Technology isn’t just changing the way we listen to music

by James Belfield / 05 August, 2016
It’s also changing how musicians are inspired to write and work.
Photo/Getty Images Photo/Getty Images

Music genres ain’t what they used to be. There has never been a better time to write and record songs and sounds, thanks to the boom in social media and the flick-of-a-switch access to a world of influences, ideas and inspiration.

There have never been so many bands on the road, so many albums to choose from, so many musicians who care less about hitting the big time than being heard.

This weight of inventiveness was bound to have consequences – and what has fallen by the wayside has been those staples of the old-school muso: genre classification (aka, those sticky labels on your vinyl collection or the tribal regions of record shops).

Once upon a time, the genre-audience equations were simple. Pop appealed to chart-happy pre-teens and less adventurous teens; indie and alternative were for the moping, experimental teens (and some age-defying adults). Rock was the name for guitar bands your dad liked; the ones he didn’t like were called punk and metal.

R&B and soul were dance music for people who could groove, and dance was dance music for people who threw parties.

Country, folk and blues were played by rural types for rural types; jazz and classical by serious types for serious types; hip-hop by urban types for urban types. And world music was for anyone who wasn’t one of the above.

Now all bets are off as experienced artists hop between styles and share ideas, and new artists are either combinations of influences or actively striving to break the conventions.

Steven Wilson. Photo/Getty Images

It took a pharmacy-load of inspiration for the Beatles to add brass sections to pop, Bob Dylan to plug in his guitar or the Beach Boys to wash the avant-garde in the West Coast surf. And tuning in and turning on to technology can arouse similar confusions of creativity.

There’s nothing odd in finding an indie kid in streamland mixing psychedelia with R&B, or a pop star riffing with heavy metal and hip-hop; the alt-ered stars of country, folk and blues are as likely to be hanging in uptown loft-conversions as kicking around in the mud and the dust and the grime; there’s almost no border between some electronic dance music, jazz and modern classical; and the “world” has disappeared.

UK musician and producer Steven Wilson is steeped in music history. Raised on a blend of his dad’s Tubular Bells and Dark Side of the Moon and his mum’s Abba and Carpenters records, the 48-year-old is known as much for remixing and remastering a grab bag of artists (including Simple Minds, Tears for Fears, Roxy Music, XTC, King Crimson and Jethro Tull) as for his own solo albums and being frontman for progressive outfit Porcupine Tree.

Wilson, who tours here in October, says he’s always been inspired by artists such as Prince, David Bowie and the Beatles, who “had identities that were almost impossible to associate with any specific genre”.

“A lot of people try to classify my music … but on the last album, there are pop songs, electronic tracks, singer-songwriter ballads and ambient interludes; there are orchestral arrangements, rock arrangements, pop arrangements and death-metal riffing – and it’s all combined in a way that I hope sounds only like one thing: Steven Wilson.”

So if it’s all been done before, is there nothing left for a musician to rely on but their personality? “The past 50 or 60 years of rock music have seen such an incredible rate of movement and evolution that pretty much all the different extremes have been visited and all the different hybrids have been tried,” Wilson says. “Technology is no longer driving music production as hard as it did in the 60s, 70s and 80s and you could look at that as if it’s sad that music won’t be as innovative as it once was – but that was inevitable. What we’re left with is an established musical vocabulary that we can use in whatever way we want.

“Now music is entering a new phase where it doesn’t matter what the reference points are – it matters how you communicate and touch people in an emotional way.”

Wilson’s response to this need to communicate is the curation of his music – in carefully constructed multimedia live shows or in the narratives running through both individual songs and entire albums.

Maya Payne. Photo/Amazir Aknine

But for someone launching themselves into this new cacophony, the main difficulty is simply being heard. Christchurch 19-year-old Maya Payne is an example of how a career can be forged from harnessing our connected society: a couple of years ago UK producer Will “Someone’s Enemy” Gibson heard her track Fragile on streaming site Soundcloud and got in touch. Within weeks she was getting airplay on the BBC.

“It’s crazy,” Payne says. “There’s a lot more to think about than just writing the music. You’ve got to get out there and get people to like it, so you’ve got to do shows and you’ve got to try and market yourself and sell your product.

“But it’s very hard. There are so many others like you out there. There are heaps of teenage girls who sing and write songs and you’ve got to make yourself different.”

That means contacting DJs on Twitter, advertising on Facebook and Instagram and putting videos on YouTube: all of which have already netted Payne more than six million views online, 1.6 million plays on Spotify and strange quirks such as topping the charts in Poland, becoming a hit in Canada and having her track If Only chosen to appear on Rocky tie-in video game Real Boxing 2: CREED.

Now, she says, she’d like to focus on being a hit overseas rather than simply here in New Zealand – and all this before even releasing her first EP, The Lucky Ones.

“The technology is actually the part of it I really don’t like, because for most people in my age group, everything is based online,” she says. “Most people don’t go out nowadays; they don’t really buy music and are just too attached to their technology and it would be nicer if the world wasn’t like that. It’s all good exposure for me … but it is crazy and strange.”

Wilson says he is inspired by artists such as Prince and Bowie who had unique identities. Photo/Getty Images

For many artists, the advantage of social media’s range comes at a price – or rather, with the lack of a price.

Tait Music Prize and Silver Scroll winner James Milne, who performs as Lawrence Arabia, thinks New Zealand has always cultivated music that doesn’t fit into a template, that is not as pigeonholed and calculated as the music he had experienced overseas. But having to sell and market that music is “an increasingly debased idea”.

“The whole history of music is just a smorgasbord on which to be dined,” Milne says. “It’s all there for the taking in terms of inspiration … when it comes to writing music these days.”

But with all that inspiration comes “a lot more pressure … Labels are hamstrung because they’re not selling and turning over as much money as they used to, and the tools they used to use don’t work because they’re competing against something that’s free.

“Particularly with streaming, the idea of selling music is disappearing. I don’t think about different ways of selling music, but I really want to sell it and really want people to buy it and that might necessitate finding different ways to do it. But on the whole, it’s mainly getting across the idea that it’s much more helpful for me if you buy a copy of my music.”

Steven Wilson performs at The Powerstation, Auckland, on October 26. Maya Payne’s EP The Lucky Ones is available now.

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