What do artists owe their fans?

That old question came up on a Brian Eno mailing list. The exact thread was “Does Eno give a shit about his fans?” which should give you some idea about what the presumed answer was. The argument was that Eno indulges in gallery exhibitions plus limited edition releases and the rare lecture in far-flung places that makes it hard for a fan keep up with him or enjoy his latest work and musings. On the list, there were people who defended Eno for following his own muse wherever it took him and others who thought that his obliqueness was his way of pissing off fans. So what’s the right balance for an artist to maintain in relationship to fans?

It’s not an easy question and there’s no single right answer of course. In Eno’s case, he took the idea of a career in music as an open-ended commitment where instead of doing the recording-touring cycle endlessly, he would take detours like doing producing work, collaborations, running a label, making videos, etc.. Similarly, Manchester’s fabled Factory Records numbered its “releases” to include not just albums but also concerts, posters and even a nightclub, making it impossible for fans to collect their whole series. Like Eno, they wanted to play with and explore the idea of what a music career should be.

Then consider two extremes. Jay-Z, P Diddy and Master P have taken their music careers and turned them into numerous marketing opportunities that extended what was possible in the music industry (of course, some would say that they got carried away with this and were ready to license anything). Compare that with some famous recluses like Syd Barrett, Skip Spence and Capt Beefheart. The first two spent decades in seclusion, producing no new music until they passed away while Beefheart retired from music in the early 80’s and stayed that way, immersed in painting since then. Their fans have to make due with whatever they produced before they lost their muse. And then there’s Jandek who remained an oblique mystery, putting out dozens of albums until finally deciding to do concerts in the last few years.

Somewhere between those extremes lies most other artists. Where does your favorite band or performer stand? What do you think is the right level of involvement between performers and their audience?

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