last year, Chico quit his day job. He gets to choose which projects he wants do. All of it was a result of slowly bringing What They Want closer to What He Wants by finding common ground between the two – increasing the symbiosis.
As artists, we want to express ourselves the way we want and to be understood and appreciated for it.
That’s a tall order and doesn’t happen very often. When I think about this in terms of communication, it’s a pretty bold demand to make of people. In fact, it sounds almost childish. “I want to talk to you in whatever language I choose about a topic that resonates with me and I want you all to understand it and care about it, too, and even pay me for it.”
What if Chico had demanded that the radio spot clients add abrasive guitar to their ads because “That’s What I Want”?
If you don’t want to talk to an audience in their language or about something they care about, why are you on stage? To filter only the telepaths among them?
No – You want attention? You’ll get it for about 1 minute just by getting on stage but expect to play to furniture for the remainder of the time unless you come up with something for the audience to care about – and it can’t be something only you want.
This is a hard lesson to learn and possibly the biggest “I told you so” that I hear from my dad. Focusing on What I Want usually doesn’t gain much attention from anyone but me because it’s What I Want. Speaking artistically, most of my early creations targeted an audience of one – me! In fact, I’d say that prior to the Nutcracker CD, that was always the case. I just thought that I’d do what I do and people who liked it would find me.
We are in an era where audiences are no longer seekers. Remember searching for a rare album or by an obscure band? Those days are long gone.
There’s an illusion that other artists are immune to the problem that What I Want doesn’t intersect with What They Want. It seems these artists just happen to want to make music that people like. It’s rare but does happen. If the artist is in the right place at the right time to take advantage of that, they can explode!
When we’re younger, we’re not immune to the misperception (mentioned in my entry “These are not the Gigs…”) that the very few who do reach that point are the standard to which we should hold ourselves. Our unspoken philosophy seems to be – I should be able to make the music I want to make how I want to make it and people should love it just like other artists who seem to focus on What I Want instead of What They Want.
Look at those careers, though! They really took off when those artists found common ground with What They Want.
Ween – is it surprising that Ween’s popularity exploded when they started doing less weird stuff like The Pod and started releasing music that sounded more…. normal? There’s a pretty big difference between “Marble Tulip Juicy Tree” and “Ocean Man”.
Radiohead – In spite of being the biggest band in the world now, Radiohead is remembered not so fondly by many people over 35 as the last band to try to cash-in on the grunge sensation of the 90s with their single “Creep”. In 1994, grunge was fizzling. Somehow, they overcame that and started connecting with people in the late 90s. No one talks about “Creep” except those of us who don’t care for Radiohead.
Butthole Surfers – an amazing example for people in Austin since almost every rock band from here since the 80s has been influenced by them. Their early material is considered unlistenable by most people. Remember when the papers wouldn’t even print their name? Now, they’re remembered by most people for “Pepper” a song with fun lyrics, synthesized drums and electronics that bears very little resemblance to anything the band did between 1982 – 1992.
Did these bands sell out? Not really. They just learned that they had more time to focus on their work if that work filled a need or desire for people other than themselves.
Going back to the maturity thing – The vast majority of us come out of the womb uncoordinated, inexperienced and unable to effectively communicate verbally – and yet we expect the coordinated and experienced people around us to understand what we want all the time. Oddly, this does work – but only on our parents. (Sound like your music career?) It’s a pretty limited audience and they are only willing to deal with us if they believe that we will eventually communicate in their preferred method – at least some of the time. If we are to be able to navigate in society, we must learn to communicate better than we do as infants. Same with bands – if we don’t learn to speak a language the audience can understand, we’ll just wander aimlessly like illiterates in the library of showbusiness.
Audiences want to be entertained, educated, amazed – maybe they even want to be scared, abused or disgusted. As John Pointer says – people don’t pay big bucks to see Cirque du Soleil screw up.
Audiences can’t experience any of that without some kind of clear communication. This is why most people hate free jazz. It is a language devoid of everything most audiences like about music – steady beats, melody, harmony, repetition, 12 set notes always in tune. It takes serious refinement to appreciate music that just sounds like noise. But you know – the players who do it best already know how to communicate with the average listener. They’re just choosing to challenge the audience and see who accepts.
Free jazz is theoretically awesome… just not entertaining for most of us.
That said, the audience does want to be challenged to some degree. Otherwise, they’d just put on a CD or listen to a cover band. They don’t want to be threatened (even GG’s audience fled from police). Andy Kaufman rode that line between the two really well. He fell off sometimes but that was the draw. Will it work? Maybe! His audience wanted to see!
Sometimes we challenge the audience too much by expecting more than they can or will give. You got them to come see your show – why deafen them? (Yes, they can wear earplugs but… it’s kind of like a filmmaker expecting the audience to wear sunglasses.) Why bore them with 12 songs they can’t connect with? Why demand they go someplace too far, too gross or too dangerous or (worse?) too lame?
If you come to the table expecting only to receive from them, they won’t stay seated long.
I guess the big debate artists must settle is – how much of What I Want am I willing to compromise in order to give them enough of What They Want to keep them in the seats?
Some people believe that art should never be compromised. I think the compromise is necessary when you’re expecting an audience. Really, it’s necessary in any releationship.
I mean, we compromised as infants when our temper tantrums and spastic gestures weren’t working for us anymore – we learned to speak, to wait our turn, etc.
I also think compromise can often be a catalyst for great art. Conflict is memorable! Like the Sistine Chapel. Even “Sweet Child O’ Mine”.
Bottom line – I have found that there’s more room to focus on the art when What I Want and What They Want are in symbiosis instead of in conflict.
Hopefully this will shed some light on the last 3 years of The Invincible Czars for those who ask me why we haven’t recorded an original album in so long. I usually get defensive and say something like, “Well we’ve written something like 4 hours of original material for silent films in that time.” The truth is that I spent more years focusing almost solely on What I Want instead of What They Want. Around 2010, I decided to try to bring more to the table than I was taking for a while. The pendulum has swung the other way. Hopefully it’ll center itself soon.
Interestingly, probably 90% of people who express disappointment at the lack of new Czars material are my peers – fellow musicians (and band mates) in Austin! I have found that my peers are not a reliable audience. On any given weekend night I’m playing, they probably are, too. This is a whole other post to be written.