Last week, one of my Advanced Class students said something which has bothered me ever since. It’s not that I haven’t heard it before-in fact, I’ve heard it much too often-but usually from business executives, and jaded ones at that.
The whole thing started when I commented that a number of songs on the radio recently have sounded quite a lot like another song called, “Old Time Rock & Roll.” The student defended them with the statement that they were making money from these clones. I suggested that integrity might enter the picture somewhere (he was a new student, so I was more tactful than I might have been on his 4th week). To this he responded with the line in question, “Integrity doesn’t pay the bills.”
First of all, I can understand the attention a person might have on paying the bills, especially in this economy. But I feel it’s such an incredibly dangerous viewpoint for an artist to have, I wanted to address it-or undress it-publicly. The student who said it is talented and bright, and I don’t think he actually embraces this as a heartfelt philosophy. I think it was an offhanded remark. But since he said it, here goes.
Check out the definition of “integrity.” It’s not just honesty or incorruptibility. It’s also “wholeness,” “soundness.” It’s in the writer’s nature to put things together to form a whole-and that’s the main meaning of “integrate.” I’ve observed many writers-colleagues, mentors, students-some hugely successful, some total unknowns. But one thing I’ve noticed is that the ones who are doing it because they love it and have something to express are generally the ones being successful at it. The ones who got into it to make money usually never did. It’s sort of like a guy who takes a girl out just to go to bed with her and can’t figure out why he never gets to.
It’s not that you’re getting punished for being mercenary, or anything else so linearly Puritan. It’s simply that you’re coming from the wrong place and that’s where your attention will be-on the money, not on the music. You’ll make decisions based on that; your passion will be centered somewhere away from the song. It’s like trying to get turned on by the person you married for money. You’ve created your own prison.
Now somewhere, some songwriter is reading this who has made a lot of money with his/her art and he/you may be smiling. But think back to when you first started writing. Weren’t you doing it for the love of the process, the heat of the communication, the thrill of the music? And when your attention is on writing “something that will sell,” do you like what you come up with as well as you do when you write because you really want to say something or get that musical idea on tape?
I remember hearing my late producer, Nik Venet, say that even though McDonald’s may be the biggest restaurant chain, one would not ask to meet and compliment the chef there. Similarly, Citizen Kane never made its investment back, whereas Love Story made millions. But which one do we remember?
In my own experience, songs I wrote from that burning desire to communicate were always my most successful copyrights. And here I’m talking about songwriting-not assignment writing for films or records, because that’s a whole different subject. They are commissioned anyway. I’m referring to those songs that are an extension of who you are as an artist-that you would perform yourself, proudly, if you sing.
“Integrity doesn’t pay the bills” may be true. But neither does chasing trends, writing at the radio, ripping off other songs, and focusing on writing something that will make a lot of money. To make a lot of money, it has to sell a lot or be played a lot or both. That means lots of people have to hear it and buy it. That means it has to move people when they hear it. Now, if you think you’re good enough to write something that’s going to move all those people, while you’ve got your attention and your passion over there on your bank statement, be my guest. Give it a try. But your craft had better be unbelievably good to pull that one off. And between the time you start and the time your craft is THAT good, there’s a lot of dues paying and songwriting you’ll have to do. So you might just as well do it for the love of it. Maybe you’ll even discover in the process that integrity has fewer bills to pay.