You are here

Sounding Off: What Makes Great Records?

Dan Heard By Dan Heard
Published May 2003

In the calculating world of the hitmakers, the science of pop conquers all. So why doesn't it all add up to great records?

Why do you hate pop music? You do, I do, and anyone who takes music remotely seriously does. Even if you produce it, which doubtless some SOS readers do, you can't honestly tell me that you like it. Of course, you might appreciate the production techniques, the programming, the performances (of the session musicians, at least), but you don't think it's great music, do you?

Sounding Off: May 2003 Dan Heard.This seems like a strange situation. The people who are best-informed about how to make a top-notch record can't bear to listen to a good proportion of what's in the charts. Now, one might be tempted to think that it's simply a case of popular music appealing to the lowest common denominator. Anything that can corner the 11-year-old market is bound to be over-simplified in such a way that it will lack appeal for people who really know their stuff. But not only is that rather a snobbish attitude, I also think it's wrong. It's just not the case that music which has mass appeal must be utterly devoid of artistic merit — look at Buddy Holly, the Beatles, the Beach Boys (perhaps the secret is to have your name start with a 'B'?). The real reason, I fear, is a little more sinister.

The very existence of publications like Sound On Sound points to the fact that making music is becoming an increasingly scientific business. We have technology today, founded on impressive science, which can manipulate music in all kinds of breathtaking ways. At this point, you might be expecting me to say something like, "But hand me my ukulele and a steam-powered reel-to-reel and I'll show you real music." I'm not going to; scientific and technological advances open whole new creative avenues to us, and science is now a part of the creative process. Ideally, the science works in harmony with the artistic side. Occasionally, the two combine in a glorious moment of serendipity when everything falls together and a new musical idea is born. So you won't catch me knocking this kind of science, even when I need a calculator to understand Synth Secrets.

Of course, there's always been an element of superstition too. The music world abounds with rumours that Neve desks work best in the first three months after Pentecost, and that you can only get the classic twang out of a Tele if you play it facing Nashville — but then one of the great benefits of the 'scientisation' of the industry has been to dispel some of the more outrageous myths. What I will say is that current pop music has lost all sight of the healthy balance between art and science, to such an extent that there's very little recognisable art left in it at all.

In any case, the problem is not the science behind the banks of glowing lights in the studio; it's the science of selling records, not making them. Pop music now is all about this kind of science and not much else. Various formulae have been discovered to yield stratospheric sales. Blanket hype plus once-popular song, multiplied by TV tie-in equals licence to print money. Saccharine youths plus canny merchandising to the power of Simon Cowell equals guaranteed Number One. The science of sales has engulfed pop music, and there's no room for anything else.

The worst part of it all, the truly criminal part, is that pop music has been swallowed up by bad science. To make any progress, science needs to try to solve new puzzles and cover fresh ground — and in this way it too can be a creative process. But what's fresh or progressive about pop music? The songs aren't new, so there's no creative energy there. The faces might change now and again but they're rapidly replaced with nauseating facsimiles. There's no attempt to progress, because progress always involves an element of risk. In science, the price of progress can be blowing up your lab or setting fire to your hair. In the music industry it is the risk of lower sales, and thus less money for the record companies. Less money, of course, is unthinkable — what would the shareholders say?

So we don't hate pop music because we aren't its intended audience. We don't hate it because it relies too heavily on technology. We hate it because the art in it has been shoved to the sidelines by bad science, epitomised by a cowardly deference to sales figures. A progressive attitude towards sales would acknowledge that gambling on new talent, and on untried artists and styles, could eventually pay huge rewards in the discovery of the Next Big Thing. But there you have risk again — risk to the immediate profitability of the record company who will not countenance the possibility of sacrificing cash. In the end, I suppose we should be grateful — at least these people hold something sacred. It's just a shame it isn't the music.

About The Author

Dan Heard is an amateur musician and semi-pro philosopher of science. He is currently working in Sydney, where music shop staff are much friendlier.