Why Popular Music is Unoriginal

Many of the most successful musicians are the ones that give massive audiences what they want to hear. The fact is, what they want to hear is something they've already heard. True originality in music often remains underground, and this article explains why that's true by definition.
Originality and Fame Don't Mix

In the world of independent music, as in the world of music in general, it's an unspoken but widely accepted truth that the most successful musicians are usually the ones that have no real flair for original composition. This might sound like an overly snobbish assertion to make, and perhaps it is an overly snobbish assertion, but there are also good reasons why it's true and probably always will be.

Original Music is Inaccessible

In a word, the reason that the most popular musicians are the least original is this: accessibility. For a band to become popular, especially if they aren't promoted by a large record label, they have to appeal to a huge number of people. Although there exists a sizable contingent of music snobs who relentlessly seek originality and want to be challenged by the music they listen to, the major part of the population are mere hobbyists at best, interested in music that makes them feel good or that they can play in the background while they do and think about other things. When it comes to the question of success, then, bands have to ask themselves how to appeal to that mass of people. The answer is pretty clear: give them something they can understand.

For Example, The Beatles

Culturally speaking, understanding is a funny thing. At this point in musical history, almost everyone can listen to and on some level appreciate songs by, for example, the Beatles. Rare is the individual who does not like the Beatles at all. As one of the most popular and well-liked bands in history, it might be safe to guess that this band gave the public what it wanted, or what it could understand. In the beginning, this was probably true, but as the Beatles' career progressed, they became progressively more experimental. There was a time when a vast segment of music listeners couldn't quite understand what the Beatles were doing. And it has been argued that the Beatles were, to a large extent, borrowing original ideas from elsewhere and repackaging them to make them more acceptable for mass consumption. Slowly, over time, what was once new and puzzling has become exceedingly safe.

Safety in Numbers

In order to appeal to the masses now, rather than many years from now, safety is necessary. Bands need to write songs and play in styles that people already know how to listen to. When a song begins to play on the radio, the casual listener has certain expectations of the song: what instruments it will have, what it will be about, the structure of the song, the chord progressions that will be involved. Even if most people don't know consciously that they have these expectations, they are there. If the song turns out to have no guitars, no chorus or discernible structure, and to have been written with an exotic modal chord progression, most listeners won't like it because they don't understand it.

The Benefits of Obscurity

If doing what people already understand because it's been done before is what makes musicians successful, the most successful of all will be the ones who are very talented at creating songs according to preexisting formulas that have proven successful. Those who are good at writing songs according to a new pattern or involving elements that are new and original will, in all likelihood, not be the ones that rise to superstar status, at least not right away. So, even if it sounds snobbish to say that the most original musicians are the least famous, it's a conclusion that follows directly from the facts about the world of music. Music fanatics may even be glad that this is the way things are: if original, groundbreaking bands were spurred on by the promise of unimaginable wealth and notoriety, they might lose the creative spark that makes them so great in the first place.