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.

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