#LetsTalkAboutIt: Has All The Music Been Made?

#LetsTalkAboutIt: Has All The Music Been Made?

It is a very difficult time to be a musician. Not only has the immediate competition increased greatly but you also have to compete with pretty much every piece of recorded music that has ever existed, free of charge at the flick of a switch. The casual listener can plug in and listen to sixty years worth of popular music from any city in the world, punk, dance, hip-hop, anything you can think of. With this saturation of the musical landscape, a musician has to take very seriously the question: ‘What am I adding to this busy world?’

This dilemma came to me as I listened to a podcast that presented new bands and solo acts from the ‘alternative’ world.  The first band they played was toe-tappingly good but I thought: ‘Hmm, just sounds like Grunge though – why not stream Nirvana or Husker Du?’. Second band came on: ‘Hmm, it’s good but it could easily have come out in New York in 1979 – why not YouTube Talking Heads?’. Afterwards, there came a dead ringer for Lennon then an Americana slow burner and as this collective noise settled a question appeared: ‘Is it possible to come up with original and innovative music, here in the 21st Century?’

Of course, all music is derived from something else in some sense but the best music throughout history has taken ingredients from different styles and added a flavour of the act’s own personality – Bowie being a prime example. The truly great music always seems to sound fresh and utterly vital, regardless of what its influences are.  However, in recent times,I haven’t really been jolted out my seat by a new band’s sound.

Within the realm of alternative music, there doesn’t seem to be an interest in really pushing the limits of what is possible, which is strange considering how rich music is as an art form.  Lyrics, image, melody and rhythm are being combined now to merely appeal to people who like music that had its day thirty years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I will happily listen to a band like the War on Drugs but they are basically just Dire Straits with a bit of shoegaze thrown in. Where are the acts that will push the envelope and startle the cultural slumber?

There is, of course, no obligation for an act to be innovative or culturally potent. The populist argument is that music should meet what people want but if this is what you do as a musician then what makes that any different to what a supermarket does? Why not become a marketing executive? I, like many others, want more from music. If not something that is musically innovative, then atleast something that has some sort of message. When I think of many of the major musical movements of the past fifty years, I think of Kurt Cobain denouncing homophobia and John Lydon disturbing the cosy world of daytime TV – as well as the music. The problem is that the fragmentation of culture erodes the chance to create collective cultural moments in the 21st Century. In order for Bowie to have an emancipatory effect on teenagers who were questioning their sexuality, there needed to exist the platform of Top of the Pops. Perhaps the fact that bands know they will not reach this sort of audience means that they don’t feel the need to enter into moral matters.

The last time I felt genuinely excited about a new band was the first time I heard Death Grips (if you don’t know them go listen now! I’ll still be here..). At first, I thought it was just madness and shouting but through repeated listens the startling innovation in the music dawned on me. Yes, they were borrowing from hip-hop, electronic and grime but they stamped their own personality on it – experimenting with sound and weird cut up apocalyptic lyrics. This all came together to express a gaping chasm of undirected fury and it was powerful in the most primal way. I got satisfaction because I persevered and didn’t recoil and put on the Beach Boys to cleanse.

That was a few years ago now. Maybe the problem is that, with algorithms recommending us music, we are quite happy to remain in our comfort zones and perhaps I have not stretched myself enough in search of different musical experiences. Unless you’re a music journalist, there really is not enough time in the day to hike through song after song – I can barely make time to shower most days.

So my advice to the aspiring musician is to think – What can I bring to music that no one else can? Then send your songs directly to me. Oh, and some squelchy electronics and maniacal rapping may help too.

Written by Stephen Durkan,

Features Contributor

Images of Bowie, Husker Du and Death Grips: none of our own

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Death Grips play the Captain's Rest