FEATURE: Instrumental, Elemental: Are We Still Buying Musical Instruments?



Instrumental, Elemental


ALL PHOTOS: Unsplash

Are We Still Buying Musical Instruments?


YOU can claim the history of music has seen shifts…


and new leaders come through. Tastes have changed and the music world has evolved. Last year; I wrote a couple of similar pieces that looked at acoustic music and whether it is relevant. Another investigated Rock and whether that is dying. I am not saying modern music is defined by a lack of instrumentation but it seems fewer young people are picking up instruments. You can debate the local markets and whether, in some regions, the traditional music store is surviving. It is a debate and point that is contentious but one I feel obliged to pull up. Near where I live; there is a music school and there are a couple of music shops. Dig deeper into London and you have some closures but, it seems, there is still a taste for proper, live music. We hear stories of the industry in decline but, when it comes to the D.N.A. of the music; you cannot replace the true spirit and blood of the sound with electronics. I am pleased artists are using laptops and technology but I fear some are taking an easy route. The reality of mastering an instrument concerns time and patience. I have tried picking up a guitar and, aside from a few lessons, I found my interest wane. I wanted to get into the music business but could not get to grips with the guitar.


I was taught fingering and chords; structure and songs – some simple performances to get the confidence up. That didn’t work. I moved to piano and the same thing happened. I am writing a piece about Classical music and how there needs to be more of it in modern sounds. There is compartmentalisation still and I worry artists are taking the easy route. It is hard to get a true impression of the music industry and whether modern electronics will take over from conventional methods. Electronic downloads, we heard, have overtaken C.D.s. Other sources look at the glory of the C.D. and how physical music still holds a place in the heart. Vinyl has been struggling in the past but has faced an upturn. Sales are increasing and it seems the people are not willing to let electronic-made music dominate. In fact; I am a little rash and vague with regards the battle between older and new. My point concerns the relationship between musical formats and how the C.D. boom, when Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms arrived in the 1980s, occurred. Big, musically-rich albums encourage artists and fans to pick up instruments. The Grunge bands of the late-1980s and early-1990s compelled a million diehard garage-based bands to emulate their heroes. Punk compelled angry musicians to articulate their passion and misunderstood minds through music. Every great wave and movement motivates certain symmetry...


As times have progressed; the more guitar-based formats have been replaced. There are great guitar bands around but most of the mainstream is disconnected. Past heroes such as Oasis and Nirvana got youngsters involved in music-making and picking instruments up. Now, with genres like Pop starting to take more of a slice; it is harder getting a clear view as to whether instruments are still playing an important role. I have mentioned laptops and, with there being little money in it for new musicians; many are producing sounds through technology - forgoing the costs of the studio and the time it takes to make a song. Laptops and new software can mimic instruments and we are seeing a lot of new music that provides the sounds of instruments without one actually being played. Whilst there is enough evidence to suggest modern music places less prominence on instruments; I feel all is not lost. There are some great new bands in the underground that have kept true and are unwilling to fully embrace technology. When they come to fruition; their music will inspire the next generation coming through. Two years ago; The Guardian highlighted a music shop that was doing sterling business. There are others that continue to see sales grow but there is the assumption the decline of the high-street music shop means artists are not picking instruments up.


The biggest shift we have seen, to coincide with the electronic boom, is the shift from the visible shop to the online store. The average musician/member of the public cannot necessarily afford a guitar or drum kit. It takes a lot of saving and the cost of lessons means the price of learning an instrument runs into thousands. People are seeing the way Pop is taking over the how artists who play instruments are getting less exposure than those who rely on others – making their music through technology and producers. There are music classes and lessons but there is a shift towards bigger facilities and colleges. When I was in school, all those years ago, we had music on the syllabus. It was a mandatory part of primary education and, by the time you got to high-school; it was an option available – one that many took. Now, there are fewer primary schools offering music courses and it is not ingrained into the national curriculum. Sure, there are colleges and music schools available to those at a certain point in life – are we ignoring the importance of exposing students to music at a young age? That affects the desire to pursue music but, against the bad statistics is a chance for positivity. Although schools’ music programmes and record shops are less visible than before; we are still seeing instruments bought and played.


Online sales and have increased and, as a companion to the vinyl revival and survival of the C.D.; people are not abandoning music at its pure base. If people are still being instruments and taking them up; does this mean that desire is being translated into music? One of the problems with the decline of record stores – and those that sell instruments – is the competition from online sources. It is more cost-effective buying online but the cost of lessons and the dedication needed is putting many people off. Maybe the questions I posed in the headline should have compared the cost of buying instruments and whether it is affordable. I know there has been a loss of shops and educational programmes but, alas, we are still buying instruments. Figures suggest that side of music is in decline but, in fact, the business has shifted to the Internet. One of my biggest fears does not revolve around sales and the move towards electronically-produced sounds. I am concerned the structure of modern music means a lot of the people picking up instruments will struggle to transition into the business. Popular instruments like guitars and drums are reserved to certain genres. If Pop – with its electronics, machine-made beats and way of working – is riding high; Hip-Hop and Rap are creating ground (less instrument-based; more to do with flow and vocals) then I wonder whether new musicians will have the patience to stick with it.


There are Garage, Punk and Rock bands getting acclaim in the underground. Mainstream artists like Wolf Alice and IDLES are proving how powerful and potent instruments are – and why you cannot get the same magic and emotion from a laptop/electronics. I am all for revolution and change but I do not want the music I was raised on to be a part of the past. Changes will come and there will be a swing back to genres like Rock and Alternative. Until that happens, I fear music-making will be largely electronic. Many new musicians are playing piano and guitar but still leaning heavily on their laptops and trickery. The main point of this article is to highlight how enriching and beneficial playing an instrument is. It might be as simple as learning the acoustic guitar or picking up a violin. At first, if you do not have a band, it might seem a solitary pursuit. In time, when you bond with that instrument; you build a social circle and can join with others. It teaches you a lot about yourself and provides unique expression and perception. You can create language with music and explore what is possible. I do not feel instruments will be replaced by the machine but I am fearful the cost will put people off; the popular scene is not equipped to foster and nurture those who want to play (whether they are in a band or a soloist) and they will struggle to transition as fast as they’d hoped – and lose that passion down the line. I think statistics proffering the decline or instruments are false and misleading.


There is a desire and demand out there but the way we are buying has shifted. Schools are reducing their music programmes but there are options open elsewhere – many of these are paid courses at schools and universities. It is money, making a big impression: laptops might be more affordable and machine-created songs more economical than a traditional, instrumental number. We are still buying instruments and playing them but there has been a slight downshift. The problem is not sales: costs are putting off ambitious creations and the mainstream is not rife with bands playing guitars and drums; there are not many Classical elements in popular music; other genres (more reliant on instruments) are not as popular. I am confident the young and older will take to instruments but many take an instrument up because they see a shop on the street – compelled to go in and explore. They are taught about music at school and, if these elements dwindle; what does the future of music look like? We can never get rid of bands and music that does not need a laptop to make it come to life. My main recommendation is to revert back to the past and reignite the strong music curriculums people like me grew up on. Put more money into the kitty and inject some more cash into the high street – so music stores can survive and breed. Making playing more affordable is important. I love electronic-based music and the way technology has taken a stand. Older sound sticks in my mind because of the physicality and nuance of instruments played. The only way we can get people interested in music and taking to instruments is ensuring bands and lesser-heard genres are back into the forefront. It seems, when it comes to the prosperous future of music we must…


REMEMBER the reason music has come this far.