The following article has the potential to be misconstrued as though I’m cynically chasing popularity and profit. Please rest assured that’s not my intention and that’s not the case. To better explain, I tend to measure my own successes on two fronts; firstly, how creatively satisfied I am, and secondly; did this achieve as much or more commercial attention as the previous release? The creativity is always paramount, but the commercial response can’t be ignored.
There’s an old saying in the music industry: “You’re only as good as your latest release”. This doesn't wholly apply to me as I don’t mind if I follow up a successful release with a “flop”, provided I believe the “flop” to be a strong piece of artistic work. Nevertheless, if something flops commercially where something else succeeds, it’s only natural to assess why, as the end game is to achieve artistic satisfaction and for it to be commercially viable.
The Genre Trap? - Part 2
In the last blog I closed off with the question “How does an artist satisfy their own creative exploits without alienating their audience?”. Creativity is undoubtedly a personal thing and so I wouldn’t be as crass as to offer up a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, I’ll walk you through my own thought processes and experiences, and you can take as much or as little from it as suits your own methods.
Firstly, my genre (or the genre I’m most associated with) is that of “Retrowave”. Retrowave is somewhat of an umbrella term for a wide variety of music influenced by 80s sound aesthetics. Think Brad Fiedel’s Terminator score, Jan Hammer’s work on Miami Vice and Harold Faltermeyer’s Beverly Hills Cop and Tango and Cash soundtracks. Now cross those with 80s cartoon soundtracks, TV commercials and pop music and reimagine it with modern, digital computer production techniques.
Like most genres, there is an overarching umbrella term and then many (sometimes countless) sub-genres and offshoots that specialise on specific stylistic elements. In the case of Retrowave, there’s even debate over whether the overarching genre label is “Retrowave” or “Synthwave”. Personally, I’ve always felt Retrowave to be a more fitting overarching definition. In the case of Retrowave (or Synthwave, depending on who you’re talking to), there are sub-genres such as Darkwave, Cyberpunk, Popwave, Outrun and many more. For a comprehensive understanding of this, I highly recommend Iron Skullet’s article about the sub-genres of Synthwave/Outrun.
In 2016 (and early 2017) I made three EPs that I planned to release across the next year or so. One was called Girls On Bikes and the other two were titled Him and Her. Him and Her were more like an album split into two EPs. They were very closely aligned in terms of style of tonal palette. Girls On Bikes was quite a different flavour; much brighter, upbeat and summery. Given that Him and Her were of a more serious nature (they told the story of a relationship that didn’t work out from both his and her perspectives), I thought I’d release Girls On Bikes first, so as to get it out of the way as much as anything, before knuckling down with thematically heavy stuff.
In August of 2017 I released Girls On Bikes and it proved rather popular, taking the number one spot in its genre classifications on BandCamp upon release. With this came an influx of new fans and social media following. There was a bit of a buzz around me and my music for a few weeks and the popularity resulted in the EP being pressed on vinyl. It was a small watershed moment for own musical journey as I’d never released anything to date that had garnished anywhere near that sort of support.
In early 2018 I released Him and Her on one of the Synthwave genre’s larger record labels (Lazerdiscs Records). I was a little trepidatious about the release of these EPs on a synthwave label as I wouldn’t consider Him and Her to be obviously retrowave/synthwave. There were lots of retrowave tropes and characteristics in the music, but ultimately they were more on the fringes of electro-pop with funk and even had RnB elements. My trepidation was justified when despite my newfound fan base and being on an established Synthwave label, Him and Her didn’t receive anywhere near the attention or success of Girls On Bikes (which was much more identifiably Retrowave).
I am proud of the Him and Her EPs and pleased I was able to see through my artistic vision to completion. I had received positive feedback on the EPs from fans as well as positive reviews from various online journalists. I had one track from Him played on BBC radio, which was a real high point of the marketing campaign for those EPs. Nevertheless, I could not ignore their underwhelming commercial performance. I questioned the quality of my work, although I take solace in Lazerdiscs Records releasing Him and Her, as it showed me that some people believed in the EPs enough to invest time and money in promoting and distributing them.
On reflection I believe it’s more likely Him and Her, where simply misplaced in their timing, targeting and genre classification. I’m not suggesting that they’d have made big waves in another genre; more that Girls On Bikes had rewarded me a new and bigger fan base than I’d had before, and I followed up on their new fandom with two EPs that were nothing like what had brought them to me in the first instance. An example of exactly what I discussed in part one of this article; I appeared to take a reasonably drastic sideways step (artistically) and alienated a proportion of my audience, resulting in a reduction in earnings.
The audience wasn’t to know I had actually done the bulk of the production work on these EPs prior to Girls On Bikes, nor should it be a factor in their enjoyment (or not) of my music. Furthermore I hadn’t anticipated Girls On Bikes would make the impact it did on my fan base, and had I foreseen that, I might have released things differently.
Perhaps more importantly from all of this was the realisation that Girls On Bikes, or rather the stylistic approach I used to make it was both artistically satisfying and popular within the retrowave scene. This appeared to now be a win-win situation and one I should double down on (i.e. make more music like Girls On Bikes).
Looking ahead to future plans I'd learned to more deeply consider the stylistic nature of each project I planned to undertake. I have now developed a more coherent and defined artistic map for 12-18 months worth of forthcoming releases. Even if projects are just abstract thoughts and conceptual ideas, I now have an idea of where they’ll sit in my release timeline and importantly, how each release will stylistically develop and build on the release that went before it.
To phrase it another way, I think of representing my stylistic evolution (through my releases) as exactly that; evolving. It’s gradual and step by step as opposed to sudden and jarring.
Therefore, with a new outlook on my release schedule (artistically speaking) and a new formula (the “Girls On Bikes Production Palette” as I like to think of it), I continued producing music. Several remixes, two Ghostbusters themed EPs, a couple of video game app soundtracks and a yet to be released full video game soundtrack (due later this year) I had a lot of fun with it, but in all honesty, I grew weary of the Girls On Bikes Production Palette and wanted to do new things. I also felt I’d become lazy in terms of arrangement and structure and I wanted to really shake up my production approach in order to better myself and my craft, something I don’t believe I could do by peddling out more releases like Girls On Bikes. I told myself I’d make Boys On Boards as a sequel to Girls On Bikes and a farewell swansong to the production aesthetic. The two EPs would bookend a period in my music production style that has really helped me grow my audience whilst also grow artistically.
Taking into consideration what I plan to do with my next album however, Boys On Boards would need to serve two purposes; firstly it would need to live up to (or better) the character and quality of previous releases (Girls On Bikes) and secondly (equally, if not more importantly), it would need to serve as the stepping stone between this release and the next (an album that I have planned for late 2019), subtly introducing flavours that will be greatly enhanced on the next release, so as to not make the new artistic direction as drastic a change as it otherwise might be perceived to be.
In my next article, I’ll do a deep-dive into Boys On Boards and discuss how I married together the Girls On Bikes Production Palette with what I hope to be my evolved sound later this year. I’ll discuss in detail how I’ve attempted to make Boys On Boards not only a bookend and swansong to the Girls On Bikes era of OSC, but hopefully the bridge to OSC 2.0, so that when that album arrives, it won’t feel too different or alien, despite it actually being made with a very different production ethos.
Thanks for reading,
Wow! This has been a long one and if you’ve stuck it out to the end, congratulations to you. As independent musicians, we’re all somewhat walking blindfolded and if you can take anything positive away from my experiences and/or use the above to help you avoid some potholes on your journey, then brilliant!