When we create music, what are the parts of it that we own, and which ones do we give away to our listeners? It’s a weird question, but it’s worth asking. Getting to the bottom of what your music means to you and what about it you hope to give other people through your art will give you direction, purpose, and clarity as a music-maker. It’s also an exercise that can help you move outside of yourself temporarily and allow you to hear your music the way one of your listeners would. When we make music for and about only ourselves, we risk cutting off the outside world and alienating our listeners.
The massive difference between keeping your music to yourself and sharing it with others
If songwriting and music production result with work you never share with anyone, then there’s no reason to think about anyone other than yourself when you create. But as soon as you make the decision to make your music public for the world to hear, something big and fundamental changes. It’s the difference between creating music for yourself and for other people, and it’s actually more complicated than you might think. Your authenticity, experiences, and unique perspective as a creator are some of the most important assets as an artist. But if you create in ways that are too focused on yourself, your music might become like an inside joke that nobody gets other than you.
On the other extreme, pandering to your audience is something that’s actually more damaging for your music. When we shape our ideas and creative energy towards pleasing as many people as possible with our music, it’s a futile act that often ends up resulting in forgettable music. Doing this might seem like the easiest way to connect with audiences and find success, but it actually leaves out your identity and ideas in ways that limit your creativity and dumb down your ideas.
Finding a balance between authentic creativity and connecting with the humanity of your listeners
To create authentically in ways that don’t alienate listeners, you have to strike a balance between mining inspiration from your own personal experiences and remembering that other human beings will eventually listen to your work and discover how it fits into their unique lives. The truth is that even the most personal and bizarre experiences that you write about or let shape the sound of your music can be presented in universal ways that speak to or about the human condition. We all feel elated, pinned down by crushing despair, fear and anxiety, and deeply loved, or some combination of all of these things throughout our lives. Whether you’re working on a concept album about space travel or a garden variety love song, there are ways to meaningfully relate to other people through your music.
Remembering the humanity of your listeners isn’t about trying to be conventionally successful as much as it’s about connection. Your music has the power to say things listeners have been waiting their entire lives to hear, and not just through your lyrics. Instrumentation, melodies, chord progressions, production decisions, and rhythms all have the power to evoke powerful feelings in your audience. If you feel compelled to write lyrics about a specific topic or to let something you find important shape your music in a meaningful way, that same thing is probably also important to your audience.
Striking this balance isn’t easy to do. It’s something we need to remember to make a part of our creative process again and again throughout our careers. As artists, we’re expected to dig deep within ourselves to create work that connects with other people, and there’s a specific sort of tension in that. We’re bound to slip too far into wanting to please our listeners and creating music that’s too inward, and that’s okay. Overanalyzing your motivations during the songwriting process won’t do you or your music any favors. Instead, the important thing to focus on is remembering that your humanity and that of your audience isn’t any different when you get down to it. If you can keep this in mind when you create, you’ll have a better shot at creating the sort of music you’d want to listen to if you weren’t you.
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.