Following the Competition (aka chasing music trends)

This article on chasing music trends first appeared in Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk! PS: you may find affiliate links in this post and I may get a commission if you buy something. 🙂

I was reading some literature on the insurance business and came across this headline:

“Following the Competition Isn’t an Innovation Strategy”

Amen! But a friend pointed out:

“It might be an income strategy, however – and knowing the difference between the two is the difference in surviving the arts or not.”

There’s the Rub

I was struck by how accurately this exchange describes a problem I’ve had with the music industry for a long time. So many times, gatekeepers ask for something they’ve heard before, and artists who need to put food on the table attempt to copy the vibe of some currently famous act.

Some musicians are incredible at it. In fact, it is true that a tidy living can be made – especially in sync licensing – with the ability to match a vibe without plagiarizing. The game is simple in theory: use the same formula but write a different song. This behooves video producers because rough cuts are often made against hit songs but when it comes time to secure licenses, the expense is too great – or labels refuse a license outright.

What’s a content creator to do but try to find a cheaper option that matches the vibe? The closer the better. Musicians who excel at this have an almost endless stream of available income. So, buyers ask for “something really close to Ed Sheeran but also modern, fresh and new” or “a modern hip-hop track ala Drake”. But this kind of keeps us all chasing music trends.

Of course, the very second you emulate a current sound you’re already behind the curve. In the 80’s and 90’s, if you bought a new synth and used a preset you’d sound like Prince, because he bought them all first.

This isn’t new. Ray Charles started his career this way – playing in clubs, matching the sound of famous acts like Nat King Cole. He was known for being a chameleon of sorts, and his talent made this doable.

But that’s not what made him a household name. To do that, he had to create something never heard. The same is true for any big name from Queen to Zappa to Marley to Eminem. It’s the courage – or maybe the naivety – to break the mold that makes innovation happen. Not sticking to what worked for someone else.

But I gotta eat!

You can’t fault a person for doing what works financially. In fact, high-minded adherence to artistic purity has been the ruin of many an artist. Smart professionals don’t put their ego in the way of cash flow. If a company wants to pay to license a 2-inch corner of your 40-foot avant-garde canvas or use just the kick and snare of your seminal rock opera in an ad, why not let them?

One of my songs exclaims “I’ll be high-minded and pure as soon as I’m sure that I’m not about to end up dead”.

This is why Dr. Dre makes rappers do a clean version of every cuss word before they leave the studio. Its why there are song structure formulas at all. It’s not a bad thing, really, to consider the audience. After all, art is a shared experience. Take it from a 28-year veteran – working in a vacuum gets old. And like it or not, money makes the world go ‘round. After all, we gotta eat.

Striking a balance

We all have to eat – and we have to keep the lights on if we want to make music. But that doesn’t mean we have to fall into a rut or make generic sounding tracks that fit whatever formula we’re emulating. The key, it seems, is to strike a balance between this chasing music trends crap and being super unique.

Forgetting about business for a minute – isn’t money just a measure for how much we’ve impacted people? Maybe the balance is struck by caring about others and what moves them as much as what moves us.

Perhaps the game is to search for the next new sound which is different, but different in a way we didn’t realize would work. Something that moves us both because it touches something we already know and something we hadn’t found in ourselves yet.

I for one ignore licensing briefs when they come across my desk. I’m awful at matching vibes. But I do listen, and I care deeply how what I do affects others. I may never make a mint in sync, and who knows if I’ll ever change the world. But I can try.

I am no Ray Charles, which is my only hope. Discuss it all with me on Facebook @AaronJTrumm or Instagram @AaronJTrumm

Oh – btw – here’s a book I just found that’s sorta kinda about this? I think I might read it. It’s called Two Beats Ahead: What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation. Hmm! 🙂

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