In Pursuit of Artistic Growth

“Ah, but I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.”

Bob Dylan,
My Back Pages 

 

 

In the mid 60s, Bob Dylan was going through a rough patch. His career was perfectly fine — he had written a great many songs that were anthemic and reflective of the nation’s social issues of the time, and needless to say, he was enjoying massive success as a folk musician. But he wasn’t happy. He felt that his musical interests were taking him someplace radically different, and that he needed to walk that path in order to grow. 

In what is now known as the “Electric Dylan” controversy, Bob Dylan went through a tumultuous couple of years when he decided to abandon folk music. He started playing rock, and part of that meant performing with an electric guitar and band instruments, which were considered a huge blasphemy amongst the folk audience. 

He was tired of writing “finger-pointing” protest songs, and wanted to simply write songs. He was done being looked up to as the people’s spokesperson, as he never saw himself as one. He was heading into the great wide open where new opportunities for growth were in store. But his own die-hard and conservative audience was dragging him down. 

His England tour in 1965 was an emotionally exhausting episode. On one hand, he was very well-received by newer fans who loved the new musical direction he was taking. And on the other, he was horribly condemned by his former folk fans. To quote the radio broadcaster John Gilliland, the tour “electrified one half of his audience, and electrocuted the other”.

His folk fans waited in long lines and paid good money to attend his shows, just so that they could heckle and boo him. 

“I didn’t know what was going to happen, but they certainly booed, I’ll tell you that,” Dylan said. “You could hear it all over the place…I mean, they must be pretty rich, to be able to go someplace and boo. I couldn’t afford it if I was in their shoes.”

In a famously documented show at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, a member of the audience shouted, “Judas!”, and was followed with uproarious applause and laughter. 

“I don’t believe you,” Dylan said to the audience, strumming his guitar. “You’re a liar.”

In a moment of bold defiance, he turned his back against the audience, faced his backing band and yelled, “Play it fucking loud!”, as they stormed into an angry rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone”.

The Electric Dylan controversy has since carved an important mark in popular culture, as it encapsulated an uncommon historical moment where an artist was brave enough to bet his career, to give the finger to his own audience, in order to do what he knew was right, to pursue his own artistic growth. 

This isn’t to say that your audience is wrong, or that you shouldn’t care about their opinions. After all, art is a form of business, whether you choose to acknowledge this reality or not. And at its core, a business requires you to maintain a close relationship with your audience, by putting their needs first and making them happy. 

The more a line of work is of a creative nature, though, the harder it is to balance between your audience’s needs and your own — to find a sweet spot between being expressional and being professional. 

But down the road, you might encounter a similar situation as Dylan’s, where you aren’t feeling fulfilled, even if you’re doing fairly well. You might come to feel that what you have with your current audience is a straightjacket that holds you back from better things, or from having that freedom to daydream and experiment again. 

If that’s the case, it might be good for you to put your artistic growth first, over your audience’s needs. And mind you, it’s not easy to make the same leap that Dylan did. After all, it could mean “betraying” or disappointing your own audience who had invested a lot in your work. Not only that, you’re putting yourself at a very real risk of failure.

But at the end of the day, it all comes down to what you value, all the while keeping in mind that there’s a cost to it.

For Dylan, he could have chosen to stay in his prosperous career as a folk musician, but it would’ve cost him his happiness, or sense of fulfillment. Instead he chose to explore new musical territories, even though it meant alienating his audience, slaying a few sacred cows, or frankly, jeopardizing his own career — because his new direction might not have turned out well at all.

But fortunately, it did. He wrote new songs, made new friends, opened himself up to a much larger audience, and the rest is history.

Dylan never looked back. 

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