Not Being Trendy

Pop music has always been about trends — either setting a trend or following one. Partly this is for reasons of finance: In order to stay in business, a record company has to purvey predictable platters. Most listeners, be they fond of pop, classical, jazz, or anything else, are not well equipped to encounter and respond to music that departs too radically from what they’re already familiar with.

One might be tempted to disparage music listeners on account of this, but one would be wrong. It’s just human nature.

Creators of new music, like listeners, are immersed in a culture. The elements of that culture acquire an emotional aura. If you grew up in the Sixties, as I did, the early songs of Bob Dylan are numinous in a way that would be hard to explain to a modern teenager who was born and raised in Thailand. It’s natural that composers will gravitate toward the type of material that is most meaningful within their culture.

Right now I’m putting the finishing touches on a set of 15 new pieces of music, all of which I composed and recorded in my computer. It’s 100% synthesizers, not just because that’s convenient (though it is stunningly convenient!) but because I like synthesizers. The common term used today for this type of music is retro synthwave. It’s heavily influenced by the synth-pop of the Eighties.

I think I’ve done a pretty darn good job of producing some excellent tracks (though of course I’m not able to be objective). So rather than just upload the set to my bandcamp page and move on, I’m wondering whether I might be able to find a small indie record label that would like to make the music available to a wider audience.

The tricky bit is, I’m not trendy. I don’t even want to be trendy. I write the music that I want to write, and I wouldn’t change a note of it in order to appeal to a demographic or to the decision-makers at a label.

There’s no shortage of indie labels that release synthesizer music. As I explore that realm, I’m finding a few tracks that I like, but it’s mostly big-beat dance music, and that’s not what I do. The term is EDM (electronic dance music). There are also some labels that specialize in scrape-and-grind experimental minimalism. I have yet to find a label that focuses on the sort of music that I do. There may not be one.

What I enjoy doing never has a massive kick drum that’s louder than anything else in the mix. There are drums playing a beat, yes, and the kick and snare are audible, but the music isn’t about the kick. I will turn the kick down in order to make room for a moving bass line. I use fancy chord progressions on electric piano, processing with reverb and delay, carefully edited melodic variations, all that good stuff. All of it is infused, in some way or other, with a classical sensibility.

When people hear the term “classical influence,” they’re likely to imagine grandiose, pompous symphonic arrangements, and that’s not what I mean at all. I don’t own an orchestral sample library, and wouldn’t use one if you gave it to me. If I were talking to someone at a record label, it would be a mistake even to utter the word “classical,” because it would create a wrong impression. My classical influences are in the realm of chamber music. What I mean by the term is, I use melodies and chord progressions. Sometimes even counterpoint.

Over and over I hear modern synth music that just relentlessly pounds on one chord progression for five minutes and never unfolds a melody that has a memorable shape. It’s boring, but it’s trendy. And I’m sure the young musicians who are doing this type of thing are not trying to be trendy. They’re doing what they like. They’re immersed in a culture that values certain things, such as that massive kick drum, so that’s where they go.

Music creators who use synthesizers are often quite creative with their sound design — or at least they buy the raw material from sound designers and then piece it together. This is a form of creative collaboration, and there’s nothing wrong with collaboration. But the composition never seems to venture much beyond that. Melody? No. A 16-bar phrase with a clear ABAC form? No. Modulating to a different key? No. A middle section that’s in a different key and has a different chord progression and a new melody? Again, no. Very little in today’s pop music scene makes use of those techniques. You’d have to go back to the era of songwriters like Paul Simon and Billy Joel to encounter this type of writing.

I’m in an odd position in that I have an extensive background in classical music, plus several years of experience (when I was much younger) playing bass guitar in club bands, plus a good understanding of jazz harmony, plus a thorough grounding in synthesizer technology. On top of which, I’m over 70 years old, so I’ve never been to a dance club. When I was playing in clubs, we played songs by Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

I suspect that some of the young composers who are doing retro synthwave have never played live in front of an audience. Those who have played live may have been playing in a metal or punk band — genres in which sophisticated attention to chords and melody is less treasured than raw emotion. Very few of them, I’d guess, have played Haydn string quartets with three friends just because it’s a fun thing to do.

There are not a lot of retro synthwave composers like me. You might think that’s a good thing. It means I have something unique to contribute! But finding a niche — a distribution channel, however modest — is not likely to be a stroll in the park. I’m looking around, though.

One of my heroes is Conlon Nacarrow. In the 1930s he got fed up with the jazz scene in the U.S., so he went off to Mexico City and composed music for player piano. He punched the piano rolls himself, one note at a time, and spent about 40 years at it. I don’t much care for his music, but I admire his steadfast determination to do it his way, without compromising

I’m pretty sure composers of music that is heavily influenced by EDM are not compromising. They’re doing what they feel moved to do, and that’s great. I’m coming from a different place, that’s all. If I have to punch out piano rolls (metaphorically, in my computer), I’ll do it. I can’t do anything else.

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