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  • Writer's pictureLeo Aram-Downs

Jacob Collier vs. Rick Rubin

Updated: Mar 22

What do you owe the audience? Should they have a say in the thing you make? Should the audience as an entity be factored into the creative process? Two people have vastly differing opinions on this.

On the one hand, we have record producer extraordinaire Rick Rubin, who famously believes that the audience comes last. To elaborate on that slightly, the desires of an observer of your work shouldn't change what you do. You shouldn't be changing the art to please the consumer.

On the other side of this, in direct reaction to that statement, is multi-Grammy-award-winning music person Jacob Collier. His stance is that the act of letting other people into the creative process is joyous. Being able to share, develop and communicate ideas with a wider community of artists and listeners changes your work for the better.

If we were to take Rick's statement at face value, I think Jacob's criticism of it is apt. I don't think it's enough to hole away and not take wider cultural context into consideration. But I don't think we can simply take Rick's statement at face value, I think there's an unspoken quality of Rick's idea that warrants further discussion. The main question we have to ask is; who is Rick talking to here?

I don't think Rick is trying to sell this idea, or any of his ideas, to someone like Jacob, who has a vision and a mission statement already. Jacob has a more vindictive and flippant way of putting this - "Rick's audience is people who aren't creative, for whom creativity is novel". I for one find this statement reductive and slightly unfair (albeit funny), but I think there's a grain of truth in there. Rick isn't trying to reach people with strong creative conviction necessarily, he's seeking people who want advice. The people who are most likely to own his book are the people who are seeking inspiration, guidance, and clarity for their process. In other words, these are not people who are going to have audiences. And this is where I think Rick's mantra takes on the property it's supposed to.

It's not simply that the audience should always come last. It's that when you are on the creative journey, the audience is going to be the last thing you acquire. You will not get an audience without art that has a vision. Nor will you get a solid customer base without a product that's been shipped. You have to have made a statement in order for it to be heard, and this is where you need to strongly heed Rick's advice. Don't pander to an audience you've yet to accrue. Don't let the judgment of imaginary individuals into the space where your art is made. If it's a commodity before it leaves the studio, it's going to go out with the wrong intentions, and probably worse quality than if it was made entirely earnestly. It's not just that the audience comes last, it's that you shouldn't kid yourself into thinking that making art in a certain way and performing all the right dance moves will attract people to you.

I think this advice starts to wane in significance when an actual audience starts to build, and that's why Jacob takes issue with it. He made something earnest, of high quality, and the appropriate audience gravitated towards it. What ensued was a symbiotic relationship where the audience knew what to expect, and Jacob knew how to subvert the expectations while also inviting the audience into the creative process. Not at the expense of his vision, but in confluence with it. He never owed anyone anything, he's only ever taken part in this transaction in the healthiest way, which is a good thing.

Djesse as a body of work is about different geographical and physical spaces, but that also creates a subtext; these four albums are his gradual journey out of the house. He's meeting more people, having more real-world experiences, other artists' colours are rubbing off on him, and this is for the best. If he'd forever stayed in the silo, making things that only he ever benefitted from, the quality of his work would have greatly diminished. The very notion of an audience not being implicated in this process is unhelpful to an artist like this, and to Jacob's credit, he knows this and has sought to remedy it.

But where does this leave you, as a person unsure how to conduct themselves in the internet art world? Do you listen to Rick, the recovered audience panderer who's found latent joy in deep individuality, or Jacob, the recovered reclusive auteur who's finding success in community?

You'll find the answer by asking yourself this question: What would you do if your current level of success was never going to change? What if you could see into the future, and confirm that all of your pandering and self-altering would never work. Would you still do it? I'm willing to bet you wouldn't. Investment in an imaginary future is a troubling habit, that I'll dedicate a whole piece to at some point in future, but for now suffice it to say that I've seen plenty of artists modify their work to appease an audience that they don't have, in the hope that it will get them one. When that gamble doesn't pay off, all that's left is a statement they didn't really want to make, and a piece of art that's a dissatisfying facsimile. Nobody wins in that scenario.

Conversely, if you have a platform, you should use it. If you know for certain that your next piece of work is going to have a relative level of public reception, there are healthy and innovative ways of letting them into the art experience in a way that doesn't feel like a compromise. You can have both, but you shouldn't pretend you're somewhere on this spectrum that you're not. If you don't have an audience, don't try and make art to earn one. If you have an audience, you shouldn't shut them out and just expect them to be there for whatever you make. Both of these things are noble pursuits when done right, and neither of these things should be prescriptive.

Jacob Collier is appealing to those who have a platform, imploring them not to squander it. Rick is here to console those without a platform, reminding them that it's an irrelevant part of the equation. The art happens, and the platform is incidental. Both are true.

That said, that's not stopped people using this dialogue for bad-faith arguments. TikTok user claims that Rick's philosophy ruins creatives. He claims that people who aren't willing to comply to the conventions are unnecessarily stifling their potential and making worse stuff as a result. He calls this attitude selfish, ignorant and ineffective.

This, of course, is preposterous and artistically bankrupt. It is characteristic of someone who just scalps other people's work and tacks their useless opinion on the end, which is what this man is doing. To conflate the quality of someone's work with the intent with which it was made is deliberately obfuscating the point and using it to further your agenda of making lowest-common-denominator slop. The problem with this can be highlighted by taking a brief glance at the swathes of accounts that are trying to do exactly this. Trying to go viral for going virals' sake, and failing. Have you ever looked up a cover of your favourite songs and filtered by least views? It's a harrowing experience. But this is the reality. Choosing either Jacob or Rick's side to follow philosophically won't actually guide you to better art, that has to come from within. As for the end result that both of them are arguing about, you have to disregard hope of fruition entirely. More on that another time.

In conclusion, here's how I think you can take both of these perspectives and move forward with them. Treat yourself as a member of your own audience. What do you want to hear or see that you're capable of making? Visualise the pieces of art you want to experience, and then go and make them. And maybe, some people will feel the same. And maybe they won't. But that doesn't matter. The audience comes last.

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