Self-Expression or Listener Alienation? The Delicate Balance of Writing Music For an Audience

September 11, 2018

[Editors Note: This article was written by Patrick McGuire.]


Why do you make music?

This seems like a simple question, but it’s really not. Some artists do it in hopes of getting love, money or admiration and others do it simply because they feel like they have to. Not two artist’s motivations for creating music are the same, and either are the intended audiences for their work.

Write music purely for yourself and you run the risk of alienating your listeners, but making music with the main motivation of pleasing the masses isn’t any better.

Like all other essential parts of being a serious musician, a delicate balance is in order.

Made, performed by and intended only for you

There’s nothing wrong with making music purely as a means for self-expression that’s only meant for your ears. But when you take that music and share it with other people, it’s not really for you anymore.

In fact, the second you put music out into the world, ownership of your music transfers to whoever bothers to listen to it. I’m not talking about actual ownership here, of course, but emotional ownership. Sharing music is an act that gives listeners the chance to let your work speak to and relate to them.

If your music purely exists on your terms and within your own world, you will probably have a hard time reaching an audience.

Hidden meanings, complex personal stories, esoteric narratives––music runs the risk of coming off as an inside joke that listeners can’t wrap their heads around when it’s too personal and introverted. Again, making music for only yourself is completely fine, but when you put it in front of listeners, you’ve got to think about their needs and perspective if you hope to make your work resonate and relate.

Begging the world to like you with your music

Creating music with the express purpose of pleasing everyone is worse than making honest music without your listeners in mind.

Bland, uninspired and fake music gets made when the writing process leaves out the songwriter and only thinks of the listener. And the funny thing about trying to write successful music is that it never turns out the way you think. You could incorporate every formula for success under the sun and still write a song that no one cares about.

Ultimately, what determines whether a piece of music finds listeners or not is a whole mess of moving parts that’s impossible to predict, but you’ll have the best chance at success by making something new, vivid and honest.

The balancing act

How can a songwriter write successful music that’s still genuine and honest?

It’s not easy and there are no catch-all formulas. Great songwriting is more about leveraging your own natural talent, musical intuition and life experience than it is about trying to know and understand what the world likes, but there has to be some sort of a dialogue between songwriter and listener. One thing is clear when it comes to making music, though: If your only motivation for making music is conventional success, you probably won’t be very good at what you do.

Any art form, no matter what medium it is, can’t be figured out and replicated in a way where success is guaranteed. This is why making music is risky. People might not like or understand your work, and that’s OK. If everyone loved every piece of music, then music wouldn’t mean anything. Creative value and meaning in music isn’t easy to create, and that’s why it’s so important.

One of the best ways to make music in a way that keeps your listeners in mind is by remaining connected to your own humanity. Love, death, joy, heartache, leaving home, striving towards something––these are topics that every human being can relate to.

If you can learn to highlight and speak to your own human condition in a compelling way through music, you’ll be able to reach and engage your audience. Yes, your music is about you, but it’s also about all of us. Thinking about how you’re in the same boat as your listeners in terms of fears, hopes and broad perspectives will put you in a creative mindset that pushes energy and ideas outside of yourself.

Paying attention to what sort of music is resonating with listeners can help you write something current, but not anything meaningful necessarily. Leaning in to your own style and intuition will give you the best chance at making something memorable.

It’s not easy and you’ll never be done, but this sort of songwriting philosophy will sustain you more than chasing trends or shrouding your music with inaccessibility.

Patrick McGuire is a writer, composer, and experienced touring musician based in Philadelphia.

Tags: audience featuring songwriting