I was recently re-watching one of my old favorite shows (Dream On), and a scene from it struck me right between the eyes. In it, a book editor is lobbying for what he views as a great book – a coming of age story of a girl in World War II Europe. His publisher wants none of it, and only wants to publish salacious celebrity memoirs and other trashy books.
“Literature is what you didn’t read in college. A book is something you can take on the bus with you and forget.”
In other words, he wanted to make money, not art.
Watching the scene, I was on the side of Martin – the plucky book editor who wanted to see his epic tale shared with the masses. But I understood completely where the publisher was coming from, and that is the impasse many of us come to. We want to write 7 minute epics with beautiful prose and unusual jazz chord changes. And as art, that’s fine – do that! We need to, to feed our souls. But will that get cut? Never in a million years. Because it’s not what the population at large listens to. Odds are, you’ve turned on the radio at some point in the last several months, only to turn it off in disgust. “Where are the good songs,” you mutter. The “good songs” are probably being sung on writer’s nights in town (like at the Bluebird), or on CDs an indie artist is selling out of the trunk of their car. From a business standpoint, they are nonexistent. But those songs with the simplistic lyrics you’re grimacing at are making money – sometimes a lot of it. Not to put too fine a point on it, but those popular songs are the ones that people can turn their brains off and listen to, forgetting about their 45 minute commute or the boss that’s breathing down their neck. When a publisher passes on a song your poured your heart and soul into – a retro pop ballad about the history of the Supreme Court, let’s say – they’re not saying it isn’t good. They’re saying it’s not commercial. There’s a big difference.
Every once in a while, a song will break through that is the best of both worlds. A recent example is “The House That Built Me” – it’s a beautiful song, expertly crafted, and packed with nuance and emotion. And it was a smash. I’ll grant you it’s exceedingly rare, but when it happens…magic.
I’ve known many writers who overcompensate, going to the extreme in one direction – either writing broody music nobody “gets” and resenting pop culture, or cranking out mindless tunes they secretly hate and chasing trends. One loses hope, the other loses their identity. Write your deep songs – you may get lucky and have a hit with one. But keep an ear on the radio, and write the commercial ones too. Standing at the corner of Commerce and Artistry is where you are most likely to find a hit – and happiness.
What do you think? What are some ways you’ve straddled the line between being true to your art and being commercial?