How to Keep Your Music Current (When your Tastes Aren’t)

The music industry is a fickle mistress, governed by social and economic influences and consumers who purchase releases or attend live performances. Artists with classic influences can find themselves out of the loop when fashion decides (hypothetically) that the Yamaha DX7 is making a comeback, the flavor of the month is an uptempo ‘80s retro sound, and A&R minions scour the countryside to sign Depeche Mode tribute acts. Yet some groups seem to weather the storm no matter how tumultuous the latest Biebergate appears to be. So how can an average Joe like you or me join the ranks of the veteran rockers?

Artists like the Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath and Neil Young, and even newer acts like the Foo Fighters have carried on past the halcyon days of their parent genre. Yes, we listen because they’re rock institutions, and because we relate to them as musicians in a (very distant) master/apprentice relationship. That’s par for the course when undertaking any serious study, but there are underlying reasons for their ongoing success, and foremost is their adherence to some key music business values:

  • They maintain a core sound, ignoring passing trends
  • At least one member is conspicuously talented in their field
  • One or two senior members are in charge, and that’s it
  • They often incorporate social commentary to stay relevant
  • They integrate “suitable percentages” of current influence without compromising their sound

Let’s take an in-depth look at these points and apply them to increasing the lifespan of your music career.

Pick Your Genre and Stick To It

Pick your genre and stick to it. Bob Marley’s reggae outlasted the trend and is still the go-to sound for the Rasta aficionado. Van Halen lasted well past the Great Haircut Evolution of the early ‘90s after other stadium rock groups had long since checked into rehab. It doesn’t matter what genre you’re promoting, just be good at it and stick to it.

In a nation of almost 320 million people, the domestic U.S. artist only has to sell 1% of the population one downloaded track for $1 to gross $3.2 million dollars. If one half of 1% are followers of your classic-influenced sound, consistency, quality and endurance combined with a good deal of self-promotion (touring, YouTube, etc.) should pay dividends, even without the follow-on effect of attracting new adherents to the genre.

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Play to Your Strengths—And Don’t Lose Them

Identify the strong points of your band – a fantastic frontman, a virtuoso guitarist, having Dave Grohl on the skins; then develop, promote and exploit these points of difference."

With apologies to the late Brian Jones, Mick Jagger’s voice is a constant that the Stones could not conceivably replace. Yes, AC/DC has done it with enormous success, but ushering in Brian Johnson after Bon Scott’s death occurred at a time of evolution for the band, having relocated to UK from Australia and undertaken a more internationalist approach to their music. The point is, identify the strong points of your band – a fantastic frontman, a virtuoso guitarist, having Dave Grohl on the skins; then develop, promote and exploit these points of difference. Your audience is made up of listeners who value certain elements (whether they be vocals, drums, guitar, or personality) above others, and if you cater to their tastes, you will earn long-term loyalty.

Nominate a Leader

Leadership is important. As distasteful as it sounds, a dictatorship is more efficient than a democracy when it comes to maintaining a sound and an audience. Some bands have suffered as a result of unyielding adherence to one pivotal member’s influence (see: Ted Nugent), others have prospered.

Steve Harris is the undeniable leader of Iron Maiden, and that triplet bass driven behemoth has endured well beyond recommended use-by dates foreseen by late ‘80s pop-culture commentators. Bite the bullet, check your egos and nominate the most sensible foundation member to make the final decisions. A good leader listens to everyone, then makes the call based on maintaining the core sound. Remember that the accolades of success can be tempered by the sting of failure in this position, so choose wisely.

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Don’t Ignore the Cultural Commentary

A timeworn route to long-term success is to address the issues and attitudes of the disaffected youth. U2, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Bob Dylan all gained credibility through supporting various causes over the years, and their music became valid to sizable sectors of the community. As today’s teens get older, become more socially aware, and want a cause to rally behind, chances are they’ll take an interest in these artists.

That’s why the classic performers still get airplay, and bewildered cast-off boy bands fade into the ether. The trick is to keep it subtle. Remember that insincerity is easily perceived by true adherents, so comment on causes you truly believe in. Nothing alienates an audience quicker than the notion that you’re “cashing in” at the expense of the issue.

Compromise, but Just a Little

So what if the DX7 is the next big thing and you’re a Nirvana-influenced garage grunge trio? The most enduring bands seemed to weigh up each next-gen development and incorporate it in degrees if it suited their current sound and style, or just ignore it and treat the trend as an inevitable down-swing in the music cycle.

Tuning in to a current flavor can be as simple as changing tempo to match society’s rush hours or graveyard shifts."

Adherence to the aforementioned points meant these bands still had a core audience through shifts in music trends while increasing their fan bases. Tuning in to a current flavor can be as simple as changing tempo to match society’s rush hours or graveyard shifts. Changing topics to suit the concerns of a younger audience can attract new listeners, but sing those lyrics to your familiar classic arrangements to stay true to your core sound. Even just upgrading gear, swapping your Ibanez for a Telecaster or switching the Boss MT-2 to a DOD Phasor can be the simple shift you’ve been needing to get with the now.

Finally, it’s the innovators, not the imitators, who last longest, so don’t mimic your influences. Develop something special with the tools they honed for us, and make a sound worthy of the title “classic”.

Photo by Marc Cooper


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