Music

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“Music is, to me, proof of the existence of God. It is so extraordinarily full of magic, and in tough times of my life I can listen to music and it makes such a difference.”

The quote above from the great American Novelist, Kurt Vonnegut is made more compelling by Vonnegut being, at times, humanist, atheist and agnostic. The idea seems broadly accessible to all that – in its various forms – we can make deep, almost spiritual, connections with music.

But of course, taste in music varies considerably. Why is that, and how does your preference get defined?

For my own part, two things appear to be true.

  1. If I listen to any music for long enough, I can learn to like it and then find it enjoyable.
  2. I don’t typically fancy doing (1)

So perhaps if I’d been brought up in a house and school full or Iron Maiden and AC/DC, I’d be a metal fan now; or perhaps in different circumstances, I’d be a classical music boff, or devotee of rap?

What I tend to find, in fact, is that what I’m listening today is either:

  1. The music I learned to like in my teens
  2. Music that I’ve got to from the music I listen to in my teens (from The Smiths to Johnny Marr to The The)
  3. Music which has been pumped out of the radio, or TV so often I’ve come to like it.

A good example how tastes can develop is Martin Stephenson. Growing up in Newcastle, Stephenson and his group the Daintees were like local heroes, signed to local label, Kitchenware alongside other local favourites PrefabSprout. At the time, the band were destined for the charts, groomed and PR-ed for it.

I fell in love with the band, bought all their albums, saw them live and kept on listening to them for years, even though they quietly disappeared.

Then a few years ago, he started playing concerts again. At first I went along to see the old songs. But there had been a lot of water under this particular bridge. Still a fantastic showman, Stephenson had transformed into a much more eclectic performer, mixing many musical influences, mysticism, the wisdom of therapy, addiction and religion. Songs would blend, narratives would drift off. It is hypnotic. The Stephenson of  2012 is – of course a totally different performer to the Stephenson signed to Kitchenware in 1982. Like the philosopher’s axe, all the parts have been replaced, only the name and the memories remain.

I wonder if I’d never heard the old Stephenson, would I love the new one? I doubt it. Liking the original gave me enough licence and patience, I suppose to learn to love the descendant. And for that, I’m very lucky.

What about the catchy, manufactured pop that floats out of youth radio (to which I still, erroneously, listen)? This fantastic New Yorker article takes a peek behind the scenes at how much of this music is made. Certainly ‘manufactured’ doesn’t feel like a stretch. But then again, have you ever actually tried to write a song? It’s not easy, and part of the reason it can feel so difficult is that the result can appear flat and unseductive. These techniques pull those levers deliberated and simply adds in meaning later. The idea that the singer must write the songs, and write them from the heart, is a relatively recent one.

But if we think about it slightly differently, manufacturing music through chord sequences and hooks, is all about designing tracks which can be very quickly taken on board. It’s about giving your audience a sprinkling of good reasons for putting in the work to get, literally, hooked. And there are as many hooks in ‘A rush and a push’ as there are in ‘Diamonds’. The story about how and where the song was created and the conviction of the lyrics, are merely extensions of the meaning that can be attributed to it. Noel Gallagher claims to have written most of Definitely Maybe while manning an NCP car park. Is this preferable to a studio in LA? And of course (witness the X-Factor final last night), much of this can be manufactured too.

So music, and our preference for it, is fascinating. I’m sure similar parallels could be drawn for film, theater, books and the like.

At different stages of our lives, we may also care more or less how the music we listen to, the books we read and the films we watch define us or support our self-image. Like the character Marcus in ‘About a boy’, the choice of rap music reflects a desire to fit in to a group, as well as just a joy of the experience. Like the boys behind the bike sheds coughing their way into a an addiction to Embassy No 1, how many young music fans have to invest time to learn to love the ‘right’ acts? Is this pretense? I don’t believe so, as the effort required is to build the initial relationship which then builds through familiarity.

Perhaps an interesting spin-off question is how closely this method of liking, exploring and becoming tuned in, is reflect in brands (or rather, non-media brands). How do we learn to love, and how far will we explore beyond our preferred repertoire.

Presumably some of the same principles are true:

  1. We can embrace or reject the brands our parent’s loved
  2. Once we’ve become used to a brand, we stick with it as it develops, as Apple has
  3. We could perhaps define genres of brands and observe tendencies to favour one brand type over another
  4. We need an incentive to try new brands, a chance to sample
  5. We can use brands to define ourselves
  6. The back story of the brand can be just as important as the qualities it manifests
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