I wouldn’t class myself as some sort of industry veteran. I have however certainly been around the scene for long enough to see some shitty trends developing and later enveloping what we call the Irish music industry.

Yes, it’s very easy to say that the biz is completely beholden to marketing, promotion and money rather than art and talent. It’s certainly true but it’s nothing new. Here’s the thing though, this isn’t the fault of some cartoonish fat-cat suits imposing commercial values on a creative medium.

No, sadly, we’ve done this to ourselves.

Talent is over-rated.

A hero of mine, Conan O’Brien, has repeatedly stated an unpopular and much-misunderstood view: that talent is over-rated.

O’Brien is referring to the fact that talent will only get one so far in any creative field but hard work is what tends to separate the successful from the also-rans. And he’s not just referring to commercial success.

Artistic success – the creation of major artistic works or pushing into new areas is also the result of hard work. Have you ever heard DJ Shadow talk about the conditions in which he created Endtroducing… or how much the Stone Roses rehearsed before playing a single gig? These artists (and pretty much any you’ve ever heard of) have worked their collective asses off trying to find the next undiscovered country of artistic merit.

Unfortunately, it also means that some of the greatest songwriters I’ve ever met will never be heard by anyone while Ed Fucking Sheeran is the most successful male pop star on the planet right now. I may not think much of Mr Sheeran’s abilities in terms of songwriting or singing. However, I cannot begrudge him his success.

The man has toiled hard, taking advantage of every opportunity put in front of him and, to paraphrase the great Quincy Jones, has always being ready when those opportunities came along. I’m sure he has also been incredibly lucky. However, luck and talent won’t get you anywhere on their own. One has to work hard to get where one wants to go.

This is certainly true in the Irish music industry where vacuous, derivative indie-rockers play to packed houses while Big Monster Love (exceptionally talented writer of one of my favourite Irish albums of recent years, Game Over) has vanished into obscurity.

The success trap.

I started writing songs over 20 years ago. It took me years to find my voice, writing-wise and perhaps decades to find a full confidence in my own abilities. For several glorious years in my late teens and early 20s, I hit a rich vein of songs which allowed me to evolve as a songwriter and musician while being totally true to my own worldview.

Looking back, it wasn’t anything particularly memorable or ground-breaking, just my own particular perspective on life and relationships which felt completely “me”. Unfortunately, all of this was waylaid by a major distraction: success.

I have not experienced much commercial success but certainly, when myself and The Dead Flags embarked upon a proper career, it was not long before our lead songwriter (your humble author) started to buckle under this distraction.

I started to confuse marketing our songs with writing our songs: instead of figuring out how to promote our natural sound and songs to the world, I started to craft our songs to better suit what people liked.

I wrote shorter songs with big choruses, strong hooks and fast tempos. These songs were not bad and none of them were necessarily insincere. But they did not come from a pure place, a place where the songwriter had something to express rather than something to sell.

Of course, it’s not as if any of this translated into particularly noticeable commercial success. The Dead Flags appeared on TV, got playlisted on national radio, were interviewed and reviewed in major publications and played to people all over Europe. We had an absolute blast and I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. Being in a band is intoxicating and when one is on that ride, you will do what it takes to stay there.

Of course, I am not the only artist to ever experience this. The standard ways of working within the music industry make it exceedingly difficult to prioritise your own artistic expression. It is very hard to take time out every month, every week, every day to work on your music. But you simply must do this.

Commercial success is something which is not necessarily related to artistic merit. Often, the two coincide but they are merely adjacent, not causal factors of each other. From my own experience, seeking commercial success alone will leave one hollow regardless of whether or not you achieve it.

Artistic success (not necessarily the same as critical success) on the other hand, leaves one proud and full with a lasting satisfaction.

Writing for yourself.

And this is why I have heartily embraced the notion of being a selfish artist.

Music should not be democratic, seeking to appeal to large numbers or dictated by the whim of the crowd. No, I would argue that music (as with all art) should be totally and completely selfish.

One should not write for the crowd, assuming that you know what they will like – that is insulting to both yourself and the crowd. It creates lowest-common-denominator fare such as movies like Pearl Harbor and every U2 album which came after Pop.

There is only one audience member whom you can properly read: yourself. You know when something excites you or moves you. You can immediately tell if something feels false or inauthentic to you. And that is why you must write only for this audience member.

Play music that makes your feet unable to remain still. Sing melodies that make your hair stand on end. Touch subjects which are specific to your viewpoint. Move yourself.

So yes, we should honour and respect those that come to see us. If they want to hear a particular song, why not play it for them? Just remember that if you try to only play what others want you to play, you will quickly cease to be anything but a disposable, temporary item. To them, and yourself.

Play what moves you, what excites you. Your audience may not love it but if they do, they will really love it. Be selfish, make your own art. And let the audience come to you.

February 15, 2017

Posted In: Thoughts