Musicians perform music for people to listen to.
There, I said it. I know a lot of musicians bristle at an idea like this. Many musicians feel that they perform music only for themselves. I understand that, and there always has to be a very personal element to it, and you have to play what makes you happy. But, I think that many musicians (myself included), often lose sight of the idea that if they're performing or selling music, someone else, a listener, who isn't performing with you, needs to able to enjoy your music.
I studied with a lot of jazz musicians when I was younger and I really respected their commitment to always wanting to play music that challenged the ears of their listeners. But I think that jazz musicians sort of painted themselves into a corner as many have come to associate the word "jazz" with music that just doesn't appeal to them. I think that's because if you never consider the listener, that's going to happen naturally. I love jazz and I don't mean to put jazz musicians down. I have a tendency to forget that the point of the music is to sound good to listeners. It's something I have to remind myself of. Most of the jazz oriented teachers I had actually stressed this to me. Sometimes I would play a very complex arrangement of a jazz standard for a teacher and he would say, "That's great, but I have no idea what song that was because your arrangement is so complex I can't make out the melody."
My big challenge is that I want to write songs that use new or difficult techniques. I want to push the limits of what I can play and I want to compose "innovative" music, music that is using very different guitar techniques. That's cool as long as I don't fall into the trap of composing music that only other guitarists can appreciate. And, in truth, if a piece of music just doesn't sound good to the ears, even serious guitarists won't listen for long. There are many pieces of music I've seen performed or heard recordings of that leave me saying, "Wow, that's amazing. I'll probably never listen to it again, but that sure was neat." I don't want my music to fall into that category, but it's so easy to fall into that trap.
Working with some sort of recording device while I write helps a lot. There are so many things that I write, and I do actually write out all of my music, at least in tablature. I was taught to be somewhat of a snob about using tab but I don't feel that way at all anymore. It's easier and it saves a lot of time. Anyway, I firmly believe that I really don't know how a piece of music I've written really sounds like until I hear it back on a recording when I'm not playing it. A piece that's really fun or really challenging can play tricks on your ears when you're playing it, maybe because your brain is so focused on playing it. I use a Tascam DR-40, a very simple little digital recorder that is easy to use for making quick demos. No, Tascam doesn't pay me to say that. I'm nowhere near that famous or influential. I don't have any sponsors. That DR-40 illuminates the truth about how something really sounds all the time for me. Sometimes the truth isn't kind but I prefer to know the truth of how a listener will experience the music. Just because it's hard to play or contains very innovative techniques does not mean that it sounds good to the human ear. But, those very innovative pieces always sound good to me when I'm playing them.
I think the marketplace is also pretty accurate in determining the value of music. Yep, once again I said that which is forbidden for musicians to ever say. Some recordings sell much better than others and that's generally due to the fact that something about a certain recording really sounds good to people. What a revolutionary statement huh? But musicians, myself included, will go to great lengths to explain why one project didn't sell. We'll blame everything and everyone and insist that the project that bombed really was amazing, people just don't get it. But, sadly, if you're in the business of selling your music, you have to be pretty attentive to what people like and what they don't.
I think musicians should always push the boundaries and I will always try new things. But, I'm also pretty attentive to what works with the public and what doesn't. You have to throw a lot of things out there and not everything is going to work. I think that when you do find something that works, it's a good indication of an area where it would be wise to focus your energies. We've all had the experience of paying to see a concert of a favorite performer, or purchasing the latest album by a favorite musician only to experience the person abandoning the style of music that you loved and insisting on only playing the new style that they are into right now. It's no fun to be at that concert as an audience member or as a performer. I'm sorry, but play the hits, at least some of them.
I know that a lot of this can really offend musicians. I'm sorry. In our day, musicians are seen as somehow more "special" than other professionals or something. It is special and unique to be able to compose music, but it really is for the ears of the listeners, if you're going to put it out there in any professional context. It's no fun to pay someone to paint your house and then realize that the painter doesn't care about what you want your house to look like and is just going to paint your house any color he feels like painting it. I think house painting is every bit as valid as writing music and both skills generally have customers. The customer really has to be considered. If not, I don't really see the point.
Now, if you just want to play music for yourself and it's just something you love and you have no desire to market it or play it for anyone else, that's great too. I sometimes think that would be great. But I do want people to hear my music and I want them to choose to include it in their lives. For that to happen, I have to consider what they like and I have to pay attention to audience or listener feedback. It's really hard when I put my Soul into a piece of music and no one but me wants to listen to it. That's hard, but that's reality.
This is how I feel about it, you might feel completely different about this. It took me a long time to come to a point where I saw it this way. If I would have read a blog post like this when I was younger, I would have cried, "Sell Out! Have you dignity?!" So I understand the opposition to this opinion, I held it for many years. And it's a very valid point of view that a person doesn't really have to "grow out of."
Miles Davis would have punched me in the face if I had tried to explain this point of view to him. That being said, I really don't understand why he refused to perform the songs from "Kind of Blue" live the way they sounded on the record. I believe that "Kind of Blue" is probably the most beloved, best selling jazz album of all time. But I don't think Miles Davis really performed those songs live in that way. I have seen some performances of his band playing "So What," but it didn't sound anything like the album. I have seen one recording of a television special where his band played the songs from "Kind of Blue" in a recognizable arrangement, but that's all I've ever seen. I know that Miles Davis never made another album that sounded like that again. I don't understand that. I love that album, even people who hate jazz love that album. If he would have made "Kind of Blue" part II, part III, part IV, and part V, I would have bought them all. And I didn't really like his later electric albums. There, again, I said it out loud. I'm sorry. Those albums are cool, but they aren't enjoyable for me to listen to.
Anyway, hopefully I've expressed this idea without offending too many musicians. I totally get the other side of this coin. But, for me, I'm really focusing on trying to record albums these days that people seem to enjoy listening to. If that makes me a "sell out," that's o.k. I also really enjoy the albums I'm recording these days (at least most of them). I feel that I have a certain gift for writing music that not everyone has. I think that gift is not just for my enjoyment but hopefully for others' enjoyment as well and that has to be considered. The 22 year old me would be soooo offended over this post. I'm so sorry 22 year of Jeff, this is where we eventually end up. The horror... the horror.