The world is familiar with the celebrity musical icons of the day, so much in fact that they don’t even need to be named here. Even a five-year-old Indonesian girl living in nipa hut on a remote island can tell you exactly who is dating who and trivial information such as what their last relationship fallout was all about. The difference between the musical icons of today, and those of twenty years or so ago, is the reason for their celebrity status, which does not necessarily have to do with songwriting ability or musicianship. Back in the day, a popular artist would write songs, record albums, perform in front of thousands of fans and, of course, host notorious backstage parties that sometimes leaked to the tabloids. But they also had private lives and were able to take vacations away from the public eye. Although the paparazzi have existed since the birth of Hollywood, the power of the media has grown exponentially with the advent of the Internet, social media, smart phones and entertainment programs that cater to people’s vicarious instincts. The result is that the lives of these ‘artists’ are often continuously on display for the public to see, observe and judge. Yet, aside from technological advances, there is a darker reason for this trend.
However, before we go there, there is another phenomenon worth examining: The average age of music performers has dropped considerably over the past few decades. No doubt, record companies have found it far easier to exploit young performers in the 15 – 21 age group. And why not? They have not lived long enough to cultivate a strong artistic drive, experiential base or standard of reference for what constitutes a healthy adult life. That also explains why most popular performers behave like such oddballs in their private life. They react similar to toddlers who do things that they know are wrong, blatantly in front of their parents, in order to test their boundaries. They want to be free from the confines of people’s expectations of what they should do and, as a result, they behave recklessly. Up until now, the public has remained plugged into to the lives of music celebrities much like one would follow their favorite soap opera or sports team. Furthermore, it appears that the people were more interested in news regarding club altercations or DUI’s rather than the actual music, a telling acknowledgement that the person lacked any lasting artisitc merits worth discussing.
Now, let’s get to the heart of the matter. There are a growing number of people who recognize that something is missing from the modern music performer. Most people are now aware of the hidden assembly behind a commercial singer, including songwriters, artist & repertoire staff (A&R), producers, engineers, marketers and others who work together to create the commercial product. Independent songwriters write the songs, A&R managers find those songs by posting notices in industry trades, the producers pick the best ones (often out of thousands) and together with an engineer, record the singer’s version. If the instrumentation of a song is out of date, they throw in some slick new electronic sounds and make sure the vocal tracks are pitch-corrected to perfection. Many commercial artists refuse to allow anyone except the engineer in their recording sessions. It’s little wonder why. The whole machinery depends upon the illusion that this ‘artist’ somehow lived the experiences, passionately wrote about them, sat with a piano or guitar to compose the song and then sang it. The precise opposite is now true. Some unknown songwriter out there lived the experience, wrote about it, composed the music and even sang it first. But that unknown songwriter, daunted by the risk of failure and the overt corruption of the industry, decided they were too unattractive, too poor a singer, too obese, too remote, too something to ever be liked by people. So they sold their song and their life experiences to someone they had never met in exchange for rent money.
The modern record company originated in the 1970’s as middle men between real artists and the public. In that era, before modern recording technology, the integrity and musicianship of these artists was self-evident. While the companies brought some business acumen to the table, the artist’s vision was, for the most part, respected and protected. In the decades that ensued, as profit became the main objective, corporations mistakenly began to think of themselves as the creative ‘tastemakers’ of modern music. In reality, they scrambled to chase down and capitalize on each musical trend, becoming little more than glorified banks, They muscled in on artists’ careers and demanded an ever-increasing percentage of returns. By the turn of the century, they had completely seized control of the production process from start to finish and the product quality began to suffer noticeably. Real songwriting and musicianship has all but vanished from commercial music. Judging by the decline in music sales and the declining interest in commercial radio, the pendulum is now beginning to swing back. People are taking back their music, realizing that corporations were never, and never will be, well-suited to creating art.
An increasing number of people are shunning the roster of corporate artists in favor of high-quality, independent artists who write, produce and perform their own music. Though the number of these musician/songwriters has shrunk, thanks to nearly two decades of artistic decline, they do still exist. And they are uniquely positioned after years of songwriting and musical training to give people what they now seek- great songs played with live instruments. Fans of these songs are not interested in perfection – they are merely asking for something real.
We caught up with Stryker, one such songwriter/musician from the group Millennium to get his thoughts:
Tell us a little about yourself and Millennium.
We’re a four-person band (bass, keyboards, guitar and drums). Our music is pop rock with both acoustic and electronic influences.
Let’s get right to it. Do you have a bone of contention with some of today’s pop artists?
Well, I wouldn’t say that. I’m just not personally interested in listening to music that doesn’t come directly from the artist. I think that connection is everything in music. The Japanese have a word for everything else. Karaoke.
What do you do differently from the other artists?
Nowadays, it seems like everything we do is different. For starters, we write, sing, record and produce all of our own songs. I can’t name a single major label artist that does that. Also, we’ve never sold our songs to major label artists, even though we’ve had some offers.
But you do admit to using electronic software to enhance the sound of your music?
Absolutely. There have been some great advances in sound and recording technology. We love rock, but none of us are interested in recreating the rock era exactly as we remember it. We’ve changed and the world has changed too. Rock is coming back, but it’s not going to look and sound the same as we all remember it.
Is that what made you and Sapphire shift from the wireless mic’s and dancing to picking up instruments?
Oh, you’re gonna call us out like that! (laughing) Well, we’re both classically trained musicians. Sapphire played piano and I grew up playing piano, cello and bass. As Millennium, we explored the electronic pop element out of genuine artistic curiosity. But because we produce our own music, we had the freedom to shift gears when that approach was no longer hitting the mark in terms of our desired sound. Lately, with me returning to bass and Sapphire returning to piano, it just feels better musically.
Who are the other members of Millennium?
We’re fortunate to work with two other very talented and hard working musicians, drummer Brad Dawson and guitarist Gaku Murata. Brad is the sort of drummer every group wants- impeccable timing and an impressive command of different musical styles. Gaku is a quiet guy who let’s his guitar do the talking and he can solo forever. Both of these musicians have the type of raw talent and technical ability that sets a high bar for all of us. Damn them (laughing).
How can we get a taste of how you might sound live and completely acoustic?
That’s easy. We just released a video of us performing our new single ‘When We Walk In The Place’ live. Considering we recorded one live take (and a second pass for vocal harmonies only), I’m surprised it sounded half-decent. This is the simplest song on the album, as it is built around a single concept or feeling. Interestingly, when we translated it live with fewer instruments, it achieved more sonic complexity than the dance version. There’s something to that.
What do you think is the future of modern music?
I can’t say for sure. I just know that music is something we do purely for the love of it. I’m sure modern music will continue to change and evolve and, hopefully, we’ll continue to evolve with it. If we’re lucky, what we’re working on will resonate with people at the time. If not, I’m okay with that too. I’m not interested in fame for its own sake. I just want to be able to look in the mirror at night before I go to bed and know that I’m being true to myself.