What Do Artists Owe to Their Fans?

Some artists create for the sheer joy of it, to make themselves happy, without any intention of sharing their creations with the wider world. I’ve talked to writers who do that – they write a story, polish it like you would for publishing, then set it aside and start another. Most of us, however, plan to release our creations on an unsuspecting public. Writers want readers. Musicians want listeners. Actors want audiences, either in person or otherwise.

In short, we want fans.

Which sets up a weird sort of feedback loop between artists and their fans. Fans are attracted to what an artist has already done, but the artist may want to move on and do new things. Does the artist owe anything to those fans? If millions of people buy your first book or record, do you owe them a duty to continue making things they like?

I don’t think so and I hope not, but I’m seeing that kind of entitlement playing out now that Steven Wilson’s new solo album, The Future Bites has dropped.

Wilson came to prominence as the leader of Porcupine Tree, a band that wasn’t even a band at all in the beginning (just Wilson and his studio toys), but slowly built a good following in progressive rock and related circles. They hit a major turning point in 2002 with In Absentia, when the band leaned hard into metal influences (to give you some idea, Wilson produced several albums by Swedish metal band Opeth and has a side project with Opeth’s main man called Storm Corrosion).

While Porcupine Tree was gaining momentum, Wilson had his musical hands in a lot of other areas outside the prog world. His collaboration with Tim Bowness, No-Man, explores melancholy pop and electronic influences. Blackfield, a collaboration with Aviv Geffen, works in more direct pop/rock songwriter mode. Then there’s Bass Communion, which is all about expansive electronic drones and noise. And that’s not to mention all of the remix work Wilson’s done for classic albums by King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and others.

It was not surprising, then, that since Wilson shuttered Porcupine Tree and struck out as a solo artist that his output there has covered a lot of ground. Aside from most of his first solo album, Insrugentes, however, it has been fairly rooted in the prog/rock world, stuff his fans from Porcupine Tree could sink their teeth into. Building on that fan base, he has wound up as a pretty successful solo artist.

Things started to change, a bit, with his last album, To The Bone. By his own admission it was inspired a lot by the artier pop of an earlier era, folks like Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. The album sounds very much like you’d expect from Wilson, but a little sleeker, and little friendlier. There was even a straight up joyous pop song complete with Bollywood dancers!

At the time, some fans grumbled. He was selling out. He was turning his back on “real” music for more ephemeral pop success. Those criticisms were accentuated by The Future Bites, which leans hard into electronic music and that kind of moody, atmospheric pop. Stuff like this:

To me it still sounds very much like Steven Wilson – his melodic sense, his production details – but it’s not The Raven That Refused to Sing. I happen to dig the sort of stuff he’s working with here, although I’m not as energized by his take on it as I have been by others. I doubt I’ll be listening to The Future Bites more than his earlier work.

Which is fine. Slavish devotion to an artist isn’t a whole lot of fun (to quote another favorite of mine, “not everything everybody does works all the time, son”). It’s certainly no worse, though, than people who take it as a personal insult if their favorite artist changes course and starts making a different kind of music.  I mean, it’s one thing to say, “hey, this isn’t for me” and walk away. It’s entirely another thing to go online and rant about what a talentless hack somebody has now become. This musician isn’t trying to hurt you, man.

Is Wilson aware of this backlash? I’m sure. Does he care? Not a whit. As he explained in a recent interview with Bob Lefsetz:

The only thing I think about when I’m making new music is just getting myself excited about it. That’s all I think about. I’ve had this question come up in various different forms, ‘do you think about your fans when you’re making music?’ and I really don’t. And it’s an incredibly selfish way to go about your career, but I think it’s what an artist is.

Frank Zappa said something similar, once (I’m paraphrasing), that he made music for his own amusement and if others want to come along for the ride, that’s great. I think that’s about right. Artists should be aware of how their work is going over with their fans, but catering to them can be dangerous and lead to stagnation.

To bring this around to writing, the question of reader expectations comes up most often with regard to George R.R. Martin and his quest to finish the next volume of A Song of Ice and Fire.  It’s been 10 years since the last book – what’s the fucking hold up? At one point, Neil Gaiman produced the ultimate response to this kind of complaint, from a reader who asked if it was “unrealistic to think that by not writing the next chapter Martin is letting me down”:

Yes, it’s unrealistic of you to think George is ‘letting you down’.

Look, this may not be palatable, Gareth, and I keep trying to come up with a better way to put it, but the simplicity of things, at least from my perspective is this:

George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.

This is a useful thing to know, perhaps a useful thing to point out when you find yourself thinking that possibly George is, indeed, your bitch, and should be out there typing what you want to read right now.

People are not machines. Writers and artists aren’t machines.

Again, I think this is about right. Fans, presumably, are attracted to the work of artists that they’ve slaved over and only let go into the world when they were right. They don’t do half measures and they follow their muse. Don’t you want whatever else they produce to come with such loving care? So, in the end, what do artists owe their fans? To continue to be the artists that made fans fall in love with them in the first place. That doesn’t mean doing the same thing over and over. It means following tangents and muses and keeping themselves entertained, since that’s what led to the art you came to love in the first place. Even if it means honking some people off.

Weekly Watch:Star Trek: Discovery (Season One)

I am not a religious man. Nevertheless, I am beginning to develop an abiding faith about something that might happen in the near future. I call it the “streaming singularity,” which is one of two things I hope will happen in the future. The first is that some of the new, myriad streaming services will go belly up and their content, or their brands, will get absorbed by a few, larger services. The second is that, after a while, content will migrate from service to service, so that things that are initially exclusive to, say Disney +, eventually wind up on Netflix, the way TV shows used to migrate to syndication.

Long story short – I’m really hesitant to sign up for new streaming services at this point, unless there’s something so compelling that I can’t pass it up. Which is why, last spring, I signed up for CBS All Access (soon to be Paramount +) for a free month so I could watch the end of the Champions League campaign. While I was at it, I dabbled in a few of their original series, blitzing through The Twilight Zone (not bad – uneven, as  you’d expect from an anthology series). As for the Star Trek universe, I watched the first episode of Lower Decks (not my thing) and the first two of Discovery, which, honestly, didn’t do much for me. I shut down the account before I had to pay for anything, then went on with my life.

Then, desperate for programming in a COVID world, CBS decided to show the first season of Discovery on real TV! Armed with my TiVo, I decided to give it a go again, to see how it all played out. In the end, I’m glad I didn’t actually pay for it, but it was entertaining enough to keep watching.

My big beef with Discovery – as with many modern properties that take place within established universes – is that I don’t really see why this story had to be told as a Trek story. I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of the JJ Abrams Trek reboot. To me they feel like more generic sci-fi action movies rather than “Trek” (in the same way that, to me, the Daniel Craig version of James Bond seems like a generic action hero, not 007 – your mileage may vary, of course). Discovery feels the same way. Aside from some of the labels used – Klingon, Federation, Vulcans, etc. – the story itself could be told just as well in a new universe built for its own purposes.

That story is solid, but not particularly Trekky. For one thing, for a show called Discovery, set largely on a ship of the same name, it’s disappointing that the overall plot is about a war. I mean, there’s not a whole lot of “boldly going where no one has gone before” in Discovery. Maybe that’s why my favorite episode was “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum,” in which a small away team goes to a strange planet, gets in trouble, and has to get themselves out of it. It services the overall war plot, but works perfectly well as a standalone episode and actually seems like Star Trek!

Most of the rest of the time, the show is so beholden to trying to fit into the Trek universe that it’s hamstrung (I understand that in season three the show catapults so far into the future it doesn’t have to worry about such things). Original series scoundrel Harvey Mudd shows up – twice! – for no other reason than to allow fans to point and say “that’s Harvey Mudd!” Really, what’s gained by making it that particular character instead a of a new, fresh, different one that could get fleshed out in different and interesting ways? Likewise, the Klingons are old school Trek, and while I didn’t mind the new look like some folks do, there’s an awful lot of assuming people know what Klingons are and what they do from other Trek products that they’re not really developed. An extended jaunt in the “mirror universe” (in which Spock has a beard!) is kind of fun but, again, feels like fan service.

Where the series strikes out differently is where it works best. The spore drive that allows instantaneous travel across the universe is pretty neat, but it’s doomed to failure (somehow) since it’s not in use in any other Trek product. The Kelpians, in particular Saru, are pretty interesting, too, and a nice addition to the Trek universe. But they could have been part of any universe, right?

I wanted to say one thing about the serial nature of modern streaming TV, too, because I think there, too, Discovery is kind of neither here nor there. The show is definitely of a piece with the modern streaming/cable predilection for serial storytelling. Nothing wrong with that, but at 15 episodes, it has more time and space to do some other things (most shows get 10 episodes per season, at most). I wish they had taken that time to throw in a couple of standalone episodes. Even in a tightly serialized show, a standalone ep or two can help change the pace a bit and provide a place for real character development to take place. Given how heavy most of the first season is, a couple of breaks would have been good.

I guess what I’m saying is that Discovery, at least in its first season, works best when it’s not trying to be what it is – a prequel to the original Star Trek that is trying to worm its way into that universe’s history and continuity. Unfortunately, that’s is reason for being, so there’s only so much of it the show can do, which is a shame. If Discovery had been a brand new show, in a brand new universe, telling its own story, I think I would have liked it better. As is, it’s not quite Trek enough for its own good, no matter how hard it tries.

A Little Proof of Concept

It seems like such a long time ago – but only December 2019 – that I announced a National Novel Writing Month “win” with Widows of the Empire, the second book in the Unari Empire Trilogy. Under normal circumstances, that might have meant the book would have been finished and released in 2020.

Yet, if anything, 2020 could hardly be described as “normal.”

For whatever, be it pandemic fatigue/ennui or just the fact that this book has been kind of a bear, the progress on Widows has been slower than I’d hoped. Still, it’s with beta readers and I’m ready to do a final edit when I hear back from them. Until then, I wanted to provide a little proof that this book is a real thing, not just residing in my noggin.

Some people create covers, or have the commissioned, before they even start writing a book. I don’t know how they pulled that off. I suppose it’s easy enough to change things if you have the talent to do your own covers (I really do not), but I can’t imagine at least having a first draft complete and knowing how everything winds up before getting to work on a cover.

So, while Widows of the Empire is not yet in its final final form, I can at least go ahead and share this with you:

Given the title, it’s no surprise to find Lady Belwyn on the cover of this one (Aton, the finder of lost things and other main character for the trilogy, is on the first one).

As usual, this is the work of the fine folks at Deranged Doctor Designs. Coming soon to a shelf near you!

Weekly Read: The Ball Is Round and The Age of Football

Does anyone really need to read more than 1500 pages about soccer? Or, in my case, listen to more than 63 hours of it? Probably not, but if you’re at all interested in the beautiful game beyond watching games, you could do worse. These two volumes – both written by journalist David Goldblatt – explore why the game developed as it has as well as the challenges facing it in the 21st century.

I should say, right at the top, that I’m going to call the game “soccer” throughout. As the history in these books points out, soccer is a derivation of “Association Football,” the actual name of the sport, and is a British phenomenon (in several quoted period sources the game is called “soccer”). It’s not just a heathen American thing – it’s a it’s-called-different-things-around-the-world thing.

The Ball Is Round is the more essential (and longer) of the two because it covers the history of the game, rather than the state of its current form (it was written about the time of the 2006 World Cup in Germany). And it starts with the beginning – surveying the games of ancient cultures to try, without real success, to find the ancestor to soccer.

As an aside, let me say that one thing both of these books have going for them is their scope. They deal with the game on a global level and while Europe (and South America, to a lesser extent) command the most attention, Africa, Asia, and the unholy alliance known as CONCACAF (North and Central American and the Caribbean) are examined pretty closely.

Getting back to the history of the game, more interesting than the nitty gritty origins of the sport and the codification of its rules (sorry, “laws” – soccer is serious business) is how the game spread around the globe. Given its origins in the UK and its spread while the British Empire was at its height, you’d think it was a simple question of imperial imposition, but it really wasn’t. Indeed, large countries with close ties to the British Empire have largely rejected soccer in favor of other pastimes, including the United States, Canada, India, and Australia. What really did it was the soft power of British industry and financing, the tendrils of which reached well beyond the formal boundaries of the Empire.

Thus, in lots of places, the game arrived with expat British workers and grew from there. It’s why so many big named clubs around the world actually have British origins, including Barcelona, AC Milan, and a host of South American clubs. Ever wonder why AC Milan’s big rivals are Inter? It’s because Internazionale was formed in response to the closed up Britishness of AC Milan!

Another interesting part of the development of the game is how tied it was to the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of more affluent working and middle classes (there’s an interesting intersection with the nascent labor movement, which was providing folks with more free time). This helps partially explain why Brazil, for example, has robust state championships based around big cities, in addition to a national league, as the big clubs grew up in cities, without a lot of development in the hinterlands.

Things get less compelling after the Second World War and the book focuses on what Goldblatt calls “industrial football.” That is, the rise of big money in the game, particularly with the increased profile of international competitions like the European Cup (now Champions League), the Copa Libertadores in South America, and, of course, the World Cup. The history is interesting, but Goldblatt slips into a style that is more a string of anecdotes than a compelling central thesis with supporting evidence. The result, as he checks in all over the globe, is a little numbing and overwhelming.

It also highlights some flaws in the book, such as some of the chapters that end with “you are there!” style descriptions of particular matches. Listening to the audiobook it was unclear whether these were taken from actual reports of the game, but it appears that they were Goldblatt’s creation. They’re fine, so far as they go, but it seems to me that writing about a soccer game is a little bit like Frank Zappa’s turn of phrase that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” – it just doesn’t capture the essence of what you’re writing about.

Speaking of the audiobook – the narrator of The Ball Is Round has some odd blind spots when it comes to pronunciation. My heart died a little bit every time he referred to Juventus as “Jewv” (as opposed to “Juve” – aka “you vey”). He gets some other Latin names wrong, too, just often enough for it to be an issue. Thankfully, Goldblatt himself narrates the sequel and it doesn’t have the same problem.

As for The Age of Football, it basically picks up where The Ball Is Round leaves off in terms of chronology – starting with the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and ending with the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Rather than just updating the history, however, this book focuses more on how soccer is intertwined with other aspects of politics and economics around the world. As such, it suffers from the same checking of boxes as we go all around the world seeing the same pathologies play out over and over.

In that sense, The Age of Football is pretty depressing. It shows how the game is used by regimes, authoritarian and otherwise, for legitimacy and national unity. It shows how money had become the primary driver of the global game, with little regard for what that means in places that are left behind.

Goldblatt notes how, for example, interest in local African leagues has plummeted since the advent of satellite TV and smart phones, which allow people all over the continent to watch top leagues in Europe instead. What’s funny is that the same is true, somewhat, in the United States, where diehard fans of English or German teams don’t give Major League Soccer the time of day.

Amidst the gloomy underbelly of the modern game, there is the damned near universal nature of its allure. All those places I mentioned above where soccer didn’t take root initially are starting to come along. China, where the game’s never had much of an impact, is ramping things up. The World Cup is one of the few moments of unity the world gets, which is worth celebrating. And the game is, as they say, the beautiful one, whether it’s played in a gleaming stadium in front of a worldwide audience of billions or in a bare field in the middle of nowhere.