Stories from a Beatmaker’s Beatmaker
My friend Josh was recently in Vancouver on business. A couple days before he arrived he sent me a text letting me know when and where he would be. He was staying in downtown Vancouver at a hotel on Davie and Burrard. Check-in time was 8PM.
What he forgot to mention was that his plane landed at 8PM.
I had a bit of time to kill before he got there.
When he finally made it to the hotel I parked myself in the lobby and waited for him to drop off his bags. I leaned back, kicked my feet up, and got comfortable.
There were three magazines spread across the glass coffee table in front of me. I picked one up, expecting to hate it. It looked a little gaudy, although intriguing enough to spend a couple of minutes with. Josh wouldn’t be that long.
I jumped to the back and slowly started flipping my way to the front...Astrology, first. Lame. Typical for the last few pages of a magazine. I read it, anyway, and contrary to what I expected to see, my horoscope was actually interesting for once. In a nutshell, it said that I was a loser and to go fuck myself.
Hmm, I thought. I think I may like this magazine. What else is in here…?
…Then I found this piece:
It’s from an interview with a band called PENICILLIN BABY. I’d never heard of them at the time but looked them up as soon as I got home that night.
It turns out they’re a young group from Nashville, Tennessee. They describe themselves as having a “Space-Trash” sound:
“The early recordings were done in my garage with some old analog stuff and were pretty lo-fi, so that’s where trash comes from. And it was a kind of spacey sound, so I just crammed the two words together.” - Jon Tyler Conant for ION Magazine.
The beauty of that quote is that they created a genre of music themselves by accident. The equation might look something like this:
[skill + creativity + analog gear + garage studio] = Space-Trash.
Distinct and almost impossibly duplicable.
It’s raw. It’s unique. It’s born out of human emotion. It’s laced with mistakes but stays glued together, like a greasy grilled-cheese sandwich with hot, dripping cheddar.
And then there’s the other kind of music...
It’s music that’s edited. And edited...and edited. It’s perfectly tuned. The musician has opened the song file on their computer half a dozen times because something had to be “fixed”. Friends have weighed in on what should be kept and what should be purged. It's flawless. Drums are moved a nanometre to the left, horns moved a nanometre to the right. It’s entirely absent of human error.
Worst of all, it’s easily duplicable.
But that's life now...
I work in market research. Our company helps enterprise-sized clients make money finding out exactly what people want. If you think that the successful new flavor of Doritos was a happy accident you're sadly mistaken. They researched the shit out that chip. Focussed grouped it. Surveyed it. Taste tested it. Then went to market with it and kept on testing.
“Now that we know you enjoyed the chips, did you see our ads? Did you like our ads? Were they memorable ads? What didn't you like? How about the girls in the ads? Were they sexy? Were there enough boobs? Too many boobs? What if we have dudes with boobs? I think we may be onto something here...let’s bring in the dudes with boobs.”
This holds true for every big name brand we know and love. Not just the chip companies, but the movie, music, car, and toilet paper companies too.
There's a reason why we only see Superhero movies at the box office. No Hollywood studio wants to take chances on products that don’t create a guaranteed return on investment for the people who finance them. And nowadays, who wouldn’t want to finance them? The production companies and investment banks were so smitten by the idea of Superhero Blockbusters after X-men came out they saved Marvel from bankruptcy.
Think about it. Everyone’s already familiar with the characters, so there’s a lot less effort put into brand development. McDonalds signs a huge Happy Meal merchandising contract with the studio. Moms have something to do for Sonny’s 11th birthday party...and Shelly’s....and uncle Ned’s... Disneyland builds a new rollercoaster. It’s money in the bank.
Even the nerds who think the movie is going to be a piece of shit will go see it just to bitch about it on the message boards and make vlogs criticizing them.
The point is, high risk encourages high reward at a time where companies and consumers are afraid of high risk.
The result becomes a massive experiment in mediocrity. Increased return on investment means that a product is being consumed by a greater number of people. When a greater number of people consume a product it's because they support it, in some capacity. They relate to it. It's inoffensive. It resonates with them, even if only a little.
Something about that bothers me.
I don't want to be sitting on the same couch, eating the same chips, watching the same television show as the 86 year old Hungarian woman across the hall. Surely we have different tastes. Right?
Gavin McInnes says in his movie How To Be A Man that “boring” is one of the worst insults you can call someone.
I think there's some truth in that.
And that’s just what this “perfectly tuned, flawless” music being created today is. Boring. It’s sterile. Because as soon as art becomes predictable, it loses its authenticity. It’s no longer bonafide. It can be recreated.
I see so much potential in the art community I’m now a part of become clouded by the need to appease the status quo. What ever happened to the Jackson Pollak method of getting lit, blowing $600 dollars worth of paint on a big white canvass in an emotional rage and calling it a night?
Enough of this “the song’s just not ready yet” bullshit. It’s no different than a group of 20 year old’s with selfie sticks taking the perfect photo of themselves telling the internet their eyebrows are on fleek before getting blackout drunk.
The difference is the 20 year olds don’t get big production studio budgets to Instagram their filtered eyebrows. They get another dose of encouragement in the form of attention and “adulation”. It’s a new found currency where Benjamins look like digital thumbs and pink hearts. Artists and selfie-takers work tirelessly to make sure their work fits that familiar mold and their fans expectantly bow at their feet as they slide them a “like”.
But worst of all, if their work doesn’t get the views they feel it deserves they sweep it under the rug, never to be seen again. Attention becomes a false barometer for talent. Unique, creative, and risky tracks get tossed for the generic. And the true gems, the ones that hit harder than ever for a smaller group of fans, disappear like they never even existed. There’s a sense of fear that comes from being criticized or being thought to have made something distasteful.
And if one day Facebook finally implements a “dislike” button, I have a feeling it’s going to create a wave of censorship against those who use it honestly.
Art will get buried and become stale. Conversation will get diluted and boring. And eyebrow selfies will still be just as dumb as they are today.
We need fewer Superheroes and more Space-Trash. Memorability comes from uniqueness. Uniqueness comes from taking chances. Not everyone should have to like us all the time. That version of life is boring. We need to get into arguments and be weird and provocative once in awhile. It’s what makes us different.
Being error-prone is being human. Making mistakes is being human. Taking a bad selfie is being human. And whether you make music, films, paint, or write, I urge you to make it memorable. Take a chance. Do something different. Make a mistake. If you don’t, you may be left with something that’s temporary. Like a handprint on frozen car window. Cool for a second, until your dad turns the car on and you forget it was ever there.