There are moments in music history that can be described as game-changers. Whether that moment is a song (“Like a Rolling Stone”), an album (“Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”), or even an event (Woodstock Festival), most things that present as a game-changer in the arts happen almost by accident. No one can predict, it would seem, that something is going to change the world. It often grabs a place of importance in spite of itself.
It would be wonderful if you could be responsible for changing the direction of music, but it’s not something you can usually successfully aspire to. We travel forward in time with no clear view of the path ahead.
We ride backwards…
It’s as if we’re facing backwards in a car traveling down a highway. We can see clearly where we’ve been, and if we look to the sides we can see where we are. But the most we can hope for is to predict the future based on where we’ve been and where we are. No one, not even the most experienced or informed, can clearly predict the future of music.
That makes the quest to write “the next big thing” little more than a shot in the dark. And it’s even tougher than that: most game-changer songs or moments don’t immediately present themselves as game-changers. It takes:
What it takes to write a game-changer
The follow-up simply means that a game-changer needs to be followed by other artists trying to do the same thing, or at least what they think is the same thing. A game-changer song or album needs to be followed by a large section of the music world trying to sound like that.
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Nothing is a game-changer if no-one is discussing it. In June of 1987, practically every major news organization started off their evening broadcasts with the anchor saying, “It was 20 years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play…” – such was the powerful game-changing influence of that 1967 album.
There was little to no media attention on the 20th anniversary of Englebert Humperdink’s “Release Me” – not a game-changer. That 1967 recording kept The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” (a game-changer) from the number 1 spot on the U.K. charts. So you can have a ferociously successful song without it being a game-changer.
It takes time and history to be a game-changer. History has a way of filtering out garbage. What’s left after we forget the garbage is the good stuff, and taking the place of importance at the top is usually some sort of queen bee: the game-changer.
There needs to be something unexpected, as far as public perception is concerned, about a game-changer. Game-changers often appear out of thin air, with their powerful impact being a bit of a surprise. And that gets me to why I’ve been thinking about game-changer music at all these days.
Don’t be so fearful of bad opinions
It surprises me the number of young songwriters who – usually online – solicit the opinions of others regarding their songs. They covet the approval of others. It’s as if the final step in writing a song is the positive opinion of others.
I see the value of getting help when you’re stuck in the songwriting process. Having an experienced musician offer their thoughts on how you can get through a tricky spot is invaluable, and you may someday be that kind of help to someone else.
But writing a song, and then going on to an online forum and asking, “Hey, what do you think of my new song?” – I sometimes ponder the purpose of that question.
Is it really important to you? I only ask because if you find that you’d change a song based on someone’s negative reaction to it – I wonder why you’re writing songs at all?
Most game-changer music will come out of the dark like a shot. And at the moment it appears, it can often be beyond what has been previously written, and have an immediate, negative impact on the audience. Nik Cohn of the New York Times described The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” as “An unmitigated disaster.”
If you really want to write the next best thing, just keep writing and releasing tunes. Do the things that make writing great music more likely: listen to music daily and write music daily.
But nothing becomes a game-changer unless you’re courageously innovative, and get your music out there for others to listen to.
And though you shouldn’t totally ignore public opinion of your songs, you shouldn’t keep changing your musical direction based on an online opinion. Innovation is scary, and sometimes it’s lonely. But every once in a while, innovation will propel your song to the top of pubic consciousness, and that’s when it becomes a game-changer.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
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