I don’t know if many people have been following the vague thread that came out of Nitsuh Abebe’s piece on Grizzly Bear for Vulture but it’s been kind of interesting. The ideas expressed there and elsewhere have become mixed up with a few other things I’ve read lately and a few thoughts that have been rattling around over the past month or so.
To get the Grizzly Bear thing out of the way first, I think the piece does an interesting job of opening up the band-audience relationship, and what one party expects from and of the other. Some people have gone on about how the Grizzler are just complaining and should get over themselves but I think their frustration is understandable when you look at Abebe’s comparison with Zoo TV-era U2. Should a band who reach such a large amount of people not be pissed off when their fiscal rewards and career opportunities are so much less than a band who reached the same amount of people 20 years ago? More pertinently, is it not weird that most of us probably view Grizzly Bear as a wildly successful act, yet this is probably as big as they’ll ever get? They’ve reached that plateau, the place where you need major label investment and exposure to move up from. Their music isn’t easy listening by any means but it’s popular enough to play large, sold-out venues across the world every couple of years. Why isn’t it on the radio? Why isn’t it on any tv show that isn’t on late at night?
This is the gap, the serious gulf between “alternative” music and mainstream pop music. There’s been a lot of guff about how the record industry is disappearing over the last 15 years but take one look at this deep hole between levels and it’s easy to see who is still in control. Grizzly Bear feel they should be on the radio, reaching more people, but they aren’t and they never will be.
Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like An Artist, focused on Ed Droste’s remarks about writing pop songs, or at least self-consciously doing so. In his initial rant, he said he felt that Droste’s refusal to consider the audience when writing was inherently counter-intuitive to getting one’s songs on the radio. I’d say that’s probably true in most cases but when your band already has two top-10 charting albums, it becomes a little more complicated than that. How much of an audience do you need before you can get on the radio? Who can make sure you reach that audience?
Droste replied in defence, saying that pleasing all four members of Grizzly Bear was such a challenge that it left no room for any external considerations and that if they were going to get out and tour those songs for 18 months, they all needed to be really happy with them, to be able to stand behind them. Kleon understands this as a by-product of no one buying records any more, which is true to some extent at least. I’d disagree with him about what he says is “our usual notion of record-making, which is: you make a record and then you figure out how to perform it live”. But that’s not really pertinent at all to this particular conversation.
It got really interesting when Paige Maguire weighed in. Her central concern is thus: “If the live show isn’t for me (the audience) first, I’m not sure why I’m there”. Maguire feels the audience should be of primary concern as soon as the work arrives in the live arena - and she’s sort of right - but her tone seems slightly off. Yes, if people don’t like what you do with a live show or an album, your chances of getting the opportunity to do it again on the same scale are diminished. But that doesn’t mean the performer should self-consciously aim to please, least of all at the expense of their own experience.
The main problem is that of expectation. The band, any band, cannot really know what “their audience” (en masse, anonymous) expect from them. Any attempt to pander to supposed expectations will result in some condescending farce. That’s the difference between “we hope you’ll enjoy this” and “we think you’ll enjoy this”. It’s a small but very important distinction that separates “art” from “entertainment” (obviously these two are not mutually exclusive, any great form of one will almost automatically be the other). What I’m trying to say is that when a piece of art is presented, it requires some work or movement from its audience. Strict entertainment is a passive thing, you just take it as it is fed to you. Art is put forth and you have to figure out how to receive it, where it fits into your life and your experience. It’s the same with a live show from a band; they’re presenting their work and between you, there and then, you figure out how to react to it. The audience reacts and then the band reacts again, it’s two groups working together at once to create something that cannot be repeated. It’s an awful lot more than just playing the songs you think people will like.
Grizzly Bear, as everyone involved here seems to agree, manage this better than most. Long live the Grizzler.
I used the A-word a lot there in the last paragraph, I hope no one takes it the wrong way. I’m going to try to link this to some other stuff tomorrow, like Simon Reynolds’ piece about genius and re-creativity (in which Kleon’s book is mentioned) and HRO’s brilliant ‘Winter Of Our Buzz Content’ post. There’ll also be some thoughts about Hard Working Class Heroes (and its “alright” bands) mixed in as well, for good measure.