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Why Changing Your Musical Style is a Good Thing

Jul 4, 2008
Change. It is a word that frightens many. The advent of change in our lives is often greeted with hostility and mistrust, as a species we are creatures of habit and our greatest fears often lie in the unknown.

Musicians must constantly grapple with change. The world of music is an interesting case with regards to change in that you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. Often a band will attempt to change their sound to remain fresh and exciting only to be shot down in flames. However if you stay the same you're accused of being stale and past your best.

It is a difficult medium to maintain, and few artists manage it. It would appear to be getting harder as well as we see less career bands come through, and more one hit wonders and fad acts gain popularity very quickly before fading into obscurity.

One of the best examples I can think of where a band was affected drastically by changing their sound is the Smashing Pumpkins. The band released their debut album, Gish in 1991 on a wave of new grunge acts and early 90s alt-rock popularity. Although the album was well received, the Pumpkins didn't really hit the big time until their second album, Siamese Dream.

Siamese Dream was in all respects a continuation of the sound that the band had established on Gish. Much more ambitious than many of their peers at the time, the album featured a lot of overdubs, studio tricks and guitar solos, all of which were unfashionable at the time. Despite this, the lead single, Today, was a hit on MTV and the band were acclaimed as one of rocks leading acts.

Their next album saw another shift in sound, this time they went into epic rock territory, employing even more instruments and much more expressive ideas. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was a huge double album that seemed to explore every side of Billy Corgans musical personality. Although a change in sound the root of their sound was still there. The album was littered with hard rock classics that anyone that loved Siamese Dream instantly connected to. Songs such as Bullet With Butterfly Wings and Zero became mid 90s alt rock classics alongside the more introspective 1979 and Thirty-Three.

Here was an example of a band that had managed to change their sound, remain fresh and gain fans and momentum on the way. It was a brave move to release such a huge body of work at a time when nu-metal was just beginning to gain popularity but it shows the power that changing your style can have in winning new fans and yet staying fresh.

It is important for a musician to progress and change, otherwise you become bored with what you're playing. I can't even imagine what it must be like to tour an album for a couple of years and then go back and write a follow up that is almost exactly the same. I'm sure that the Pumpkins felt the same and that changing it up with each release was really the only way that they could keep the band going.

Their next release, Adore, was their boldest step yet. After the bombastic might of Mellon Collie, Adore was a quiet, introspective album that showed a darker, mellower side of the band. Written after several tragic events in the lives of the band, it would seem a natural place to go. However with the world expecting another typical Smashing Pumpkins album full of epic rock songs with heavy guitars Adore was released full of piano melodies and electronic beats.

In short, the album was not well received by the press or the public. Instead of taking the album as it was as a brilliant piece of music it was lambasted for not adhering to the formula that the public had made for the band. Adore sold substantially less copies than the previous albums and the band haven't reached the same height of popularity since.

The release of Adore was an example of where and artists needs to be brave if they feel that they have to change. Having poured everything into making Mellon Collie I'm sure that Billy Corgan had felt that he had exhausted that genre entirely and needed a new musical challenge. Had the band released Mellon Collie part two it would have inevitably been worse than the original and the band would have been picked apart in any case.

The key point for needing to progress is that if you really put your heart and soul into making the best possible album you can in a particular style, how can you be expected to repeat that without making something inferior? The answer is that you can't. I think this is why we see a lot of flash-in-the-pan bands today who seem to be massive for six months and then disappear entirely. They make a fantastic debut, try to replicate it and fail.

So if you're a musician my advice would be to never shy away from learning a new style, or taking a new influence, as you never know where your song writing may end up. Always try new things and push your boundaries and you'll end up as a much better musician because of it. I'm glad that the Smashing Pumpkins took that brave step releasing Adore as I personally think it is a brilliant and highly underrated album. Ironically the style would come into fashion several years later with Radiohead producing a similar album with Kid A.
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