Music: What Are We Paying For, Exactly?

Back in September, Talib Kweli penned an article called, “In Defense of Ms. Hill.” It was a rallying cry against an increasingly fan-dominated musical culture, where audiences have louder voices than ever in expressing discontent with what their favorite (or, former favorite) artists are doing. Or not doing. Specifically, the article was a response to a negative piece about Lauryn Hill, which basically called her out for not playing her hits at shows and showing up far more than fashionably late.

The crux of the article can be summed up in this paragraph:

Yasiin once explained to me that when people pay to see him, they are paying to see what he feels like expressing. So it doesn’t matter whether he does his “hits” or not. That was a great lesson for me.

He then goes on to make a related point:

The artist is a human being, not a product. Sure, the artist makes products that are for sale, but the artist is not forever in your debt because you may have purchased a product from them at some point.

I both agree with these sentiments and don’t. Musicians are free to express themselves however they wish, and one of the things I love most about live music is being able to hear new interpretations on songs I already love. I may not always like these new versions of old songs, but given the choice of hearing an artist change up their own work or having the song sound exactly like the recorded version that I purchased, I’ll choose the new stuff every time.

That being said, if I go see one of my favorite bands in concert and instead of playing the songs I love they decide to play 20 different renditions of “Old MacDonald,” I’ll be pissed, no matter how much that may have been what the artist felt like expressing at the time. Kweli even said himself that the artist makes products that are for sale, and when I buy a concert ticket I have certain expectations of what comes with it.

That may be an extreme example, but I think it relates to musicians’ decisions whether or not to play their most famous songs as well. By no means is an artist “forever in [my] debt” because I purchased one of his songs, but I think there’s a lot to be said for artists, a) Recognizing that there are often certain songs which made them famous, and b) Acknowledging the fans who helped them get to where they are and trying to make them happy. Kweli seems to be underestimating just how happy it makes some people to hear that one, “big” song at a concert. I would wager that if given the choice between an artist playing 18 new, experimental songs and 2 hits, or 10 experimental songs and 10 well-known songs that aren’t the most famous ones, a lot of people might choose the former. Is it so wrong to ask for just a few minutes out of a 1-2 hour concert to solidify that the fans who are paying to be there in that moment will pay again the next time you come through that city? Because ignoring your most popular work is a surefire way to get some people to not come back.

Kweli seems to think that a “true” fan’s loyalty should lie with the artist, and not the product. I can certainly relate to this – after all, there’s a reason I buy every single Weezer album even though their unequivocal best work was in 1996. (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – “The Good Life” could very well be my favorite song OF ALL TIME).

I’ll love and support Weezer until their hopefully-not-bitter end, but I’m only a loyal fan because I love their early work (and some of their later stuff) enough to stick by them no matter what. If they decide to record some jazz or blues or rap, I’ll support it. They’ve earned it. But I certainly don’t feel that way about most other artists, and many people don’t feel that way about Weezer. Music is a highly subjective, personal experience and just like an artist isn’t obligated to stick to what their fans may want to hear, nor are the fans obligated to stick by them. And I think probably my largest point of contention with Kweli is that he believes that musicians can do whatever they want, whenever they want. I would argue that the main time for expressing yourself is in the studio. If the fans don’t like your new stuff, let them sit home during the next tour. But if you put out albums that your fans love and then show up to a concert and don’t play any of that stuff? That’s a bait and switch. Sure, try out the funky stuff you’ve been itching to do; just mix in some fan favorites, too.

What if I went into my office and told my boss that even though he hired me for a certain set of skills, that I just felt like doing something completely different? Maybe I don’t want to work on the budget anymore. Maybe I’d rather sit there and design useless PowerPoint presentations all day.

Would that fly? Obviously not.

Kweli goes on to say:

She doesn’t have to do her hits and she doesn’t have to do the songs the way you want to hear them. She doesn’t owe you that. The world does not revolve around you, and you ain’t gotta like it. Get over yourself.

Back in college, a friend of mine told me about a Lou Reed concert she once went to. Reed famously refused to play “Walk on the Wild Side” – arguably his most well-known song – at his shows. When the show was over, Reed left the stage, presumably to take a break before the encore. The audience wanted to hear “Walk on the Wild Side” so badly that they started whistling it and continued to do so for 20 minutes. Reed not only refused to play the song, but refused to even come back on stage.

What does this refusal even prove? That Lou Reed was kind of a jerk. To him, I would use Kweli’s words and say, “Get over yourself.” (And rest in peace, or whatever).

The point I made earlier about what would happen if I went to work and refused to do my regular duties is silly, but important. Music is a creative outlet and the time I spend in Excel certainly is not, yet at the same time, both are things that people do to support themselves. Does someone undertaking a creative endeavor in order to make money give them full free reign over their activities? Shouldn’t they, too, be subject to at least a few rules and limitations? I would argue yes, but Kweli obviously thinks otherwise.

I am not obligated to make the same album over and over again just because fans demand it. I am allowed to try new things, succeed at them or fail at them. I am allowed to not make music anymore ever, if that’s what I choose to do. I am allowed to give a shitty show or not even show up if I feel like it.

Frankly, it makes me a little angry to think that there are musicians out there who think that showing up to a concert is optional. It is not optional, much like my attendance at work isn’t optional. But this whole argument seems to boil down to one question.

When it comes to music as a profession, where do you draw the line between work and play? Is there even one?

TBD, I suppose.

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