The InsiderOne Daily Report

  Wednesday, April 11, 2001

Hard To Say No

InsiderOne's Michael Goldberg writes: We were talking about being an artist. My friend, who happens to be one of the great contemporary visual artists, mentioned the leader of a rock band — once "super" popular, now just "pretty" popular — who saw the media mirror reflecting a parody of himself; he realized that he and his band needed to pull back, turn away from the spotlight and toward their music, so they could take it somewhere it hadn't been before. I said so many bands that really make it fall into the trap where the record company and the fans want them to make a new album that sounds like their old album. All the stuff that goes with success — money, fame, arenas full of fans — makes that hard to resist. "They're artists, but they become a commodity," my friend said, adding that the record company was not happy with this band, because as they withdrew and kept messing with their sound, their sales dwindled. Now they only sell a million copies of each album they release, instead of multiple millions. No matter that the work they do now is way better than the previous albums that sold more. Meanwhile, the band is quite happy selling a million copies of each album. It's a classic conundrum: Money or art? I recently read an interview where a member of the Apples in Stereo — a band whose members have to work day jobs to support themselves — talked about letting one of their songs be used in a commercial. They would make something like $18,000, and people would be exposed to their music who have never heard it. Look what it did for Nick Drake's music, and Moby. 'Course Nick Drake's dead; somehow, if he were alive, I can't imagine he'd want to be a Volkswagen jingle. And Moby? You tell me — does being in a commercial devalue him and his music? My friend has been struggling with the pull of work in commercial art. The money's good, but does he really want to participate in Starbucks commercials? He told me that he'd discussed this with a designer friend, who said, point blank: "You're really a talent. Don't waste it. They'll suck you dry." So I'm gonna keep doing my art, is basically what he said. He told me he's not going to do that other stuff. "Still," he admitted, "it's hard when I see friends buying houses and cars...." It's hard to say no when someone comes around offering money. It's easy, when you're an unknown artist that no one will hire, to talk about staying true to your art. The test comes when you're semi-famous and the call comes from some art director. "You know that thing that's in your portfolio," the art director will say. "Something with that look would be perfect for this Starbucks ad." And you have a choice. Do you start imitating yourself — become a parody of what you were — to keep the fat checks coming? Don't get me wrong. We all have to survive, and there's nothing wrong with doing an honest day's work to feed yourself and your family. That's not what I'm talking about here. The ability to make art is a fragile thing. It needs to be cared for, nurtured. You can learn not to be an artist. Do it the way they want you to do it long enough, and you'll lose the ability to do it your way. Where once stood an artist will stand a hack.

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Michael Goldberg is the president of He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.

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