There’s a good profile of the band Grizzly Bear by Nitsuh Abebe with the headline-as-question: “Grizzly Bear Members Are Indie-Rock Royalty, But What Does That Buy Them in 2012?” Spoiler: not much. Everyone who’s interested in making a living in the music business and what it means to be “big” in the indie scene should give it a read. (I was a little surprised how much their rundown read like Steve Albini’s classic “some of your friends are already this fucked.”)
What’s truly strange to me is how divorced these guys seem to be from the old-school music notion of writing “a hit” — a song that moves units, yes, but also moves asses (and hearts) — while simultaneously being baffled by why their songs aren’t played on the radio.
“I’ve always thought we write pop music,” Ed Droste says. “I think songs of ours could be on the radio. They’re not.”
Having actually listened to their music (I’m in the “suffocatingly fuss[y]” camp), this is baffling to me. There’s no indication that Grizzly Bear writes songs for the radio or even with an audience in mind, and
I get the notion from reading the article that actively trying to write a pop song is a borerline-disgusting notion to Droste UPDATE: Droste reached out to me and clarified that he speaks here only of Grizzly Bear’s process, not songwriting in general:
“It can taint the songwriting process if you’re thinking about what other people are going to think,” he says. Even aiming at a format—say, sitting down to write a great pop song—seems unnatural: “If you go into it with that goal, I feel like what’s going to come out is some sort of turd. Some people come out with a turd that does really well, but …”
This line of thinking seems like “some sort of turd” to me. UPDATE: Ed clarifies.
Here’s just a random off-the-top-of-my-head example of what sitting down with the specific goal to write a hit can birth: in 1966, two songwriters took a break from playing cards and sat down for a half hour and tried to write the “the best cheatin’ song ever.” They came up with the great soul classic, “At The Dark End of The Street.”
That’s just one fucking example out of thousands. Hell, here’s Paul McCartney: “Somebody said to me, ‘But the Beatles were anti-materialistic.’ That’s a huge myth. John and I literally used to sit down and say, ‘Now, let’s write a swimming pool.’”
Basically, and I’m venting here, I feel like we’re at this weird point in music where we all worship and adore these musicians of old (The Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Bowie, James Brown, Stax, Motown) while forgetting that these people were trying to write hits. They were trying to write songs that would move people, trying to craft popular songs while still sneaking in artistry and bits and pieces of themselves.
Grizzly Bear doesn’t work this way — they’re writing mainly for themselves:
“Just the feat of making an album that pleases everyone in the band is so much of an accomplishment,” he says, “that there’s no awareness of ‘We’re gonna top this, we’re gonna show the audience what’s next.’ To make it fresh for us is already so difficult that it’s almost irrelevant whether it’s fresh for the audience. We’re just so fried by the end—we’ve finally gotten to the point where we all agree this is cool. That’s the best we can fucking do.” The four of them describe finishing an album as, variously, “a process,” “challenging,” “not easy,” “exasperating,” “considered and reconsidered and you’ve got to please four people,” “a real journey,” and “infuriating and great at the same time.” Ask them who they’re thinking of when they write, and it’s not an end listener—it’s the other members of the band…
Nitsuh commented on his Tumblr:
It seems to me that a lot of the discourse around music has a habit of speaking as if the artists’ decisions are deliberate — that the songs they write, or albums they release, are propositions about what they think is good or cool or interesting. And talking to the guys in this band offers a very good reminder of how much that’s not necessarily the case, and how much the sound of the music we listen can be a matter of internal process and groups of people just pushing forward to make something that feels satisfying to have made. (Followed by a lot of hard work to stay able to make more.)
Sometimes music listeners talk as if artists are running the show: there’s a stage, and these musicians are standing on it, addressing us. And then sometimes musicians talk as if listeners are running the show: they make music for their own pleasure, and then a vast and fickle public decides whether anyone will be interested, and what chance the music will get to continue. I wonder sometimes if the internet has exploded the former impulse and maybe diminished our memory of the latter…
There’s a third, and what I think is way healthier notion: that the musicians and the listeners are in it together, and that one way to approach making art isn’t to ignore or pander to the audience completely, but to find the sweet spot on the venn diagram between what you love to play and what they love listen to. Here’s David Byrne:
I never try and second-guess what an audience might like. I assume that we’re all human and that the venn diagram of what I like and what an audience likes…there’s some kind of overlap. That’s where I make a living. But I also realize that it’s not a total overlap. I have to just assume that I’m human, they’re human, we have some common concerns, and every once in a while I’ll get something in… but I can’t always predict it. And if I try to mold my work based on marketing considerations and what I presume people like, I’m gonna fail.
And here’s the songwriter Will Oldham, making the case:
I feel the value of my work is determined very precisely by the audience. What does entertainment mean, anyway, and what’s the difference between that and art? I would say the main difference is that art isn’t necessarily funded by the consumer, but entertainment always is. In that way, entertainment is a million times more important to me than art, and being an entertainer is more important to me than being an artist.
…My absolute, purest particular taste would not be something that could be appreciated on a grand scale. It just wouldn’t. If I really made a record just to serve myself I would end up alone in a dark, wet room, you know? That’s not really where I want to be. That’s why it’s more important to me to make a record that serves itself and its audience well. A good record should involve my needs, the listeners’ needs, and the needs of the other people who worked on the record. If I manage that, I feel I’ve accomplished something.
Bottom line: You can ignore the audience as much as you want — just don’t expect to get on the fucking radio.
Filed under: audience