There’s a good argument to be made for why songwriters should create music for their listeners above anyone else. It’s natural to want to please your audience, and writing with their tastes and needs in mind is a way to try and do that. It’s also natural to want to win the approval of bandmates, managers, labels, and venues with the music you make. Plus, there are the added benefits of financial and critical success to think about if you’re a professional musician. But does writing for others first and yourself second actually result in music that audiences will more likely want to hear?
Probably not. And in fact, intentionally or subconsciously doing this could end up making your music worse off in the long run. There’s nothing more important for an artist than gut feelings, curiosity, intuition, and experimentation. We should feel big, unignorable things when we write music and allow those things to tell us what to do and where to go. But when external expectations enter the arena, the instantaneous connection between you and your creativity gets severed. Sure, you might want to explore a new way of making music, but what will your record label think? You want to say something authentic in your lyrics but think it will freak out your fans. Writing a concept album with a new collaborator feels like a dream but you have no plans of doing it because you’re afraid you’ll offend your band.
These are examples of when an artist opts for the safety and predictability of writing music for other people instead of themselves. Sometimes it comes down to trying to please people who are important to us, like bandmates. Other times it’s an issue of putting the listener on a pedestal. Like a needy lover, we try to anticipate the listener’s needs and give them exactly what they want so that they’ll like us. But, also like a needy lover, doing this usually ends up having the opposite effect. Instead of giving the listener what they want, you’ll probably end up alienating them by creating something inauthentic and dated.
It might not seem like it, but you’re always better off creating something authentic to only you. No, you don’t need to write something off the wall and cryptic that only you can understand. You don’t need to create a new genre or do anything weird. Authenticity in songwriting is about removing the barriers between you and your musical whims and curiosities. Do exactly what you want to do for yourself and no one else. If you want to record a flute part over a section with steel guitars, then do it. If you want to write a lyric about how insanely happy, depressed, anxious, or bored you feel, do it. Do whatever you want whenever you want with your music. That’s what authenticity is about.
Are listeners going to like each and every authentic thing you make in music? No, of course not. But creating from a place of genuine and unguarded curiosity is way, way better than trying to guess what people like, and writing it for them. Trends change, ways of making music change, popular music changes, the music industry is in constant flux. As music-makers, everything around us shifts and evolves every day, which is another reason why it’s so crucial to rely on your own creative intuition and original ideas as an artist. Pandering to the masses will be a constant guessing game that will most likely lead to a lot of frustration and boring ideas that will sound tired and unchallenging as soon as they’re released.
Writing music that’s honest and unique to you will also lead to a lot of frustration, but it’s an approach that’s absolutely more likely to result in you making better music that human beings will actually want to listen to in the long run. Make mistakes. Ask questions. Start seeing dead ends as just another part of the process instead of as failures. Listen to your creative intuition more than anything else and write as much music as you can. Write for yourself before anyone and anything else, and you’ll be on the right track.
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.