I saw an example of this, again, just the other day. A guitarist, who had been in a quite well-known band, in the seventies, was talking about his latest band, in which he and his now elderly band mates were finally just playing the music they loved to play most. In talking about his career, in hindsight, it was clear that the first band he came to prominence with did not play the music he loved most. He built his early reputation playing music that, in his words, “paid the bills”. Alarm bells!
Here was an artist with a passion for a particular style of music who, instead of playing his best stuff, played music he figured would pay the bills. Hence, his whole subsequent music career was coloured by that decision, because everybody expected him to keep playing more of that kind of music, instead of the music he loved to play best. That’s like a kind of self-imposed hell, surely.
After he left the band, he formed a company, writing advertising jingles, to a specification or brief. Again, he wasn’t writing and playing the music he loved best, he was making music, very competently, to pay the bills. There is no doubting the quality of his output and the fact that he successfully paid the bills with the money he made, but it still seemed sad to me.
How much more successful could this musician have been, had he stuck to playing the music that inspired and fired him up most? Clearly he was talented. OK, maybe the audience would have been smaller and the ability to pay the bills more marginal, but what music could he have made, when playing the stuff he loved! Sadly, we’ll never know. His best music was never made. The opportunity cost associated with paying the bills meant he spent his time making the other kind of music, instead – his less than best music. That was time taken away from making his best music, which can never be recovered, fully.
My point is that you shouldn’t second guess your audience. You don’t know that they won’t fall for your best and most beloved music. How could you know? All you can know is the music you make best, which inspires you and puts fire and passion in your playing, is the music that is likely to do the same to an audience and light them up as well. Even if it doesn’t, surely a musical career spent playing what you love to play beats one where you have to play music that you don’t particularly like, just to pay the bills.
Many professional musicians I know will tell you that whatever style of music they ask you to play, you should always say “yes”, to build your musical vocabulary and so that you don’t miss out on scarce, paying gigs. You will also be asked back because of your versatility and willingness to adapt. On the other hand, if you never take time to give us your best music, or to make your most inspired noises, then we can never know how great a musician you had the potential to be. You never become known for your own particular musical voice, or any particular musical voice, for that matter. Would you rather be the moderately, financially comfortable, but anonymous guitarist in a house band, or Jimi Hendrix, with millions of fans that know your work, from just a few notes being played and with millions of dollars of earnings going…somewhere?
It seems to me the better answer to paying your bills is to make the best music you can make, as your heart and taste guides you, and trust in that contribution being good enough to build a significant, paying audience. If what you make is outstanding, as only your best work can be, then paying the bills will eventually become an insignificant problem. The fact that you are able to pay your bills with your second rate music is actually telling you that you would have more than paid them, with your best offerings.
Even if that doesn’t happen, you leave a legacy of a body of work that you can say was truly your finest. I think that’s a better result, for a lifetime of artistic struggle, than leaving behind music that you were only semi-proud of making.
Second guessing the tastes and preferences of your audience seems like a way to devalue your musical contribution, over the long run and to create a lifetime of musical compromise, which frustratingly guarantees that your best work is never made and consequently never put before an audience. That might feel nice and safe, because you can point to a stack of paid bills, but I think it shows a level of artistic cowardice to not have the courage of your own convictions to stick to the music you, with your finely developed musical aesthetics and tastes, have decided has the most merit. If it reaches you, why would it not reach an audience?
Make the music you love. The audience will sort itself out, in time. What they will and won’t buy from you is really very little of your business. Make the best music you are capable of making and let the audience decide. Second guessing their preferences and short-changing them, by delivering less than your best, is just a way to sabotage your own musical career and a way to put a cap on your potential earnings. That’s how I feel about it, anyway.
I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am. The audience deserves your best, anyway.