I’m about to release my next album, a few weeks away now and someone asked me a great question recently which I think deserves a wider audience because I think the answer is relevant to any anyone that has ever presented any artistic endeavour to a wider audience.  WARNING. This is a long rambling post so skip to the tl; dr below if you don’t have the time.

Are you nervous before releasing new music? (Thanks to Jean-Maurice Bicard for this great question)

I answered this pretty briefly at the time but I’ve thought about it even more now, and this post is very long because it’s very much in my nature to over think most things.

I think it’s incredibly important to be true to your art and ever since the word ‘Cosmograf’ was born, I’ve always released music that I want to release, not what I think anyone wants to hear, but there are many swords with double edges here.  

As an artist that has enjoyed somewhat limited success, although in the tiny pond I live in musically, much of that assessment is of course relative, I’m conscious that I also don’t have the luxury of being arrogant enough to never play up to at least some expectations.  Although I don’t do music in order to make a lot of money (I realised early on that wasn’t going to end well), I do need to sell a certain amount of music to pay the bills.  This, ultimately will always dilute the purity of anything I create purely for the love of it, but equally, music isn’t my only income because the money I make from my music doesn’t pay enough to make any sort of living wage. 

Coupled with this is the fact that I’m completely independent. The vast majority of everything I make goes to me, so I do have an unusual freedom and luxury to literally just produce exactly the music I want to make.  This also means that the vast majority of what you buy from me as fans goes to me too which is really unusual and special in this modern world.   Let’s also not forget that in the ‘good’ old days of the record business I wouldn’t have had a chance of being signed…Getting your record heard back then was literally like a lottery win.

Like you, I’ve also seen the social media fallout from a certain recent release from a very well known musician in the genre of prog, and I’d say this…I totally admire any artist that can say, ‘I released the music I want to release and screw the expectations of the fans’.  But any artist claiming that they are ONLY making it for the love of it would really have to forgo any promotion of their own work because any sort of promotion would similarly imply they are expecting financial gain from it, or at least working for someone or some organisation that is, which in many ways is a worse situation.   I’m sorry but there will ALWAYS be a compromise if you want anyone to hear what you’ve done.  

The fact is that producing anything that you want to be heard outside your immediate family and friends involves selling your soul to all sorts of parasitic organisations that want your money, not your art, yes and that for sure means streaming too which again forces all sorts of other compromises including pillaging your concept album for the golden nugget of the short attention span friendly, ‘single’… But this is nothing new…Even one of the greatest concept albums of all time, The Wall spawned the very radio friendly and incredibly successful ‘Another Brick In The Wall.’   The technology may have changed but the same commercial forces are still there.

In the world of Hollywood film, one of my favourite actors, Michael Caine is well known for doing almost any film that pays…at last count, 130.  The thing is a lot of these have been real turkeys but there are some proper gems in there too,  and by measure of the sheer number he’s made, there are a lot more gems to his credit than most other actors. I’m fairly sure though that he attached the same level of acting craft to every one…that is the acting craft of being himself.  Because in every film he’s ever made, he’s Michael Caine…Over many years, the persona of the actor has actually become more significant than the part he is playing…That’s why we love Michael Caine, because he’s spent the best part of 71 years in the business doing what he loves and being himself.  And this is why we love a lot of familiar sounding music too.  

We’ve always been conditioned to get more enjoyment from what we already like and fans get all kinds of upset if the usual hallmarks of their favourite artist are no longer there.   We’d kind of get upset if Robert De Niro did a movie where he stops pulling that trademark surprised face, or when Clint Eastwood stops squinting his eyes and speaking in whispers.  Tom Hanks is also singularly incapable of being in any movie without doing the Tom Hanks shouty, enthusiastic voice.  Can you say any of these actors have progressed?  No offence but I don’t care…I love them all for being who they are.  But this is all much easier of course when you reach legendary status.  When you are on the lower rungs of the ladder, your every artistic direction is questioned. You are damned for doing the same thing and similarly damned for doing something different.

And that’s sometimes how I feel about music too…If I’m truly being honest I like Steven Wilson when he’s being Steven Wilson, and that’s the music he made that made you feel like you wanted to tear your own insides out in sympathy to all that angst, darkness and beauty of his earlier works. But then again I’m torn in half too about his right as an artist to put that aside and try something completely new, even if that new thing was actually something he used to do before he was typecast as the hero of modern prog.  

One of my favourite artists of all time, David Bowie, that took that skill to all kinds of levels…Back at the Movie actor analogy there’s Joaquin Phoenix, Tom Hardy, Johnny Depp, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep…that all manage to reinvent themselves in every role.  

So there’s a pattern here, it’s okay to do different stuff and also just as okay to do the same stuff. Even better to do the same stuff and do different stuff too, if that makes any sense at all.

So, tl;dr am I nervous? Yes!… I’m nervous that I won’t be able to recoup the investment in money and time in making the record.  I’m also worried that I might have spent thousands of hours producing something that will fail to make any impact at all when it’s released.  Am I worried about bad reviews? Not really.  Everyone gets bad reviews… See Steven Wilson example above but as he’s probably the most commercially successful artist in the genre at the moment, I really don’t think he cares about what ‘John on Facebook’ thinks.   My last album Mind Over Depth was criticised by some for being too heavy and I think some people have already made some incorrect assumptions about the direction of the new one based on the first track released.  As an artist you put yourself out there and you will be judged, labelled and typecast whichever.  But I think you also have a choice on what criticism if any, to take on board and what not to.   

Having your music overlooked or ignored though is the worst…that really hurts, which kind of undermines the whole thing about being a true artist and making the music for your self.  Every musician I know wants to share what they’ve done and of course they want people to like it…

Will any of this change what music I make?,  Nope…  I’ll be doing what I want, but I also suspect in my efforts to change things up and ’progress’ you will always see the same raw ingredients. I’m super grateful for the support though either way.  I’ll have to leave it to you to decide if you see me as progressing or just being me and doing the same old…or whether that’s even important.