Why do some musicians get worse instead of better? I have stated this as one of the great mysteries in life, and in a way it actually is. At least it’s something that I have spent quite a lot of time thinking about and discussing with my friends. It really puzzles me. How can you have a downward curve in your development as a musician? It just seems bizarre. I mean skills should improve with practice – practice makes perfect, right? Well in some cases, wrong. And why is that?
In a lot of those discussions we have come to the conclusion that it has to do with guts, bravery, staying true to yourself. And I think we’re actually on to something here. If you have a certain amount of success with an album you naturally want to repeat that success with the next album and in some cases musicians then decide to play it safe and just deliver more of the same. But art isn’t really about producing more of the same. Art is about exploration. And when you opt for the same approach the likelihood of creating something interesting drastically diminishes. Art has an evolutionary aspect in that sense, it has to keep developing in order to not grow stale and superfluous. Sticking with the known is rarely a good idea when it comes to art.
I think the hunger for fame does have a lot to do with it. If that hunger is greater than your hunger for exploration, you’ll probably settle for the known, for the endless repetition, for becoming a jukebox, rather than keep on fighting the uncertain fight of musical exploration. I suppose success is addictive in that way. Once you’ve had some you need more. You need the fix. And you need to up your dose to get the same high. Which is maybe only natural, but I also think this is where the so-called “sellout” takes takes place. You’ll do anything to hold on to the success, to get your fix. Including compromising your artistic integrity. And of course it doesn’t help with the money greedy people in the music industry cheering you on. It probably takes a lot to resist and hold on to your ideals. But some people actually manage to do so. Are they lucky or are they just a different breed?
So hunger for success is a major factor. But I don’t think it’s the only explanation. I also think it has a lot to do with familiarity and comfort. You know what you have but not what you get. The same conservative urge that guides most people’s lives. Fear of the unknown. I think that’s why so many bands keep on making music even though they should have stopped a long time ago. They know what they have but not what they get. Why change a winning concept? Because after a while it gets boring, that’s why. There are very few bands who manage to maintain an interesting development over the years. And those that do are usually the ones where the members keep changing or who work more like projects than actual bands. Where the members are allowed the freedom to explore things outside the framework of the band. Bands that keep getting new input. Where there are no limitations. And the same goes for solo musicians. It’s the ones that are constantly seeking new collaborations and exploring new territories that remain interesting. The one’s that don’t just stick with the winning concept and start making covers of themselves.
David Bowie is a pretty good example. I can’t say I like everything he’s done and I am a more than a bit puzzled about what he was up to for part of the 80-ies, but he never stopped evolving. He didn’t stick with the winning concept but kept on inventing new ones. I think it has to do with the opposite of crowd pleasing, with only wanting to please yourself. As soon as you start creating with an audience in mind you lose something. Authenticity, honesty, relevance, I don’t know, but as soon as the art stops being about you and your own explorations, and you focus on what others might find interesting, the art just loses its edge somehow. Maybe that’s why a lot of the mainstream popular music is so bland and uninteresting? Music for the masses doesn’t really work because the masses are actually made up of individuals and every single one of those individuals have to feel directly spoken to for it to really work. Then again, Robbie Williams sells out stadiums, so I may be wrong about this… But I actually don’t think so. I don’t think PJ Harvey and Britney Spears are doing the same thing. Both things are called music, but I would only call PJ’s music art. Because there is a difference between art and entertainment. Art can be entertaining, but entertainment can’t be art. Art is more than a distraction. And that’s what a lot of popular music is, a distraction. Which is nothing wrong per se, but it just shouldn’t be mixed up with art. And I think this is where a lot of musicians go wrong. They mix up their art, their expression, with what the crowds want. Instead of trying to please yourself you try to please the crowd. You get into the entertainment business. Like Slipknot.
I was at an Isis concert last year. I didn’t know that much about them before hand, hadn’t heard that much of their music, and I only had a vague idea of what to expect. I didn’t like the opening act and that made me a bit worried, but you never know. Experiences like that can go either way, sometimes you discover something new and sometimes you just waste your time. It’s always a gamble when you don’t know the band that well. And you shouldn’t let the opening act deter you. So I waited. And in this case I was very much rewarded for my patience. When Isis got up on stage I was blown away. There was no posing, no head-banging, no elaborate scenography, just these five guys creating a massive wall of sound on their instruments. No bullshit, just amazingly well-played music. I was completely taken aback by how tight they were. It was one of those rare experiences were you just find yourself submerged in the music and when it’s over you feel like you’ve been in a completely different realm. They just got up on that stage, delivered their set and blew us all away with their professionalism and skill. A few months later they announced that they were quitting. Isis was no more. And I remember being sad about that. But then, as I was talking with my best friend about this, he pointed out that now we could at least be sure that they were never going to disappoint us. And he was right. They finished when they were on top. Their last album is their best, and even though I have only seen that one concert I am sure that I got to see them on their best tour ever. They went out with a bang. And I respect them for that. I respect them for realizing that they had reached as far as they could together and that it was now time to move on. A lot of bands don’t see that. They just keep at it long after they should have stopped. Like Metallica. Or indeed, Slipknot. A lot can be said about that band and the image they cultivated, but when they first started out at least they had a concept, a vision, something that was exclusively them. Then fame happened. And maybe it wasn’t even possible for a band like Slipknot to be famous, maybe it just couldn’t be part of the concept. But instead of changing the concept they stuck with what had brought them their fame and turned into a parody of themselves. Maybe it would have been better if they had just done what Isis did and quit?
It takes guts to do what Isis did. To have a successful concept going and then give that up because you see that it can go no further. To have the courage to move on. To leave your comfort zone. And music is like life in that way. Too many people live by the principle of better the devil you know. But the same way you lose out on a lot of things in life by taking that stance, the same way you lose out creatively. If you don’t have the courage to explore new territories you’ll never discover new paths. And for an artist that’s unforgivable. Boring your audience is the cardinal sin and the one thing that should be avoided at all costs. And I think the only way to do that is to maintain your curiosity. To make sure you’re not boring yourself. As long as I keep exploring and having fun there’s a very good chance that my audience will feel the same way. Not settling is the key.
And I suppose maybe that is the answer to the eternal question of why some musicians get worse instead of better. They settle. They stop being curious. And by the same logic I suppose that’s what the difference is between those musicians and the ones that keep on being interesting. Curiosity. The urge to explore. And the force of that desire. Maybe some people are just more curios than others? They just can’t stand still, they have to keep on moving, keep on exploring. People that don’t settle. People that just keep making great art because that’s their only goal. People who only try to please themselves. Who aren’t looking for confirmation from anyone but themselves. Who aren’t looking to maintain their status, popularity or wealth. Maybe it’s actually all about being egocentric enough?