It’s all well and good telling people to make braver creative choices, but in a visually-driven industry, few have the time to make bold and relevant decisions when it comes to music.
It’s alright, we get it. You’ve got a lot of other stuff going on.
As I got older I still listened but I found it harder and harder to recreate how I found that music naturally.
So, instead of whingeing on about how we see the same music brief again and again, I thought I’d give you some help and tell you how I think you can stop being scared of different music and use this hugely influential, creative element in better, braver, more engaging ways. Because the more you listen to music, and the more varied that music is, the more inspired and creative your choices can be.
Re-engage with music again
When I was young it seemed easy to find new music. Our teens and twenties are, for most of us, the time when we discover our music DNA. My mum listened to Ella, Marvin and Aretha, my dad to Randy (Newman and Crawford) and Simon and Garfunkel.
With my mates and on the radio I was listening to Adam Ant, Wham!, The Redskins, Cocteau Twins, The Smiths, The The, Fun Boy Three, Bananarama, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5 then, later that same decade, (acid) house music, De La Soul, 808 State and The Happy Mondays, Galliano...
What if all your mates think Ed Sheeran is the latest hot shit, or haven’t bought an album since 1988?
As I got older I still listened but I found it harder and harder to recreate how I found that music naturally. I kept going back to the tracks I loved. I worked in music so there was always loads to listen to, but outside of work I had to try harder to find it.
But gradually I found places and people I trusted to introduce me to music I had not heard before, music I had forgotten about.
Above: Adam Ant, Wham! and The Happy Mondays.
Find people whose taste you trust
It has been said that there are only two types of music - good and bad.
I heard all of this great music because I always had friends that knew the good stuff. That is still the case - and my company is entirely staffed by people whose music knowledge is way more encyclopaedic than mine. But they don’t just have knowledge, they have taste and, crucially, know that their job is to find music that works in a context, not just to slap the trendiest track on the new trainer ad.
An editor I work with told me he didn’t know about music, but the on hold music his company used was bird song – surely the best music to be listening to when you’re waiting for someone to pick up the phone. He had good taste and he knew what worked in the right context.
Listen to 6 Music, especially now it has de-Mojo’d itself with the double whammy of Lauren Laverne and Mary-Anne Hobbs.
But what if all your mates think Ed Sheeran is the latest hot shit, or haven’t bought an album since 1988? Luckily there are people out there whose job it is to find good music and introduce you to it.
Record shops that have survived thus far have survived because they know their stuff. Sign up to mailouts from the great Piccadilly Records, Norman Records, Vinyl Exchange and Boomkat for honest reviews of new releases.
Find an artist you like and find out what label they’re on. If it’s an indie label, chances are there’ll be other artists on the label you might like.
Listen to 6 Music (or any other good radio show), especially now it has de-Mojo’d itself with the double whammy of Lauren Laverne and Mary-Anne Hobbs every weekday morning. The playlist is way less pedestrian, much more open to a wider range of genres and Laverne’s show in particular has loads of listener input too, because they have a knowledgeable audience. They play the best of new music AND the best of the old. Essential listening.
Above: 6 Music's Mary Anne Hobbs and Lauren Laverne, and Vinyl Exchange in Manchester.
Compilations are your friend
And I'd add to thatDJ mixes and playlists. A great compilation is the commercial equivalent of your mate doing you a tape. Compilations (back catalogue or new) are a relatively risk-free way of finding music because they are themed around something usually so they “do what they say on the can” and are curated by experts and music geeks. Many of my favourite records are compilations.
No-one wants to be told what to listen to by an algorithm but – as long as you don’t let you six-year-old onto your Spotify account) - it actually does a pretty good job.
The modern equivalent of a compilation is a playlist either curated by someone you like (an artist, a friend, a broadcaster) or try Spotify’s Discover Weekly. No-one wants to be told what to listen to by an algorithm but – as long as you don’t let you six-year-old onto your Spotify account and you have good taste anyway (only one of these is true for me) – it actually does a pretty good job. This also works with YouTube when playing music videos, look at the suggestions on the right hand side.
Listen to film & TV soundtracks...
...and how the music works in a visual context. Then look up the music. Martin Scorsese, Lynne Ramsay, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Stephen Soderbergh, Shane Meadows – they all use commercial/existing music and score to stunning effect in their films.
TV shows are the new radio as far as introducing me to new music and great uses of old music!
And TV shows are the new radio as far as introducing me to new music and great uses of old music! I loved Russian Doll and the music was so perfectly chosen. Harry Nilsson’s track on repeat providing exactly the right tone of optimism cloaked with tragedy. The final track, Alone Again Or by Love, telling us that we had ended up far away from where we thought we were going at the beginning of the series.
There is a difference between knowing about music and knowing what music works against a moving picture.
Killing Eve, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Sharp Objects... so many shows use music in such a distinct way and can be such a great lesson in how to use music. It’s stating the bleeding obvious really, but maybe needs to be said; there is a difference between knowing about music and knowing what music works against a moving picture. The more you watch and listen the more you hone this skill.
Above: Russian Doll, Killing Eve and Breaking Bad are all examples of TV shows which use music well.
Go to gigs (of new bands, in smaller venues)
This is possibly the riskiest of all strategies. If you’re anything like me your nights out are fewer than they once were, and very precious. So, I understand why people just go to see bands they already know and love in a stadium, I do that too.
But there is nothing like going to see a great live band in a small venue and having your socks blown off. Recently Snapped Ankles, White Denim and The Comet Is Coming have provided truly extraordinary nights out, and were well worth heading out into a grim, rainy night for.
And even when the sound is terrible and you don’t know any of the music, the atmosphere will give you a rush of youthful energy and enthusiasm, will make you remember the emotional uplift and bond music creates amongst humans. That’s worth the ticket price.
Above: New French afro-punk act, BoBun Fever.
Find a music supervisor
Everyone knows someone who knows about music/plays in a band/makes music/DJs.
That’s cool – see above for how these connections can help. But in this era of denying the value of particular expertise I would never want anyone to devalue what a good music supervisor can bring to your project. If your project needs music, a music supervisors should be an essential part of the team.
Bring them in early; let them help you shape the music brief, send you in a music direction you never thought of, make sure you try all the options and stop you searching unnecessarily once you’ve found it! It is their day-in day-out job to help you realise your creative vision musically – from brief to licence. Let them help.