Photo: CC, Seher Sikandar

Musicians have to balance their sound, industry heads and customers

Musical artist Kid Cudi took to Twitter in early October to dissuade some of his fans from purchasing his upcoming release, Speeding Bullet to Heaven. “(I)f you dont like what Im doin now, please abort the train. Do not buy my music from here on out. Its not for you. No hard feelings” (sic).

What led to this docile diatribe? Was he being accused of selling out? Not quite. Kid Cudi is best known for his early mixtape and Grammy-nominated debut single “Day ‘n’ Nite”. The alternative hip hop sound he crafted throughout his first two gold-certified albums, Man on the Moon: The End of Day (2009) and Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager (2010) earned him a cult following. Fans have been hoping for a third installment to the album series, but Kid Cudi has since experimented with a different genre, ditching rap for guitar playing.

While the former rapper feels his new direction is a better representation of his current self, many have argued that in pursuing this new genre he has alienated his original hip hop fan base. The struggle between musician and listener has raised important questions—who should dictate musical content? Does responsibility fall on the artist, the industry heads funding the project, or the consumers buying the product? How much can artists cater to customers that might not like their new releases?

Examples of sonic transformation are abundant in contemporary pop, as many mainstream artists began their careers making different styles of music. For instance, Canadian singer-songwriter Nelly Furtado’s sexualized departure from her folksy beginnings can be traced back to her album Loose. The 2006 release was backed by a new set of producers and merged record label.

Each case garners similar criticism from detractors—the change towards more radio-friendly music was made to sell more records. Unfortunately, when artistic decisions lie in the hands of executives whose objective is profit, the quality risks being compromised.

Musicians can and have, in some cases, regained control of their content. When Alanis Morissette began her career, her first two albums were carved according to dance-pop sound that RCA Records had established for her. Morissette opposed this inauthentic approach with the release of Jagged Little Pill, under her new label Maverick Records, which gave her the platform to pursue a new direction in the music industry.

While labels can help artists they can also hurt them, like when Geffen Records sued Neil Young after he changed his sound for two albums. Labels aside, artists aren’t always so independent about the path they choose, as many have been known to solicit their fans for input. A notable case is Radiohead’s employment of the pay-what-you-want model for the sale of their critically acclaimed seventh album, In Rainbows. At the end of the day, catering to your fans is going to fill up concert venues.

With these examples in mind, the original question remains—should music be reflective of artists, labels, or fans? Well, in the aforementioned case of Kid Cudi, despite the backlash, many have expressed their support and open-mindedness to the artist’s new sound, and he’s even gained some new fans.

It appears that a good balance between the three groups is needed to create successful music. In any case, if it’s the product of genuine artistic innovation, a new musical direction should be welcomed with open arms.