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How can an artist be original?

Simple answer? You can’t. So don’t bother trying. Ok I’m being harsh… But you can aim for other things that are more important than ‘originality’. And in doing so, maybe hit on something that could be considered ‘original’.

In a recent interview, rock legend Roger Daltrey had a few things to say that shed some light on the issue as it relates to artists and performers today.

The interviewer first comments on the fact that much (if not most) of what musicians (bands in particular) attempt today are largely based on the foundations laid by iconic bands such as the Who. He then asks Daltrey if he thinks music has stagnated. His reply was surprisingly humble and candid-

“Well, I don’t really like to comment on things like that. I think in our day, it was easy to be original because nothing had been done. There was us, a few others and the Beatles. It was still a big empty canvas, but now so much of the canvas has been filled. That isn’t to say that some other bugger won’t come along and paint a completely different picture.”

So in essence he was saying that largely because of scarcity, it was much easier to be ‘original’ and consequently be considered innovative. I don’t think he was totally dismissing the talent involved (lord knows, there was a lot of talent in the British invasion) but he was simply saying it was easier to stand out because there wasn’t a sea of artists you were competing with. Unlike now where jut about EVERYBODY is in a band or was in band or plays something or knows somebody who was in a band and so on.

And having a clue on the nature of creativity he doesn’t pessimistically discount the possibility someone might come along and change everything either. But he acknowledges the obvious- it was easier to be ‘original’ back in the dawn of pop rock -much easier than today where one can arguably say just about everything has been done.

So I started thinking -can an artist (in the broadest sense i.e. musician, player, writer) be original in our age of overabundance?



What I do think is, in our age of information overload there is not much point in making ‘originality’ the primary goal.

So what does an artist aim for if it is nearly impossible to be original -I mean really- what has not already been done? There once was a time in pop culture where you could sit there and think of something that hadn’t been done as was the case with the Who-hey let’s smash instruments and write a rock opera! Or Alice Cooper -let’s mix the macabre with theatrics. Or Santana- let’s bring Latin flavor in to rock. Now it appears to be impossible to be original if you set out to be original. So what does an artist aim for?

It’s what I like to call resonance.

As much as technology develops and changes the world in which we live, and in many ways changes how we think, feel and interact, there are some things at the core of the human soul or psyche that will never change. And it is those deep immutable elements that will always be reached -and resonate- through art. They will resonate something of a higher truth, hope, and existence. There is something in us that always longs for and reaches for something greater than ourselves and it is art that resonates and stimulates that ‘something’.

So artists/performers/players/writers must ask - does your idea/riff/song/whatever- first move something in you? Does it strike a chord of emotion? If it does -if you are being honest and authentic- there is a strong chance that it will resonate something in another as well. Because what an artist often does is give voice to that which everyone else feels and experiences but does not know how to express. Artists provide reflections. Artists provide narration. The artists that are performers or players give voice through their instruments and ‘say’ what others feel. That’s what resonates.

So although it may be increasingly difficult to ‘be original’ as Daltrey said, a musical artist can always be authentic and resonate with the listener.

How is it then does resonance take place? How can an artist have anything to say when everything has already been said?

1. Authenticity

An artist has to be real for anyone to care. People smell a phony a mile away. Now more than ever since ‘everything has been done’ . And since it is so easy to access virtually anything at anytime anywhere, people are not easily smitten with, “Wow, I’ve never seen/heard anything like it!” Truth is -they probably have. On youtube. This morning. But if there is something real, something true in whatever an artist is doing, people will sense it. And be attracted to it. And want more of it.

2. Honesty

But to be authentic and resonate you really have to be honest. Why are you doing this? Why are you writing this song? Why are you playing that beat? Does it feel good? Does it move you? Is there a burden there -a passion? If yes -lay into man -with conviction! If no- be honest. And start over.

3. Quality

Look, one good thing about originality being hard to come by is there is much less room for crap to get the spotlight just because no one has seen it before. Now you really have to be good. Or honest. Or both. Quality doesn’t necessarily mean pristine; it can be lo-fi but it has to be good low-fi. There has to be something authentic that is translating through that less than stellar recording or performance or whatever. Also, the novelty of ‘shock value’ has long since worn off. Thank God. It may have once been ‘original’ and therefore culturally,musically/artistically relevant to get onstage and puke, curse, and throw fits, but not anymore. It’s just stupid.

4. Craft

All you need is a red guitar, three chords and the truth. But, you have to put in the time effort and work to develop your craft. As your craft develops you have more vocabulary to speak the ‘truth’. Drummers- learn them rudiments. Songwriters- study the great tunes and what makes them great. But always come back to the fact that it is something deeper that you need to communicate.

Originality is difficult but not immposible. It is just now -more than ever- a by-product of authenticity. And if through that authenticity something resonates with the listener that is what matters. That is what makes a difference. One could argue in circles about what is truly original anyway –but what is certain is it is pointless to seek after it. It may come –but it must be an organic arrival.

Keith Andrew is a writer, drummer and musician. He is the creator of the blog and currently plays in a ‘post-rock’ band called The Tall Ships who are painfully close to releasing their new record.

Reader Comments (11)

This was an excellent post. Great writing. Thanks!
I pushed this post from my own blog also (Unsprung Media)..

"All you need is a red guitar, three chords and the truth."
I use this quote all time. I loved reading it in your post!


July 31 | Registered CommenterBruce Warila

This is something that musicians should remind themselves of on a regular basis. Authenticity is more important than the mythical quality of 'originality'...

July 31 | Unregistered CommenterDan Foley

'resonance' . That's the right word !! Thank you for this great article !

I was just musing about this the other day on my own blog: Trying to decide where the next "dangerous" music will come from and how it will change what we're doing.

This post changed my viewpoint a bit on the subject.

August 1 | Unregistered CommenterPhil Johnson

So 4 white british guys doing American R&B/Delta blues ala The Who's "Bald Headed Woman (the b-side to their first single) is somehow authentic/honest?

"I fake it so real I am beyond fake" - Courtney Love

August 1 | Unregistered CommenterSuperfly

I got really hung up on this when I was studying music in school. Then, one day I realized that Tom Petty has pretty much written the same song over and over.

I think that what's important is making the music speak with a unique voice, and to "own" it - like Jimi Hendrix performing "All Along The Watchtower", Patsy Cline performing "Crazy", Elmore James performing "Dust My Broom", and I'm sure Maria Callas wasn't the first one to sing "La Mamma Morta".

Resonance is a good term for it.

August 5 | Unregistered Commentersynthdave

@ Superfly You gotta start somewhere bro. It was the bside to their first single and they were what, 18? 19?

August 6 | Unregistered CommenterKeith

I really enjoyed this post and I would like to take this point with me when I leave this site. I am truly grateful for your insight. I agree that shooting for originality or even shock value has little value to me as an audience member. Thank you for this post and the helpful reminder.

Tom Siegel

August 12 | Unregistered CommenterTom Siegel

How can an artist be original? You MUST be!

When an artist is original in this way and this creativity touches us on this deeper level it does resonate with us as individuals. Yes technology has changed everything and music creatives have more opportunity to get fans involved in the 'experience' than ever before and yes everybody seems to be in a band these days. But not all music is great and not everyone is original.

The 'real' artist that can always be authentic and resonate with listeners however has the ability to reach his audience. It's being stimulated, perhaps by that original artist or songwriter that makes us want to support them and buy their music and this is going to keep happening in the next generation music business . . . .

As mentioned by Keith it's this authenticity, honesty, quality and craft that keeps us coming back for more and it's what will keep us wanting to find and enjoy such talent in the future . . .

August 25 | Unregistered Commenterkevin j ryan

there is no limit of creativity what the beatles made wasn't made yet just like the original song u wanna make so it is as difficult for them as for you. if u want creativity for a new melody or bassline what isn't made yet or look-a-like get a sound that is never used before or atleast what you never used before trying to make a original melody everytime on the same sound is not going to work. if u want an original sound you should listen to different genres then you supossed to make that gives you insperation to create a way different sound and combien your genre with another. btw it is not easy to create your own genre, im still looking for it to. but it will create in time not just pop up. To be regonised create a litle sound (not always necesarry but you could if you like) that pops up on a moment in all your songs but dont let it be the piano or guitar or other main instrument just a little sound that wont cast long. Have fun being original and dont give up to fast :)

October 21 | Unregistered Commenterme the producer

I agree that aiming for originality may be missing the point.

Being a musician means living in a world of subjective opinion. Unlike, say a snooker player, there is no way to know for sure if you are the best at what you do. You need to trust your own opinions which is very difficult, especially if you're creating something which has not been created before.

This was a very interesting post and I actually linked to it from my recent blog which tackles the debate from a slightly different view point

December 30 | Registered CommenterDarren

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