Hating success

Every musical artist aspires to success naturally. Whether it’s artistic success in the form of positive reviews, or fans who “get” what they’re going for or financial success in the form of records or downloads sold or attendance at live shows. It’s a natural desire for anyone who endeavours to be an artist, even if just so one can afford to pursue their passion full-time.

When this blog launched some years ago it was with the mandate of exploring electronic music – all electronic music. Not just alterative but mainstream electronic artists as well. Now this blogger’s personal tastes run toward the more alternative, certainly toward the darker reaches of the genre, but we have endeavoured to bring a certain degree of equanimity to the proceedings. So we will discuss that electronic album Christina Auguilara took on, or U2’s dance with the gadgets, or even Black Eyed Peas more hardcore attempts at pure electronica (search them out on the blog if you like). We attempt to take it all on, the electronic community is a wide and varied one.

So why is it that not just this blogger but so many in the community view commercial success with a degree of suspicion? Case in point, Marina & the Diamonds. This blog has been very supportive of Maria Diamandis and co over the years and thought her first album was revelatory. Yet her newest album has seen some disparage her slightly altered, more obviously commercial sound. On our own review, we alluded to same. (For the record we stand by our initial review – a solid, but flawed album, that tries a little too hard to sound like other chart fodder. Way too much Katy Perry, not enough “I Am Not a Robot.”) And sure enough, as we predicted in our review, the album has found real commercial chart success all around the world. Good for her. She’s become a true crossover success. Nothing but “good on ya”, right? But some of her older fans are threatened and not altogether thrilled with developments (she has acknowledged this herself on her twitter feed, sometimes to great, amusing, and knowing effect), so why is this?

Ellie Goulding is going through much the same process. Her debut album, after a year out there, is suddenly and dramatically catching on in the U.S. and this fan, for one looked askance with a little nervousness in the heart. Why? Especially after hardly wanting for success in her native U.K.?

These twin crossovers may be joined by other predominantly electronic artists like Chew Lips who feel on the verge of real success. Does this threaten some? If so, why?

It was more open and shut once upon a time. In the early-to-mid 80’s the charts were replete, one might say, lousy with synth-dominant acts. Bronski Beat, Soft Cell, ABC, Thompson Twins, Thomas Dolby, Taco, Howard Jones, Berlin, Kim Wilde, Flock of Seagulls, Men Without Hats, even Eddy Grant – this stuff was crazy-ubiquitous. The charts were dominated by electronic artists. It was no big deal, it just was. But in the ensuing years electronic music has been largely ghettoized. Oh sure, there have been moments, like in the early 90s, when it became briefly fashionable again, but otherwise charts in most countries have been dominated by either rock or producer-driven music. And real electronic music made by real electronic artists has been relegated to the coach cabin. And as a result we become protective of “our artists”. We also become suspect of those who seem to aspire to something beyond our cosy backwater.

Now this isn’t helped by the likes of will.i.am, while hosting Hitbound on SiriusXm Hits 1, calling out Marina and the Diamonds. When the antichrist of real music starts shining a light on certain artists it may mean a lot more eyes and ears on said music but it also means we’ve crossed over into a potentially very dark place.

But musical-beelzibubs aside, there are a few key reasons, we think, we are threatened by the commercial success of “our artists”; a few worries, substantiated or not:

– They’ll abandon the sound – Once commercially successful it will be impossible to resist the full commercialization of their sound until either outside songwriters (hello Max Martin!) or producers who strip away what once made them special, dominate.

– They’ll abandon the synths – Sure, they got lucky and broke through with one sound but to really expand the audience, especially in the lucrative U.S. market, they’ll need to work hard to sound like the rest of the charts, so replace those looped drums with a big-ass kit, and lose the keys for a little more guitar, and what’s with that programmed bass? We’ve got Randy Jackson standing by to bust a groove on your new shit!

– They’ll bend their sound and move toward a top 40 aesthetic; they’ll move to the mainstream rather than letting it come to them – See above. Instead of thinking, “what we do now is meaningful and wonderful and if more people realize that we’ll be successful” they may decide, “what we do now is great but we need that hip hop artist to guest vocal on our next album, or that renowned pop songwriter to pen a few sure-fire hits for us”. (See: Porcelain Black, née Porcelain and the Tramps. Or better yet, don’t.)

Much of this comes back to the fundamental insecurity so many fans of this genre, so many of those of this very tight-knit tribe, feed down to our bones. That sense that artists we grow to love would throw it all away for a taste of success.

And so what of it? If an electronic artist sees a chance for real success in a world where musicians find it harder and harder to make a living, should we begrudge them that success when it becomes a possibility? If a Future Perfect, or a Curxes or a Bella Lune, or a Miss FD suddenly found themselves with a chart hit on their hands would we do anything but cheer? (This blogger stood an applauded when Alice in Videoland landed “Something New” in a car commercial – “yay”, said we. “that may buy a little more time and another album from this terrific band.”) We suggest no, we don’t have that right at its core, except to hold our artists feet to the fire to continue to make great music, and to remember what made them special to begin with. It’s all we can expect or demand from our artists.

Just keep will.i.am at bay…okay?

Watch: Marina and the Diamonds – Primadonna

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One Response to “Hating success”

  1. The AntiChrist of real music–well played, Softsynth.

    Once you become a producer’s artist, you’re no longer an artist.

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