We often see critiques of music as being too derivative, formulaic, unoriginal, passé or just plain uninspired. There does seem to be a strange herd mentality at work, where everybody thinks they have to reproduce the latest genre, regardless of what their soul is telling them to do. Because we have marketing, there is disco, rock, soul, trance, dub step…you name it. But those labels don’t mean anything. They’re just a way of arranging products on shelves or in online catalogues. They tell us nothing about the art.
Those categories only become a straight jacket for a musician if you don’t have the wit to follow your own aesthetic sense. Trying to reproduce other people’s hit songs, note for note, sounding precisely as they did in the studio, can be an act of artistic cowardice. It can mean that you aren’t prepared to stand by the music you would ideally love to make, or that you have no such conception in your head. If you’re a musical jukebox, capable of only copying another artists sounds and songs, then I think you aren’t exploring the possibilities with sufficient diligence.
I think this is the best possible time to be alive, as a musician. We have tools and instruments available to us now, at prices we can just about reach, that were the preserve of only a very few giant record companies and rock stars, just a decade ago. When the Beatles recorded Strawberry Fields Forever, they had a rare beast of a thing called a Mellotron. That machine had lots of tape loops in it and when you pressed a key, the instrument recorded on the tape would play. You could play a flute sound on a keyboard and the Beatles did. Few others could afford to do so. Today, I have several versions of that machine, as sound samples, on my laptop. Some were free. We have so many creative tools; we haven’t begun to learn how to get the most out of them all, yet. When we perfect our skills on them, the music will be enriched as a consequence, I think.
Meanwhile, we also have to remember that creativity needs some relevance. You have to have something to say that is worth saying, musically. That takes education and observation. It takes empathy. If you want to write interesting music, you have to be an interesting person that is interested in things that are relevant to an audience. Creativity without curiosity doesn’t sound like a very good recipe, to me.
It’s true that if you let the technology take control of your art, you get garbage. No painter lets his brush do the painting (well, not all of the time). We shouldn’t get so hung up on this piece of technology or the other and let it exclusively guide our output. Write some of your music on paper. Write some of it by humming a tune into a laptop’s built-in microphone. Break music making down into progressive stages of refinement. Study how it goes together at a fundamental level, then use the technology to make it real.
There are so many instruments and sounds now, that you almost can’t help but make something new, simply because the number of possible combinations is so vast. If you’re like many musicians I know, you might never be able to properly audition even a very small percentage of the sounds you have loaded on your laptop right now.
What will make your music sound utterly different to everybody else’s is your taste. Your ability to find sound combinations you like, from the vast pool of sounds available, will make your music sound utterly unique, if you choose to apply your taste. Applying somebody else’s taste and sound choices, by slavishly copying others, isn’t going to result in an original or very interesting musical statement. It doesn’t even make sense to copy things so closely, when the choices available to you to make any other sort of artistic choice is so broad and making that choice is so easy to do. Why would you choose to make the more difficult and less rewarding choice?
The only problem I have with being a musician today is that you can get addicted to wanting one more new sample library or VST. There is so much sound and so many tools, that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. That overwhelmed feeling can kill your music making. You probably need to separate the task of getting familiar with the newest and latest gear from the process of making a song, which is more about communication and entertainment, than it is about technology.
I don’t think things were better for musicians in the seventies, eighties, and nineties or even earlier in this century, as much as I loved the music of those decades and loved being a musician at that time. The limitations of the available (and unavailable) technology frustrated me. I was forced into minimalism for economic, not artistic, reasons. Don’t get me wrong. I learned a lot doing it. There is something about constrained choice that makes you more resourceful, as a composer or performer, but I would much rather be using those learned lessons with the technology I have available today, than go back to those times. It’s like suddenly having a box full of paint colours, instead of just the three primary colours and white.
thirty (damn! It’s) forty years for the music creation tools I wanted to become this accessible. Now that they’re here, I couldn’t be happier.