Challenging Your Established Sound

This is a really interesting one, isn’t it?  Challenging your established sound. It raised it’s head in a recent debate on Song By Toad and it’s something I’ve been thinking about ever since.

Let us assume that your in a band, you prodce and album, it doesn’t have to be your debut, that establishes your popularity and is therefore being used as a guage for your established sound.  As the dust settles, it’s time to sit down and write the follow up record.   This  album is going to be extremenly important as it will either cement and increase your popularity or be the beginning of the end.  So what do you do?  Do you stick with the sound that has brought you the success in the first place or do you challenge it.  Change it?  Play with it?  Distort it?  Destroy it?  Is there even a right answer to this question?  If I’m honest, I’m not sure that there is.  Some people will want more of the same, whatever it is that made them love the band in the first place.  Some people will want to hear an artist challenging themselves constantly.  Some people really won’t have an opinion one way or the other.  And if we’re perfectly honest, how many artists can you name who have ever, let alone consistently, challenged their established sound?  And more interestingly, who has done it successfully?  I think you could count the list on two hands.  Off the top of my head I’m thinking: Radiohead, Blur, Tom Waits, Wilco………….see, that’s as far as I can get, and thats just my music collection.

I genuinely think it’s a difficult one.  Take Midlake for example.  How can you realistically expect a band to change their sound after only one successful album.  Surely that is a massive, massive gamble?  Surely it’s something their record company would not encourage?  Let us not forget that Wilco got dropped by Reprise for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.  Even the most subtle of changes in direction can result in a bad taste in the mouth of those who loved you for what you were.  But if you take the case of Fionn Regan.  His debut did well, but not amazingly so.  He’s perhaps still not massively “established”.   On his new record he does challenge his sound, with positive results.  So does that mean it actually has to do with popularity?  Do bands who don’t have huge success have more flexibilty to challenge themselves creatively?  I think there is an element of truth in that for sure.  In fact, I’d argue that it is the “popularity” if a band that makes it more likely that the established sound will not change.  Or at least one of the reasons.

I am fascinated by this.  I genuinely am.  The last thing I want is for a band to produce the same record over and over again.  At the same time.  If it’s good.  It’s good.  Right?  Like I said, I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer to this, but I do think as an established act you have to have a right pair of balls on you and a very understanding record label to be able to really challenge your established sound.  Thoughts?

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5 thoughts on “Challenging Your Established Sound

  1. I think it almost entirely depends on the artist.

    Take Beck, for example – who has forged a career from constantly reinventing his sound and playing around in different genres with each release.

    I think if a band are known to experiment and play around with ideas, then their fans will go with it.

    But then you get extreme examples like Bob Dylan – who helped set up and define a specific genre for many people, then turned his back on it (‘went electric’), and caused an outrage.

  2. True. I think you make some very valid points. Beck’s a great example of somebody who has not only been accepted but lauded for continually challenging his sound. But then did he ever have an established sound?!

    Still one of my favourite moments in film is at the end of No Direction Home when Dylan’s on stage getting abuse from the fans and he turns to the Band and says “play it fucking loud”….

  3. There’s also the amazing story about how, in the 1980s, Neil Young was sued by his own record label for releasing an album that was unrepresentative of ‘his sound’.

    That always astounds me – what the hell happened there? Did they just not listen to it before giving it the green light?

  4. It seems your emphasis is more on those who buy the album rather than the artists themselves. I reckon for a true artist, you’ll write and produce a second album which is true to your musical progression. Those who write music just to please a crowd I think have a false purpose. I get your point about having to please the label though. I personally have always had a preference for the album that first got me hooked on a band, whether it’s their first, second or fifth. The initial buzz of discovering a band’s sound and the way an album as a piece of art is produced is amazing and hard to beat. Sure you’re not going to please everyone but isn’t it more about satisfying the artistic drive rather than the punters? I beleive that one of the elements of a true musician is constantly evolving your writing style and always being aware of what is influencing you. You mentioned blur, and for me Damon Albarn is the perfect example of someone who has musically evolved, from early Blur to Think Tank (one of my favourite albums of all time) Gorrilaz and The Good The Bad and The Queen.    

  5. No. I don’t think my emphasis is on the people who buy the records. Ultimately they, the media and your label are the people who will judge you though, so I’m just thinking about all the different pressures placed on artists to challenge their sound and wondering why it’s so important given that not many artists do so let alone do so successfully.

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