By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 31, 2013
Do you remember the infamous incident from the 80s when David Geffen sued Neil Young for recording music that was “not representative” of Neil Young?
If we are working on our own, creating new forms, breaking rules, aren’t we courting ‘unpublishability’? Where do we draw the line between courting publishability and being a hack?
An excellent question. But first back to Neil Young:
When David Geffen launched Geffen Records in 1980, he paid big bucks to put under contract a stable of major stars–John Lennon, Donna Summer, Elton John. And Neil.
Geffen wanted his new company to take off like a rocket, matching his earlier success with Asylum Records (Joni Mitchell; Crosby, Stills & Nash; Jackson Browne—and Neil.)
Instead everything started bombing.
Albums came out on the Geffen label and sank without a trace.
Including Neil’s. (Does anyone remember Trans or Everybody’s Rockin’?)
Neil was experimenting. I was paying a huge amount of money and these records were selling nothing.
David Geffen was not used to failure. He didn’t like it. He snapped.
They sued me for playing music that was “non-characteristic of Neil Young.” Now that is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. But they did it. They sued me for millions of dollars.
Even Geffen’s former partner Elliot Roberts called the lawsuit “unconscionable.”
I was sued for being myself. [I was] sued for being an artist.
But doesn’t David Geffen have a point? He’s paying Neil a lot of money. Isn’t it Neil’s job to step up to the plate? Deliver some hits, dude!
(This story and these quotes come, by the way, from a terrific PBS documentary called Inventing David Geffen. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a college education in creativity, success, and all the craziness that comes with such pursuits.)
So who’s right—David or Neil?
The question brings us back to Susanna’s query: What is the artist’s role?
Is it to make hits? To “succeed?”
Or is it to follow her own muse, even if it means never being published?
The voice of sanity in this debate comes, not surprisingly, from Jackson Browne (as quoted on-camera in Inventing David Geffen):
[The work an artist does] is not a work for hire. You don’t hire me to make you money. I make music, and you [David Geffen] are licensed to do something with it.
David Geffen took an understandably commercial-minded approach to the situation. He’s in business. He puts out a product; he wants the product to sell.
The mistake he made is that he’s in the business of art. And you can’t produce art the way you produce corn flakes or Ford F-150s.
Neil Young and Jackson Browne have to follow their muse. And that muse may lead them, from time to time, into some pretty quirky territory.
There’s periods for all artists. They go up and down like waves on the ocean. Perhaps [David Geffen’s] mistake was not seeing that he was guiding artists through different periods … He was more concerned with the fact that in the public eye he seemed to be failing. He was at the top of his game 95% of the time, so when he made a mistake, it blew his mind.
My own thought regarding this brouhaha is to bring it back down to you and me, as writers and artists and entrepreneurs:
The point for us is that we, inside our own heads, alternate between playing the David Geffen role and playing the part of Neil Young.
Should we become homicidal (or suicidal) when our stuff crashes and burns? Should we call out the lawyers and sue ourselves?
Or are we permitted sometimes to go nuts artistically and chase rainbows that have zero chance of commercial success?
My view is we should aim for some point in the middle.
Of course we want our stuff to succeed. Of course we want people to hum our tunes and tap their feet to the music we put out. But we can’t second-guess the audience. We can’t write with an eye to what “they” want. Because not even “they” know what they want.
We have to listen to our internal voice. We have to lead. And we can’t blame ourselves for trying stuff that, as Seth Godin says, “might not work.”
The good news, at least from my experience, is that sometimes when we think we’ve left the solar system entirely, we wind up doing our most commercial work.
As Crash Davis once said, “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes you get rained out.”
I hereby resolve to guide myself through those ups and downs on the ocean. No matter how bad I screw up, I will not sue myself.