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Artist or entertainer?
A musician is always both an artist and an entertainer.
Nobody’s either a pure artist or a pure entertainer – every musician is located somewhere in the grey area between those two extremes.
Some musicians are artists who also entertain, others a pure entertainers who just interpret music in a more or less artistic way. Record companies and the media use the term “artist” for all kinds of singers and musicians, no matter if they’re real artists, pure entertainers, or even puppets. These days, the term “artist” sells better, and therefore all singers and musicians have to be called “artists”, even the worst ones. The two extremes can be seen in the figure below:
The next thing you can do is to place all kinds of musicians onto this graph. The more artistic ones will be placed on the left, the ones that are less artistic and more entertaining will be placed on the right. I used only three musicians or bands here to demonstrate what I’m talking about: Radiohead, Justin Bieber, and Katy Perry.
Radiohead are quite on the left, as I think they’re real artists, and most critics and music lovers will probably agree. They are real artists, as they created a lot music that’s considered to be art, and that has value. Radiohead’s music is still being appreciated by both fans and critics, even many years after their most important records (Kid A and OK Computer) were first released. Maybe they never intended to be artists, maybe this never was their plan. But when they write music and when they produce records, then they create real art. Nevertheless they are not pure artists, because in the past they clearly also wrote songs that should entertain, and they also play gigs that are meant to entertain and to make people feel good. So they’re quite on the left, and I think that’s a real nice place to be.
Justin Bieber, however, is quite on the right. Maybe Bieber just wants to entertain, maybe he is not interested in art at all. Or maybe it’s even the opposite, maybe he really thinks he’s something like an artist, or maybe he wishes he could be true artist. In the end it all doesn’t matter, because it won’t change the fact that he’s more or less a pure entertainer. His music is mostly just a commercial product, it doesn’t have much value, and it probably won’t be considered to be among the greatest music of all time in 20 or 30 years from now. I placed Katy Perry a bit more to the left, although she clearly also belongs to the spectrum on the right. Perry is definitely more entertainment than art, with Max Martin and others pulling some of the strings in the background. If you read the first chapters of the manual (and I hope you did), then you’ll know by now that real artists are
relevant, and they also
remain relevant, their
music has value, and it usually
won’t be forgotten.
Their music is not for the masses,
it is for music lovers, for people who are usually
open for new experiences, and who generally
like buying albums.
On the other hand you have artists who are more or less just entertainers, they’re less relevant, and their music will probably be forgotten (unless it’s actually so bad that it will not be forgotten at all). The music made by those entertainers is for the masses, for those who just want to consume. Those consumers are often less intelligent, less educated, they’re lemmings and they’re generally buying singles, or they’re not buying at all.
The problem of those who mostly create art is that they’re in a niche.
Being in a niche is basically a good thing, because there usually isn’t much competition in niches. As soon as you go for the masses by making chart compatible music, you’ll have to compete with tons of other artists who will do the same kind of music, and that’s usually a bad plan.
All of this has already been explained in chapters 1 and 2, so consider this to be something like a quick recap of what you’ve already learned.
The problem of being in a niche is that chances to get noticed by the masses are quite small.
The things you do are so special that you will only get the attention of a very small fraction of the population, so that even those who would be potential fans will never learn about you.
You have great music to offer, but you’ll never reach your potential fans or record buyers, and that’s a big problem indeed.
The solution to this problem – and that’s a solution that has been successfully used by all great well known artists – is to produce songs that are very artistic on one hand, while you will also produce a number of songs that may attract the attention of a larger audience on the other hand.
Such songs are called “songs with hit potential”, and if you’re lucky then those songs may actually become hits.
In the case of Radiohead it was Creep that became a big hit in 1993 and 1994. While Radiohead’s songs are usually quite complex and are thus targeted at a more intellectual audience, Creep used a typical hit song structure. It was short, it had a catchy melody, a nice rhythm and groove, and it was well suited for radio play. Nonetheless, it is still great art, and it is still very popular among their fanbase. The US radio version even replaced the line “So fucking special” with “So very special”. The group was worried that issuing a censored version would be a bit of a sell-out, but they decided it was acceptable since their idols Sonic Youth had done the same thing. So you can see that even Radiohead – who are considered to be among the greatest artists of the past decades – made compromises when it came to their initial singles, as releasing a hit single is the only way you may ever become really successful.
Radiohead had a few such simpler, radio friendlier songs (just think of Karma Police and No Surprises for example), and those songs were the ones that allowed them to become known to a wider audience. They are real artists, but back then they also knew they needed some songs that would allow them to get noticed. Not all of those who liked the singles also bought the albums, but at least some of them. But without the more catchy songs, they would have remained more or less unnoticed, and they would never have had a massive impact.
Music lovers, on the other hand, still appreciated the less complex singles while they also loved the entire albums. Also remember that simple songs don’t have to be bad, and that not all complex songs are great by the way.
That’s the way it has to be done, and that’s the strategy to follow:
Try to be a real artist be creating music that’s challenging, complex, rebellious, revolutionary, and that has some value. On the other hand offer a few less complex songs that will allow you to get noticed.
You will not be stuck on one single point of our graph, but you will span over an entire range and thus you will appeal to a larger audience (although even still not to the masses).
You will need to expand your range, and you will need to write a few more entertaining songs, without dropping the overall quality however.
Always keep quality as high as possible, even if you do some more commercial or entertaining work – remember that our plan will not be to reach a Katy Perry or even a Justin Bieber level.
So that’s the plan, and we’ll get back to this as soon as we will start to talk about your record in the next chapter. For now let’s return to your sound, your style, and your identity, because those things will need to be addressed first.