The Contract

Years back, The Pursuit of Happiness had just finished an album for our new record company, Mercury Records. The president and a few other soldiers decided to come up from New York to hear us play. We looked (and maybe they did too) at it almost like a showcase. But here’s the problem. We were opening for the Tragically Hip at the old Ontario Place in the round thingy. So there was 10,000 people at this, “showcase”. So what did we do? We opened with Hard To Laugh, played the whole new album, then ended with I’m An Adult Now. Must of been bewildering for the audience almost all of whom were very familiar with our band. Must have been bewildering for the Hip who probably thought we were going to entertain and ‘warm up’ the audience before their show.

This was totally unnecessary. I’m sure we could have gotten away with playing half the album, playing three or four more of our ‘hits’ and everyone there would have had a much better time. Or we could have scheduled a free show at a small club and let everyone coming know that they were only going to hear new material. There may have been some big fans that would have been excited to hear the new album and didn’t care that they weren’t going to hear Two Girls In One. Instead, in the words of Spinal Tap, we subjected a festival size audience with the equivalent of Jazz Odyssey.

When I released my solo album, Summer’s Over, I went out and played shows, just me and a guitar and, occasionally, a beat box. I thought, I’m not going to play any TPOH so everyone knows this is a solo show. What a stupid idea. People left, pissed off at me that I didn’t at least throw them a bone of She’s So Young or an acoustic version of Adult. I made zero fans this way and disappointed many people who paid good money to see me. I remember hearing one woman grumbling as she left, “he didn’t play any of his songs.” Of course I had, just not the ones she wanted to hear.

These examples show me how out of touch I was with being a fan. If any band pulled that on me, I’d been very mad at them.

When you have success as an artist, it’s like you have formed a partnership with your fans. It’s like a contract. You create beautiful music and they buy it. They pay money for tickets and you perform a concert for them. You say, I’m performing for an audience of 2000 tomorrow night. I’m performing FOR AN AUDIENCE of 2000 tomorrow night. That’s an important part of the statement.

Here’s some things artists do to break that contract.
1. They don’t play their ‘hits’. I’ve always wondered why a song is no longer any good once it becomes popular. You wrote the song, you liked it enough to record it. Then people liked it and helped make you famous, maybe even rich (ish). Then you resent the song that helped you quit your day job, allowed you to travel the country, the continent, the world. I can understand getting bored of playing the same songs over and over, every night. And some bands, like Elton John or U2 have so many hits over such a long period of time that it is impossible to play all of their hits. But the tunes that allow that concert to even happen need to be played so the people who spent money on tickets, parking, transit, beers, maybe even a babysitter can go home thinking you aren’t a dick.

2. They play their hit or hits but walk through them, letting the audience see what torture it is to play a song they themselves wrote and recorded and everyone loves. Again, what is the point of this? What do you want your audience to feel? Sorry for you? Ashamed that they like the great song you wrote? Some may. Many will think, ” the show was good but their version of HIT SONG was super lame. It was like, they didn’t even care about the audience. If I did my job that poorly I’d be fired.”

People often say this. “I make my music for myself. I don’t care if anyone else likes it.”

Cool attitude, dude. Here’s the problem with that.

If you want to make music in your basement, record it and listen to it while you take selfies, knock yourself out. You truly are making music for yourself and you really don’t have to care who likes it. I would greatly admire someone who did this. However, once you book a show or release music for the public to buy or even make it available on the web for perusal, you have brought other people into the mix. You are in essence saying, “listen to this and I hope you like it.” Better yet, “I hope you buy it, buy more tickets to future shows of mine.” You might even be saying, “buy my T-shirts, follow me on twitter, like my Facebook page and generally, stalk me on the internet.” You are not saying, “show up and boo, give me the finger, walk out saying “you suck”.” Post on my Facebook page that my music is a steaming pile of crap. Unless you are a sociopath.

Important to say here, just because you are interested in people enjoying your work, that doesn’t mean you have to pander to them. I never wrote a song for the expressed purpose of having a hit or getting a mass audience to like it. I always just wrote the best song that I could with the hope that other people would like the same things I like. I think writing a song with the idea that it will be a hit is a losing game. Writing a hit is almost impossible. So you’re better off writing something you think is great and hoping that others will notice it. At least that way, you’ve written a great song that you can be proud to perform. What I am talking about has more to do with your attitude towards people that you are hoping or even expecting to enjoy your art.

Which brings me to the point here. One of my pet peeves is exactly that, people who take their audience for granted. And also, people who take the fact that they get to make music for a living, even if it’s not their entire living, for granted. There are millions of people who would love to be able to sing and play for money, have people cheer for them and be able to stand on a stage and share their creative vision with others. So you are a lucky duck. And believe me, luck has a TON to do with you being able to do this. There is so much right-place-at-the-right-time, culture-swinging-your-way-or-against-you, fates that make some people stars and other, just as talented, people nobodies.

Sometimes you’ll hear an artist say, “I hate doing interviews.” You know what is worse than doing interviews? Not doing interviews. When no one wants to talk to you because no one cares about your music. So be grateful that there are people who want to hear what you have to say about your music. Every job is at points boring and exhilarating. Being an artist has many more moments of exhilaration than paving roads or cleaning office buildings.

To be clear once more, this doesn’t mean you have to be a kiss ass. No one even likes a kiss ass. You don’t need to be something that you are not, no great music happens that way. And it doesn’t mean, don’t play your new songs. Your new songs might be your future hits. And your fans most likely want to hear something new as well.

What this means is, be a decent human being, take your fans into consideration, have some gratitude for the good fortune that has befallen you and not thousands of other musicians who wish they were you. You may feel that breaking the contract means you are a REAL artist who follows his own road and caring about what your audience wants or thinks means you are a sell out. But it doesn’t mean either of those things. Breaking the contract and taking your luck for granted makes you a jerk. Disappointing your fans means you probably disappoint the other people in your life, your family, your girlfriend/boyfriend, your friends, (I’m sure I also did). And unless you are one of the extremely lucky few who have multiple decade careers, eventually this will all come to an end. And that’s no time to come to the realization of how great it is to have people love your music.

 


6 Responses to “The Contract”

  • John Parker Says:

    Very good thoughts Moe. I’m impressed with the insight and feel the same way. Since growing up in the same ‘hood you’ve been an inspiration with what you’ve done as a musician and songwriter. Now all these days later I still have jamming and writing with you on my bucket list. Didn’t know you had a solo album out there, gotta buy it! ( and learn it ). Still a fan! All the best to you and your family.
    Cheers!

  • Craig Thomas Says:

    So many very good points here. I hope a lot of musicians see this post as I think it is very good and timely reminder of why we do what we do (and keep in the back of our minds).

    Have always been a fan of TPOH and would not have been disappointed to hear ‘One-Sided Story’ sandwiched in between Hard to Laugh and Adult. Did not know about your solo album, ‘Summer’s Over’. Anywhere I can find that? Thanks –

    Craig

  • Lee Rosevere Says:

    I remember seeing a SOCAN songwriter circle video online once with you, Neko Case and the guy from Starling.. and you were asked “do you ever get sick of playing your hit”? To which, you replied “at least I had one” (you had more than one, but you get my point).

    I always thought this was a good attitude – but I also respect an artist like Joe Jackson, who has fun with new arrangements of his hits on every tour. He believes if you want to hear the album version, you should go home and play the record. This is a special event, and you should get a unique version you *can’t* hear anywhere else. But his gigs are smaller audiences and different from say, U2, who have hundreds of thousands of fans at one gig and NEED to hear it the way they remember. So each artist is different.

  • Dave Darby Says:

    Moe, this is a good piece, you make some great points. I have a slightly different take, though, and it is this: If this is a contract between artist and ‘fan’, then it needs to go both ways. I think the audience has an obligation too, and that is to respect the artist by learning about them and allowing them some latitude to create and perform fresh new work. I have many times heard grumbling about an artist not doing this or that song where clearly the person talking has only ever heard the hit from years ago and never bothered to learn anything more about the artist. This kind of superficial fan would have no awareness that the artist has put out 5 albums since that first hit, and many of the subsequent songs are just as wonderful, just as catchy, but for whatever reason (luck, timing?) the songs did not become the level of hit that would have reached this person. I have often heard grumbling even in cases where the artist has made it known in the pre-tour press that he or she will be doing a particular thing and not necessarily the hits, during that tour.

    I will not pretend that I have not been disappointed by concerts where certain songs weren’t performed. But the thing that speaks to me the most about an artist is the integrity of their performance. If he or she does not want to do a song because it is written about an experience from a time of their life that they would rather not re-live any more, or can no longer relate to, or for whatever reason they can’t muster up a convincing performance, then I would rather they didn’t perform it. I need to believe that they still have the passion to do the song, even if the passion is contrived – i.e. if the artist is talented enough to put across a convincing performance 10 years after the fact, then great. But if not, I would rather not hear the song. I think, as a fan, I owe it to the artist to give their new material the same opportunity I originally gave their early hits – ears wide open to something I have not heard a thousand times before. Why would I assume an artist is not capable of creating more great work beyond what I may have heard through the media years before?

    So yes, a musician should not be a jerk and take the audience for granted. But neither should the audience assume that the musician is a one-trick pony, defined only by their past hits and confined by limited and ill-informed audience expectations.

  • Bob Jakubovic Says:

    Lou Reed often said that he would play “Walk on The Wild Side” as many times as an audience wanted to hear it. It was the song that paid his rent every month, and Lou appreciated that.

  • Johnny Ioannidis Says:

    Radiohead played South Korea for the first time ever a few years back, and I was covering the event for a local rag. They got on stage, and treated the fans to the lion’s share of their latest album, which was an exercise in endurance–I wasn’t even a casual fan–a lot of techno-esque noodling and switching off of instruments ensued. They did probably 2.5 hours of music, mostly focusing on their more recent albums. Would it have killed them to play their biggest song “Creep”? There were dolls with signs printed on them saying “please play Creep” around the festival grounds. They did a few token earlier tunes and left after two encores.

    Did they entertain the crowd–most certainly, although Korean crowds would have been entertained if Thom Yorke had pissed on them, and in my estimation, that’s exactly what they did. Don’t mistake masturbation for music, boys. We’re happy to listen to all your new shit, just play a little more of your old shit.

    Imagine going to see James Brown in his heyday and he doesn’t play “Sex Machine”, “Soul Power”, “Cold Sweat”, or “It’s a Man’s World”? It is called show business for a very good reason.

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