It’s probably safe to say that we’ve all been there: We find music that moves us in some way or another, learn more about the artist, and fall in love with their art even more. We can find identity, fun, community, solace, healing, perspective and more from their work. It resonates with us in ways we may not always be able to articulate but we’re enthusiasts and fans. We eagerly await their newest creations and then wait, and wait, and wait… What do you do when they’ve taken a break? Or have retired? Or the band is definitely not getting back together?
First, a history lesson.
Back in the day, at least in the United States, it wasn’t uncommon for artists to record popular songs from their contemporaries. The practice stemmed from how music publishers and musicians earned money. Since artists weren’t paid royalties, to make more money from a song and to satisfy a demanding public, a publisher would have various artists on their label record a profitable song in different styles; especially when bastardizing popular black music to make it more palatable to white audiences. New music could be released fairly quickly by giving a new flavor to songs people were already familiar with.
Selling an album with a mix of safe-bet covers and some original work is easier to make — and potentially more profitable — than an album made only of original work.
This practice supported the industry well into the 1990s; just before the advent of file sharing programs like Napster and the dawn of streaming services like Pandora, and later Spotify, made commodifying music easier. Our world has changed enough (still racist, though) to see this motivation for song publishing fall by the wayside; but the desire for new music has remained constant, seeming only to have intensified in the last decade or so.
Easy access to musicians on social media and their work through modern streaming services make it a walk in the park to find new music and talent. Though modern publishing methods make it easy to disseminate music cheaply and quickly, the return for the artist themselves remains low. So, the level of pressure on today’s musicians to turn out new work is enormous. Out of having a cheap abundance to choose from, fans consume music like popcorn; but unlike the mindless consumption of a salty snack, there’s an expectation that the work from our favorite musicians to be high caliber and better than the last record. It’s a big ask and it’s no surprise artists resist it when they can.
Stop The Harassment
The more established, commercially successful, and contract savvy the artist; the more likely they’ll take back some control over when they work and when that work is released. Also, the more likely they’ll be dragged for holding out. Regardless, fans are not owed their creative energy and output. We cannot expect their contributions to our culture be given to us in a neverending all-you-can-eat buffet line for $9.99 a month and think no one will burn out. It’s simply not realistic. Yet there remains a threat to produce new work or be labeled irrelevant or uncaring. Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer with his last effort; and ignorant people will listen to the record then miss the entire point by posting things like this on Twitter:
Frank Ocean famously dipped from the radar after releasing his highly acclaimed and extremely commercially-successful first album Channel Orange in 2012. The onslaught of media attention and harassment that followed didn’t let up until his sophomore album Blonde in 2016; but then eventually picked up again. Now with a new record on the horizon, he may get a slight reprieve.
Rihanna promotes a project that isn’t about her music, and petulant children crawl into the comment sections across social media whining about “Where’s the album?”
Because of her often comedic dismissal of these comments and trolling about her latest album being ready, it almost looks like this behavior from her fans is acceptable; but it’s tired at best and caustic at worst. She’s working to do good in the world through her Clara Lionel Foundation; and by the way her fans take serious events and turn them into a joke, they are being deliberately obtuse about what is motivating her these days.
Some fans were so voracious for Adele’s pain to be put on a record after her recent divorce; it could make a person wonder if fans like these are worth having. Even if she spoke candidly in the past about what inspires her songs the greedy salivating is absurd and reckless. What brought an artist to create the work fans originally fell in love with may not be where they are currently in their lives. They may be of the mind to create music or to do something completely different. This kind of “support” for new records needs to be placed in a trash can along with other garbage behavior we throw at those who entertain us.
Support The Work They’re Supporting
A better way for fans to get more of what they love is to see who their faves love. By its nature, music is a highly collaborative art form. If a person looks they’re bound to find artists working on projects outside their primary focus. When they’re not releasing new work themselves, they’re probably working with or talking about someone who is.
Sometimes it’s obvious if they are mentoring new and developing artists like Beyonce’s relationship with Chloe x Halle. Sometimes it’s less obvious and you wouldn’t have known if you didn’t go looking; like Future’s work on the film score for Superfly or Pharrell Williams writing a Broadway musical based on Juneteenth with Kenya Barris. Three 6 Mafia produced music for Hustle and Flow; and I didn’t know until they won an Academy Award and folks were mad about it.
They’re out there using their talents in other ways. How they do that might pay the bills better than selling records can. Will Smith is a musician who became a movie star and still records. Queen Latifah’s love and talent for music runs through many of her acting projects. If an artist can capitalize on their influence, they may create a greater impact on the world than they could only have hoped to realize with their music alone; like Akon bringing electricity to parts of Africa.
Give Them Their Flowers
Parasocial relationships are difficult to navigate for people on either side of them; however, building positive discourse with our favorite artists about their work is on the part of the consumer. Between label disputes and obligations; rigorous promotion schedules; greedy celebrity gossip outlets dissecting their personal lives; the effort it takes to create a full album; and the added pressure from fans for new music, there’s enough there to push any artist into semi-retirement. That is not to say there isn’t room for criticizing musicians, but the critique should be aimed at the work itself and not the frequency of it. When the feelings of an individual can be amplified by the greater fandom it can cause healing or harm. If there is a choice to be made why not choose the one with the likely positive outcome?
Appreciating what they’ve already given us means they can be supported now and into the future. Seeing them as people, and not only commodities meant to cede to our demands, gives the room for artists to grow and their fans with them. We should actively support this kind of growth and accept the places where people find themselves; be it on a new record or not.
Cover Image: Rihanna – 2020 NAACP Awards