The Great Music Mystery

When I was in school, finding a band to play in was a little easier than it is now.

For one thing, there simply weren't very many people my age who could play an instrument very well, so that put us in a unique category already.

For another thing, we were all still learning how to play, and there was a lot of rock music on the radio at the time, so when you got together with other people, the jam session mostly consisted of figuring out which songs you were learning that the other people were also learning. There was a lot of RHCP and AIC being played at jam sessions in those days. Also a fair amount of Metallica, but mostly the Black Album.

In college is where I noticed the dynamic changing. I don't know if it's because everyone was getting older, or whether it represented a more fundamental change in the culture of music. Whatever it was, this is what I noticed:

1. People started placing more of an emphasis on a core repertoire consisting of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Black Crowes, etc. And weirdly enough, old Metallica stuff, from the first couple of records. Now, this is important not just because it narrowed the field, but because it represented a backwards trajectory. When I was growing up, not very many people my age liked to listen to/play this stuff. A few songs here and there, sure, but it wasn't the majority of what people knew how to play. Also note that the core repertoire did not consist of new music on the radio. For example, when I was in college Linkin Park, Korn, Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock, etc. were all in their heyday, but I didn't know a single person who could play their songs.

2. When I got together with people, the process started to be an evaluation of whether everyone knew the core repertoire. If you couldn't play "Highway to Hell," wtf were you doing trying to form a band? "But you guys said you were a heavy rock band." Didn't matter. If you didn't show up knowing a laundry list of Zeppelin and AC/DC then people would basically lose interest in you and send you on your way.

3. Band situations started being dominated by a single person who would dictate what "the sound" was. So people could come up with any number of great riffs or song ideas, but if they didn't fit that person's vision of "the sound" then it wasn't right and it wouldn't be used.

4. Improvisation and extended jamming basically disappeared from the music-making process. If by some stroke of luck people started improvising, someone would suddenly stop things and say, "Okay, guys let's get back to work." WTF? I thought we were working... Oh well.

5. Bands started to all sound alike, and in particular, bands started to sound like what they thought audiences wanted to hear even though the individual band members themselves liked radically different music than what they were playing. And this wasn't a financial decision. I always thought it was odd that the guys from Nickelback always said Metallica was their biggest influence, but this is the perfect example. I saw heavy funk-rock bands transform into nu-metal bands for no apparent reason. I saw nu-metal bands put on tweed coats and turn themselves into The Strokes. But the question I always had was, "Why don't you guys make music that you think is good?" Whatever it is.

Well, these phenomena have grown stronger as time has gone by. I know people whose favorite bands are things like Porcupine Tree or Little Feat or Tool or Smashing Pumpkins, and they're in bands playing "Mustang Sally." Something doesn't jive, you know? There are all these players out there, really astounding players, who spend their weekends rehearsing stuff that doesn't even remotely resemble what they choose to listen to on their iPods.

This isn't a comment about genres. If you like Bob Seger and "Mustang Sally," then that's great! You should play the stuff you love. But I haven't ever had anyone come up to me and say, "Dude, Ryan, you gotta check out this awesome rendition of 'Mustang Sally.' They really nail it!" So for all the people out there playing "Mustang Sally," it seems that only a few of them have a real appreciation for that song. You're doing the right thing if you both love that song AND play it regularly with your band. If this describes your situation, then nothing I've said so far applies to you.

I'm talking about all the guitarists I meet who say, "Oh, I had a band and we used to play a bunch of Satch and Vai tunes, but these days I'm in a band that plays Coldplay covers."

I'm talking about the drummers out there who will play the basic 4 behind some nobody - making no money for it, not enjoying himself - even though he woodsheds to Dream Theater when he's not rehearsing with the band.

I'm talking about all the bassists out there who know every Stevie Wonder song by heart, and a bunch of Rush songs note-for-note, but content themselves to play open mic folk acoustic sets with bad guitarists who can't sing.

I mean, something doesn't seem quite right. It's not as if every Iron Maiden fan suddenly disappeared when Katy Perry got a platinum certification. It's not as if everyone who ever learned how to play "Cliffs of Dover" note-for-note is a pro musician who has to play to market demand. I mean, I learned "Cliffs of Dover" and I'm not interested in being a pro. I did it because I like the song and I had some spare time in college.

And I know I'm not the only one, because just pull open YouTube on a browser tab and take a look at how many players can play the best thing your favorite artist ever performed... note for note.

I guess what I'm saying is that there is a big mismatch between YouTube and clubs. Why? Why is it that we are all Steve Vai in our bedrooms, but on stage we are Neil Young on a bad night? Why are people still buying Dream Theater albums, along with Periphery albums and Animals As Leaders albums, and classic jazz albums, and stuff... and yet none of that translates into the live music scene ever?

Why is it that every time I audition for a band, they're asking me how many Led Zeppelin songs I know? And why is it that whenever I connect with other Rush fans, they're all trying to turn over a new leaf and get into a folk-indie-country-pop-argyle-sweater situation?

Or, is the problem me?

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