The arts, in the broadest use of the term, is an interesting contradiction in perceptions. I see any creative process as free from all expectations and pre-conceived notions, and yet that can be far from the truth. Can (or should) a free creative spirit be steered down a conforming road? How do we see creative freedom in comparison to conformity (to expectations)?
An easy answer is to put the onus on the creator, in that if the desire is to totally express oneself as honestly as possibly, then conformity has no place … but then probably neither will the income to support that interest. Conversely, if the desire is to generate a significant and constant income, then conforming to market demands would be strategically beneficial.
The music business is an interesting one to consider. While it no doubt shares similarities with other types of business, it is probably easier to look at simply because it is a very public business.
In the 1960’s, I used to go to a folk club on a regular basis and, on one particular evening, had the pleasure of watching Gordon Giltrap perform. He was interesting because he was the first person that I had seen who had a standard acoustic guitar wired for amplification. This was necessary because of his style of fast fingering. Couple that with his songs and overall presentation, and I bought his album from him at the end of the performance (which I still have!).
He thanked me, and apologized for the album! He saw two major failings in it. One was the cover art, which was a rather “modernistic” figure of a man playing a solid body electric guitar. The other was the actual recordings. From his perspective, whoever designed the cover knew nothing about him given the solid body electric guitar, and as for the recordings? He was very happy with the sound that he could create and felt that it complimented his songs very well. Sadly, when his recordings were being processed, it was decided that orchestral strings would add a nice touch at places in some of his songs. He found out about it as it was released. I can only assume that his signature is on some document which gave away his creative control.
Listening to his songs, the strings do seem to come and go rather abruptly, and given that his gigs were then “pubs and clubs”, I would have thought that most music lovers would expect an album to sound like their experience of the artist. That was clearly not how “the business” saw it.
Gordon Giltrap is still performing but, as far as I know, was never taken “on board” by any major agency. I am assuming that it was because he wanted total creative control, which would no doubt be in conflict with “the business”. I guess it’s the nature of any profession in that you either cooperate and receive the benefits from such cooperation, or you take a different road. He appeared to have decided to take that different road, and it would appear that he has enjoyed his journey with his music.
Other performers run into issues after they have signed with an agency. It is my understanding that the U.S.’s Jane Olivor, and our own Jann Arden, both had issues with the expectations being put on them. I believe that Jane Olivor withdrew from the music scene for quite some time, and Jann Arden was quite vocal about doing “her own thing”.
The problems can arise when the working hours are dictated and allow little time for a life outside of music.. The performance schedule will likely be very time consuming and draining, and you still have to accommodate interviews and other promotional exercises. You will still be expected to be working towards new albums. You will still be expected to practise and generally polish your particular area of expertise, and there could even be pressure to change your outward appearance. Is it surprising that many performers self-medicate in order to keep going.
It would seem to me that both Jane Olivor and Jann Arden decided to make a stand for who they were, and they were not money making robots who would do whatever was asked of them. One has to admire them for not selling their souls in the name of music.
There was another young lady who had similar issues with “the music business”, and took the rather creative route of writing songs about her frustrations … and then performing them in her obligated concerts! I just have to love that spirit … but more about her tomorrow!