I had a long conversation recently with a very established artist where we talked about “artist positioning” and artist identity. He pointed out that those artists who have created a body of work that has stood the test of time, stuck to their guns in maintaining a very definite musical stance, while at the same time evolving their own material. There are many examples of such individuals, including David Bowie, Neil Young, Bob Dylan among many others. When Bowie released “Low” there was some surprise as to how an artist who created “Ziggy Stardust” could then release an album that was 50% instrumental! Of course Bowie was a brilliant composer as well as a performer and was often well ahead of the curve. Decades on its appreciated as a classic. Hendrix had the same experience with Electric Ladyland, another of my all time favorites. Of course when Jimi touted “Hey Joe” most record companies were not interested…
Similarly Neil Young drove his record company crazy with some of his releases causing Geffen Records to suggest his music was “noncommercial” Dylan has always massively inspired and frustrated me in his choice of releases. At his best, he released “Blood on the Tracks” “Oh Mercy” and “Time Out of Mind” but the last two had the magic Daniel Lanois ingredient that worked so brilliantly with Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball, another superb album. Emmylou received a lot of grief from people who preferred “the traditional country sound” but I applaud that she stuck to her guns and didn’t simply pander to what people expected. The best artists in my view have the metal to challenge an audience and create something new. This is NOT the safe option and it’s far easier to just roll out a familiar tune that will instantly be recognizable to an audience. Yes, there’s absolutely a place for that, but please lets also have music that takes people to new places and is gimmick opefully free. Without new music we are left with an endless recycle of what has gone before. Without artists taking risks and sticking to their gugs many of the classic albums would never have been made.
I therefore continue to have a massive respect for artists that maintain a consistent position, even if I’m not a fan of their actual music. This is one of the reasons i prefer original material as by its nature such music always brings something brand new to the table. Its also clear to me that a lot of the best music requires cooperation with like minds. Even though Dylan and Young are known as solo artists, without “The Band” and “Crazy Horse” a lot of the best music would never have manifested.
“With Crazy Horse, it’s all one big, growing, smoldering sound, and I’m part of it. It’s like gliding, or some sort of natural surfing”
There are many other examples of this including “The Talking Heads” and although “The Tom Tom Club” created many great tracks. the full Talking Heads ensemble were quite extraordinary. Long term collaborations are rare as its like a marriage, there needs to be some give and take. Years ago I was in a band called “The Guest List” and out of the four of us, one member always used to freely proclaim being a lazy person, which at least was an accurate description! Ultimately we parted ways as he was being carried by the rest of the band and it wasn’t even remotely an equal collaboration. These days I’m very careful to ensure that I work with people who have a shared creative vision and who are prepared to put in the actual work needed.
I have come to respect folks “who stand for something” rather that those who don’t hold a particular view and try to be all things to all people! I’m not a fan of this as in trying to be “all things to everyone” IMO you end up being “no thing to anyone”. Far better in my biased opinion to maintain a stance that you remain true to. The artists I respect the most have always done this and in doing so they have received all manner of negative comments. This weeks is the 50th anniversary of Sergeant Pepper, a classic Beatles album which set the world alight all those decades ago. Most of the greatest music is ahead of the curve when released and its only later that it gets fully recognised. Of course ultimately its a personal choice and I fully admit that my taste is not the same as the masses!
Ultimately the best art and music comes from cooperation and collaborations, with essential focus and stamina. I’m lucky to increasingly know a bunch of folks who have a great love of music, as well as terrific skills.