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Go Your Own Way

The world is full of questions, ranging from the really big ones, such as ‘Is life really just software running on a computer made of meat?’ to ‘Where did I put my car keys?’ Somewhere between those you might ask yourself about music and where it fits into our lives. In a world dominated by TV talent shows churning out Cowell’oke, why is it that so many people, even young people, still gravitate towards material released half a century ago? Everybody has a bias of course, usually influenced by the music that was around during their formative years, but that doesn’t explain why so many of today’s teenagers are rediscovering bands like Led Zeppelin or sneaking off to Quo concerts.

Thinking back to the bands that were around in my school days — many of which are still gigging between picking up their pension cheques — I can identify at least two elements that engaged my interest. Firstly, music was often as much about the instrumental elements of a song as the vocals, and the vocals didn’t necessarily need to be technically perfect to work. With a few notable exceptions, such as Bob Dylan, it was about bands more than it was about singers and the vocals were just part of the overall picture, not the picture itself. This is in direct contrast to much of today’s music where the vocals are technically perfect, somewhat anonymous in character and usually sit over an equally perfect but desperately bland backing track.

Secondly — and I feel this is vitally important — back then artists were given the freedom to experiment rather than being hounded by accountants to come up with a record that would sell in even greater numbers than their previous one. We’ve all heard the stories of ‘the establishment’ trying to suppress songs and albums such as Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and Pink Floyd’s The Wall, thinking them too long or too depressing, only to have then become massive successes, so what does anyone really know?

These days you no longer need the blessing of a record company to get your music heard, and you no longer have to pay for expensive studio time in order to record it, though you won’t necessarily make any money from it either. This should be liberating, but I get the impression that a lot of musicians — other than some of the more adventurous dance-music composers and more experimental artists, such as Imogen Heap, for example — are trying to ‘manufacture’ what they think record buyers want to hear. A few commercially minded people can actually make that approach work, but looking back, the music that has stood the test of time has invariably come from artists that found their own direction. Despite commercial pressures, I can’t really see that changing, so if you want to become the next big thing, then you stand a better chance by putting commercial concerns to one side, doing your own thing and just hoping it catches on. At least you’ll have fun along the way.