Pop Culture

Why a little mystery works when making music

It is exciting to give fans an insight into the album-making process through social media, but it may put artists under extra pressure

US Jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding performs during the 6th International Jazz Day at the Grand Theatre of Havana Alicia Alonso, Cuba, on April 30, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

The rampant use of social media by artists and celebrities means that we can know a lot about frivolous things such as what they eat and the parties they go to.

Then there are the artists who are using those technology platforms to give deeper insights into their artistic process.

Jazz musician Esperanza Spalding, for instance, recently conceptualised, wrote and recorded her newest album in front of a live audience on Facebook.

Over 77 hours last week, viewers were given a fly-on-the-wall opportunity to see her and her collaborators - musicians, recording engineers and crew - come up with vocal melodies on the fly, arrange songs, write down ideas and lyrics and even do mundane, but essential, human things such as taking a nap.

Aptly titled Exposure, the new album was said to be the first to be created on Facebook Live.

Spalding isn't the first to open up her album-making process to public scrutiny. Award-winning British singer-songwriter PJ Harvey had audiences sitting in on the recording sessions for her 2015 album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, as part of an art installation event in London.

These are exciting times to be a music fan.

You're worrying about a hundred different things - will that tune in your head translate into a good song, how much more studio time is there left for recording, should the bass be louder? I doubt I can handle the extra stress of having the public looking over my shoulder.

Such projects give followers and observers an intimate look at how artists make music and it helps us better appreciate their works.

Fans have always craved and treasured the chance to be privy to or even become part of their favourite artists' most intimate creative moments, warts and all .

Any detail is worthy, which is why box sets or special-edition music releases always come with extras such as raw cuts, rejected versions and/or alternative mixes.

There is often plenty of music that gets made during studio time, but not used in the final release.

Pioneering American punk band Husker Du recently announced a comprehensive box set of their early music that promises raw demos and previously unheard music from studio sessions.

More significant is when fans move from being just passive consumers to being part of the music-making process itself. The most obvious example would be when they are asked to help finance the recordings via music-centric crowdfunding platforms.

R&B stalwarts TLC, hip-hop veterans De La Soul and multi-Grammy winning folk-rock icon Melissa Etheridge are just some of the well-established names who have had fans help pay for their new recordings.

In TLC's case, their recent invitation to fans to be "part of TLC history", as it says on their Kickstarter page for their self-titled album released in June, raised over US$430,000 from more than 4,000 backers.

One of the many rewards for fans who contributed to the campaign included the chance to be present during the actual studio recording session themselves, which sounds like an even better prospect than Spalding's live stream.

Sometimes, having fans become active participants can lead to hilarity. In Spalding's session for example, eagle-eyed viewers noticed that one of the recording engineers was working non-stop without breaks, so they actually started a mini campaign to let him rest and eat (they even secured a domain name, https://www.feedfernando.com/ and made T-shirts).

Spalding's live stream has made me wonder what could have happened if the recording sessions for legendary albums of the past had been subject to the same scrutiny.

Imagine if London's Abbey Road Studios had had a live video stream that anyone could have accessed all those decades ago while bands such as The Beatles and Pink Floyd worked on their masterpieces there. Would the songs have turned out any different?

While I am excited about seeing my favourite artists at work, I'm not so sure that I'd want the same scrutiny myself.

As a musician and songwriter, I have first-hand experience of how much pressure one is under during the album-making process.

You're worrying about a hundred different things - will that tune in your head translate into a good song, how much more studio time is there left for recording, should the bass be louder?

I doubt I can handle the extra stress of having the public looking over my shoulder while I'm trying to put together a song.

And there will always be musicians and acts, such as critically acclaimed soul singer D'Angelo, who shun any form of intrusion into their personal and creative space by the public, and I can certainly appreciate their right to remain reclusive.

Besides, a little mystery is good.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 20, 2017, with the headline 'Why a little mystery works when making music'. Subscribe