I hear a lot of people say that everything on the radio sounds the same. The songs, the artists. Well, I read an article in The Atlantic recently that I can’t get out of my head. In "The Shazam Effect," Derek Thompson writes, “Our brains are wired to prefer melodies we already know. Familiar songs are easier to process and the less effort needed to think through something—the more we tend to like it.”
Really? Not me. As a music fan I want to exert effort. I want to think things through–I want to be surprised. If it’s too easy it’s boring. But apparently I am in the minority. Maybe that’s why I’ve been tuning in to Alt-Nation instead of Hits 1 lately.
Mr. Thompson goes on to explain that because of the fact that music-analytics companies such as Next Big Sound and HitPredictor are monitoring our tastes, and they know we are looking for more of the same, songwriters, producers, and record labels give it to us: the same recycled chord progressions, obligatory swagger, plug-ins that make voices less distinguishable.
Admittedly, I’ve heard murmurings about these analytics in songwriting sessions. I try not to pay too much attention to them because I have mixed feelings. Although I can’t deny I am delighted when I’ve written a potential single that tests well, I have to ask myself if all this data-mining undermines creativity?
I’m happy to say that any song that ever hit for me was sheerly by accident. I opened my heart and looked inside. Then I wrote about what I saw. And sometimes it worked. The unpredictability was a huge part of the fun. It was all the more satisfying if something (randomly) took off.
Of late, I work with savvy producers who are aware of the tempo that’s trending, the ideal pop song structure, the fashionable melodic intervals. I like that they know what they're doing. Let’s face it, if that’s what mainstream radio wants, and we are career songwriters who want hits, we’d be foolish to swim completely against the tide. How can we simply ignore all the data and listen only to our hearts?
I don’t want to write songs in a laboratory.
But I want success.
And there lies the rub.
Sometimes there is a track with all the right accoutrements that’s been approved for a project before there’s even a song atop it.
There are analytics available that can predict the most likely pop stars out of hundreds of hopefuls and DJs who toss aside the unfamiliar because they know that the audience will reject it. Sigh.
Labels are presenting their analytics as proof that certain songs or artists will be hits. Years ago, record labels and promotors would out-and-out bribe radio stations. While illegal, at least that didn’t involve tampering with creative DNA.
Of course, and thankfully, there are exceptions...songs that survive and thrive despite these analytics: “Royals,” “Say Anything,” “Take Me to Church,” “All About That Bass.” (In fact “All About That Bass” didn’t score so well when tested. Why does that make me smile?)
And what of A&R? Do they go to clubs to see if a band can get their blood pumping? Or are they relying more on Twitter? Has the accessibility of all this information made trusting data preferable to listening to instincts? What will happen to instincts? Will they become irrelevant?
When did we change as a culture? Was it when technology gave us the ability to measure tastes? If so, why do we crave the familiar so much more than we used to? Or did we always crave the familiar and we just didn’t know it—because we didn’t have the ability to know? I don’t think that’s it. There was a time I could write a very personal, non-generic song and artists would want to sing it. They fought for it. Where is our patience for the unusual? The strange? Why aren’t we interested in songs about war? Why aren't we writing about black men being taken down by white cops? Where are our “Abraham, Martin and Johns”?
When on your first date, did you really want to know how everything would unfold? Just because you liked one boy (or girl), did it mean the next one had to be just like him (or her)? I know, I know. This is different. It’s business. And all this is good for the people who run the businesses. I’m just not so sure how good it is for music.
I guess that’s why I’m not a CEO.
I can’t help but be nostalgic for when Clive Davis and colleagues didn’t need algorithms to tell them that Bob, Whitney, and Janice (or the songs they sang), were special. They just knew.
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