I read a thought-provoking article the other day by Sophie Heawood: she commented about how our experience of music has changed in this digital age of downloads and streaming. As a Spotify premium subscriber, this resonated with me and I wanted to give my response. To get in the mood I’m listening to some of my guilty pleasures on Spotify as I write this, feel free to join me…
The trouble with digital – streaming music in particular – is that I don’t feel that I own music anymore. Not physically anyway, I literally just pay to listen to it. No doubt it’s saved space; I have racks and racks of CDs in my bedroom that are not getting added to anymore because I can listen to everything I want on my phone.
It’s not just our buying experience that’s different though, the entire way we hear music has changed because of digital. There’s a decline in hi-fis (don’t I sound old!) Instead of these dedicated sound systems, most people listen to music through tinny earphones, laptop or iPad speakers – all of which weren’t designed with sound quality as a priority.
If you want to have a good listening experience I suggest you invest in a good pair of headphones. Walking down the street in a city centre you would think most people have, many people with headphones on their heads will go past you nodding along to the tunes that are whizzing through their ears. Do not be fooled by first impressions! These people don’t care for music; they’re flaunting it as part of an ‘80s throwback fashion craze. That’s because Dr Dre’s colourful Beats headphones are built for style rather than substance. My own headphones are Sennheisers, which sound fantastic, but I wouldn’t want to be seen outside of a studio wearing them!
Is music worth listening to anymore? People are still buying it (or rather, downloading it) in their droves so it obviously hasn’t died – just a bit of my soul has. The chart offerings aren’t just lyrically bland, the music sounds like music that could have been produced in someone’s bedroom… probably because it has been.
Then, out of the blue, came along a smash hit that restored my faith in modern music: Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, featuring Pharrell Williams and produced by my musical hero – Nile Rodgers. That song is the sound of the summer for many. The lyrics leave a lot to be desired, but the reason it sounds so good is because Daft Punk have learnt – and listened – to music from the past. By collaborating with established producers like Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder, they’re adding to a contemporary disco sound being coined nu-disco.
No matter what your taste is, experiencing music is so fulfilling it becomes the soundtrack to your life – so make sure you hear it the way it was supposed to be heard with good quality equipment. Be open minded to explore; don’t just accept what’s played to you in the charts. That’s what Daft Punk did and it got them a number one. Music isn’t just about now; any track you hear will be inspired, in some form or another, by hits heard before. Let’s hope music’s future is just as colourful as its past.
As the brains behind Chic and many disco hits (with his late musical partner Bernard Edwards) I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see Nile in person when he was in conversation with Dave Haslam at the Zion Arts Centre in Manchester the other week. Nile is such a humble, genuine and likeable person it didn’t take long to become engrossed in the fascinating tales of his childhood and career. I found myself nodding along during the night, and that wasn’t just when he played some of his most famous guitar riffs and basslines, I was also agreeing with what he had to say.
Something struck a chord with me and it was this notion of “DHM”. Don’t get too excited; it’s not some lads’ mag spin off, DHM stands for ‘Deep Hidden Meaning’ within songs. Get listening because there’s a DHM in all Chic’s songs as well as the long list of songs that Nile has produced for other distinguished artists too.
In his autobiography Le Freak, Nile says:
We wrote for the masses, but worked tirelessly to make sure that there was a deeper kernel that would appeal to the savvier listener. (2011, pg. 145)
I’m not going to tell you what David Bowie’s China Girl or Sister Sledge’s Thinking of You means, I’ll leave the fun of discovering that to you, but it got me thinking: wouldn’t it be great if all songs were like that. Maybe I’m becoming cantankerously old if I were to say “They don’t make ‘em like they used to”, so I won’t. But with overly-saturated X Factor culture, cover albums and economies of scale impeding on the music industry it’s certainly a lot harder to find the good stuff nowadays. (Discovering brilliant hidden gems is all part of the experience though!)
Reviewing the latest chart releases has become a regular part of my week now for a feature that I do for Pure Radio and, more often than not, it’s a struggle to find something that I like. I often wonder why, but maybe – just maybe – it’s because of the lack of DHM? Think about it, was Rebecca Black thinking of a DHM when she unleashed Friday onto our ears? How about Cher Lloyd’s number 1 Swagger Jagger or any of Jedward’s latest offerings? They’re not exactly going to go down in the annals of music history are they… Well, not for the right reasons anyway.
Before the Rebecca Black fan club come to hunt me down, let me just say that of course this is all my subjective opinion. My childhood musical memories include the likes Aqua, The Cartoons and Vengaboys whose singles I bought with a big smile on my face at the time, so I am (hopefully) not a music snob. After all, we all love a bit of novelty. YMCA, anyone? But there just seems to be a bit too much novelty nowadays – that’s all.
Aside from this novelty, sampling has become very fashionable and Nile Rodgers knows that all too well. A great website that I like to procrastinate with is called http://www.whosampled.com/ If you type ‘Chic’ into the search box then you’ll see that they have sampled just one track [Duke Ellington’s It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got that Swing) in 1977’s Everybody Dance, if you’re interested.] However, it’s astonishing to learn that Chic themselves have been sampled a whopping 145 times! It just goes to show that these modern day artists would only want to emulate that sound if it is good, which it certainly is.
Sampling is almost too easy to do; Nile, and countless other producers like him, have spent time and money arranging this music and recording it for it then to be ripped off by someone else. I’m sure it’s not too bad now though, especially when the royalties come rolling in. Of course, an advantage of sampling and covering songs is that it’s a fantastic way to introduce this music to a whole new audience who can then discover the DHM within the songs for themselves.
Does all this DHM stuff really matter? Maybe not initially when you’re dancing the night away, but DHM is what has given these songs longevity because you can listen again and again and hear different nuances within the songs every time. Something that any record producer could learn from, but that is why Nile Rodgers is one of the very best in his field.