The Art of Compromise or The Compromise of Art

art of compromise

Gravity and Relativity

Out of the Grey lite. That’s what my husband Scott and I call Gravity, our fourth record. Actually, a fan came up to our CD table after a concert one night in 1995 and bestowed that description.

“I love all of your albums up to this point but this new one is more like Out of the Grey lite.”

Yikes! He was right.

Before recording Gravity, we’d written our ten songs and were ready to head into the studio. Monday morning, 10 AM downbeat. However, the Thursday before our scheduled session, the record label decided we didn’t have enough ‘radio-friendly’ songs.

What?

Scott and I dug in our heels for a short minute then went with the pressure to play the game. Over that weekend, we scrambled to write a few new songs with more pop appeal. Our producer, Charlie Peacock, helped us win approval by co-writing the songs, “When Love Comes to Life” and “Hope In Sight.”

Half of the songs and a lot of the production came out lacking what we thought of as Out of the Grey artistry. We did get some radio play, though.

At the end of the day, did we practice the art of compromise or did we compromise our art?

A Play on a Play

art of compromiseHave you seen the film, Bullets Over Broadway?

You could call it a play on a play. The story examines artistic integrity and how far an artist will go to protect and defend it—or lose it. It poses a question about the sometimes-dirty word compromise, asking if it has its place or if it is always reprehensible.

At the beginning of this 1994 release, David, a young playwright, tries to gather funds and cast members to perform his beloved work of art. Time constraints, human foibles, and money woes assail his stance on artistic integrity. At first, David stands his ground, refusing to give up control over his writing and his role as director. Nevertheless, when an underworld thug with the funds for production materializes and seems a godsend, David compromises. The catch of the money deal is that the gangster’s talentless girlfriend must play a small part.

After David softens his stance regarding talent and economics, taking the production money plus the girl, his agent leads him into other small compromises. As the play unfolds and rehearsals progress, David’s artistic integrity slips so far that he rewrites dialog at the behest of the manipulative lead actress. However, the playwright’s climactic sin is letting the goon who babysits the talentless young actress make changes in lines, scenes, and the plot. David recognizes that this mobster hitman is more talented than he. In the end, David is not an artist who is willing to stand by his original work.

This play about a play never reveals what the playwright’s play was actually about. We get the gist, though, that more drama, sex scandals, and realism are what the people want. Are the characters speaking our language? Does the plot mirror our own struggles? Have we left off the lofty and abstract so that the crowd can get the message point blank? Bullets fly at movie’s end when the story descends into an action-filled thriller.

Popular Art

The population at large loves what it can enjoy and comprehend without extra effort. As a pop music snob, I pooh-pooh much of the stuff that seems all fluff. I prefer a more complicated theme than, say, “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.” Having said that, I’m aware that other types of music-lovers wouldn’t call pop music ‘art’ at all.

To be sure, inside a fine art gallery, I might lift my eyebrows at the abstract and inaccessible. Impatient and ignorant, I don’t take the time to find the deeper meaning, moving further along the wall in search of served-up messages. When it comes to Art, I dig in my heels in relative places, drawing my own particular lines in the sand.

For example, I have written some artistically obscure songs like, “Becoming,” not caring whether anyone heard them or at least not worried that some might miss its message. However, I have certainly written songs with radio play in mind. Economic forces drove my compromise in the form of pressure from the record company and the mortgage company. One argument for concession goes something like this: if some of my art compromises its beauty for popularity sake, it will expose my more artistic pieces to a wider audience.

Mass Appeal

Many an Out of the Grey fan found us first on the radio. Before Gravity, our popularity had been growing. A lot of people told us they liked our fresh, left-of-center sound. Record sales were adding up and we wanted to capitalize on the momentum. It’s an old story.

art of compromise

The pressure to compromise can sideline even the best of intentions. When something good gets more popular, getting more becomes the modus operandi. For example, in the 1990s, Starbucks was just a cool cafe on the west coast. Scott and I had to mail-order their exotic blends and dark roasts. Nowadays, there’s a Starbucks on every corner, the McDonald’s of coffee some say. Compromising quality for quantity some complain.

However, mass-appeal has its appeal. It allows me to find a cheap knock-off of the expensive version of something or other I could otherwise not afford to purchase. As Meryl Streep schools Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada about the origin of the color of her cheap cerulean blue sweater, so I should take a lesson and remember that design is a gift with a steep price.

Mob Mentality

I am an artistic snob when I care to be and part of the mob when I don’t. If I don’t sink my toes into certain artistic fields of expression, I am tempted to pass by quickly with a quick judgment. I may think you are crazy if you only buy a carefully curated olive oil while you may drop your jaw at me for spending so much time choosing between “a” or “the” in a song lyric. You may secretly judge my mall clothes as fashion mongrels while I am arguing internally that you can’t possibly enjoy the ‘music’ of Florida Georgia Line.

art of compromise

From Nicholas Sparks and J.K. Rowling to Feodor Dostoevsky and Charles Dickens, with so many in between, who decides what is good art or bad, high quality or low? Certainly, mass appeal isn’t a consistent measuring stick because watered-down art proliferates even as the cream rises to the top.

Relative Obscurity

Positively speaking, compromise is a humbled move toward peace. It need not always be an act of artistic cowardice.

What’s my point? Humility, I guess. If pride in my fine taste stiffens my stance in one corner of the rug, someone will surely pull it out from under my feet with revelations of what I am missing. More than likely, what appeals to you has merits I haven’t investigated. Maybe you love every song and sound on Gravity. I’m glad if you do!

In keeping my knees unlocked and soft, I can walk your way and experience the view from your side of the room. You can show me what I’ve missed in Picasso and I can point out the genius of Sting. We can meet at Starbucks, maybe stop to shop at the mall, and go from there.

Out of the Grey’s fan base fell off sharply after the release of Gravity. Our follow-up, See Inside, never found the listeners we thought it deserved. Scott and I sometimes wonder what would have happened if we’d held our ground on how we wanted to shape our sound. The question will remain: does gravity suck or is it just a natural force that no artist can escape? The answer lies in the ears of the beholder. The rest is left to relative obscurity.

The Recording Process #4: BGV’s Part 2

singing boy in profile belting into a studio microphone

Singing: BGV’s By Definition

In Part 1 of this series about singing background vocals, I described the first 4 items on this list. I have tried to simplify how it all happens in the recording studio with some quick definitions and examples. Read the first part here. Now let’s talk about numbers 5, 6, and 7.

  1. Doubles
  2. Stacks
  3. Vocal Padsboy in profile belting into a studio microphone
  4. Harmonies
  5. Call and Response
  6. Counter Melodies
  7. Gang Vocals

Call and Response

You’ve heard lots of songs that use this cool technique for adding interest and adding other voices to the mix. Usually, the ‘call’ is the lead singer’s part which is answered or echoed by a less- prominent vocal in the background.

Out of the Grey‘s song, “Shine Like Crazy,” on the Rocketown album titled 6.1, is a good example.  Monroe Jones produced this project and in this song, he had Scott and me exchanging lines in the verses. In the choruses, you’ll notice there is also a call and response in which I sing “shine” and then a responsive pad of voices echoes with their own “shine.” Call and response singing sometimes comes close to being a duet. We use this technique a lot in our Out of the Grey music.

Counter Melodies

singing

I like to weave in countermelodies on some parts of my songs. Maybe my classical training plus that Counterpoint 101 class at Berklee College of Music inspired this in me. (By the way, Scott, who was not my husband at the time, and I were in that class together and he got a passing grade only by a hair, thanks to my help! But that’s another blog).

These types of melodies play off of the main melody, maybe going in opposite directions from the original. Or they may add new rhythmic twists.

An example of what I call a counter melody is at the end of the song, “Constant.” It’s on the See Inside record which Brown Bannister produced. You can hear the lyric, melodic, and rhythmic changes I made to the original part which add interest at the very end of the song.

Also, in “Eyes Wide Open,” you’ll notice that the second half of the second verse has an interesting counter-melodic BGV happening on the lyric: “I am trying to be wise, I’m watching You to keep me far from dulling lullabies.”

I urge you to keep your ears wide open to hear examples of this in other music!

Gang Vocals        singing group of people

On my solo project, Voyage, my producer, Scott Dente, had a great idea for the out-choruses of the song, It’s All About You. He brought in some friends to gather around the microphone and sing along with my lead in the last choruses of the song.

As a group, each singer sang the melody for a few recorded passes. On the next few passes, each person sang a harmony. Scott told them to not worry about precision, let it get a little sloppy.

Then on the final few tracks, he had some of the singers back up from the microphone and get a bit shouty on the next passes. This created the gang vocal effect, all the tracks adding up to quite a large crowd of voices. It brings a lot of energy and interest to the end of the song.

On our son Julian’s song, “Father,” you can hear the gang vocal in the final choruses where everyone is singing: “Father, won’t you listen to me, cos I want to believe, I want to believe you.” He had a bunch of his friends come to the studio to be part of the “gang.” And he invited me to be in there, too. How cool is that?

Producers use gang vocals a lot. See if you can find some examples of your own.

What Do You Know

Most of what I know about singing has come from my many years of experience on the road and in the studio. I am amazed at how much we learn from just living the lives in which we find ourselves!  What expert knowledge do you have to share, just because it’s a part of who you are?

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