“Pictures were made to entertain; if you want to send a message, call Western Union.” – Samuel Goldwyn
Yesterday’s brief piece about film director Peter Weir evoked quite a bit of comment and email. Our Gentle Readers largely concurred with my sentiments. I expected that, as our readers tend to be older than today’s typical moviegoer. But the broad subject of how to please one’s audience isn’t confined to cinema. Anyone who addresses the creation of some sort of entertainment must face it.
All entertainment must, of course, entertain. It can do other things as well, but its first priority must be to divert and please its audience. If it puts any other priority above that one, it will have no audience. Successful writers, musicians, and filmmakers know it. Many have learned that the hard way.
But some never learn it. Some resist learning it throughout their careers. They put gratifying some personal desire above entertainment. These, to be gentle about it, aren’t as well or widely received as they might otherwise be.
One divergent path that’s been on my mind recently is the artist determined to experiment. There have been some well-known artists who’ve deliberately stepped across a boundary, risking the alienation of their established audiences, to explore a new mode or medium. A few manage to pull it off without torpedoing their careers. But the majority of such experimenters don’t manage it.
If you go into any brick-and-mortar bookstore – yes, there are still a few such – to survey the offerings, you’ll notice at once that the books are categorized. Publishers do that because they know that readers’ tastes fall into a number of recognized channels, usually called genres. The categorization procedure helps the reader find what he likes and wants. And yes, it also helps the publishers sell their books; publishing is a business, after all.
The writer determined to experiment may chafe under the genre system. He might want to cross genre boundaries with his current tale. Or he might want to violate some of the conventions of the genre in which he writes. Some such forays do succeed – the recent trend of incorporating romances into science-fiction stories is an example – but most don’t. If they find an audience, it’s likely to be a minor one.
There have been a lot of experimenters in contemporary music. These face obstacles comparable to those before the experimentally-inclined writer. Once again, some pull it off; Bob Dylan did so more than once. But most struggle vainly against the force of audience preferences.
There’s a cleavage to be respected here. It separates the entertainer from the unsuccessful artist. The former emphasizes pleasing his audience; the latter prefers to gratify his own desires. And so the former garners an audience and, quite likely, profits, while the latter mutters about “not being understood.”
Let it be said at once that there are extremes and intermediate positions to be considered. The entertainer who feeds his audience uncreative pabulum is called a hack. While he may make money, he doesn’t get a lot of respect. The experimenter who finds the “golden mean,” by which he manages to entertain his audience while blazing a new trail in his chosen medium, is celebrated. He may become known as the leader of a new artistic movement. But probing for that golden mean while keeping the bucks flowing in is one tough proposition.
This is on my mind today because of some musical wanderings I’ve been indulging. A few days ago I mentioned Jim Dawson in a fit of reverie. Dawson had one very popular record, his 1971 album Songman. After that his popularity waned, possibly because his later offerings were seen as repetitive. Another musician who started off well, Tim Buckley, never did anything twice. Consider these representative tracks from six of his albums:
Buckley originally had a following, but it dwindled as he wandered among styles and modes. Despite being hailed as an upcoming sensation for his first two offerings, he died in poverty at the age of 28.
The path of success in combining entertainment with innovation appears narrow indeed. There’s no help for it. Worse, complaining that “my audience doesn’t understand me” is banal and boring. Even your fellow artist-innovators are indisposed to listen to you; after all, they think you should be listening to them. There’s a moral in there, somewhere.