“Have you ever played anything other than your own music?”
Playing in New York is always equal parts exciting and grueling, but sometimes my favorite part is actually the ride down, where I get some uninterrupted time with my bandmates to listen to and talk about music, in a way we'd never have time for in a club/ And when that means uninterrupted time with the lovely Emily Duff, all the better. Thing is, I'm sooooo opinionated and verbal (and loud), and Em is so soft spoken and gentle, it almost takes all that time before I can draw her out enough for her to get some words in edgewise! She is, after all, a grad student in Jazz arranging (not for dummies!) and I've seen how quickly she picks up things in a studio situation, so I was thrilled when she started to tell me some things about her band The Raft (only kid band I love)...and we discussed some things in the area where music and marketing meet (When a business person asks you to describe your music, you HAVE to have an answer ready....for me The Raft starts with polyrhythms, but it's about what THEY think it's about.....would it be better if they had a “signature song”?....well, yes, but if you try to force that it always comes out hokey, I said):
Her seemingly innocuous question at the top of the page actually gave me pause....I started to say “Of course I've played other music”....but then I thought about it.....when much younger, I played in a band where we covered “Heart of Gold” and “Drift Away” (try to picture me gritting my teeth through those, not to mention the “Proud Mary” requests)....but even then, I was basically hanging around, waiting for us to get to an Albert King song that I had foisted on the group....I wouldn't have had many of my own compositions then, but I'm pretty sure I already had a DIRECTION. And while I've certainly played a lot of covers in my life, it's always been some song from the blues tradition that I think an audience needs to hear...or needs to hear what I do to it!
Now, any one of my contemporaries undoubtedly has spent a lot of time thinking about the conflict between “playing what the people want to hear” and “following your own special muse”, and I'm sure I'll get a few comments based on their experiences..which I welcome...but I'm mostly going in another direction today....just a couple of thoughts on that minefield subject:
There was a time that Hollywood did “market research” about films by having someone walk up to theater patrons leaving a movie, and asking them what they'd like to see next... They stopped doing that when they realized that folks coming out of an Erroll Flynn pirate movie tended to answer “Uh, I don't know....maybe a pirate movie”...in other words, IF EVERYONE IN THE AUDIENCE WERE A CREATIVE GENIUS, THEY'D ALREADY BE MAKING THEIR OWN MOVIES!!!!! Which is not to say the opposite fallacy: Make your own music, it doesn't matter what the audience wants---is correct----the truth, as I see it, is more complex.....let's cut to the chase....
The answer, for me, goes like this: A musician is a COMMUNICATOR....the act of making music is, in itself, pleasurable, but music as a PERFORMANCE ART, involves telling somebody something! If you're spending hours on social media, and thousands on advertising, and driving the proverbial 500 miles in the $500 car for the $50 gig, desperately trying to get people's attention, ask yourself: IF YOU GET THEIR ATTENTION......What was it that you wanted to tell them? It doesn't have to be profound, or even verbal, but YOU need to know the answer....otherwise, you're like a dog chasing cars....if you catch one, what are you going to do with it? If your message is “It's fun to dance” or “Look how fast I can play this guitar”, that is NOT, in my opinion, any less of a message than “We need to end war” or “ Women in Africa are oppressed”...it might be less cosmic, but what I'm stressing here is that the message needs to be CLEAR, it must be communicated to the listener clearly, so they feel something!!!!!!!!!!! Whether the message is IMPORTANT isn't the point...the point is, if you think you're a great musician, but absolutely NOBODY is getting it......you might be kidding yourself....this might be one of those “My music is better than it sounds” things. In this worldview, while the audience doesn't LEAD the creative process, they are CRITICALLY important; they will tell you....listening, brother musicians?....what's getting through... and what's not.
Now, this might sound like it's leading up to that old saw, the 100% rule. For those not familiar, that rule of performing states that, if something in your act works 70% of the time, and flops 30%, you need to gradually replace that with something that works 80%, eventually honing an all 100% lineup......surprise, surprise, surprise, Sgt. Carter....I hate this rule! Honor this turkey, and your act will get more, and more, and more, and more predictable, stale and formulaic. HOWEVER.....ignore this rule completely at your peril....that audience is not your enemy....just as you are sending out your “message in a bottle”, they're trying to send one back! They're trying to tell you how to get better!!!! That is the true meaning of “critic”, after all.
So how does this answer Emily's simple little question? Well, ultimately...my answer is: No one REALLY plays anything other than their own music. Some people have burning messages inside that they simply MUST communicate...and others haven't thought clearly or found out yet what they want to say, so it comes out “Please like me, I could play something you liked that someone else said....maybe Proud Mary?” But either way, if you want that to be your message, that's up to you.