I Want To Sell Out

JOE BATES on why every artist should aim for the mainstream.

I am an enthusiastic purveyor of a niche music genre. No, not Electropop meets Southern Hip Hop. People tend to call it ‘contemporary classical’, but I personally hate that name.

Last Tuesday, for the first time, it was covered (as ‘indie-classical’) in the home base of hipsterdom, Pitchfork. Yet, ironically, it was this inclusion that made me realise for the first time why I was so uncomfortable with the terms ‘indie’ and ‘hipster’.

Central to the idea of hipsterness is the celebration of one’s own alternativeness. It is the crowing ‘you probably wouldn’t have heard of them’, the disappointment when your favourite band hits the mainstream. But it’s totally alien to how I feel.

I want to sell out. I want the music I love to make everyone who writes it millionaires, for it to top the charts. I’m delighted that such a well-read publication wrote such a good article about ‘indie classical’. But I would have been even more delighted to see the same article in the NME, yet more in The Sun.

Now, I’m not an idiot. I’m aware that it will probably never happen. But I really, really want it to, and intend to try as hard as I can to make it happen. I want to go mainstream. And I have a deep suspicion of those that don’t, whether they’re an art gallery, a band or a newspaper.

It’s not that I confuse value with popularity. That’s another kettle of fish. But the logic, to me, seems inescapable:

I love what I do. Therefore I want to share it with as many people as possible.

So what could possess people to do otherwise? A lot of the more hipster-y types seem to cling to a pair of stale arguments:

‘It’s too difficult, people won’t appreciate it’

Really? Then why do you? Are you just better than other people? I understand people don’t always attach moral value to aesthetic value, but this view seems always to be accompanied by that particular brand of arsey superiority.

‘I don’t want to change what I’m doing for the sake of other people’

Fine. Don’t. Enthusiastically try to sell what you’ve got.

People are crap at predicting popularity anyway – who thought, a year ago, ‘I know what will really sell: A silent, black and white comedy with no well known actors‘? In particular, the internet allows geographically separated people to clump into communities large enough to support relatively niche art forms.

That said, paying no attention to your audience whatsoever seems more than a little self-indulgent. In particular, I find it difficult to rationalise it being done at public expense.

Whilst I’m not opposed to arts funding in general, I find the defeatist attitude too often present in arts organisations depressing. The other week, the music faculty had a visiting speaker who flat out told a bunch of aspiring composers and music organisers: ‘You can’t make money out of modern classical music’.

Well, bollocks to that. I think she’s wrong. And I’d rather fail trying to prove her wrong than have never attempted it in the first place.

  • Curiosu

    What would you call this music?

    Also, not in a pointed way, why did you write this article?

  • yeah man

    Is contempory classical just music that sounds like classical music but that was written recently? Wouldn't a lot of film soundtracks qualify? Film soundtracks seem fairly mainstream to me.

    • Joe Bates

      You see this is why I don't like the term 'Contemporary classical'. What you're saying makes sense, but isn't actually the case.

      Contemporary classical is a continuation of the classical tradition in the same way that contemporary art is a continuation of the artistic canon. So contemporary classical is avant garde almost by definition.

      Basically, most of the classical music you hear was written before 1910. But people kept on developing the tradition after that until it became very, very different. Unlike the other arts, there was a thriving 'low' cultural form (popular music) that could challenge, and eventually superseded, 'classical' music as the prevalent 'high' art form (sorry for the air quotes, but they are necessary).

      It's a fascinating, almost unknown story – the near complete death of the world's most wide-spread cultural form.

      TL;DR: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contemporary_classic
      And why I think it's a lie: http://www.cus.org/connect/debates/2011/this-hous

  • hipster

    i like all the erased tapes stuff. olafur arnolds, winged victory for the sullen etc. dead good.

  • Billy Liu

    I hit an empty baked beans can with my finger sometimes and wonder if I could take it all the way.

  • one thing

    quite a good article i think, just one point though-

    "who thought, a year ago, ‘I know what will really sell: A silent, black and white comedy with no well known actors‘?"

    …err well only the Weinstein Company, and every other person who backed the millions of dollars needed to make it.

    Also I'm pretty sure John Goodman counts as a well known actor..

  • Hipster

    you are a pretentious cunt

  • tom collins (girton)

    you sound like such a douchebag

  • Bates

    makes a good point

  • anonymous

    I agree with this article entirely I love hearing music on the radio that I've been trying to promote to my friends for ages! However I think you have the incorrect definition of selling out, I wouldn't say it is simply trying to promote the music you play into the mainstream but rather specifically changing your music to achieve mainstream success. Thus the music you originally played never actually receives mainstream success.

  • Quibbler

    I am sure we all wish you the best of luck on what is surely a noble cause. But does your music really have to be written under the banner of a movement whose name and intention is, by its very nature, confusing to most people? After all, it's not as though you wish to write self-consciously backward-looking music that sounds like it was written in the eighteenth century, which perhaps is what people will assume. Perhaps you should 'just make music'. A lot of shall-we-say 'art musicians' are hard satisfyingly to pigeonehole because that is exactly what they do. Think of people like Johnny Greenwood Damon Albarn

    • Joe Bates

      I totally agree. That's one of the (many) reasons I dislike the term 'contemporary classical'.

  • ProgBoy2112

    Take it from a progressive rock fan (me, that is), nobody cares about your niche music genre, and it will never make an impression on the mainstream audience. In fact it's better that way. When a member of the RockSoc did a prog night, I decided not to go, because I didn't want to listen to somebody else's take on my favourite genre. For me, music is a personal thing, and the few friends I have who enjoy prog are all I need for company.

  • Yes

    I completely agree with you re: arts funding. It's defeatist, and it assumes unpopularity (and – very roughly – therefore unprofitability) before a project's even begun. I'd even go further and say that it tends to watermark projects whose organizers see the idea of people actually coming along in large numbers and paying their money to hear it as a dirty concept.

    The trouble is that, for contemporary classical music, a small audience *is* a badge of honour. The reason you've successfully got some of it to Shoreditch nightclubs and the like is because you're bound to find people whose whole mindset is to embrace things that other people think are odd or quirky – or just alienating. For many people who write such things (and I don't know if this is you – I'm sure it isn't!), their first thought is to develop sounds that are offputting and difficult in the name of originality, however purposeful/less that might be.

    Listen to a Birtwhistle interview, for example. "Woe is me – I write my music, it's deliberately offputting so nobody likes it, and then I don't get any money because people don't listen to it or buy it. Poor old me, what a silly old public we have and what a mad old capitalist world we live in." In fact, just go to Holloway's house, for that matter. I ain't saying that makes it bad music; I'm saying you reap what you sow.

  • Larry Zhukman

    Have you ever heard of New Order? They are pretty sweet.

  • LOL

    You're hot. Want a bang?

  • ProgBoy2112

    Take it from a fan of progressive rock (me, that is), no one cares about your niche musical genre. You have to deal with the fact that the rest of the world are ignorami. Honestly, it's better that way. I'd hate it if prog were popular, to be honest. Music is a personal thing to me, and the few friends I have who enjoy prog are all the company I need.

    • Yo.

      Cool story bro.

  • ele

    i think the problem is that so much being played on the radio is disliked by people who like to think they 'appreciate good music' so they go and seek it out somewhere else, and find these bands. and then get 'accused' of being hipster. are we genuinely not allowed to dislike what is played on the radio without being branded with this label?

  • proud modernist

    However different our backgrounds, I think ProgBoy2112's view is remarkably similar to my own. Why is popularity inherently good or necessary? To cite a comparison, I think the English language is in many respects a wonderful thing, but I am dismayed at its ubiquity; in fact, when I go to the Continent, I feel ashamed to be British, because everyone can speak English but we cannot speak their language.

    I think Joe is missing the point with his answer to ‘It’s too difficult, people won’t appreciate it’. We are all individuals with our own views, ideas, and tastes, and listen to music *for different purposes*. It follows, therefore, that I would appreciate some things that most others might not. There is nothing inherently snobbish in that as Joe would have you believe.

    I understand Joe's desire for his favourite music to be top of the charts. In response, I would say that I simply do not care for such measures; the charts encourage a homogenisation of taste, which is a very bad thing (cf. ele's comment about the marginalisation of dissenters).

    As for the audience issue, I do not think that refusing to self-censor is a bad thing (which is what Joe implies by describing it as "self-indulgent"). Composers and performers consecrate their *lifetime* to their artistic endeavours; it is only fair that they get to do that about which they feel passionate, especially given that the vast majority never become rich.

    Such censorship would be a bad idea even if you valued your audience (which I do not): as Joe said later, you cannot possibly estimate their reaction with any accuracy. I once played a very dissonant modern "contemporary classical" piece in a recital for a predominantly over-50 non-musical audience and they loved it, to the extent that I was asked to play it again! The lesson: if you value your audience, do not restrict yourself to the "safe" options.

  • grief

    this is probably why you were such a fucking awful editor then, Joe.

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