If you’re a guitarist trying to earn a living wage in today’s music business, it may be the worst time for sailing merrily across significant revenue streams. But it may also be the best time for art, truth, and idiosyncratic creative statements.
The very fact the conventional recording industry of past decades has taken one long slide down the crapper is why artistry and individuality are now free to be the prime movers of expression. Rules? What rules? The days of A&R cats, artistic development, big studio sound, and the “right and wrong” of what constitutes a hit song are dust. The major labels—while still controlling a huge marketing armada—are likely just as baffled as to what constitutes going viral as the fine young people who take your tickets at the local movie theater. It’s the wild west out there.
And yet, when I hang with other guitarists in studio or live-performance settings, it doesn’t seem like many have thrown off any artistic shackles.
We still argue passionately about “good tone,” of course, but the benchmarks are typically sounds made in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. We currently have more signal-processing power at our fingertips than ever, and yet many of us still cling to factory presets, seldom bothering to experiment further.
We can conjure the music of practically all eras, all styles, all players, and all continents with a few clicks on YouTube, and yet stylistic hybrids are often limited to a lick here and a lick there. Window dressing. Even EDM is regurgitating the same tired dance beats, seemingly frightened to venture past the rave mentality, as if the only butt-stimulating groove is four-on-the-floor.
Why aren’t more of us embracing the artistic freedom forged by a music industry gone upside down?
Perhaps it’s nostalgia, or fear, or option anxiety. Perhaps stepping into the abyss in order to control one’s destiny is more frightening than having a record executive tell you exactly what to do because they know best. History could be a massive impediment, as well. Few things are as seductive as loving the past so much that one is drawn to precisely emulate it.
But Google didn’t become Google by modeling itself after Microsoft, right? So I don’t think a flourishing guitar culture is going to arise without guitarists having the unbridled grit to smash convention with a big-ass sledgehammer.
In the early 1900s, Ballet Russes impresario Serge Diaghilev once challenged a young Jean Cocteau to create a new ballet production by commanding, “Astound me!” I often think about that as I consider the technique, technology, and history in a modern guitar player’s DNA, and wonder who will finally use that creative bounty to astound us.