When musicians release music, we don’t actually let go.
When I say ‘let go’, I don’t just mean to relinquish control over production and call it a wrap. I mean to terminate a relationship with a creative project, turn around, and not look back. That’s because releasing music is a stage in the sharing process.
This distinction is important in that the reception of a release provides important feedback. There may be rare artists who create music without regard for how it will be understood and how it will make people feel, but for most, making music is a social act. Musicians are social beings because we are human beings, and music is inherently social because it is quintessentially human.
Not only does music affect our audiences, their feedback also affects us. This simple fact may seem obvious, but it is worth examining. One value of music, or really any creative process, is the chance for artists to leap ahead of ourselves into truths not yet fully deliberated, but real enough to hold onto. Sharing those truths through music carries questions: by releasing music, we are asking others what they think and feel about what we have discovered.
Our audience’s answers matter too. They can influence our own attitudes towards the truths we have discovered. Those attitudes in turn influence how we choose to grow and what we believe. Of course, the way people respond to us always influences who we are, but music amplifies the feedback loop of our thoughts and ideas.
If music has this power, we ought to choose our audiences carefully. In my own case, releasing tender-fresh thoughts and feelings as songs on streaming platforms distances artists like myself from the audiences I have built in person, reducing their feedback to view counts and subscriptions. Such data tempts me to value what is easily understood over what is personally important. By contrast, sharing music with a circle no wider than my closest friends and family can create an echo chamber that leads to stasis rather than growth.
I try to heed the inner voice that tells me how important a given piece of music might be. The most sensitive of creations are raw bits of sound shared among friends and family. On the other hand, only when I am confident that the most calloused, distant audiences could not throw cold water on my thoughts and feelings do I dare stage a public premiere.
My approach to music is neither practical nor one-size-fits-all. Every musician will find their own audiences and strike a balance between privacy and publicity. The terms of musical releases help strike that balance and open a channel for important feedback.
Michael Dickerson is an Anchorage composer, writer, and educator. He is a board member at Northern Culture Exchange and a 2020 Rasmuson Individual Artist Award recipient.