The Big Compromise: Art versus Success

Maybe it is inherent in the species. The argument certainly comes up here often enough. And, that issue/question is delineating between driving for success, and selling out.

It does seem there is a consensus, that once a band does indeed make it big, and has some money and serious production behind them, the group loses the vitality and drive sought while spending every day for years practicing and every night over the same span playing dive bars, hoping to develop a sound, move up the venue chain, and ultimately make a comfortable living as a musician.

Obviously some bands make it big–like U2 and KISS–but it seems inevitable that at some point, with commercial success, “the edge” (pun intended) gets lost, and though the band may enjoy an even larger audience, the sound or vision that grabs most serious music junkies becomes lost.

There are exceptions. Elvis Costello. Bob Dylan. Neil Young. Prince. Joni Mitchell. Stevie Wonder. David Bowie. The Beatles. The Stones. The Kinks. Bruce Springsteen. I would even throw U2 and the Dead  in there.

But, for the most part, bands have a sound, are discovered, make it big, and then spend an album or two trying to recapture the raw energy that pushed them in the first place in a more formal recording setting, become commercial, overproduced, and then has-beens.

I guess like every riddle in life, this one really has no answer, but we all have opinions.

But, the whole argument reminded me of something I believe Cyril Neville said when his band released their album, Uptown.

Uptown was a departure for the Neville Brothers, who were certainly renowned within the music world as artists and performers, but despite four singles released between 1978 and 1987, including a great cover of Iko Iko (1981, from Fiyo on the Bayou), they never cracked the Billboard Top 100.

With Uptown, the Nevilles cashed in on their industry cred, showcasing Keith Richards, Ronnie Montrose, Branford Marsalis, and Carlos Santana as guests, with Daniel Lanois producing.

The result was a hit, Whatever it Takes, a song which I still think is great, but which is a far cry from their take on Iko.

But, though the band got a hit, the album was not well received critically, nor was it well thought of by the hard core Neville fans because the sound was so much more commercial.

So, when asked about selling out, Cyril said something to the effect of, “we thought we might like to send our kids to college one day.”

What can you say to that?

One thought on “The Big Compromise: Art versus Success

  1. Right, there is no one answer. It’s up to the artist. As far as I’m concerned, cf. Iggy Pop and David Johansen, if you have done great work and the public ain’t buying, you can sell out any way you want to. For the rest, it’s complicated. For starters, bands under the old business model – there is no new business model as far as I know – were so far in debt to the companies that the companies called the shots. The pressures to duplicate success were enormous, and in many cases the bands were only too willing to go along. Second, touring to promote an album makes it harder to write songs. Third, someone decided sometime after The Beatles that bands had to write their own songs, an open invitation to hackism. Fourth, the business changed from the early days when singles not albums were the main medium, from songs recorded cheaply to albums recorded expensively. This encouraged both timidity and self-indulgence, a pretty deadly combination. And last but not least, often these people are lazy bastards.

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