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How not to please your audience

When you’re an artist, it makes little sense to try to please your audience. At least not if you take your art seriously.

If an artist were to base his work on what their audience would like to see or hear from them, they would inevitably have to limit themselves to what they have already produced. Simply because the public cannot know what it would like. They only know what they do already like. If you asked them, they’d almost certainly tell you: “More of that, please!” And that’s what you would need to do.

If you strive to please the audience, you’re shooting too low. You are being too cautious.

Which keeps you from breaking new ground. Because, well, what if they don’t like it?

The problem is that no audience in this world can guess what kind of art they haven’t seen from you.

If Miles Davis had asked what his audience liked, he would never have recorded “Bitches Brew”, Eddie van Halen would never have played his “Eruption” solo, Stravinsky would not have composed “Le Sacre du Printemps”, John Scofield wouldn’t have recorded “Time on My Hands”.

Your audience understands not nearly as much about your art as you do. They don’t know what art hasn’t been made by you, yet. And they certainly can’t imagine how it looks like beyond the boundaries of what you’ve done before.

So, what’s left is to trust your own judgement.

That’s what Bowie was referring to when he called himself “selfish” about his work. Rather than his audience, he trusted his own judgement to lead him to places where others would like to follow. Just like Miles Davis and Eddie van Halen did. They pioneered uncharted territory and then lighted the path for others to follow.

The same is true for any creative – developers, designers, and engineers, and more …

If Apple’s primary goal had been to please their customers, they would never have created the iPhone. No one would have wanted a smartphone without a keyboard, had they been asked. Not even if you had shown them one. If Apple had just wanted to please their fans, they would have developed a prettier phone, not a radically different one. Apple refused to please their customers. They were just as selfish as Bowie was.

And yet, I think that companies are actually the opposite of selfish when they take Bowie’s stance. Products exist as solutions to a problem. No customer understands the problem that you’re solving nearly as well as the makers of these products.

And so, we need to trust our own judgement when it comes to finding the best solution to that problem. We must not stop at the most pleasing solution, but continue to strive for the best solution.

That might not always be what our audiences expected. Sometimes, it might not even please them. But it’s the right thing to do. And if it’s actually great, eventually, it will not only be right but, of course, also please them.

What are you building on uncharted territory? How do you light the path for your audience?

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