Friday, January 21, 2005

the art of selling out

Pete writes, over on his Powerful Pierre Goes Forth blog, about an interview with KT Tunstall in the Independent the other day, where she explains that "To be frank, the overall sound of the album isn't what I would have delivered had I been left to my own devices," , and he notes that "I personally think this is a shame, as it seems she hasn't really made the sort of album she would like to".

I appreciate that on one level there's nothing as romantic as the album which is free of industry influences, but part of me, faced with this, just thinks, well, that's the way it goes. The writer, by way of comparison, depends upon his or her editor in the early (and sometimes late) stages of his or her career as a moderating influence, as a sounding board, and as a critic. A great many novels are substantially edited and re-worked on the advice (and insistence) of the editor or publisher. Later on, when they are established, perhaps they dispense with this advice (and not always for the best). But we don't tend to see the music company in the same benevolent terms as we do the publisher; they 'get in the way'.

Equally, until comparatively recently, no-one really gave much thought to the notion of a 'director's cut' of a movie. It was understood that certain pressures were brought to bear upon a film and these had to be overcome by the director. These days a film can be sold to us twice, and arguably both formats are devalued. In the first instance the standard version is exposed as lacking some 'artistic vision' and compromised because of it, and in the latter, where the director can display that vision, we feel a significant disappointment that such a version tells us a story that we didn't want to know: that the first time round he couldn't negotiate with external influences: they defeated him.

Lastly, there's the question of why people make art or music, of course. It's easy to invest in an artist like KT Tunstall (who I've not heard, incidentally, so I apologise if I get her wrong in any way) this idea of creative freedom; we can well imagine her writing an album which is unarguably 'hers', and done to her own design. And doubtless that's how plenty of the greatest records do get made. But there's another side of art which is projected outwards, the part which is collaborative and social, which seeks to tick as many boxes as it can; which is interested in the dynamics of fashion, and its following. We often instinctively regard this kind of music as somehow 'meaning less', because we value the internal dialogue over the external. Yet often I find music speaks to me because it is trying to do just that - speak to me, not ramble incoherently at itself. (Here I am, your target demographic). And y'know, sometimes an artist gets to do what they like and they make something that's just unspeakably awful, and you want to know why no-one said 'hang on a minute'.

Perhaps Tunstall's album would sound better if it were more the record which she wanted to make. But I'm reminded of Andy Partridge's experiences in XTC, where he allowed his determination to retain complete creative control at every stage of the recording process to - frankly - damage every record he made for the first ten years of his career. Only when he was persuaded to let Todd Rundgren take the reins on 'Skylarking' did he create his true masterpiece. And for years afterwards he detested it, although now he repents (though maintains his control freak-streak).

A couple of years ago I submitted a poem to an online magazine which got back to me saying that they liked it and would like to include it in their next issue - provided I agree to remove one line (which I considered key) from the poem. At first I felt quite affronted, feeling that the poem was mine and shouldn't be changed. But I quickly got over that vanity and let them alter it, and I'm glad that I did, although I still dunno if their change improved it. Probably it did. So anyway - maybe I'm just cynical. I compromised my art, so I'm damn sure everyone else should have to.

I remember a band a few years ago called Sammy - who actually made a really good debut album - who were much criticised for being a fairly shameless Pavement rip-off. Pavement had just released their magnificent 'Watery, Domestic' EP and Sammy's shtick was that they were the Pavement who were happy to sign to a major label (Pavement were very much indie darlings at this stage) and 'sell out'. Then Pavement signed to a major themselves and Sammy had to resign themselves to being the Pavement who would stay indie.

Pavement knew it was much better to sell out.

12 comments:

Powerful Pierre said...

Having now listened to KT Tunstall's album and been really disappointed, I have to say that I think it's a shame that she is clearly making what she hopes will be 'successful' music, rather than sticking to what she wants to do. On a related note, worryingly, the new Low album seems to mark a real change in their sound and is much rockier and with more shiny production. I'm hoping it improves with further listens...

Anonymous said...

Yes but she could have released the album she wanted to make at any point in the last ten years. She could have signed to a small label or released something herself. The point of signing to a big label insted is because you want to be successful. In that case you're always going to make the most successful sounding record you can.

Powerful Pierre said...

Depends what you mean by 'successful' really doesn't it?

jonathan said...

I suspect s/he means 'popular', rather than artistically successful.

Another interesting case is that of Liz Phair, who made a bunch of interesting, personal albums in the 90s without ever 'breaking through'. In recent years she's employed the team behing Avril Lavigne to reinvent herself as a sassy pop chick. I don't think she's been all that successful either way, so you wonder if she'll ultimately regret choosing to pose naked with a guitar between her legs for the album's front cover.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I forgot to sign my name.

I mean successful as in 'sells a lot of records'. What's the point of making an album that only ten people will hear. Most people want to be successful so that they can make a lot of money and have lots of people hear what they do.

Daniel

Powerful Pierre said...

The point, I humbly venture, is that you'd have been true to yourself and made an album you could be truly proud of.

jonathan said...

Hmm - I think I fall between the two of you on this one. I agree that seeing someone persuing an angle counter to their desires is usually painful to watch, and a shame too. On the other hand I see music as primarily having a social function, so - withour being driven by so much commercial motives - I would value my desire to please people with music above my desire to be 'true to myself', I think.

But that doesn't imply, I hope, naked avarice.

Powerful Pierre said...

So why are we making angular guitar pop with Assistant instead of filling the market niche left by the demise of Busted?!

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I see creating music for fiscal reward to be rather wretched. Any kind of art is about affecting people in some way and, sure, having more potential exposure is a good thing, but music as commodity? No way. Still, commercial success that allowed you to pursue it full-time and give up ghastly day jobs would be great. Ca

Anonymous said...
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jonathan said...

It just comes down to whether you think of music as being innately personal or part of a dialogue with other people. I'm definitely inclined towards the latter. I've no desire (well, not much) to be a huge commercial success (which is why I don't want to sound like Busted) but I'd be really really disappointed if we did an Assistant gig and no-one liked our new stuff. If they didn't it would definitely make me re-think it.

Unluckyman said...

Interesting to read your K T Tunstall quote, having been given her CD knowing nothing else about her.

I like the album, for the songs and performance, where I feel the sound and production has sometimes been watered down to MOR-ness.

Just my opinion, which I thought I'd throw into the ring.