Words by Richmond Uy
You can probably relate to the following scenario: finding a band or musician and sticking with them from the start, over the years watching them grow as a band in their fan base and with their sound. You become proud of them, and love seeing them grow from small beginnings to greater things through their hard work and sheer talent.
However, something happens. They start playing at larger venues, start getting a larger fan base and/or sign to a new record label. With that comes huge expectations for this band’s next record which often disappoints or divides their fanbase. This happens especially if the band decides to try to experiment sounds, going so far to probably abandon their old sound entirely. We can see this from legendary rock musicians like Weezer, who changed their distorted guitar sound in favour of a meld of rock, pop, and electronic sounds, or The Strokes slowly losing their garage rock sound as frontman Julian Casablancas started his own experimental electronic band. Even someone as popular as Childish Gambino switching his hard hitting raps for more soulful music turns off some fans who loved albums such as Camp and Because The Internet.
This is especially hard for artists that make it big on their first few records, often calling the proceeding album their “sophomore slump” which is essentially the album that has to live up to the high expectations set up by their first album. This idea begs the question of who’s fault it is in the end. On the one hand, it could be the fault of the fans, expecting so much from the artist. It is often forgotten that artists are human beings with their own taste and their own lives. The groups of people who are often badgering the artist to put out music are also consumers who see these artists as products that exist for their pleasure.
Even if a band were to pursue a sound that is more trendy, it could be possible that the artist just really likes and wants to work with this sound, which is something the fanbase can’t control, and merely just chalk it up to selling out. It is said by many that a band like Weezer sold out their sound, yet they haven’t totally turned away from their original sound, making albums like the White Album, which is mostly their classic style. Even on the Black Album where half of its sound is trendy, the other half contains a lot of electronic, hip hop and rock alternative sounds. The fanbase expectations for the next record are also something to note, always trying to measure the quality of their records to be similar, even in how they sound. These are ultimately unrealistic due to how putting these artists in a box are only going to stagnate them, and this mindset rejects the notion of these artists ability to grow.
However, the artists themselves are not exempt from responsibility. Unintentional or not, when the personal and professional are so mixed together, especially on such a huge public platform like being a stage performer, these artists must establish a relationship with their audience. With that there has to be a level of respect towards that relationship and their fans, acknowledging why they have latched onto your sound and lyrics that you’ve written. This requires a level of self awareness that an artist must maintain when navigating themselves in this situation, acknowledging this aforementioned relationship, but also what their original sound contributes to the genre or scene that they participate in and benefit from. It is not the responsibility of the artist to churn out music that will please the fans, and it is not the responsibility of the fanbase to gravitate toward whatever the artist does. Fans have the freedom to turn away from and look for new music. It’s not like the first few records of the artists have disappeared; the fans can always go back and listen to their original sound if they don’t enjoy their new records.
This dilemma is always very hard for an artist to navigate as this essentially dictates or hugely influence how they try to take their sound and artistic vision. So it begs the following questions: Is it the fan’s fault for setting up unrealistic expectations, and claiming so much ownership over the artist’s musician? Or is the artist’s fault for selling out, betraying their fans by pursuing a sound that their original fanbase has loved so much?
With everything, I believe it is a mix of both concepts, and with that comes the solution of finding a balance. Of course these artists shouldn’t be boxed into a singular expectation and should be allowed to do their own thing. However, these artists should always try to navigate themselves in a manner of self awareness and respect the relationship they have with their audience. This can be seen in artists like Frank Ocean and Earl Sweatshirt, both artists that know they don’t have to live up to the expectations of their fans, but also respect the relationship they have with their audience. Both artists had such a huge gap between the release of their first albums and their next album release, and made albums that are so different from their first few albums in sound and subject matter, but always wins the praise of their fans. This is due to their ability to communicate genuinely with their fans and being honest with who they are and how they want to approach their art, whilst also respecting the space they take up in their respective genres and community.
At the end of the day, artists are gonna do want they wanna do, and the fans are gonna do what they wanna do too. However it is important to think about the relationship between the artists and the audience. We’re all growing, even our Day 1 artists.