Old wine in brand new bottles; this is a suitable aphorism for contemporary music industry. Recycling, known pathways, regrouping, recuperating, whatever it takes to present forgotten as brand new, only with a new name. In the urge of reaching a broader audience, some music artists don’t hesitate to sell out the quality of their music or rename their music to attract more fans. Take for instance trip hop and dubstep: the intensive side of trip hop is baptized dubstep, but it’s the same psychedelic, downtempo, experimental electronic music that Massive Attack introduced in 1991, only now it is performed by Benga or Burial, among others. The concept is known in marketing: when the product cannot change, the packaging does the job.
Commercial Music Is the Rule Of Thumb for Success
Contemporary music industry compromises artistic integrity. The value of music is being measured by the number of albums sold and translates into figures and sales charts. Record sales may be an indication of how popular an artist or a group is, but considering how many people download music from rapishare, hotfile or any other free service website, it becomes self-evident that record sales figures are rather inaccurate. And of course, many groups fall in the trap of “commercially successful” facing their audiences more like customers rather than fans.
In fact, the value of music should be measured by how many people go to a concert; how many people talk about a group; how often the media deals with a music group or artist; how often you hear someone singing a particular song next to you in the bus. The audiences dictate what is commercial and for decades they have sunken records that promoted a commercial music format. So, if commercial music is the rule of thumb for success and sales in the music industry, music groups and artists are more likely to succumb to this rule rather than be its exception.
Commercial Success Drives Creativity
Most of the groups seem to be devoted in their music style and their fans as long as this sells and is profitable. They often go through transitional phases trying new styles, but what they do in reality is testing their audiences, trying to figure out how far they can push it, how far their limits can go.
The Cure did it. From “Pornography” (1982) – the ultimate post-punk album – they shifted to “The Top” (1984), a more upbeat album, and then to “The Head on the Door” (1985), and “Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me” (1986). The Cure gradually became the only post-punk group that achieved huge commercial success in the 1990s and the 2000s.
The U2 did it. From “The Joshua Tree” (1987) – the album that practically made them a rock super group – they shifted to electronic dance music with Achtung Baby (1991), Zooropa (1993) and Pop (1997).
Linkin Park did it recently with “A Thousand Suns (2010) that has nothing in common with their previous releases, especially “Hybrid Theory” (2000) and “Meteora” (2003).
So, by all means, experimentation exists in music and this is not bad at all. What is bad is when commercial success drives creativity. Great groups sacrifice their history and their fans in the altar of money once they feel that their music is passé. What is even worse is baptizing their so-called bravery “experimentation” or “alternative” and lacking the guts to admit that they are stupid enough to take the wrong path when this experiment fails.
Where Do Independent Artists Stand?
Independent songwriters are less likely to write commercially successful songs because they do not follow the rules of commercial songwriting, including a catchy melody, appealing lyrics, and a high-end production. But, there is no doubt that these people are creative and are definitely not selling out. Most independent songwriters are hardly passing the threshold of being published and of those that do only 2%, maybe 3%, ever gets commercial.
On the other hand, independent songwriters who write for themselves and perform their own material are more likely to become commercial because they try to produce a song that suits to their own style and voice. In doing so, they have more chances to become commercially successful because, although their songs may not appeal to less people, they are more likely to make a stronger impact.
Being Commercially Successful Is Not Necessarily Bad
On the other hand, being commercially successful creates a sense of safety. Music artists who share similar characteristics are more likely to be accepted by the audiences. Groups with commercial success follow a trend, adding up to what has become known as “mainstream music.” In the 60s it was The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Doors. In the 70s it was Neil Young, Boston and Blue Oyster Cult. In the 80s it was Def Leppard, Alice Cooper and Quiet Riot. In the 90s it was Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Oasis. All these artists were commercially successful and they all smashed the charts with hit singles that are still contemporary. All these artists were mainstream and even if they cannot compare to Coldplay, Placebo and Green Day, they have been commercially successful in their era just like these bands are commercially successful today.
In conclusion, over the last 15 years, the music industry has experienced structural changes that have basically forced music artists to experiment and deviate from the norms. In this context, commercial success is often a highly misunderstood term. “Commercially successful” is not necessarily a “sell out”. The history of music proves that, undeniably.