What Makes Music Authentic?
Authentic music reflects an artist’s unique style, creativity, and values. It explores a range of emotions and experiences in a way that’s true to its creator.
Keep in mind; this definition makes it easy to fall down a rabbit hole of music snobbery. It’s best to try to stay as open-minded as possible. An individual’s perception of music tends to lie somewhere between art and entertainment. Consequently, this tends to divide opinions on what really makes music authentic.
Authenticity requires a lot of creativity and experimentation. Not only does this take time, but it also takes more courage to put your true self out there. There is no guarantee that this will be a commercial success, which is why many musicians take shortcuts when attempting to pursue their musical goals.
Music is at risk of being inauthentic if the main driving force behind the music creation is based on any of the below.
- Music created for the purpose of commercial gain
- Music created for the purpose of achieving fame
- Direct imitation of other artists
- Creating music that’s not true to their style and values
- Record labels exert too much influence on the music creation process
Creating a popular music track often requires a team of professionals, including songwriters, musicians, and music producers. For example, pop artists often do not write their own songs, and a vast amount of modern pop songs are written by a small number of songwriters. To illustrate this, Max Martin wrote songs for a plethora of artists, including Britney Spears, Pink, Usher, Jessie J, Katy Perry, The Weeknd, and many more!
When many people are involved in the creation of a music release, it’s up to the entire team to stay authentic.
When we try to define what is an authentic musician, it can also expand to include how they portray themselves and their image while on stage, through interviews, and in their public behaviors.
The authenticity of musicians can be easily swayed based on commercial and monetary success. Record labels can exert a heavy influence on the creative process, which can slowly but surely change how a musician approaches the creation of music.
They may change their songwriting process in order to try to improve listener time and lower skip rates on Spotify in an effort to land on big playlists and gain momentum.
This comes at the cost of them compromising their creativity, and if they go far enough, they may stop being true to themselves.
Where do you draw the line? It all depends on how musicians view their creative outputs, which brings us onto our next question.
Is Music Art or Entertainment?
Music is on such a sliding scale between art and entertainment. Music is certainly an art form, but it is consumed in a manner that is very much for the entertainment of the listeners. It gets the party started, it pumps you up at the gym, while also helping you relax after a hard day.
The modern music listener expects a certain style when they’re listening to music, particularly in the form of pop music genres, electronic music, rock, and others. Musicians often feel they have to compromise on their creativity when they’re creating original music for specific genres.
For example, many genres have fairly standard song structures and arrangements. The types of melodies, harmonies, and even the tone and styles of the lyrics are often loosely dictated by the genre.
You also have to mix and master your tracks in a certain way, just to make sure they will stand out and be comparable to other commercial hits.
If music is far too low in volume and if the dynamic range just does not seem to match up with others, then most listeners will just skip past them because it is just so different from what they’re used to. Listeners will generally perceive louder music to be better.
It is up to the musician how far they are willing to compromise.
How does a musician know if they’ve gone too far? The answer should be in their gut feeling. Would you be passionate about making this music if there was no chance of commercial gain or fame? If they personally do not feel 100% proud of the music they’ve created or if they only like their music based on the validation from others, then their priorities may be in the wrong place.
Imitation – Styles, Samples, or Musical Ideas
Styles and Genres
People often point the finger at musicians for being “copycats.” This is when music has been far too heavily influenced by another particular artist.
While, of course, direct copying of other people’s music is completely immoral and even illegal, it’s practically impossible to create music without being somewhat influenced by others (even on a subconscious level).
In fact, in order to get some degree of success in the music industry, many artists create music with other reference songs in mind, just to make sure that their songwriting or production style is fitting at least loosely within their intended genre.
For example, if you want to create club music, it often needs to be within a particular tempo range, certain chord progressions and rhythms that work particularly well, and it will need to mix nicely with club songs within a DJ set.
This certainly is not isolated to electronic music. The same logic still applies to many other genres, though it’s not always quite as obvious.
There are already many constraints that are set on musicians and producers if they want to play within specific genres.
However, as always, there is a line that should not be crossed when creating music.
Despite these constraints, musicians should still strive to exert some level of good creative input, which makes it different from other music and allows them to put their own personal stamp on things.
If you’re creating songs and are constantly asking yourself “Is this song way too like artist X?”, then take this as a warning sign that you may not be injecting enough creativity into your musical workflow.
Of course, the most obvious form of “copying” of other artists is when sampling is used. For example, electronic or hip-hop artists may directly use a vocal or melody line from another record as the basis for theirs.
However, if the artist injects enough creativity into a piece of music based on this original sample, then I genuinely think that this should be accepted as an authentic piece of music.
In most cases for popular music releases, record labels will have obtained permission to use those samples from the original copyright holder, in fear of legal issues later on down the line. This is referred to as “sample clearance.”
In most cases, if this is done without permission then it’s a breach of copyright and a violation of intellectual property rights.
Samples are heavily used in most modern music genres, from drum loops, sampled instruments, to sampled melody and vocal lines. You should judge the authenticity of such music on a track-by-track basis.
“Selling Out” in the Music Business
Is the music business all about money? Well, the answer should be in the word “business.” Business is about monetary profits. Best-selling records are at the top of the charts because they sold a very large number of albums or tracks. It wasn’t just because people appreciated the authenticity of the artists.
People who point the finger at musicians for selling out often forget that those musicians have to make ends meet. They need to provide for themselves and their families. Money is not just going to be given to them out of thin air!
Musicians are constantly facing a tug of war between commercial success, their own future financial success, and the authenticity of their own music.
As the music industry becomes more and more saturated, it’s getting even more difficult to stand out. If a musician has released 10 albums and they get an average level of success, then it becomes more and more tempting for the musician to release something more commercial and seek more success, bigger stages, and more fame.
Of course, there are plenty of examples of musicians that have completely pushed the creative boundaries and “made it big.” However, a lot more musicians appear to have come to an acceptable level of success by lowering their creative standards and publishing to the masses by creating music that the fans want to hear and that will appeal to a broader fanbase.
Is this selling out? In most cases, it is! It’s putting your commercial interests as a musician far ahead of the authenticity of your music.
Again, creativity in the music industry is a real gray area. Should your goal be to maintain 100% artistic expression or should you strive to be commercially relevant, while still maintaining a small level of creative integrity? The answer depends on your values.
Authenticity and the Celebrity Status of Musicians
Let’s face it, mainstream music genres are way too much about image and celebrity status. Pop music fans can often be more interested in who an artist is dating rather than the music they are releasing.
“Celebrity status” no doubt puts a tremendous amount of pressure on people. It puts them into the firing line and probably puts them into a permanent state of information overload directed towards them.
The authenticity of the musicians in this case expands to how they hold themselves in public. Are they true to their own personality? Do they talk passionately about their music or do they spend their time posturing and trying to project a certain image?
How Should Authentic Musicians Approach the Music Industry?
In an ideal world, the musicians with the most creativity and best music would quickly rise to the top of music charts and become the most popular artists. However, it takes a lot more hard work than that!
The music business is a very ropey industry to take part in. It’s difficult to navigate through the sea of stakeholders promoters, publishers, managers, and record labels.
Music promotion has become all the more important now that the music industry is getting incredibly saturated. Making original music your full-time creative career is certainly something that requires a lot of business prowess, self-promotion, and a success mindset.
However, people with “success mindsets” tend to look for results and outputs quickly and efficiently, which are often in direct conflict with art and creativity. Artists often thrive when they stop trying so hard and focus completely on their creative ideas. In order for artists to stay true to themselves, they need to maintain a good degree of headspace to make sure they’re going in the right direction.
Which should artists do in this situation? If you honestly think you can balance your artistic integrity while navigating through the music industry, then it’s very possible to take a DIY approach.
However, if you do not think you can maintain the balancing act between these, then it might be a good idea to try and find an indie record label that will look after your interests.
Going for a record deal is an absolute minefield. It can be quite difficult to find a small label that will give you the time to thrive and to create music that is up to your own creative standards.
However, it’s still worth searching for. Don’t just go for the first label that gives you a deal. Look at the small print, look at the contracts, and don’t be scammed! A record deal is not the end goal, it’s the start of a long road.
If you choose the wrong label, they can potentially choke your creativity by blocking releases and by injecting heavy influence on your musical outputs.
Try and figure out what your strategy is as a musician. If you are releasing your own music, then try to maintain integrity in a way that matters most to you.
Authenticity in music is all about being original, creative, and true to yourself. However, in the music industry, it can be quite a tricky topic. It’s important to stay mindful that authenticity means different things to different people.
If you’re creating original music, then create a vision and try to stay true to it. This might take a bit of soul searching. Think about your passions in music, your songwriting process, and your aspirations. Perhaps you’re falling into some traps that might make your music inauthentic.
On the other hand, try to think a little bit before pointing the finger at other artists. They may have many redeeming qualities of authenticity that you are ignoring. Perhaps you don’t really understand what creativity means within their own musical genre or style.
What does authentic music mean to you? I’d love to hear some other ideas and opinions on this topic. Be sure to leave a comment below if you’d like to contribute to the discussion.