To retro or not to retro
Having listened to great songwriters like James Taylor and Carole King, I felt there was nothing new that was coming out that really represented me and the way I felt. So I started writing my own stuff.
It seems like some of today’s better artists tend to recreate a sound that remembers us of the 1960s and 1970s, which is basically not a bad thing. But in the end I think this gives us a wrong impression. At a first glance, you may think that you’ll absolutely have to sound like an artist from the 60s or 70s in order to be successful with albums, but that’s not true. You can easily see this when taking a look at recent album sales charts. So-called retro-albums (think of Adele, Amy Winehouse, Daft Punk, Lana Del Rey, or even Michael Bublé again) may be both good and important, but they’re not the only ones that are successful.
If you do a great album, then it can be successful, no matter what genre you’re doing, or what instruments you’ll be using.
You will be able to produce an insanely great album that’s purely digital and electronic, using no real instruments at all, while you may also record a very bad retro-album using only high end analog equipment. It doesn’t matter what genre you’re doing, or what technology you’ll be using.
It doesn’t matter if you sound “old” or “new”. The only thing you can’t do is to sound irrelevant.
So how will you be able create something new and innovative?
In most cases you’ll create something new as soon as you’ll be COMBINING EXISTING IDEAS in a way it’s NEVER BEEN DONE BEFORE.
Merge unusual ideas and mix old and new stuff. If you manage to do so (and if it’s not too weird of course), then you’ll have created something extraordinary, and you may even have invented a new subgenre. If it’s really cool, then you may spark a revolution, something that has been missing in the music industry for about 20 years.
One very important thing you should also remember is that sounding old alone will never be a guarantee for success, even if you manage to bring back some of the quality of the past, but without coming up with at least one revolutionary song. If you check out YouTube, then you’ll see that there are currently tons of bands doing 1970s style rock music, but none of them is overly successful with it. The same would probably be the case if you were trying to play music that sounded like The Beatles, or like any other artist of the past.
Cloning the music from the past doesn’t make much sense.
Why should you start a band that sounded like The Rolling Stones or Deep Purple for example, if I can just listen to the original artists from the 1960s or 70s? Do you really think you can do better than those two bands?
Why should people listen to a cheaper clone?
But if people don’t like cheap clones, then why have Amy Winehouse, Adele, and Lana Del Rey been so successful in the recent past then? Well, if you listen carefully to the music they’ve been doing, then you’ll notice that they’re in fact not simply replicating the music of the past, but they’re combining newer elements with the classy sound of the past. It’s retro-ish, but it’s not exactly the music that existed in the 60s or 70s.
The most surprising fact however is that they’re so successful while not even being that innovative.
But at the current state, this seems to be enough to be on top already.
But they’ve not created anything really new, and this means that this certainly won’t change the music industry, as it’s not enough for a real reboot.
They certainly honor the Masters Of The Past and they’re trying to keep the quality bar high as possible, but in the end even those artists don’t reach the originals. They have become successful by trying to be almost as good as the Masters Of The Past, and thus they’ve already become way better than any other of today’s entertainers.
Another great example is Daft Punk’s 2013 smash hit Get Lucky, co-written by Nile Rodgers of Chic fame. The song is an homage to the disco music of the late 1970s, it received widespread acclaim from music critics, it won two Grammys (Record Of The Year and Best Pop Duo / Group Performance), and it is generally considered to be one of the best songs of 2013, taken from one of the best albums of the same year (Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories). It also uses the typical Daft Punk vocoder vocals on the bridge, which makes it quite unique by the way.
Get Lucky is a good song, and it will probably be remembered as one of the best songs of the 2010s. It was also great to see Nile Rodgers back on top of the charts and in good health again, as he definitely is one of the Masters Of The Past. But in the end, Get Lucky was not really innovative, as it was simply an homage (although quite a good one) to something that already existed. It was nothing really new. Of course this is what the song was supposed to be, but there is another problem: Even if Get Lucky is a great song trying to bring back the sound and feel of the 1970s, it does not match the quality and it doesn’t have the impact of the originals. If you compare it to Nile Rodgers’ and Bernard Edwards original works from the late 70s, then you’ll see that those songs were actually a lot better. Get Lucky can’t match the quality of Le Freak, Good Times, or We Are Family for example. If Get Lucky would have been a Chic (or Sister Sledge) song in the late 1970s, then it certainly wouldn’t have been their worst song, but also not their best work. Which brings us back to the number one problem:
Even today’s best songs would only have been average class songs in the Golden Age.
Which is also true for hit songs by Adele or Lana Del Rey for example. This does not mean that they have been making bad music, and I would really like to thank all of those artists who are least trying to keep quality high, but in the end it just means that even today’s best songs are not yet good enough.
Another problem with the retro trend is that some people seem to wish for the past to return. Forget about it.
The past will not return.
Just get over it. Increasing the quality by traveling back in time will be possible to a certain degree, but if you really want to make a dent, then you will need to innovate.
The music of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s had a huge impact because it was innovative and even revolutionary back then, it was experimental AT THE TIME. You will never be innovative or even revolutionary by simply trying to imitate the past.
The music of the 60s, 70s, and 80s already exists, and it doesn’t make much sense to just recreate it. If you take a closer look at the music you’ll find in today’s Top 40, then you’ll see that it’s is neither innovative or revolutionary. It’s not even original or surprising. It’s just boring and irrelevant. That’s the problem, and I must have said that a million times already.
Your job as an artist is to change this. Your job as an artist is to challenge the current state.
If you want to start a revolution, then you need to look forward and you need to do things people are not expecting. No matter what kind of genre or what kind of music you’re doing, you need to be different from all other artists on this planet.
You should try to develop the SOUND OF THE FUTURE, and not just to replicate the sound of the past.
Which again doesn’t mean that you will have to follow trends, or that you will have to produce electronic music. But you can’t just be something like an incremental update, you need to play on a completely new level. That may sound impossible right now, but in chapter 4 you’ll see how it can be done. So in the end it will be your decision if you will want to sound old or new, or whatever you’ll be doing. If you want to sound like a 60s, 70s, or 80s artist, then at least try to do it on a new level.
Don’t be a clone. Be a real artist and don’t be irrelevant.
That’s the final message.