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Why 90% of Bands Have an Identity Crisis

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Flickr: akihiko.japan
Flickr: akihiko.japan

One of the most unique parts of my work is that I get to deal with so many different types of artists. Making a record is like an experiment, so I guess that makes me the "control." I'm the one constant. It allows me the distinct perspective to see the many ways different people think, work, and interpret musical ideas.

One thing that's hard to ignore is different people's musical inspirations and influences. You may or may not be surprised to know that certain staples, shall we say, affect people, regardless of the genre or similarity to the music they themselves make. As a producer this can sometimes be used as a subtle 'bargaining chip' that works to your advantage. (Generally speaking, mentioning Eno, Bowie, Captain Beefheart, or Wire [the list goes on] will do the trick). It's understandable that people want to align themselves with some of the most creative and prolific artists in recorded musical history, however much of a stretch it may be, but more often then not these comparisons aren't very applicable. (How many indie bands have we heard namedrop the obligatory, non-sequitur hip-hop record from Timbaland, Cam'ron, or The Dream as an influence on their unmistakably white-reverbed-guitar-jangly-garage rock?)

Fair enough, I guess. Who do we have if not each other, right? Not a particularly egregious offense in its own right, but what I find more troublesome is artists that take it four steps further. Bands willing to push well beyond a 'subtle influence' and leap towards identity theft. Let me explain:

A funny thing happens when people gain any type of notoriety. Suddenly everything is scrutinized and over-analyzed in a way that never was at the start of an artist's career. It's an unavoidable law of life... or is it? If I had a dollar for every time I've heard, "I don't know, man. We weren't thinking about all that. We were just friends drinking beer and playing music." If only life remained that simple. But it doesn't; things change. And with that change comes the pressure to create something new, to reinvent ourselves. Thus begins the process of over-thinking everything. When we start to do that, we stray from our instinct. We stray from the very thing that got us there in the first place. And when we begin to find ourselves rudderless, we begin to look for other formulas to "borrow" from. Not the best look.

I have a theory that almost anything in life can be likened to dating. Most of these 'laws' can be applied to any social situation. One of the oldest adages in the book is: "just be yourself." Mom's favorite. And you know what? Unfortunately, as usual, she's right.

See, you can't go wrong with this route because either people like you for who you are, which is great, or they don't, and you can avoid a barrage of headaches ahead of time. I see no difference with music. If you just do what is in your gut, and people respond to it, that's pretty amazing. If they don't take to it, at least you can walk away without regret for trying what was in your heart and head at the time.

Over the last five years or so, there have been only a handful of bands that have carved out a sound all their own and with repeated success. One such band played their last show ever at Madison Square Garden last year. No small feat for anyone. This band has released three albums and plenty of assorted works in between over the years. What I find remarkable, is that through it all, they identified their "brand" and stuck to it. Sure, it evolved slightly over the years and became more refined, but more or less the sound stayed within the same wheelhouse. I'm sure we can all think of other examples (and probably quite a few exceptions. Hello haters!).

This makes me happy, and proud by proxy. This justifies my feelings about just "doing you." I wish more bands had the confidence to do the same.

One trend I find particularly gross is bands getting all verklempt after their first album and deciding it's time to "show the world that's not the only thing we can do!" Show the world!? You haven't shown the world sh*t! Even if you have a successful record by today's measly standards, what makes people so impatient that they feel the need to "flip the script!!"? Perhaps the braver thing to do, the scarier thing, is to take that sound, that formula that was new and different at one point, and that you may or may not have had a large role in birthing, and explore it. Develop it. See if you can take it to the next level instead of homogenizing it or disregarding it completely.

Alas, most will not go this route. But I'll give you one guess what they will do. Call up one of their "We just met, fresh-from-a-festival" friends and ask them to 'collaborate.' Why? Why can't people resist, or better yet, delineate the difference between admiring a peer and trying to attach themselves to one?

Sorry if I seem down on collaborations, I'm not. (OK, maybe a little bit.) I just think we turn to them as a crutch too often because of our lack of confidence in our own abilities. And before you go thinking that I'm sour on change and growth, um -- I'm not. I'm just simply pointing out the length of the game, and the shape of the arc. Perhaps there is less of a rush than people think.

There is one great irony in all this that I can't help but acknowledge. As sure as the sun rises in the east every morning and bands leap at the opportunity for an easy way out, there is always one other rule in this scenario that's truly amazing. Almost every time a band shifts gears, latches onto a sound or just goes out of its way to adopt or emulate the sound of another artist, that band fails to see the most obvious and damning part of this ponzi scheme. Those acts, which new artists so longingly trying to dissect and echo, never try to do anything but just be themselves. They just do them. On some level they know they've made something unique, they embrace it, and most importantly they protect it.