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Is It Wrong To Be Popular?

September 24, 2009 by  



Guitar player on stage at concertMusic is a funny thing. From the time we are first inspired to pick up the guitar or any other instrument, most of us dream of stardom. Our fantasies are filled with visions of sold-out world tours, buses, hotel trashing, groupie wrangling, and all the rest. We dream of legions of loyal fans supporting us and our creative efforts who buy each CD we release, wear our t-shirts, and come out to our shows. The funny thing is, most bands that reach that mega-stardom level will tell you all is not quite that sunny. While they do have the above-mentioned items going for them, they also have a sea of detractors who see them as having sold out to become as popular as they are. These fans have the attitude that there is nobility in obscurity and nothing but pure evil in being successful. This poses a tough question for bands that are actually getting somewhere with their music: do they push on and promote and work to become as big a name as possible or do they pull the plug at some point to be able to cling more readily to their artistic ideals?

Why does this happen? Simple. When we start any musical endeavor, we are playing mostly for ourselves. We can do things however we see fit with no one to answer to. In other words, we are doing art for art’s sake. As a band gets more successful, however, art is gradually replaced by business once a record label, manager, publisher, crew, and all the rest is involved. None of these folks really care that much about anyone’s art; they are doing a job for which they expect to be paid. Once a group or artist becomes an employer they often start making decisions based on money, which is what allows them to keep people working. They also begin to appreciate the trappings of success and get used to eating regularly and paying their bills on time, which many struggling musicians have trouble doing. This is the point at which the group in question usually starts trying to replicate the hits they have been having rather than rocking the boat artistically, which can get risky and can lead to diminishing record sales. This is when the cries of ‘sellout’ are directed at the band and they are seen as less than the artistic powerhouse they used to be.

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This is also when bands and fans alike need to better understand the game they are playing. The game is called “The Music Business” and, if you are in a band that plays anywhere outside of your house, you are in it whether you like it or not. No matter if you are in a cover band or an original music act, the game is very much the same. If you want to have a gig, your job is to being people into the venue, pure and simple. How you do it is up to you, but you need to do it. The venue you are playing exists for one thing: to make money for the owner. It is not an artistic forum, philosopher’s salon, or creativity club. It is the way one or more folks put food on the table. To be a part of it, you need to contribute to that aspect of it. Sure, your music is cool, you’re a nice guy, and all the rest, but to get any kind of respect or repeat gigs, your job is mostly to be popular. Whether you are being heard in a local club, on a record label, or in a soccer stadium, the principal is the same. Many musicians have a problem with this and they are usually the ones with the least amount of gigs, as they can’t get why the world isn’t flocking to see them purely on face value. They hate when the first question a booker asks them is “How’s the draw?”

The most important thing to understand about all of this is where you, as a band or individual artist, stand in relation to it. If what matters to you is art, creativity, performance, and passion, be the best artist you can be and let the chips (or dollars) fall where they may. Examples of people like this would be Kurt Cobain, Tom Waits, and Frank Zappa. If, however, you want to be successful in the traditional sense of the word, in the manner of Metallica, Brad Paisley, or Kiss, then go after that success with everything that you have and sleep soundly at night. Sure, it’s possible to take it too far (Vanilla Ice and the Ninja Turtles comes to mind), but most out there will not go to that extreme. Promote as hard as you can, get your music out there, be excellent in all that you do, and you will wake up every day knowing that you have the best job in the world. We all have our own reasons to play music and it is vitally important that you know yours. If those reasons are aligned with the path you are on, all will be good. If the reasons and the path are in conflict, you will experience discord instead of harmony. Remember, this is a business and being successful is ok. Rather than selling out, try to see it as buying in.

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