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(Credits: Far Out / Joanna Nix-Walkup)

Music | Opinion

Is a lack of originality strangling modern music?

I have no doubt that we’ve all heard it before. Whether you’re a grandmother, a son, a father or a granddaughter, at some point, you will have heard that something “isn’t as good as it was in the good old days”. These words are uttered usually in tandem with a distracted gaze through a gloomy window in a haze of nostalgia and resentment. The listener is invariably a younger family member who must begrudgingly shoulder the burden of a generation to keep the cynical old fool opposite happy. 

More often than not, such conversations are focussed on fashion or music. It seems like a rite of passage. No matter how young and hip you think you are, one day, your tastes and fashion sense will become distasteful and unfashionable. A generation born in the 1950s or ’60s will likely have grown up with the Beatles as role models, found themselves rioting to the Sex Pistols in the 1970s and dancing to The Human League in the ’80s. 

Their parents were submitted to the stiff upper lip, righteous mindset of someone steeped long in ration books, Anderson shelters, blitzkrieg and propaganda. While they might have stretched from the swing pop age of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin to the early Beatles or Bob Dylan material, the psychedelia of the late ’60s and punk of the ’70s were bitter pills to swallow. 

Where we had young anarchists like Sid Vicious beating the fear of the devil into the grey hairs of the ’70s, we now have a generation of punk-era dads or grandparents who writhe in anger when their sons or daughters describe one of the hip, new bands on Spotify as post-punk.

Personally, I see these patterns and still fall victim to them. After all, isn’t your own taste better than everyone else’s? In the 1970s and ’80s, the youth culture would break off into cliques often influenced by music. Do you like hitting the bong and discussing conspiracies, man? Then get yourself a Volkswagen camper and head for San Francisco. Perhaps you’re fed up with happiness, sunshine and optimism; instead, you’ll slather black lipstick, eyeliner and 100 SPF and pop a Cure LP on the turntable.

When a new generation is born, they want to create an identity for themselves. In a conversation I had with Glenn Gregory of Heaven 17 a few months ago, he explained that he had grown up listening to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones with his parents, but he found his identity in the music world with David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane. “I found that I was searching for music that wasn’t of my mum and dad’s era,” he said. “They were very Beatles and Stones and things like that, which I kind of liked too, but you want your own music really. And that was the first album where they said, ‘Oh, I don’t really like that.’ And I’m like, ‘What do you mean, you don’t like it? It’s fucking brilliant!’”

Very few of us are strangers to such conversations; we’ll often seek a sense of belonging for our generation, distinct from our parents and often once again within our generation. We’re tribal mammals, and the only thing that bonds us more than mutual interest is mutual hatred. 

Is it time to give up on genres?

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Strangely, as I grew up, I stumbled upon a strong connection with my parents’ music tastes; instead of becoming the moody teen listening to whatever noise would make my parents fear my future, I remained distinctly old school — don’t worry, I irritated my parents in other ways. This older taste in music set me apart from most of my peers at school and made me a fantastic socialite and popular playlist arranger at family parties – very cool. 

My hanging on to the music of old made me seek out like-minded people at school – in other words, the music nerds. There weren’t many of us, but we found a sense of belonging in each other, just as the punks and goths had done some three decades before. We would find ourselves, at first, in friendly discussions with friends explaining that music isn’t as good these days as it once was. Later, I would wonder why we had been born old and cynical; would I grow young and optimistic like Benjamin Button? 

This insatiable thirst for older music has followed me through the years, but I have found that it’s not solely the old music that rubs me the right way. Rather, it’s older pop music. I find so much modern music that I enjoy, and much of it is derivative of an era gone by. A lot of my favourite modern music is described as post-punk. While some purists of a certain age will argue that post-punk is a long-gone era, I’m rather impartial. What else should we call it? Genre categorisation is an innavigable quagmire in the modern day; if someone needs an archaic label to describe their tastes, then so be it. 

So, after a little amble, I bring you back to the titular question, is music dying a death through a lack of originality? I see very little true innovation in most modern pop music and almost nothing to write home about in the upper echelons of the charts. However, this is where my cynicism will end, as you might be glad to hear. True originality is still around, albeit in sparse representation. 

A lack of originality is key for musical evolution but is not critical for wide enjoyment. We may have saturated the musical landscape, having explored most possible angles and genres, but artistically, there’s a lot of room to grow within the bounds of niche subgenres. So if that isn’t the problem, what is?

My humble derivation is that the problem lies more with the consumer than the artist, as it always will do. It’s a simple case of supply and demand. Where music was the key driving force behind a cultural revolution in the late 20th century, it seems to have become scarcely more than something to season the appeal of viral videos on TikTok

Through the bulk of the population’s streaming habits, people without a care for rooting around to find obscure modern gems or some long-lost hits will eat whatever is put in front of them on Radio 1. These artists are invariably churning out three-minute tracks with insufferably catchy hooks within the first few seconds (to avoid the feared “skip forward” button). As an accompaniment, the lyrics will often have the artistic flair of an accountant with a calculator; the lines are formulaic, cliched and frankly a little sickly. 

This can be blamed on a cultural shift away from music as the key driver of social change. In the modern charts, it’s only really rap music that shows any sense of sociopolitical agenda or lyrical genius, with a scattering of isolated exceptions. I find myself wanting to blame the listeners who make pop musicians so inscrutably popular, but the fault lies with the music industry itself. 

The industry today has very little patience for smaller artists, especially those with a vision of personal, artistic success over one of commercial gain. In the golden era of music between the 1960s and ’90s, labels would generally be much more nurturing and forgiving than they are today. These days it’s all about speed, long term record deals are no longer commonplace – do you have a three-minute song that has its first hook in the first ten seconds? If not, then there’s the door. If you’re lucky enough to get a deal, the label will, more often than not, dump the artist if the first single or album isn’t an immediate hit with the audience. 

Another huge factor is the slow crippling death of grassroots music venues. Aspiring artists in the ’80s, for instance, would get a fair wage for their sets at well-supported small venues, but now, artists are more commonly forced to play cheap or even free gigs in hopes that they can make a big enough name for themselves and scrape the money together to get into an overpriced studio. 

The Music Venue Trust has been campaigning for over eight years, taking action to save our independent music venues, and with the recently added pressure of the Covid-19 pandemic, the organisation has been encouraging people to get back out there and support their local talent at grassroots venues. It’s great that we can still go and see our cherished, ancient rock legends play at sold-out stadiums for the price of a second-hand car, but we must remember we have a future to attend to. 

As Paul McCartney said in support of the organisation: “If we don’t support live music at this level, then the future of music, in general, is in danger”. Small music venues are gradually being closed and falling to the might of sell-out arena concerts. This is one of the factors we, the listener, can help remedy directly. 

This approach could help ease smaller artists’ dependency on streaming royalties. This is another factor in the aforementioned strangulation. As we discarded CDs in the 2000s, artists felt the early plight of illegal downloads. Later, as digital streaming platforms like Spotify basked under the limelight, we listeners were blessed with a user-friendly app and almost everything ever recorded and worth listening to at our fingertips. Alas, apart from the likes of Adele and Ed Sheeran, the royalties paid for less-streamed artists are quite frankly unliveable and laughable, considering the titanic share the platforms and labels siphon off. In 2017, it was reported that musicians themselves took home just 12 per cent of the $43 billion generated in the industry over the course of the year. 

So, is a lack of originality strangling modern music? No. The music industry is. Where once we encouraged creative diversity through attentive record label contracts and a cult following of local artists, we are now at risk of having all artistic merit in the industry swallowed up by a thirst for capital gain. For the sake of aspiring artists and the preservation of musical diversity, get yourself to your local grassroots music venues. You won’t regret it.

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