The notion of blogging about 'where integrity is and isn't considered important in music' makes me wonder whether or not I was born a hundred years too late. Through a few winding tangents, a few sweeping-statements that might overstate my point and a couple of moans, I'm hoping to raise some uncomfortable questions. Take it with a pinch of salt.
Navigating the ever-moving goalposts of the music industry is a hard task. Sometimes, it's what you need to do to get your music to people that will love it, or to keep your career going at whatever level you're at. What worries me is that thousands of musicians focus on this instead of their own music. Something tells me that this is more than 'the ultimate procrastination'.
Any musician who has been to London is either aware of this or is doing it. You won't need to look far to find musicians focusing more on business than music. This is not least because it works! Money makes money. Not that I'm recommending this; far from it. This just makes it a tricky subject to deal with.
...giving perfect examples,
I don't need to focus on all of this because it's super-obvious. More importantly, whatever the justification they use, the majority of the people working to make this happen, know what they're doing.
I'm much more interested in the grey area. There are a ton of musicians who have good and honest intentions but, for some reason, they will make decisions in writing their music/live set that are all about crowd reaction or furthering their careers rather than artistic merit. This brings integrity into question again. A few examples that generally bug me:
Using covers (badly)Ten seconds of a nostalgic pop hit from the teenage years of the majority of the audience in the middle of your song/beatbox-routine might guarantee a big cheer from the audience but who is that cheer really for? More to the point, 'it guarantees a big cheer' - is that why it's there? If that's the only reason, which it is, which is more important to you? The music or the crowd reaction?
So, can you have it all three ways? A ten second cover in your set that is primarily about getting a cheer, the music being the main focus and integrity? You'll need a very convincing justification to get that past me!
Of course it's much easier to have a combination of any two out of the three...
Then there's covering an entire song. For me, this can work if done 'right' and I think it's great that the strength of an artist's musical ideas don't have to be confined to the genre within which they are originally presented. The discussion of what may be the 'right' way of doing it alone warrants its own blog post. Briefly, if you must do it, bring your own creativity (unless the composer is dead) and don't be surprised if 'This will bring loads of new listeners to my own songs' becomes 'This is now what I'm most known for'.
Tailoring to a drunk crowdWorking a crowd is as much a part of the artform as anything else. However, if you start trading away what makes your set great to people that are sober, you might just end up only performing to a room full of people off their mash when the set you've tailored doesn't fit anybody else. That will feel empty very quickly. The classic example of this is DJs who play super-long build ups and then, when the drop finally comes, the beat lasts for just long enough for the crowd to 'make some noise' before bringing it back to the next build up. The entire set becomes one long prick-tease and, if you've seen it before, or if you're not spangled enough to be 'worked' like that, it's boring.
Relying on the idea to make up for the notes!Ideas are great! Really they are. They're usually what give direction to a burning sense of drive. What is painful to see is when a great idea is realised 'badly'. Music being interpretive and all, badly is just about the loosest term there is. That said, you are probably in the best position to decide whether your idea has come out badly. From time to time, I do see projects with great ideas that lack so much in their execution that I feel sure that creator feels roughly the same way.
When you come up with and take on an idea, you have a pretty big responsibility to do it justice. The better the idea, the higher the stakes. As soon as it's 'your project' you've just 'called it' and that means that other people in your circles may choose to leave such an idea to you when they could have been doing it instead. The last thing you want is to get into a project with the best of intentions but end up bodging the idea for you and everybody else whilst putting off audiences for anybody that does the idea properly in future. Worse still, the poor people that went out on a limb and bought a ticket and committed an evening on the strength of your idea are hanging by a thread. If you make them regret it, they'll likely revert and lose a piece of that risk-taking impulse. If artists are killing 'audience-initiative', where will the innovators come from to start your fan-base? Why would venues focus on booking good music if that's not why people come through the door?
Not to mention, if you know your idea is great but your execution sucks, you still have to go on-stage and act like it doesn't until you can fix your performance. If that doesn't lack integrity, what does?
What is worse is when a performer thinks that the idea is so good that the execution doesn't matter! This is where ego and, oddly enough, a lack of self-confidence can combine to create denial; this is mixing 'I am spreading the world's finest message/idea' with 'I'll never be good enough to play my instrument properly...why bother trying?' and it can lead to 'I don't need to do this because I'm doing that'.
As a rule of thumb, 'good notes' don't make up for a lack of or bad idea either. Best find a good idea and then write/play the notes right!
PretendingC'mon. This, by definition lacks integrity. There's just no way around this! 'You're not Jamaican or from London or American etc...nor is your accent when you speak, but it is when you rap/sing?' Putting on a character is one thing but being afraid of using your real voice is another. Personally, I'm fairly 'well-spoken' as people politely put it. Chances are, I sound posher than you but I'd rather use my own voice than be a posh boy using a compensating accent!
Obviously, the same can go for lyrical content.
There's a fine balance here and it is called an 'act' for a reason. Theatrics in music don't take from integrity when they are used to contribute to the art.
BattlingMaybe this is too much of a personal gripe for me to have objectivity. Still, there's no denying that the strongest chance you have of winning a battle is impressing either the crowd or the judges. If your entry/performance is written from this point of view, it's no longer written from your point of view.
Am I too naive to understand the compromises needed to make a world class set? Or am I too cynical and pedantic about details that don't matter?
I know plenty of musicians, for whom I have enormous respect for writing incredible music, doing all of this stuff. A lot of the time, I wish they wouldn't. Sometimes, it doesn't bother me because their music is good enough to override my usual preferences. Such is the power of good music. There are always exceptions to the rule when it comes to art and it's often intention that determines how these decisions go down.
Tradition can also put up a pretty awkward obstacle. You can't make a mash-up without clips from covers but that's not to say that mash-up artists don't have integrity. Again, it's about intention.
There are a hell of a lot of external pressures to take into accountWe used to live in a world where sewing-machine manufacturers wouldn't advertise because they feared that it gave the wrong impression; they feared that it gave the impression that their machines were not good enough to sell themselves on their own merit.
Perhaps advertising is largely to blame. What now is sold on its own merit? Even in my lifetime, I remember when buying a piece of technology meant that it would last until you had a significant reason to upgrade. Now, your laptop, phone and just about anything with a computer in it is designed to break within a couple of years because you're expected to buy a new one (or at least, it's not designed not to). It's happening with cars and even houses. Nothing is competing to last for as long as possible any more. You'd hope that art is the final frontier. Sure, the model of disposable pop acts have been around for a long time but there are still artists out there that care about their work being remembered. We're not at a point where this is considered a fantasy either.
The world we live in is becoming less suited to the pursuit of longevity and business models are adjusting to match. So, maybe trading off integrity piece by piece is something that artists can end up doing out of frustration because art and business are becoming a squarer peg in a rounder hole and it's the artist who ends up being the fish out of water because nobody will admit that art makes the world go round; for some reason, everybody thinks it's money that does this!
Success is evasive. Artists are wise to ask themselves, 'how can I make this a success?' at every business decision they make. (Really. Every single one). It's not always an easy question to answer but I have a harder one:
'Although taking this action would probably lead to more success, is there something more important at stake?'
I sometimes have to ask myself this question. The answer is not always yes and not always no but it's asking the question that allows me to stay on track.
Usually, by this point in the blog, I'm supposed to have said: 'Do what I say, it'll help your career by blah blah blah'. That isn't coming this time because, honestly, too few people care about the kind of integrity I'm talking about. That's the whole point; if people didn't go wild for covers or get drunk at gigs, artists wouldn't use these gimmicks. That's what makes them gimmicks.
This means that integrity isn't something you can abide by to help further your career; You can only choose it because it's right.
What I will say is this: Nobody wants to sacrifice integrity and it's not always as easy to spot from the inside. Trying to be aware of what you do and allowing this to inform your decisions is enough in my books. Do what you want. There is a small group of people left in the world that care. You might find them to be your most rewarding followers. You want people to care about your music, not just like it. Right?
Ultimately, there is only one person upon which no gimmick would work and that's the person you most need to like and care about your music.
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