Billy Joel was playing at Wrigley Field the other night. I could hear him outside my window.
Piano Man. Uptown girl. She’s Always a Woman. All the hits.
And he was rocking out — he wasn’t phoning it in. Which made me think…
Billy Joel has been singing the same songs for almost 50 years ( the album, Piano Man was released in 1973). How many shows has he played between then and now?
And not just big shows — how many weddings has he played for celebrities and royalty every year? How many nieces and nephews have had ‘uncle Billy’ play at their birthday parties?
This goes for all the pop artists from the 60’s and 70’s. They get up on stage time after time, decade after decade, and play the same handful of songs over and over again.
The audience could care less about the new stuff. Those songs are just distractions. In fact, the audience gets a little annoyed when they hear a song they haven’t heard before. They paid for the hits and they want to hear them, damn it.
And so Billy Joel has to play Piano Man at Wrigley Field in the summer of 2018 just as enthusiastically as he did in the winter of ‘73.
What does this mean to people like me who create content for others? A couple things…
Listen to your audience to find your groove
As someone who creates content publicly (though to a muuuuuuch smaller audience than Joel), it was testament to this fact…
If you strike a chord with your audience, they’ll never get sick of you saying the same thing over and over again.
For example, Seth Godin has been saying the same thing over and over again for decades as well. It goes like this (it was the tagline on his site until recently), ‘Go. Start something.’ That’s it. On repeat. Keynote after keynote; bestseller after bestseller; blog after daily blog — for decades.
Maybe you’ve taken the time and emotional effort to build a body of work, either via your YouTube channel, blog, books, podcasts, or what have you.
And maybe something took off. You had no idea. This thing you lobbed out there went absolutely bonkers. This is insane — you’ve gone viral (or at least micro-viral).
One of the first pitfalls that can come up is the thought that you have to switch it up. It’s easy to fear that people always want new stuff from you. That they’ll think you’re unoriginal for beating that same drum again.
But you have to flip that notion on its head.
Your hit sets the groundwork for a deeper groove to be laid in the minds and hearts of your audience.
This is just the start. People obviously want more. Which can lead us to a certain kind of existential pitfall…
“This is great, but who I am is so much more than that”
I know what you’re thinking because I’ve been there. Your hit is kinda surface-level stuff in your mind, right?
You’re telling yourself that you’re way deeper and more complex than those Top-40-esque hits of yours (as much as you love them). And maybe you are.
I mean, my #1 hit is a post I wrote almost three years ago after one year of daily blogging…
“But I’m not one of these people who just blog about blogging,” I told myself. “My passion is writing about faith and spirituality, not just blogging for bloggers!”
That’s when my adult self stepped in…
“Stop it, Jonas. You are a blogger and people like that about you. Yes, you’re more than that, but own it!”
(Okay, enough self-dialogue. I had to get that out.)
We can’t discount the responses of our audience. If you’re doing your art for a living — or at least, you’d like to — your main job is to serve them, not to navel-gaze.
I’m sure James Taylor knows his creative depths go far deeper than Fire and Rain, but that doesn’t stop him from giving his audience what they want (48 years later!).
Sure, you have absolute creative license to reinvent yourself. I’ve done it a couple times. And each time, it hurt like hell. I remember wishing I was more like Billy Joel (in hindsight) and could suck it up and play an awesome Uptown Girl for the 9,000th time.
Because, here’s the thing…
Your audience has zero responsibility to continue liking you.
It’s harsh, but it’s true. As an audience member of yours, all it takes is one click to unsubscribe from your world forever.
Listen, you’re an artist. Sometimes, you have to make bold moves. I applaud you for it. Just understand the reality of the possible repercussions and proceed accordingly. If the bottom falls out and everyone leaves, go ahead and be pissed, but you have to enjoy rebuilding from the rubble. And your second structure might appeal to an entirely different subset of people than your first one.
Here’s one way to introduce your newer, more heartfelt stuff to your audience…
Sneak your new stuff in, drip by drip
What smart artists who have hits seem to do is this… They keep feeding their audience their hits (ex: their new song sounds a lot like their old songs with different words) and they sneak their new stuff into the background.
They’ve given their audience what they want. They’ve made them feel justified for showing up. And now, here’s a new thing I’ve been working really hard on that I think you’ll really like.
Test the waters and see if your audience bites — even a little bit. If so, put more and more in until a larger portion of your work resembles your more heartfelt ‘interesting’ stuff.
Take John Mayer for example. I like John Mayer. His songs are like bubble gum: tasty for a few minutes and then they lose their flavor and you move on with your day. No biggie.
But then he came out with his Paradise Valley album. I was blown away. It wasn’t quite a 180 — maybe a 90 or a 60 — but he was speaking my language. Others, I’m sure, hated it. But that was a risk Mayer took. If it was worth it to him, he could have kept going on that trajectory full-bore thus alienating his old fans while gathering a new audience of acoustic bluegrassy geeks like me.
This isn’t the first time he’s jumped into other lanes. He did it with his Where The Light Is: Live in Los Angeles album which appealed more to blues fans than his typical contemporary crowd.
However, John Mayer keeps playing Your Body is a Wonderland just as he has for 20 years (damn, I’m old — I bought his first hit CD when it came out).
In closing, notice your hits. Embrace them. Learn from them. And know you will resent them (but they truly are blessings if handled the right way).
Move forward accordingly.