So I think that one of the fundamental realities of the music industry that a lot of my compeers don’t really want to fess up too is the significance of songwriting. While it’s certainly easy to say that anything can be possible and anything can get big these days, and that is true to a large extent, (Hell – Primitive Man just did a harsh noise EP to RAISE money) but I think that it’s easy to forget that many of the bands which we hold sacrosanct and the bands that we mock despite their popularity share a lot more in common than we care to think. The songwriting is on point in every case. Sure the aesthetics might not be how you like them, but when you start to pick apart some of these songs it’s easy to see that it’s the structures and compositions that determine popularity more than an aesthetic or branding choices. Sure it’s not everything, but I think it’s far more relevant to the human condition than any sort of shirt or hairstyle.
I think one of the most obvious and humorous examples of this comes in the film Detroit Rock City, a movie about a bunch of high school kids going to see KISS live. There’s a theme in the movie of making fun of disco, the humor being that from a songwriting perspective the music of KISS is pretty damn similar to that of ABBA (Not to mention that KISS would go on to put out a disco record) Both bands were able to generate massive fanbases because not only did they have a distinct visual aesthetic but moreover their songs were immortal. This rings true across all genres and movements. Even in styles that are supposed to eschew these common principles you find that a lot of the most popular acts adhere to them. Just look at the Ramones. Not only did they kick start punk but their songwriting is pretty goddamn timeless! When you start to look at musical movements through this lens you start to find the songwriting constant to be relevant even in some of the most blasphemous music out there.
This is how I was able to move from being a straight up black metal kid to someone whose favorite singer is Kesha. There is a timeless appeal to some of those songs, the way they are put together and how they feel on your eardrums. Be aware though that just because a certain style of songwriting is more easily digestible doesn’t mean you should go just for that. As much as I might think it’s important to appreciate the rich harmonies of Taylor Swifts music there is a certain appeal to a track like Kathaarian Life Code with its meditative magic, allowing the listener to get fully lost in a sound that transcends thought. That being said – I think if you asked the guys in Darkthrone, the would certainly be able to praise ABBA, because they understand that the songwriting needs to come before everything else. That’s why they shifted from being a shitty death metal band and into a great black metal one. They figured out that they could craft great songs if they embraced this up and coming sound.
I think that this ties into what I have started to bill as ‘unsigned band syndrome’. For people like me who listen to thousands of records in a wide variety of genres every year you can almost immediately tell if a band is signed or not based on the songwriting alone. There are other tell tale signs, but most of the time, just by listening to a few tracks it’s pretty easy to tell if anyone is actually going to care about this band right now. It’s hard to put into words, but you see it impact their careers all the time. Though they might be doing everything technically right their music lacks a certain spark, a power behind the riffs or a depth to the harmonies that makes one band incredibly engaging and another band a total bore. I know that sounds impossibly pretentious and is more than a little confusing, but it’s a grim reality and one that I run into all the time. It’s hard to tell bands, but a lot of the time as hard as they might try – the songwriting isn’t there.
Now don’t get me wrong. Songwriting is not the be all and end all. There are certainly other things that you need to have on point – you can’t just hang your hat on songwriting. The people who do that are just called ‘songwriters’ and work for record labels. You obviously need to have some performance talent, good looks, a distinct visual aesthetic and more, but if your songwiting sucs you’re not going to get anywhere. Of course you can pay for a songwriter, and that certainly can be effective but it’s also something that I think a lot artists have difficulty accepting. We all have our own limitations and if this is one of yours then you might just need to accept that and go from there. If your music fits a certain zeitgeist well enough then you can luck into success no matter what your music or ability. Just look at Limp Bizkit. They were derivative of everything else but sold millions of records. The real question is, do you want to be Limp Bizkit?
I think that facing this fundamental reality can be pretty challenging, especially since songwriting is such a intangible thing. You obviously don’t want to be lowest common denominator and I think that objectively speaking the relative merits of Cannibal Corpse are similar to that of Led Zeppelin. In my eyes it can help to go to the person in your scene who you view as the harshest. The person who has the most discerning taste and ask for their opinion. Make sure they pull no punches and try and see what bands they like. It’s the people who are willing to cut through the noise and make executive decisions on what isn’t total horse shit that you want to associate with and who are going ot be able to help you take things to a new level .
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