Artistic Honesty: Staying True to Your Vision

How much do you compromise your integrity in the song-recording process?


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Alicia KeysWhen you write your songs, who are you writing for? What’s your objective? How do you measure your own success?

These are very important questions, and can become incredibly tricky to answer especially if you’re trying to forge a career for yourself in this industry. Practically every songwriter I know considers their music to be the way they communicate their own ideas, concepts, philosophies and beliefs to the world.

But if you’re following a formula that dresses your music up into something that differs from what you originally conceived simply to make it more appealing to a larger audience base, is that a kind of songwriting dishonesty?

It’s a constant battle that’s waged between artists and industry personnel (producers, managers, record company executives, and so on). The songwriter/performer/band has specific ideas about how to communicate their ideas to the world, and producers are constantly trying to repackage that music into something that appeals to the most people. There’s a good reason for that: it potentially builds a larger fan base, which translates into dollars.

So the question is: if you’re always compromising your original ideas in order to increase your reach, how honest are you being as a songwriter?

Last year, Alicia Keys gave a Liner Notes interview, in which she says:

…there’s tons of ways to write a song, but for me… [it needs to be] a natural experience, an honest experience, a true expression, even if it’s something that was inspired by someone that I know or an experience that I’ve seen through another person’s eyes. Any of that works to make it real for me, and that’s, to me, the best way to write a great song.

There are several words she uses that all touch on the same idea:

  • a natural experience
  • an honest experience
  • a true expression

It all comes down to creative honesty. If you’re a songwriter who’s getting ready to record your next tune, or set of tunes, are you over-compromising if you allow your music to be adjusted to appeal to more and bigger audiences?

My own feeling is that we can spend a lot of time worrying about this sort of thing. I don’t believe there is anything artistically dishonest about adjusting your original vision in order to attract more fans, as long as the compromises aren’t equivalent to an artistic cave-in.

How do you know when you’ve gone too far when compromising on the production of one of your songs? There’s no visible line, and that’s possibly unfortunate. Maybe the answer is different depending on who you are, and the genre you call your own.

And perhaps it comes down to how you answer these questions, once you’ve allowed your song to be repackaged:

  1. Is the message of your song still intact?
  2. Does the song still work once you strip away the added production?
  3. Do you feel proud of the final result?

If any of those answers are “No,” or “I’m really not sure,” you may have crossed a line that, for you, is going to provide you with artistic frustration over the longterm.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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  1. Years ago late fiftie’s to middle eighties I was a southern based Musician /Singer,
    based in The South Of England, some friends of mine formed a band named “Manfred Mann” after the groups leader South African born Manfred, they had a massive following
    playing a mixture of the Blues and R and B, when they signed a deal with Decca Records of London, They were then launched upon the worlds Record Buying Teenagers , and of course their wonderful interpretations of the music the band loved , had to be kept for shows, and They e were forced to record Simplistic Commercial Pop Songs wich then enabled the band to make Big Time Money on the Thousands of Pop Shows around Europe, ” Doo Wha Diddy ” was and still is a Highly commercial well written song that makes millions in royalty’s to the people who write them and keeps these bands in the public’s eye
    Is that selling out, ? I dont think so, what is wrong with playing tunes the average guy and gal can walk along the street singing The Hook line.

    I think there is a lot of silly snobbery among groups, who are inclined to sneer at songs like Doo Wha Diddy,

    • Thanks very much, Jack, for your input on this. I tend to agree with you. And as you mention, there’s no reason that a band’s more adventurous music can’t be saved for a concert.

      Thanks again,

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