What’s good?


Creativity, commercialism and some Kanye West for good measure

At some point in the not-too-distant past, the great prophet Kanye West said that the best music was whatever was No.1 in the charts at the time. (I paraphrase, but that was the jist). It got me thinking.

Now, I know this is a man who has referred to himself as ‘God’s Vessel’, and yes, someone who has spent time designing a ‘sexy Ugg’, but actually, when he’s talking about music, and creative stuff in the round, he’s invariably interesting. Especially as this particular statement seemed so obviously wrong.

It made me think that maybe he was saying something else. After all, even on the most individual, subjective level, it’s rare that sales success mirrors individual opinion. How many of your favourite records reached No.1? How many of your favourite films broke box office records? How many of your favourite TV show’s pulled good ratings? Some, maybe. Certainly not all.

So I don’t think that’s what he was getting at. At the risk of stepping into the custard of cultural analysis (clearly I’m going to anyway), I don’t think he was actually making a comment about music quality at all – or at least not in the way that it initially seems. I think that he was actually making a comment about how music is consumed by people en masse; the hidden supply and demand relationship that exists just as powerfully in the arts as it does in the business world (if indeed you can even draw a distinction between the two!).

To use music as an example, a record is generally deemed successful on the basis of sales. That’s because – and this is a deeply unromantic, pragmatic notion – sales are just about the only objective metric available in the creative arts. Everything else is essentially educated opinion; individual and collective. Therefore, on that basis, a No1 record ( or a box office smash or top rating show) is the best, if only in the narrow sense that it tapped into public zeitgeist better than anything else at that precise, often fleeting, moment in time.

So what I think Mr Yeezy was probably acknowledging was the dynamic between quality and mass appeal; between creativity and commercialism. This is something that stretches across the whole spectrum of the creative arts, from a do-lally rapper/philosopher trying to convince his record label that his work will actually sell, to a creative agency like us working to convince our clients to let us push our designs and campaigns a little further. It’s all just part of the natural conflict that happens when creativity also needs to make money.

But this has been going on for eons; a completely natural by product of modern capitalism and one that is far from negative. Although commercial interest is typically perceived to restrain creativity, the reality is that those ‘restraints’ are just as likely to drive quality, especially in business disciplines such as design, advertising and marketing. But in doing so, does that change the meaning of quality? In much the same way that the aforementioned Kanye comment layered its meanings – this commercial dynamic creates parallel layers of what constitutes ‘good’.