Discerning The Value of a Band

“They suck”.

That’s a way that I’ve started many sentences when referring to other bands, and I’ve lately learned to curb my tongue. 

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It can be very easy to discern whether or not you personally like a band, but deciding on what their actual value is can be very difficult. I don’t mean this in a “how much money are they worth” kind of way, but just whether or not they should be considered a valued artist in anyone’s music library.

I’ve spent many arguments trying to deconstruct a band’s music based purely on technical skill and creativity alone, and I realize now that I’ve missed a big part of the picture when doing that.

Why Bother Valuing An Artist At All?

Being able to deconstruct music in this way helps you to be empathetic towards others who like music that you hate, and can help you come to terms with your own feelings about music if you don’t have a healthy, respectful grip on them already.

I guarantee that many of the negative judgments that you’ve made on music in the past did not consider all of these elements, making that judgment unsupported. It’s possible that your conclusion could have been correct, but it certainly wasn’t founded on anything solid if you didn’t consider at least all of these elements.

Categories To Consider When Deciding If A Band Has Value

When discerning the full value of an artist, and trying to figure out why someone else might like their music, you should at least consider these following aspects. For the analytically minded of you, you may choose to give the band a score out of 10 for each section, and then give certain sections more weight than others. 

For example, I very highly value creativity/originality, so I will give that far more weight than a ancillary category such as “Nostalgia”. 

How high each category is rated will also vary from person to person based on their preferences, and their knowledge of music. These two elements (weight & what you personally score the artist for each category) is what causes the subjectivity of music.

  • Creativity
  • Recording Quality
  • Lyric Content
  • Lyrical style
  • Musicianship
  • Arrangements
  • Heart
  • Originality
  • Accompanying Art
  • Contributions to community 
  • Contributions to musical technology
  • Connection to culture/traditions
  • Marketing Creativity
  • Nostalgia

Creativity/Originality

Is the artist just copying a trendy style, or are they unequivocally themselves? It’s usually quite obvious to tell if someone has new idea’s, or if they are just recycling old ones. 

Originality is being able to say something that hasn't been said, or finding a new way to say something that has already been said in a fresh and interesting way. This also overlaps and blurs a bit with...

Synthesis

No this isn’t referring to electronic synthesizers. Synthesis is taking a number of different ideas and summarizing them into a new form (the now cliche quote "bad artists imitate, great artists steal" comes to mind). 

In the popular music realm, DJs and sample-based artists, or Girl Talk more specifically, are artists who take previously recorded material and mix it to form a new idea. 

Synthesis would entail combining cultural ideas or concepts, and making connections with other ideas, thus forming new ideas or cultural statements, either lyrically or musically. This is where the line between originality and synthesis would become blurred. - Synthesis section credit to Adam Roper

Recording Quality/Style

Every record has a certain “color” to it, based on the equipment, software, and the way it was mixed/mastered. This coloring has value.

Albums can also make strides in the quality of the recording. This often has to do with the clarity, tone, or use of three-dimensional space that exists within an audio space. 

Lyric Content

The content refers to the message or topic that the music covers. Some artists talk about relationships, anger, religion, sexuality, drugs, alcohol, and an almost limitless variety of different topics.

If a topic is very relevant or important to you, you will likely perceive this music as more valuable. A familiar topic can often compensate for many, many faults that an artist would possibly have.

Lyrical Style

Shakespeare would get a 10/10 in this department if he was a musician; his style when it comes to literature is almost unmatched. Now I’m not talking at all about the topics he addresses, but the style is all about how he addresses them. 

Even if you completely disagree with the message of an artist, you can still agree with their lyrical style. 

A perfect example of this for me is “The Weeknd”. I find their lyrical content completely opposing to my lifestyle; their music seems to support drugs, objectification of women, rape, and a variety of other unsavory topics. Yet I can still give them an A+ when it comes to lyrical style, because Abel Tesfaye’s approach to lyrics is original and mesmerizing to me.

Of course, if you happen to agree with the message of an artist, all the better! In this example, The Weeknd’s lyrical content causes me to value their music less, but their lyrical style causes me to like them more! 

Musicianship

This comes down to the technical skill of the artist. Are they great live, or do they just “fix it in the studio”? 

Do they have an adequate command over their instruments? Are they masters of their craft? 

Do the singers have a great tone and control over their voice? All of these and much more can be taken into account, but this category mostly has to do with their technical skill (ie. what their body can do).

Arrangements

This is very similar to the musicianship portion, except rather than saying they have a command over their instruments (voice included), I would say that they have a command over the music itself.

The arrangement usually has to do with how well someone can take their original song idea, and piece it together into a cohesive song, rather than just a song idea. Arrangements can be tricky to define, but I can say that you’ll know a good one when you hear it.

If it helps, a more standardized definition of arrangement would be to say it is “the art of giving an existing melody musical variety”.

Heart/Emotion

I know this one seems kind of hokey, and that’s because it is. But that doesn’t make it any less important, because every song has a heart. 

The heart of a song really impacts how you hear it. You could have two songs that are very similar in style and arrangement, but one could be obviously superior to the other based on the amount of emotion and genuine expression you feel coming from the Artist. 

This is hard to gauge though, is because heart is felt, not measured. 

The heart of a song can be a dealbreaker for many people. An artist could do very poor in all of the other area’s, but with enough heart, it can still be seen as a masterpiece. 

Wesley Willis would be a good example of someone with all heart, and no other measurable value in his music; he is good because he is just expressing whatever he feels without holding back.

Accompanying Art

Many albums/songs choose to feature art alongside them. If there is actual art (albums with the picture of the band on the front lose points) on it, then considering what the art means can contribute to the value of an artist.

On top of that, there are probably 100+ more ways you could deliver art, from the design of your website, your single track art in iTunes, your music videos, and any creative uses of extra material. Some examples of that would include:

Extra points go to artists that create a deep connection between their visual art, and their music.

This can also be considered for live shows too; the visual part of a show can be incredibly important, especially if it relates to the music in some way.

Contributions to the Community

If an artist has made contributions to the world, either with their concerts or in their personal life, I would say that is noteworthy.

For example, although I pretty much hate his music, Bono (from U2) has been known for being somewhat of a philanthropist, and contributes a fair amount to our world through the concerts he plays on top of the charities that he supports in his personal life. 

This definitely adds to his value as to whether or not he deserves your attention, and it applies to any other artist too. What are they doing with their music? Are they contributing, or just taking in the benefits of their fame? I will mention that I think this is more of a “bonus” category, rather than a core way of evaluating an artist.

Contributions to Musical Technology/Culture:

Some bands are better than just inventing music, they invent ways to make music.

This might come in the form of a new instrument, a new software VST for other artists to use, or just a book or website that helps musicians. They could even be a music teacher that continues breeding the next generation of musicians.

Regardless of how they contribute, these people help to shape the musical landscape that makes a difference in our music culture.

This is a more rare category, and I definitely don’t weigh it highly. Nonetheless, it’s still there and is worth recognition. 

Marketing Creativity

If a band has a unique way to market themselves that really gets you, then take that into consideration. Some artists come up with some mighty creative advertising solutions when getting the word out, so that can be seen as art within itself.

Bands like Tool are notorious for having a lack of traditional marketing on their music (you can’t even find them on iTunes, a purposeful decision on their part), so that’s definitely worth mentioning as well. 

Connection to Culture/Traditions

If your music is deeply connected with the history of a culture, then that fact in itself gives the music some value. For example, the First Nations people in Canada often have songs involving drums, singing, and chants. 

This is a tradition for these people, and the practice of playing this music is significant to them.

There are hundreds of cultures all throughout the world, so if that music is culturally or traditionally significant to them, you should consider that they will find it more valuable than any other point I’ve made here.

Nostalgia

If you listened to a band when you were younger, or have specific memories with some music, then you should take that into consideration when valuing them. Some people might call these tracks a guilty pleasure, though I like to stick with the title of nostalgic.

I have music from my childhood that I would probably never listen to now if I hadn’t listened to it when I was a child; my memory of the music makes it far more enjoyable to me today.

This one’s another bonus category, and I don’t recommend judging an artists value in their core  just from how nostalgic they make you feel. It’s more of a tool to help you understand why you have some inconsistencies in your music library, because I can guarantee that I would never listen to Yellowcard if I didn’t love them when I was a kid.

What’s The Most Important Element?

To me, the most important element comes down to heart, with creativity being a very close second.

Although many people might disagree with me initially, I think most people decide to like/dislike music because of the heart of it, whether they realize it or not. After thinking about this for years, I have come to a single conclusion.

This conclusion is that people like people, not musical elements. 

Most of the time if you like music, it’s because the person who wrote it has a similar view on something that you do too. 

Maybe they are a musical virtuoso, and they use the most complex arrangements and tempos and modes, and you relate to that person because they understand what you value when you listen to music.

Maybe you just love music that sounds emotional, and the person who wrote all that emotional music you love is very similar to you in that way.

Or possibly you don’t really care that much about what music you listen to, so you just listen to whatever is on the Top 40 radio. 

If your view on music is as shallow as that, don’t be surprised when I tell you that the people who wrote that music have a shallow view on music as well. They are writing to make money and fame in most cases. I would estimate that 85% of the artists I hear on Top 40 radio have very little artistic integrity.

People put their deep, or shallow hearts on display in music, and people like music that has a similar heart to themselves, whether they realize it or not.

No one likes your notes, they like what you say with your notes.

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About The Writer

My name is Andrew Muller. I love creative art, music, television shows, movies, video games, and a good story.

If you had to find me somewhere, you would probably find me down at O'neils home cooking eating an organic sweet-potato bun breakfast sandwich with ham.

Among my friends, it's a "Muller Classic Move" to eat Mcdonald's at 2am because it's cheap and open 24/7. The joke here is that I'm an idiot. 

I play drums, guitar, piano, and I write & perform music for My Goal Is Telepathy. Take a listen to the latest sound here.