FEATURE: Originality in Contemporary Music



PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash  

Originality in Contemporary Music


THE Go-Between says the past "is a foreign country"…



but, with our nation keen to separate itself from other lands; it seems ironic there is a greater internationalism in music. I will drop the analogy as it seems to be leading us in the wrong direction but my point concerns originality and pushing music forward. One of the reasons I am bringing this up is because there seems to be a lot of new artists coming in who seem unconcerned distinguishing themselves from the pack. That has always been the case but I have found, when listening to various singers/bands; I often confuse them for another. That is not me being old needing to un-wax my ears: there are so many artists that are indistinguishable from one another. I listen to new artists like Phoebe Bridgers and, whilst her lyrics are unique, the vocals can be compared with our very-own – she is American – Lucy Rose and Billie Marten. Other musicians tread too carefully and closely to familiar sounds.


IN THIS PHOTO: Phoebe Bridgers/PHOTO CREDIT: Morgan Martinez of Hooligan Mag

I wonder whether the sheer number of artists out there means it is becoming harder to forge something unique? There is an argument that certain genres are culpable. Modern Pop music is split between those primed for the charts and the ‘outsiders’ who have mainstream potential but not need confine themselves to the generic and commercial. A couple of articles – published back in 2015 – raised reasons why a lot of modern music, especially Pop, lacks distinction and originality. The first looked at generic pitfalls and why music is being dumbed-down:

A new study, surveying more than 500,000 albums, shows simplicity sells best across all music genres. As something becomes popular, it necessarily dumbs down and becomes more formulaic. So if you're wondering why the top 10 features two Meghan Trainor songs that sound exactly the same and two Taylor Swift songs that sound exactly the same, scientists think they finally have the answer.

The study: In a recent study, researchers from the Medical University of Vienna in Austria studied 15 genres and 374 subgenres. They rated the genre's complexity over time — measured by researchers in purely quantitative aspects, such as timbre and acoustical variations — and compared that to the genre's sales. They found that in nearly every case, as genres increase in popularity, they also become more generic.


 PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash  

"This can be interpreted," the researchers write, "as music becoming increasingly formulaic in terms of instrumentation under increasing sales numbers due to a tendency to popularize music styles with low variety and musicians with similar skills."

So music all starts simplifying and sounding similar. Not only that, but complexity actually starts turning people off of musical styles. Alternative rock, experimental and hip-hop music are all more complex now than when they began, and each has seen their sales plummet. Startlingly few genres have retained high levels of musical complexity over their histories, according to the researchers. And ones that have — folk, folk rock and experimental music — aren't exactly big earners. Unless, of course, they fit into the Mumford & Sons/Lumineers pop-folk mold”.

Another piece examined how cheap recording devices and the increase of electronic influence resulted in a rather homogenised and stale scene:

Ever wonder why you find yourself constantly asking “why do all these songs sound the same?” Because they do. The emphasis is no longer on music theory or the ability to read and comprehend music, but to lazily rely on the same programmed machines that inevitably see each of its users repurposing the same sounds over and over and over. This is best exemplified by a recent Facebook post from indie-electronic rock project, RAC, who explains “the proliferation of cheaper recording devices and marketing tools has blown off the doors to the music industry.” The post continues, “Any kid with a laptop can build an empire with an internet connection. More artists means more competition, which means the product has less value.”

This isn’t to say that great music can’t be produced using the technological advances bestowed upon today’s bedroom “musicians” but at what point do we completely and utterly lose the human element in music? The human error that highlights the beauty of artistic imperfection. With The Prodigy recently telling Rolling Stone the current EDM climate is “lazy” and “monotonous,” one has to ask: where do we go from here? Electronic artists like Porter Robinson, Disclosure, Duke Dumont and Gorgon City, among others, are spearheading the current push for a live element when performing – not only because fans are demanding it, but they too are afflicted by the scene’s growing stagnant artistry”.



As I said; there are two sides to Pop: the big-stream-hunting artists who are more rigid and less imaginative with their music. Others, like Lana Del Rey and Lorde, for example, represent a more credible and ambitious approach to Pop – if one truly classes them as ‘Pop’. I find a lot of Electronic/Pop music gets a bad reputation because there does seem to be a set formula. If a song/artist has a success with a song; others, seeing that, try to reproduce that for their own music – assuming little endeavor and going for something easy. Maybe it is a generational thing – I will return to this – but, in terms of sounds, it is not only Pop artists who come across samey. Rock and Alternative have not been in the best shape.


IN THIS PHOTO: Royal Blood/PHOTO CREDIT: Matt Davies

This year, hotly-tipped albums from The Amazons and Royal Blood have left many, myself included, a bit miffed. Those albums, which could have been groundbreaking releases, did not really live up to the hype. Royal Blood’s How Did We Get So Dark? was a rehash of their debut album – albeit, with one or two additions. The Amazons’ eponymous debut seems to be a by-the-numbers approach to Rock – one that left me wondering where the originators and pioneers were. Maybe there was, in those cases, a desire to fit into a particular mindset – knowing other bands have had success and done well. I am seeing more and more Rock bands, in the mainstream, disappoint and not really show any originality. A fair few underground acts seem promising but, if they look at the current ‘best’ and see how they are doing things – are they inclined to abandon their own dynamic and go with what seems ‘popular’ and established. There is ample evidence to suggest the new breed might produce a few treasures but, when it comes to the mainstream Rock acts; why is there a surfeit of excitement?



A recent article by Forbes shed some light:

There’s tangible proof of what people are listening to right now, and rock 'n' roll ain’t it. I make this evaluation based on the Billboard Hot 100 and Spotify Global charts as both commercial evaluations of songs and indicators of cultural impact.

Let's look at 2016 for example. According to the Nielsen year-end report, Drake's Views set an all-time record for most streams from an album, with over 245 million streams; there were 12 occurrences where an album’s songs had over 100 million audio streams in a week, led by Drake, J. Cole, The Weeknd and Beyoncé; Chance the Rapper had the first album to surpass 500,000 with streaming-only availability. Rock still does well in digital sales, but digital sales are declining.



"Top 40 radio, which has always been for teenagers, is mostly devoted to post-rock pop and hip-hop. In 2016, rock is not teenage music," writes Bill Flanagan. "Rock is now where jazz was in the early 1980s. Its form is mostly fixed."

Those of us who grew up in the mold of rock are in a tough position, not just because the style we learned has become out of fashion, but because the skill set needed for pop music in 2017 has transformed into something radically different:

Songwriting is no longer words and music—but words, music and digital production.

Gone are the days of changing the world with three chords and the truth. Now you’ll need three chords, the truth, and an engineer’s ability to make your song sound like the radio. The most successful songwriter of our era, Max Martin, goes to work every day doing a very different job than Lennon-McCartney did”.

Maybe the proliferation of streaming sites and radio stations means we often hear the same songs repeatedly – ingraining it into the mind and not providing a true overview of music’s diversity and depth. When a new song is released and being promoted; we do get a lot of exposure to it. Does this repeated assault approach to marketing negatively impact and mean it is harder for musicians to follow their own course? I feel digital promotion and the easy accessibility of recording devices (and sounds) mean a lot more musicians are coming through.


IN THIS PHOTO: Brooke Baili

When one only got to the studio because they had a record label behind them; it meant quality control was tighter. Now, anyone can get a record made so it is harder to determine what is good and worthwhile. I feel the general oversaturation is flooding music. The more artists who come in the more likely we are to see repetition. One should never discourage artists from coming into music but we need to celebrate those who are truly worthy and impassioned. Artists like Brooke Baili and her new track, Louder, embrace infatuated but, in her lyrics and visuals – goes the extra-mile and provides originality and potential. There are artists in all genres that show nimbleness and new aspects. They can subvert the clichés and stereotypes to produce music of the highest caliber. In terms of the artists one needs to keep their eyes out for; in my mind, there are a couple of genres adding freshness to music – and the odd band that is worth attention. If one wants to intellectualise why there are restrictions of movement and expression in music – there is an article that explains things better than me:

This is important because when one breaks down music to its most basic components, it becomes clear that originality is more limited than might be supposed. Steel comments that “the use of prescribed scales, keys and structures to fashion melodic lines gave rise to a listener’s dependency on Western tonality in order to make auditory sense of the sounds.” The result is a set of rhythms and melodies that can be often found across several songs in a genre or time, as audiences become used to specific combinations that are in fashion at the time. Steel argues that cultural experiences affect both the creative process and the consumption of music, and universal themes emerge during certain periods.

Given the extensive similarity of musical composition across an era, the originality requirement in copyright law becomes difficult to satisfy in musical works. Copyright protects the expression of an idea, not that idea. The problem is that many common elements in musical creation could be considered ideas if they are widely shared across compositions of a similar genre. To the untrained ear, all music of one genre sounds much the same, so it becomes the task of the trier of fact to try to draw the line of where a work has passed from using the ideas of a genre into the infringement of the expression of the ideas. Blurred lines, if you may. But drawing these lines is not the only challenge because judges and juries must also determine if the copying has been substantial, and therefore worthy of being declared copyright infringement.



How important is originality and is it – in the age where digital music and accessible music-making is suffocating – a possibility? Mainstream music is becoming more predictable than ever be there are a few bands at the moment, such as Glass Animals and Everything Everything that is able to convey unique sounds and keep their music likeable, if odd at times. Restrictions when it comes to sampling – and the stringent laws being imposed – is limiting the scope and possibility in genres like Hip-Hop and Rap. These are, to my mind, the natural leaders of the modern world and are providing truth and guidance. Maybe it is truth and plain-speaking missing in modern music. In an industry where there is too much reliance on love songs and marketable themes: those that address what is happening outside their own bedrooms are, oddly, a rarity.


IN THIS PHOTO: Kendrick Lamar

Of course, not all members of the Hip-Hop community are inspiring and pioneering. Over the last couple of years, it is hardly a surprise albums by Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar have been ranked highest by critics – the former topped end-of-year lists with Lemonade (2016); Lamar amazed and ruled with 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly. It seems Lamar’s current album, DAMN., might well scoop honours when the year’s best is revealed. Not only do these artists – and their finest peers – have attitude, passion and incredible songwriting ability: voices that resonate and strike; backed by compositions that mix in so many genres. To me, it is the lyrics and compositions that make genres like Hip-Hop and R&B so refreshing. Kendrick Lamar, in To Pimp a Butterfly, employed Jazz samples and the building blocks of an inspiring genre – something the likes of Loyle Carner are doing too. Soul, Rock and Alternative shades go into the albums (Beyoncé, Lamar etc.) and it seems there is a lot more flexibility and maneuver. Less concerned with instant three-minute hits or that processed sounds – the artists here are more bothered about texture, nuance and quality.



Perhaps it is too deep an issue to simplify in a single article but I worry there is a problem with originality and surprise. It has been a while since I have truly bonded with a new band. Often, I hear a debut album and am impressed but find, further down the line, things get regular and conformist. There is that modern-day pressure to be marketable and commercial – you can get the stream and big YouTube figures; only if you provide something fit for chart consumption. It is no surprise the genres that promote depth and directness are making a bigger impact than any other. It is not a binary thing to say Rap/Hip-Hop/R&B is right and everyone else is wrong – there are wonderful artists in Folk, Pop and Rock that deserve more respect. Perhaps there needs to be less concern with streaming counts and following the pack.


The flip-side is the comparative lack of monetary value and commercial appeal – a risk that many should take. The underground is proffering artists capable of kick-starting a mini-revolution but, looking at the current state of the mainstream, is it going to be easy to overhaul and sanitise? That is not for me to decide but, the fact so many artists are lasting only a short time means there is fear music is not a viable long-term career. The industry hasn’t changed radically in the sense those best and brightest have to fight harder – the sheer mass and proliferation of new artists make it tougher to easily discover the strongest artists. Maybe there is a long-term solution but we need to stop giving the mainstream such regard and cut those artists out that go for something easy and cynical. The ones that are only concerned with figures and profit; those who chase fame and something quite shallow. From there; highlight and celebrate the artists/genres that go out their way to be original and inspiring – I still feel Hip-Hop is seen as a niche and uncommercial brand. If we can make small changes it means the approaching generations think differently and have different aspirations. Driving away that need to be ‘successful’ – the wrong type – and go for respectability and true talent is what needs to happen first off. If we can get the ball rolling, and start to cut away at the fat, it means future-music will be…



SOMETHING to be truly proud of.