The concept of “owing” something is one that drives many aspects of life in nearly every walk of life: An employee owes his or her employer punctuality and reliability; a teacher owes his or her students the individual assistance, attention and challenge that they need to flourish; parents owe their child(ren) love and the means for survival. Right now you are probably asking yourself, “Yeah, I see what you are saying, but how does this apply to music?” Well, whether or not it actually does is quite an interesting topic of debate.
When an artist of any caliber releases new material after a wait of any length, his or her fan base is naturally going to have expectations. Some fans expect more of the same things that made the previous effort enjoyable. Some fans expect a natural progression that keeps the good qualities of the last album but takes that core sound in a new direction. Still other fans expect an entirely different experience that keeps almost nothing of the original formula yet retains the artist’s signature sound.
Invariably, the artist will take one of these three extremes (with some deviation, of course), and, equally invariably, the fans that did not get what they expected will feel disappointed, cheated and sometimes even angry and personally betrayed, depending on the degree of their individual fandom. Are these disappointed fans being unfair to the artist, or is it the other way around?
From the fan’s perspective, they are supporting (however slightly in each individual’s case; see my previous article on Spotify for more details) the artist monetarily, whether it be through buying albums or songs, listening to music via steaming services, attending shows, purchasing merchandise or other means. Not only have fans invested money into the artist’s work, but they have also invested time and emotion into the recordings that the artist has produced. When one invests a quantity — be it time, money or what have you — one expects to receive something in return. That is the definition of investment, after all. Therefore, should it not follow that the fan is owed to have their expectations met by the artist, either in whole or in part? To answer this question, it is imperative to consider the artist’s perspective on the music they are creating.
As anyone knows, music is an industry like any other, and as with all industry, it is founded on money and runs on it. Many artists are fueled entirely by money and are merely representatives of a company (think boy bands, ’90s pop stars, arena or cock-rock bands and many artists signed to major pop labels today). Artists of this type do not write their own music; they “perform” rather than sing and are usually little more than a pretty face to slap on the cover of a CD.
It goes without saying that artists filling this category are creating music solely for the money and not for the art of music or for themselves. They want to make a living off of people buying their merchandise, and generally, thanks to excellent marketing, they do. Because these artists fully intend to make money off of music, they certainly owe it to fans to meet their expectations.
Still, many other artists are in music for the love of creating it, for the art contained in creating music, and because it is what they love to do. These artists view money as secondary to creating the music and generally lie outside the mainstream (think underground bands, metal bands, jazz artists, progressive artists). Mikael Åkerfeldt, the lead singer, rhythm guitarist and primary composer of progressive metal greats Opeth spoke with the now-defunct magazine Metal Edge on his relationship with fans: “When I write music, I want it to be completely devoid of any outside interference. At the end of the day, I still have to say that we did what we wanted to do. But I also in some strange way am seeking approval from the outside. And if they slag me off, I say, ‘Oh, fuckin’ idiots. They don’t know shit.’ If they praise me, I still think, ‘Oh, fuckin’ idiots.”
In a situation like this, while Opeth is an extremely popular band by metal standards and make a decent amount of money off their fandom, it is evident the music is their first priority; otherwise they would have “sold out” years ago. Because of the reasons behind writing music that artists in this second group hold dear, they owe their fans nothing. They are not required to write within the same genre of music; they are not required to write about the same subject matter. An artist that writes for themselves cannot be held accountable to their fans.
The crux of the answer to the artist-accountability question boils down to this: One does not simply start a garage band with the intention of being a touring band as a serious career choice. Certainly it is a dream to do that, but most musicians start making music because they love it. Whether they stay the course on their way to potential fame is not a given, and the possibility of straying from the path of true artistry arises when a musician crosses over from those that owe the fans a degree of accountability in their music to the group that owes the fans nothing. A true artist is making music for themselves and thus owes it to themselves to keep true to what they want to write, hear and play. An artist that lives off the fans owes the fans a steady output of the same music those fans have come to expect. For you, the fans, the real question is this: Which sounds more exciting to listen to? Which would you rather invest in?
Regen McCracken is a junior majoring in English. He has a love for video games, metal, jazz and all things that make one think. He also writes and performs his own music while not writing these ever-interesting columns or studying himself to sleep.