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In the world of independent music, as in the world of music in general, it’s an unspoken but widely accepted truth that the most successful musicians are usually the ones that have no real flair for original composition.
This might sound like an overly snobbish assertion to make, and perhaps it is an overly snobbish assertion to make, but there are also good reasons why it’s true and probably always will be.
Now, before we continue, let’s perk up our critical listening ears by listening to a song that doesn’t require them by the Jonas Brothers called “When You Look Me In The Eyes”, which I think qualifies as having “no real flair for original composition”…do you agree or no?
Why Pop Music Sucks
Now, I’m sure that fans of the Jonas Brothers think this is a good song (that’s why they’re fans, not haters), but I think it would be much harder to find someone who would seriously argue that this song is in any way “original”. Even if I was to say that this song wasn’t the musical equivalent of a Twinkie (eg. low grade / not good for your health), there’s no way in heck I could ever suggest that this song had any originality whatsoever. Why? Because it doesn’t!
Scrutinize the below sheet music for the song and you will find an arrangement that would give your pet gerbil a narcoleptic attack out of sheer intellectual boredom.
Saying that the above song is cookie cutter is not really such a huge revelation, but can that statement really be proved? The thing is, if you personally think that song is a musical masterpiece, I will probably not be the one to convince you otherwise. Indeed, if you love this song you are beyond help and I’m sorry.
That said, everyone these days should be aware of the fact that songs are getting more and more same-y. Here is a video courtesy of ThinkTank talking about how science is beginning to quantifiably prove that pop music is getting worse and that originality is getting more and more rare these days in popular music.
On Pop Music All Sounding The Same These Days
Ok, so if you’re on board with the fact that pop music is pretty much garbage these days, you can probably see that part of the reason is because, and as the above video talks about, songs are just getting to be more and more and MORE the same. They’re too loud, and they lack originality in a variety of areas – and that’s just the beginning.
This increasing homogenization in pop music is happening for several reasons, one of which is the fact that everyone from big time producers to non-famous tiny indie musicians are copying what’s already been done. It’s just easier! If someone had a good idea, you can count on the fact that it’s been snagged and used 1000x over by now.
You see, there’s something in life called the “path of least resistance”, and if you don’t know about it yet, well, we’re glad we could introduce the concept to you because it is known to be quite useful.
Nowhere is this idea appropriation more evident than in the pop music realm, which is directed at people who don’t value originality all that much, if at all. To be fair, they haven’t been taught to appreciate such qualities, and so they really have no choice but to reject such qualities to begin with. Oh well.
For your average mainstream music consumer, if something sounds too different and contains any sort of complex elements that might confuse them, they will indeed get confused and get a bad feeling. Mainstream culture is essentially xenophobic, and so anything “different” is automatically shunned, and that goes for music that sounds different as well.
Here’s a thought-provoking video by Anthony Fantano of theneedledrop where he basically goes counter to what I’ve been saying by saying, basically, “Hey, maybe originality in music is just a wee bit overrated.”
The point raised in this video is somewhat valid. All the music that people hear is going to sound at least somewhat similar to something else. Music is not created in a vacuum, and if a musician chooses to be too different, people won’t want to listen.
For instance, take a listen to Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed. This is an album released in 1975 and is, if nothing else, original.
So, when we talk about mainstream music being unoriginal and bad because of it, you have guys like Lou Reed (a popular recording artist in his own rite) releasing stuff like this to the general public, and, as a result of it being really quite “original”, it has to this very day a rather limited fanbase.
Here we can ask: what’s better, music that all sounds the same, or music that sounds like nothing else. Here’s an interesting video by Axis of Awesome which highlights the fact that the majority of pop songs, while the melodies are different, use the exact same chords and rhythms.
Of course, this brings us to our next point, which is to say that the writers of popular music are not stupid. Quite the opposite. They know it all sounds the same, and they’re fine with that. They’re doing it for the money. To write original music is to write music that is inaccessible to the masses and hence un-sellable.
How To Become A Popular Musician
For a band to become popular, especially if they aren’t promoted by a large record label, they have to appeal to a huge number of people, no matter what!
Although there exists a sizeable contingent of music snobs who relentlessly seek originality and want to be challenged by the music they listen to, the majority of the population are mere hobbyists at best, interested in music that makes them feel good or that they can play in the background while they do and think about other things.
When it comes to the question of success, then, bands have to ask themselves how to appeal to that mass of people. The answer is clear: give them something simple that they can understand. Like I always say, “you confuse them, you lose them!” (actually I just made that up but it’s pretty good).
What About The Beatles?
At this point in musical history, almost everyone can listen to and on some level appreciate songs by, for example, the Beatles. Rare is the individual who does not like the Beatles at all. As one of the most popular and well-liked bands in history, it might be safe to guess that this band gave the public what it wanted, or what it could understand. After all, they just wanted to be your man, and hold your hand for God’s sakes!
In the beginning, this was probably true that the band was out to please every last person on earth, but as the Beatles’ career progressed, they became progressively more experimental. There was a time when the vast segment of music listeners couldn’t quite understand what the Beatles were doing. What were they doing, anyway?
And it has been argued that the Beatles were, to a large extent, borrowing original ideas from elsewhere and repackaging them to make them more acceptable for mass consumption. Slowly, over time, what was once new and puzzling had become exceedingly safe.
Safety in Numbers
In order to appeal to the masses now, rather than many years from now, safety is necessary. Bands need to write songs and play in styles that people already know how to listen to. When a song begins to play on the radio, the casual listener has certain expectations of the song: what instruments it will have, what it will be about, the structure of the song itself, and even the chord progressions that will be involved.
Even if most people don’t know consciously that they have these expectations, they are there. If the song turns out to have no guitars, no chorus or discernible structure, and to have been written with an exotic modal chord progression, most listeners won’t like it because they don’t understand it. Keep it simple…just like Natalie Imbruglia did on her mega-hit “Torn”.
The Benefits of Obscurity
If doing what people already understand because its been done before is what makes musicians successful, the most successful of all will be the ones who are very talented at creating songs according to pre-existing formulas that have proven to be successful.
Those who are good at writing songs according to a new pattern or involving elements that are new and original will, in all likelihood, not be the ones that rise to superstar status, at least not right away. Just look at Vangelis. He may not have the “views” that Bieber has on Youtube, but, musically speaking, he’s about 88 000 656 890 x more original. That doesn’t mean he’s better than Bieber, of course (even though he clearly is).
So, even if it sounds snobbish to say that the most original musicians are the least famous, it’s a conclusion that follows directly from the facts about the world of music.
Music fanatics may even be glad that this is the way things are: if original, ground-breaking bands were spurred on by the promise of unimaginable wealth and notoriety, they might lose the creative spark that makes them so great in the first place.