Do You Want To Write Commercial, Or Artistic Songs? (Or Both)

The following article includes an excerpt from the incredible music book: “Arranging Songs: How To Put The Parts Together” by Rikky Rooksby. That book is a must read, and is why I “must-share” his definitive attributes of commercial and artistic music seen in the section “common traits of artistic and commercial songs”.

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There is a rock-age old dilemma presented to every composer in our modern day.

Will I stick to my “artistic roots”, deeply exploring myself in my music, no matter who I alienate (pushing myself into obscurity), or will I “sell out”, putting more “general public friendly” riffs into my music in order to gain a bigger audience.

Let’s explore.

Common Traits Of Artistic & Commercial Songs

As mentioned above, the next section is an excerpt of an incredible arrangement book. I considered paraphrasing some of the content, but I feel that Rikky puts all of this into context so much better, so I decided to post the small excerpt here directly. Make sure you pick that book up from Amazon if you get the chance, it’s a goldmine for anyone who writes music.

[Begin paraphrased excerpt from “Arranging Songs: How To Put The Parts Together” by Rikky Rooksby]

Arrangement is part of the process of making your music more or less accessible to a general casual listener. We can roughly define the claims of art VS commerce in the following ways.

The art-inclined approach involves:

  • Doing things that are less obvious or immediate.
  • Doing things that are less initially audible.
  • Doing things that challenge a musical formula or the expectations of listeners.
  • Using less familiar and less immediately pleasing sounds and textures.
  • Valuing rough edges, mistakes, and accidents.
  • Valuing a song’ character and identity over its availability.
  • Suppressing resemblances to other commercially successful songs.
  • Obliging the listener to do some patient and repeated listens before the song fully yields up its meaning. - IMPORTANT!
  • Reducing the amount of repetition.
  • Increasing the complexity of the harmony.
  • Down-playing the role of percussion.

The corresponding vices of the artistic approach are narcissism, obscurity, under achievement (the deliberate messing-up of a good idea), prolixity, the fetishization of what is ugly, ill-executed and fragmentary, and the valuing of the eccentric over what might speak to many people; there isn’t anything inherently revolutionary about being unmusical or lacking technique.

The commercially-inclined approach to arrangement means:

  • Doing things that are obvious and immediate.
  • Doing things that are clearly audible.
  • Conforming to formulas and listener expectations.
  • Ensuring that the listener can absorb the song virtually on first hearing.
  • Choosing conventionally pleasing sounds and instruments.
  • Smoothing away rough edges and removing accidents.
  • Increasing the amount of repetition.
  • Reducing the complexity of the harmony.
  • Providing a clear and emphatic beat.

The vices of the commercial approach are blandness, not allowing for the individuality of an idea, too narrow a sense of what is or could be beautiful, the fetishization of the notion of being smooth and cool rather than intelligent, and the over-valuing of the immediate. close listening may reveal the weaknesses of a song arranged according to commercial dictates, rather than its strengths.

[END paraphrased excerpt]

These ain’t comprehensive definitions of art and commerce, but these examples can be really useful in identifying ways to make your music sound more artistic or commercial (especially commercial, by definition art can’t be faked). 

If you’re already writing for a purely commercial purpose, then the above examples could be used as a guide to understand what a general audience needs to enjoy a piece of music. If you’re wanting to be very artistic in your music, perhaps those tips can help challenge you to push more boundaries in your music.

The Heart Of Art 

The real heart of art comes from trying to express something genuine (including superficiality). If you’re just faking it, then it’s not art. 

Express anything you feel or think or experience, and you’ve got art. The nuances of how you present your art (in music, it’s called “arranging”) are what makes your expressions more or less interesting for other people. Making your song more commercial might sell more albums, but does it sully the message that you originally wanted to express?

On the other hand, making your song more obscure might make it more artistic, feeding yourself with a bottle or two of ego-juice, but is that what you were originally trying to express?

The bottom line? Arrange your music based on the heart of the song (not based on some attempt to gain or lose an audience). 

Do You Have To Fade Into Obscurity To Make Artistic Music?

Or can you make music that appeals to the masses, yet honours your inner expression?

The answer is this: the differences between these two opposing forces can be easily (or sometimes not so easily) combined to create artistic expressions with commercial value, and you can take it as far as you like.

Many artists are able to create wildly successful commercial tracks, while still retaining a large amount of artistic integrity. 

One example of such an album is Outkast’s double album “Love Below/Speakerboxxx” from 2003. It quickly sold over 500,000 copies in it’s first week, yet contains some of the most obscure, yet gripping hip hop tracks from the 2000’s era. 

The opening musical track of Love Below, which is “Love Hater”, not only throws a traditional hip-hop listener off of their chairs by introducing a genuinely good jazz-track, but it also throws a jazz audience into a flurry of excitement by showcasing psychedelic distorted guitars, and some great raps!

The album also includes at least 10 interlude tracks - traditionally shunned and labelled as alienating by popular music executives. 

These tracks are hilarious by the way, such as the “God” interlude, which features Andre 3000 praying to God (who happens to be female) asking for her to bring him a woman who is “not too fast, but not too slow” and “has something [a butt] well proportioned to her body”. He ends his prayer with “amen…oh I’m sorry, I meant, ahhh lady “.

The album contained enough single tracks to be featured on simplified music television channels like MTV, yet more than enough artistic integrity to please even a more snobby audience.

The list goes on. There is:

  • Fleetwood Mac’s diamond-selling “rumours”, with over half a dozen solid “hits”, while exploring what I would consider some masterful arrangements, controlled and catchy vocal harmonies, and enough complexity to warrant at least a few dozen listens.
  • Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon” (I don’t need to say much about sales), which offers any listener years worth of depth and exploration into the heavily emphasized themes of time, death, insanity, conflict, and greed.
  • Queen’s “The Game”, which sold over 4 million copies. As we all know about Queen, their commitment to doing whatever the heck they want holds strong, with a masterful grasp of the art of songwriting and creativity. I see Queen as very close to the tip of a mountain: a mountain that represents artistic & commercial musics perfect blending.

On the other hand, you have highly artistic albums such as Fantomas’ “Delìrium Còrdia”, which consists of a single 120 minute track in which the theme is “surgery without anaesthesia”.

The last 20 minutes of the track are just the simple scratching of a record player’s needle. You don’t need very much insight to realize that this was probably not a commercially successful album, but it’s certainly unadulterated and genuine artistic expression. 

I typically tend to lean towards honoring the artistic side of myself. I've never found myself saying "I'd like to do this, but I'm sure more people will like it if I do THAT, so I'll do that instead". I would consider that at least a little bit of "selling out".

Even for a commercial artist, I really couldn't ever recommend writing music that you don't even like yourself; there should be something enjoyable in it for you. And although being bold enough to do obscure things can take courage (and I recommend you at least experiment, even if only on your own), being obscure might not even be a true expression of yourself.

You might genuinely want to write a dance track that people will want to dance to. There's nothing ingenuine about that, and that's not selling out. It's doing things you don't even want to do, just because people will like it.

Bottom line? Just do what you want to do, and try not to let money change your tunes.

Write music that you yourself would listen to, and have a fun time experimenting with sounds.

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My name is Andrew Muller. I love creative art, music, television shows, movies, video games, and a good story.

If you had to find me somewhere, you would probably find me down at O'neils home cooking eating an organic sweet-potato bun breakfast sandwich with ham.

Among my friends, it's a "Muller Classic Move" to eat Mcdonald's at 2am because it's cheap and open 24/7. The joke here is that I'm an idiot. 

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