For most bands, commercial success comes at a price. To achieve the platinum records, sold-out arenas and white tigers on gold leashes, you need to make the kind of music that makes money.
And you ain't gonna make millions of dollars writing pretentious free-jazz improvisations about the unethical behaviour of bankers during the global financial crisis. Hell no! What you're gonna do is a write a hit single. Three of them, in fact. Then you will pimp yourself out to the media, tour relentlessly and wait for the record sales to roll in. Sounds easy, but it's not, and despite the wealth and fame, it’s not necessary good for the artist either. Many regret the experience.
A recent example is MGMT. After the wild success of their singles "Time To Pretend", "Electric Feel" and "Kids", they decided that the whole 'being successful and having to continue being successful' wasn't really for them. The follow-up album was largely seen as a deliberate attempt at commercial suicide. Even stars like Miley Cyrus seem to want a break from the restrictions that come with pop superstardom, preferring to spend 2016 focussing on a leftfield side-project to fulfil her creative ambitions.
Twenty One Pilots are at a crossroads. After a line up change, three albums and a splattering of EPs, relentless touring round America and beyond with the likes of Fall Out Boy, they released Blurryface this year to phenomenal success. The record was noticeably more polished and orientated towards radio. That resulted in the record entering the Billboard 200 at no.1 and it has now sold over 500,000 copies. They performed at the MTV Music Awards with A$AP Rocky and they're set to play two shows at Madison Square Garden in New York. Sure, it's not Adele-levels of success, but it's more than 99% of musicians will ever experience.
The trouble is that Tyler and Josh don’t necessarily seem like they're all that into it. Let’s take the lyrics from "Lane Boy" as an example.
"Honest, there’s a few songs on this record that feel commonLane Boy
I'm in constant confrontation with what I want and what is poppin'
In the industry it seems to me that singles on the radio are currency
My creativity's only free when I’m playin’ shows"
The irony of these lines appearing on a radio-ready song like "Lane Boy" is not lost here. Interesting, a similar sentiment is also expressed in the lyrics to "Fall Away" a few years earlier.
Then there was a quote from a recent interview with Alternative Press in which Josh admitted that the band had initially turned down the opportunity to play at the MTV Awards. "There was an artist they mentioned and we said, 'Thank you, but we’re going to pass. It doesn’t make sense for us for a number of reasons. And we thought that was it: We had blown out chance to play the VMAs—and it's gone forever. But it was a good decision and it made sense." It was only later when MTV suggested A$AP Rocky instead that the band decided to perform.
It's not hard to read between the lines here and decipher that they were obviously aware of what their performance might say about the band's commercial intentions, particularly if it was with a major pop star, as well as possibly alienating fans by partnering with such a mainstream, pop-orientated media channel.
It had us wondering; how long are TOP willing to stay in the middle of that battle between commercial realities and artistic integrity? Inevitably something will have to give. So far they've surfed these choppy waters with ease, and Blurryface did well to continue the band’s genre shifting without watering down the melting pot of influences. But if they're already feeling the pressure, how are they going to deal with the next album, when their (major) label will be expecting even greater things?
Will they decide to ditch the commercial aspects of their sound altogether to fulfil their creative ambitions? With a following as large and dedicated as they have, you can imagine it would be tempting from them to try. On the flip side, they could follow the path of the peers like Fall Out Boy and Panic! and take a more pop route. They've come this far it would seem bizarre if they didn't follow through with it.
Very few artists manage to do both, but it's often said that music that does balance commercial and creative ambitions is the richest of them all (Bowie, Nirvana, Amy Winehouse are all classic examples). Could TOP pull off a feat like this? I guess we'll find out in the 2016 (or later). It would certainly be a shame to iron-out all the idiosyncrasies in their music just to become the biggest rock band in the world. No one needs another U2, you know?
But if that's what they really want, just remember guys, you can always pull a Miley if you need to (side projects, that is, although twerking is encouraged, too).
No pressure, guys!