If music is your career, it makes sense that you’d want to entertain the masses with your work. The more accessible your music is to everyone, the better chance you have of earning money and winning over lots of fans, right? Unfortunately, no. Music that’s made with the intention of trying to connect with everyone usually ends up doing just the opposite. As artists, it’s our job to create work that goes on to mean something special to the people who hear it. But shaping your music intentionally to reach as many listeners as possible is not only unrealistic, but can also be damaging for your creativity and career.
The role music plays in your listeners’ lives
A 74 year-old grandmother, a guy in his mid-20s who delivers pizzas, and a 40-something financial advisor and mother living in Brooklyn. The common thread between these very different people is that they each have unique relationships with music. It’s safe to assume the young guy is attending more shows and listening to edgier stuff than the grandmother and mother from Brooklyn. When we aim to make music that pleases everyone, we often forget exactly who gets roped into that absurdly broad definition. Even the most accessible and inoffensive music can’t reach every listener, and that’s actually a good thing.
If you want to know why certain types of music resonate with certain listeners, you have to understand the complex role music plays in listeners’ lives. Writing songs about heartbreak or the joy of a new relationship or specific moments from your life immediately slices off a massive chunk of potential listeners because not everyone wants to hear songs about those topics. You’re never going to please the sulky teen coping with a breakup and the woman in her mid-40’s looking for an album to cook dinner to with the same music, so it’s foolish to try to. For some listeners, music is an emotional lifeline. For others, it’s nothing more than pleasant background noise. Trying to reach both audiences is not only impossible, but also a waste of your creative energy.
Finding your unique voice as a songwriter
Instead of creating music in the hopes of winning over as many listeners as possible, you’re infinitely better off creating the best and most honest work you can. By experimentation and delving deep into your creative process, you’ll be doing the hard and necessary work of developing your unique voice as a music-maker. Your music isn’t meant for everyone, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to intentionally make your music inaccessible. Finding our voices as songwriters means creating curiously and honestly. Connecting with the sort of listeners who are most likely to appreciate and be moved by our work is something entirely different, and that can’t happen until you’ve spent real time and effort developing your skills and unique identity as a songwriter.
Creating music with an original and authentic voice could result in your work connecting with millions of fans. Or, you could end up amassing a small but devoted following. But whether you end up reaching the masses with your music or not, remember that listeners are much smarter than you might think. If your music is engineered to please as many people as possible, audiences will know it and be less likely to latch on to it. The biggest drivers behind what’s popular in music are almost always younger people, and they’re looking for music that makes them feel heard and understood. To reach them, you’ll have to understand yourself as a music-maker. If you want to find your authentic voice as a songwriter, you’ll need to embrace curiosity and remove the fear of failure from your process as much as possible.
Releasing music in today’s complex and increasingly competitive music industry and not hitting it out of the park with audiences doesn’t necessarily mean your music is fake or trying too hard to please everyone. This is because creating meaningful and authentic music isn’t a guarantee you’ll ever find an audience, unfortunately. But if you keep working towards making the best work you can and actively promote it, the chances of something big happening with your music increase in a significant way.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.