Know Your Audience

My musician friends like to trot out a YouTube video every once in a while that shows violinist Joshua Bell playing “street musician” at a metro stop in Washington, DC. He received almost no attention at all, despite being one of the country’s best violinists. My friends usually present it as a demonstration of how little people care about quality music and quality performers. I like to add the comment: “The real lesson here? Know your audience.”

I find it annoying when artists, any artist, assume the world revolves around them, or that everyone should enjoy exactly the same thing that they themselves enjoy. Theoretical physicists don’t assume everyone has a functional understanding of string theory. Electrical engineers don’t assume everyone knows what goes into designing a computer’s motherboard. Why should we be surprised when people moving quickly through a station in a major American city during rush hour don’t take the time to appreciate the intricacies of a virtuoso performer playing the works of J. S. Bach?

Many people like to refer to music as being the “universal language”. This may be so, but any artist needs to understand that the effectiveness of the ideas and “vocabulary” one uses will vary depending on who is listening/looking/reading what they are presenting. One of my favorite writers is Harlan Ellison. There is something I’ve noticed when reading his work; his writing becomes much more complex when he’s writing a column or essay than when he writes fiction. He knows that his target audience is very different, and he tailors what he’s writing to fit who he expects to be reading it.

The way this translates into music can be very obvious. However, among serious musicians it becomes a discussion of “good” music versus “bad” music. This is frequently a false distinction. For instance, among classically trained musicians and composers, Paul Hindemith is a highly regarded twentieth century composer of the neoclassical period. Personally, I almost never listen to Hindemith, despite the fact that I really enjoy playing his work. His music is well constructed and a joyful challenge to perform. On the other hand, it’s a little dull to listen to unless you are doing so from an intellectual viewpoint. Without the background of musical training, it’s a bit dry.

Turning to more popular music, fans of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis are frequently divided between enjoying his earlier be-bop recordings such as his work on Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain, and his later experimental recordings such as those found on Bitches Brew and Decoy. For a jazzer who is as iconic as Davis, it would be foolhardy to belittle either period, and yet fans routinely divide between which they prefer listening to. What it comes down to is Davis working to expand what jazz could do. Those later recordings were not intended for casual listeners, but rather for those already well-versed in jazz.

When Bell did his “street musician” thing in DC, he was performing music that would only have a limited appeal in a setting in which no one would have been interested in hearing it. I love listening to Bach, but if I were in a noisy metro stop on my way from one place to another, I wouldn’t have stopped either, even if I knew him by reputation. In that setting lively, widely recognizable music would have worked better. The selections should have included simpler, popular tunes. Lengthy, complex Baroque era violin sonatas would not work there, nor should they be expected to.

Art, like food, comes in various forms and serving sizes. There are times when filet mignon is appropriate, and there are times when a Snickers bar is. Does that make the filet superior to the candy bar? No. It’s just a different choice at a different time.

Art is about communication. Art that is solely for the benefit of the artist will have a very limited appeal, possibly only to the artist himself. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, it is this sort of work that allows the artist to expand their skills and repertoire. But it’s a mistake for the artist to be upset that no one else “gets it”. He has to remember that he has to meet his audience halfway. Give them something they can understand and an environment in which they can consider it. If they don’t understand him, it’s his fault more than it is theirs.