If you like writing songs that are on the cutting edge — innovative, creative and complex — you already know that there’s a problem to solve: building an audience for your music.
It can sometimes help to look at other singer-songwriters and bands that have solved this issue. For most, though, the solution was to move away from the more complex songs toward something more mainstream and commercially viable. The prog rock band Yes is a good example, which saw bigger audiences and bigger sales in the 80s than at any other time previously in their career.
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There is another solution, which is to do it all in reverse: start with songs that are commercially attractive and can quickly build a large fan base. Then, once you’ve got your fans, you morph into something more complex, and you will likely find that most of your audience will come along with you, simply because they trust you musically.
The best example we have of that would be The Beatles. Their first songs were only mildly innovative, using standard progressions with just one or two innovative moments thrown in. But once they had achieved stardom, they became creatively bored with the status quo, and between Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper, things quickly changed and their music became more like pop art.
They lost some audience for that change, but pulled in new admirers, and the rest is history.
You might think that complex music, being hard to understand, will scare potential fans away, but it’s really not that simple. It really is a matter of trust. Audiences, for the most part, are willing to accept a more innovative song style from songwriters and performers, if they believe the journey to the darker side is worth it.
In the case of The Beatles, they had several things going for them:
- They were personable.
- They were funny.
- They didn’t take themselves too seriously.
- They were excellent musicians.
- They weren’t afraid to experiment.
- They were diverse, exploring practically any song genre you could name.
And they did some other things that made it easier for audiences who were used to simpler song forms to make the transition to more innovative styles. For example, they were one of the first pop music groups to print their lyrics on the album cover. That not only indicated to the world that they valued their words, but it made it possible for listeners to more intensely analyze their music.
If you’ve been writing complex songs, or if you’re trying to transition to a style of music that more suits your creative mind, and you want to be sure that you don’t scare all of your fans away, it does require some initial thought on your part.
And that thinking needs to start with something like, “What specifically can I do to build an audience base for my more complex music?” And that question needs to be followed up with “How much should I care if I lose listeners?”
To answer the first question, it may mean keeping a simpler style in general, throwing in something more complex from time to time, making the move over time.
It does come down to your own level of comfort with the situation. If being true to who you are as a creator of songs means that you lose half of who you considered to be your fans, you may be OK with that.
And because it’s a question you can continue to revisit throughout your career, you may be able to find ways to gain audience trust, and rebuild a loyal fan base, one that allows you to be exactly the kind of writer you want to be.
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