At the end of The Fountainhead (affiliate link), protagonist Howard Roark wins. Years of anonymity and derision give way to tremendous success. The architect’s work is finally recognized for its sheer brilliance. The lesser works of other architects are dismissed as mediocre or worse.
But here’s the rub: Roark never cared about commercial success or recognition. He did the work that he wanted to do—no, that he had to do. He was unwilling to compromise his artistic vision to the point at which he nearly starved to death and had to work in a quarry to provide for himself. He would rather do that than design anodyne buildings.
Rush did the same thing in 1976 with their album 2112. From the Wikipedia page:
Due to the relative commercial failure of their previous album, Caress of Steel, the record label is said to have pressured the band not to do another album with “concept” songs. Caress of Steel contains two multi-part epics: the 12-minute “The Necromancer” (side one) and the side-long epic “The Fountain of Lamneth” (side two).
By their own recollection, the band stuck to its principles and recorded what would become its first commercial success, and ultimately a signature record. 2112 was released in March 1976 and landed on the Billboard Hot 100 album chart, becoming their first album to reach the Billboard Top 100. 2112 would eventually be certified Gold on November 16, 1977.
The Fountainhead was written in 1943. Yes, it’s fiction but this lesson still holds true today. It’s as important as ever.
You can’t control how many books or albums or pictures you sell. However, you can control how you feel about your work.
Roark is a bad example because of how polarizing Rand, and the Fountainhead, are. At best Roark was an an artist pretending to be an engineer. His choice to blow up work he was hired to do based on his own aesthetic standards was a crime regardless of his brilliance or lack their of. And that’s where Rand is problematic: her books are allegorical, but readers are easily confused over which parts of the story are metaphorical and which are literal.
However the question you raise is a good one. How does any maker decide what to make? If you are too conservative, you make only what’s superficially popular. But if an artist is too indulgent, you likely make work that only you like. Deciding what to make and why is an unanswerable question.
Your example from Rush is anecdotal – there are plenty of bands that stuck to their guns and made albums that were commercial failures. The “sticking to your guns” part is only one factor in what makes an album. Plus there’s also the fact that what’s popular and what’s good aren’t necessarily the same.
I admire artists who balance these challenges – there are actors that do a major Holly wood film, and then take on riskier independent projects. They find a balance for maintaining their career but also their artistic ambitions.
That was the point. Taking the risk to make an album that could very well be a commercial failure was worth it for them. Many artists and bands don’t want to take those risks.
Although I liked this post, I thought by the title it’d ask the question “do you make work to be popular today or 10 years from now?”
For example The Great Gatsby wasn’t that popular when Fitzgerald died. But WWII revived it’s popularity and it became a classic decades after it was published.