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Lowest common denominator eh? Sounds like a lament on the quality of commercial pop music these days.
Well this isn’t. You won’t get that from me. I love commercial pop music.
It’s about something stickier.
It’s about how our projects are only as good as our worst aspects. That’s the concept.
Translation for the electronic artists:
You need to be able to do a lot well, if you drop one key area, that’s your tether.
Translation for the songwriters:
Your brilliant parts are being kneecapped by the cheesy or boring parts.
Translation for bands:
You are as good as your worst member. Ouch.
It sounds harsh, it sounds constrictive. But come on, we’ve all been there.
It’s most obvious in the band scenario. You have a tight knit crew that really gels – pretty much reads each other’s minds. Now throw in one more member that has some weaknesses. Maybe they don’t quite listen, or don’t quite follow you. Maybe they’re a little too conscious of being impressive, or are a little too desperate for attention. Maybe they just have bad tone or bad time. Maybe they have no ideas, and are just trying to play like their hero. Maybe they are awkward creatively. Maybe music doesn’t mean as much to them, and they don’t really put any work in. It doesn’t matter.
Question, does the rest of the synergy and brilliance of the band swallow up these small annoyances? You’d think so. But I find, no.
I have been in bands with fantastic people that were not very good. Straight away the band becomes not very good. Almost instantly.
It’s hard because they are often still your friends, and they might be having the time of their lives. But they are the ceiling you have to work under, and that is frustrating.
Good music is a delicate thing, and a very interactive thing. It isn’t very robust against mediocre aspects. More than being just an unstable part of the sound, it seems to put a big blockage into that unspoken communication that is flowing around when you play with a great band. Like a black hole that steals all the vibe, all the flow.
I find it worst with drummers for some reason. Playing with a bad drummer makes me physically wince, and almost always physically exhausts me. It takes away my confidence, my energy, my brain space. It makes me think ahead to the next change and dread it. And the worst part is, all of that makes me play bad. And then there we all are, playing bad.
It’s more subtle in the more solo spheres of electronic music and songwriting, but it applies just as strong. The problem in this case is usually your own flaws, hidden in your own blind spots. Listen to some unknown music for an hour if you don’t believe me, because it’s easier to pick with strangers.
There are people making music across the world with some incredibly brilliant aspects to what they do. Great voice, great lines buried in their prechoruses, really tasty kick and bass programming, some really unique ideas. But you and me are both human, and I bet for a lot of those cases the pieces of brilliance can simply not make up for some annoying or shoddy weaknesses. The weakness could be anything – repetitive melodies, screechy sounds, lame cliche lines, needless words, too many notes, loose takes, an uncertain voice, awkward synth sounds, drawn out endings.
Whatever it is, what effect does it have on you? I bet it:
1. Distracts you.
2. Stops you wanting to hear the song again.
3. Prevents you from excitedly sharing it to your friends.
Why would we let the good stuff be tainted? Because we don’t realise.
As an artist myself, I find this whole concept scary. It can be paralysing to think that all your skills and sweat can be so easily ruined. But let’s consider it the other way around.
Perhaps you have been struggling along for a while, and you are starting to wonder if your brilliant moments are even brilliant at all. Well I suspect they are brilliant. Honestly. It’s just that some other little things you don’t normally think much about are dragging you down. So this is really a great opportunity. If you can figure out your weaknesses and wind up the standard on them, the perceived quality of EVERYTHING you do will rise with them. Your talents and ideas (that may have been there all along) will emerge from behind the curtain of irritation caused by that lowest common denominator.
Bands have a tougher decision here, if it’s a person. Boot the lowest common denominator member, or try to drop strong hints to get them to get it together. I really hate doing the first, but to be honest I find the second rarely works for very long. I guess that’s why so many great bands have messy pasts with angry ex-members. It’s hard to get a group of people that are equally great together.
Finally, while perfectionists (like me) may have a long list of things they know they must improve on, what if you don’t know any of your weaknesses? Well, you could ask people, but you would be lucky to find someone who would be honest and correct.
I think you can get a good idea by recording yourself (audio and video), and trying to take it in with fresh eyes and ears. Maybe video a whole set, then watch the whole thing in one go – after warming up with some of your favourite live DVD’s. Remember, the trick is to fight the part of you that wants to protect your self esteem with denial – force yourself to be open to your flaws. You might be surprised at what you notice, and that may just be a turning point.
The lesson of the lowest common denominator:
Work on your weaknesses even more than on your strengths, and everything gets stronger.