There appears to have been a good amount of discussion from my "Tough Love" blog.
Coming off contemporary a cappella's biggest year thus far, my hope was to motivate and spur discussion.
The Magnets from England jumped in the discussion and asked if I'd tackle the "commerce vs. creativity" question.
In short, how does one reconcile the two? How does one decide between them?
I've been thinking about this for the past week: the tough choices that have arisen in my career, and what I've learned from watching others, hoping to get a set of guidelines that one can use when considering the various issues. I was expecting to land on a Ten Commandments of Commerce vs. Creativity, but after some thought I distilled it down to a simple golden rule:
Follow your star, detour when needed
What does this mean?
In laymen's terms, you should do exactly what you want, following your passion, until you're presented with a specific task or goal that's worth your while. Achieve that to the best of your ability, with passion, and then go back to doing what you want.
Example A: You're a young a cappella group and want success (who doesn't?!?). Sing the songs you want to sing until you're hired to sing at a wedding and they pay you extra for specific songs. Add those to your rep, sing 'em at the wedding, and then go back to making your music. Then you find out there's a contest for doo wop songs, so learn one, then go back to doing what you want, until you get hired to sing the National Anthem...
You get the idea.
This allows you to get gigs, but keeps you on a clear path to deriving your own sound and style, until:
Example B: You get signed to a record label and they tell you they want you to do three songs from the past five years. Fine, do those, then fill they rest of the album with the music you want to make.
"Wait, what?" Yup, you heard me. I've been involved with too many a cappella projects to think there's any better formula. Do what's needed to fill the label's goals, but no more. Make the rest on your terms, furthering your vision.
Ultimately, you're the steward of your career, not them, and when they're done with you, they won't keep you around a day longer. Same goes for performances on a stage in Branson, or on a cruise ship, etc.
Bottom line: every song that moves you closer to your long term artistic goals will result in more integrity, more long term fans.
Questions? Let me guess:
Q: But this plan basically drives you entirely toward creativity unless commerce demands a specific task. Is that wise? Wouldn't you be more successful if you balanced the two more often?
A: Nope. Popularity chasers are without a stiff rudder and strong wind. They're not aiming for anything - internal or external - and as a result don't get much of anywhere. Sure, they'll draw a crowd at a state fair, but they're not going to inspire much of anyone, as they're not inspired. Plus, you'll likely work at least twice as hard if you're sincerely motivated.
Q: But then what if you're not making enough money to feed yourself and you know if you do X you'll get paid.
A: Then do X, which is a specific goal, then immediately go back to following your star. Spend as much time on X as you must, but no more, and pour your heart into your real goal. If you just start doing X because you see others doing X and you think people will want to hire X, you're wading in a deep marsh of mediocrity and people will have trouble distinguishing you from everyone else.
Q: But what if you're hired to make an album of Britney tunes, and it's not your passion, but you're being well paid?
A: Then do it, of course. And here's the catch: your album will be much better than if you were doing it on spec, in hopes of finding an audience. I'm thinking here of Ed Boyer's superlative work for Glee. If he just decided to do a bunch of Katy Perry songs, they'd likely be solid, but not exemplary. However, Glee calls and he KNOWS it's going to have a wide audience, so it gets his very best focus and care, resulting in an amazing “Teenage Dream” track and the first a cappella gold record in 15 years.
And no, Ed does not listen to Katy Perry in his free time.
Q: How am I going to end up with anything commercial if everything is entirely personal? Won't my music be too obtuse? Will I even be bookable?
A: Music is communication. You're writing your music to be heard by someone, no doubt. It might be a huge crowd, it might be a select audience, but either way say what you have to say your way. Find your voice and use it. If you do that, and do it exhaustively, you will find an audience. Moreover, if you're doing it with frequency - writing/arranging lots of songs, and performing as much as you can - you'll quickly learn what the audience wants to hear, and become better and creating your music in a manner that is best received by your fans.
Q: But doesn't that mean giving my fans whatever they want?
A: No. Do not guess what they want, or try to give them what they want. Always start with what you have to say, who you want to be, then use what you've learned to say it better. You'll learn how to deliver a speech well, but that's not ever as important as having something deep and meaningful to say. Your music and passion and star is the meaning, your craft simply helps you share it.
Q: How do I decide between aiming for a huge audience or a more select audience?
A: You don't. You make your art, and let the commerce side work itself out. You're not going to have much control in that either way, and your best bet to have control is to make amazing music. You will make amazing music by being true to yourself, not trying to attract a certain kind of fan.
There is an almost unlimited supply of people making music for free now. Your only real chance at significant success is to pour your heart and soul into something that's deeply meaningful to you. Honesty is compelling. It's your best bet. Chase market trends at your own peril.
Q: What if I'm missing the mark, or not providing enough to draw an audience?
A: It's your agent or manager's job to get you work based on what you do, and to advise you if somehow augmenting what you to will get you more work. If they tell you that you need a set of 80's tunes for convention work, then learn a set of 80's tunes, but not one song more. Once you have them ready, email off a repertoire list, and go right back to what you want to do.
Q: Doing what I want to do? Does that mean anything?
A: Yes, so long as you're actually doing something that's musical, and focused. Noodling around on the piano doesn't count unless you're writing a song. Watching TV doesn't count unless you're watching “The Sing-Off” to see what other groups are doing. If you want a cappella to be your full time job, treat it as such. You can ask yourself "is X moving me closer to my goals" and if the answer is no, then it's recreation, not work.
Q: How do I know if what I'm doing is compelling? If it's being received the way I intend?
Your manager or agent can help keep you honest. Let you know what appears to be working and what doesn't. Outside eyes and ears.
If you don't have professional representation, enlist friends you can trust to be your mirror until you do. Or get a coach, sing for other groups and get their feedback, etc.
Q: What if I don't have a star? What if I don't have a goal, or a sound, or a focus?
A: If you don't know what you should be doing next, then it's time for some late night discussions at Denny's for you and your group/friends. Where is a cappella headed? What do we do better than any other group? What is our sound? How can we make compelling music that will inspire others? And so on. One question leads to another. If you don't know where to start, try "why am I bothering with a cappella?"
Q: What if my heart is in doing current cover songs? My tastes and goals are basically aligned with what's popular.
A: Then that's what you should do. Don't manufacture some kind of heady artistry for credibility, as it'll ring false. If you want to do an album of Britney Spears tunes, then do it. That's your passion. If you really love it, then you'll likely make it something special. If you're chasing dollars, you likely won't.
That's not to say someone who is making music purely for commerce won't have success, or someone who follows their heart is always going to maximize potential. I'm not going to lie to you. The world is unfair, and the music industry is wildly unpredictable.
You can choose to in essence do what everyone else is doing and hope to do it in a way that will stand out or at least cash in on current trends. Fair enough. But that's not what I recommend, as you're in essence exactly as relevant and unique as your local wedding band. You can make money, but you're almost certainly not going any farther.
On the other hand, if you find a sound and style that's all your own, and you are able to put your heart and your back into your work, you might just create something very special. Take 6. The Bobs. Vocal Sampling. Unique, absolutely wonderful.
Does this all make sense? A clear goal, be it internal or commercial, will yield the best results. Meandering forward towards what seems commercially successful doesn't work as well.
Your passion provides both the engine and the steering wheel. Use it.
You can pull over from time to time and get some gas, then get back on your highway and put that gas to good use, getting where you want to go.