Music artists come and go like flavors of the week, but sometimes bands have so much staying power they last for decades. Certain genres of music are just as cyclical – being insanely popular for a while, fading into obscurity, then rising from the dead, bigger and better than ever.
It’s these kinds of genres we’re going to take a look at today.
How is it possible that something that tops the charts one year can fall so far out of favor a year later? Is it just our short attention spans keeping us looking for the next big thing or is it something else? And when these genres DO make their comeback – what is it about them that make them so hugely successful again?
And perhaps most importantly of all – is history bound to repeat itself?
Music Cycles Are Common
Let me just start by getting this absolute truth out of the way – music cycles, both micro and macro have existed for as long as music has existed.
Have you ever noticed that there are “songs of the summer” every summer – yet they all follow the same formula, year after year? Or what about the inevitable Christmas release cycle that falls between October and Christmas Day?
Major music cycles are easy to pick out because they follow the same annual patterns as major holidays and seasons. These are considered micro cycles because they happen over short periods of time. Major labels love them because they’re easy to predict and plan for. Unless your theme is Christmas in July, labels know that the best time to put out a holiday record is in Q4.
But what about macro cycles – the cycles that occur over longer periods of time? Their cycles are harder to predict, but still follow a loose pattern and create waves of interest over time. Look at any classic rock band’s plays over the course of several decades and you’ll see how true this is – some years they’ll get major air time while gaps between those years will drop them way down the charts and they might not get played at all.
This is why classic rock radio stations and playlist curators need to pay attention to listenership. As songs become overplayed, they start to feel stale and listenership drops. Even if EVERYTHING on the playlist is decades old, keeping variety in their cycle is a must.
Themes & Styles
Of course, not everything about a cycle just comes down to variety. There are genres that seem to come and go with the same cadence – bringing new artists into the fold once every decade or so. Just look at genres like shock rock.
Shock rock has been around since the 1950s. Seriously.
It started with artists like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – the mastermind between the Halloween hit “I Put A Spell On You”. While nowhere near as edgy as what the genre grew into, the seed of shock rock was planted right then and there. By the ‘70s, artists like Alice Cooper had grown the genre into more of what it’s known for today, with shows just as entertaining as the songs.
In the ‘80s, a second wave made its debut with artists like Gwar showering their audiences in fake blood and Rob Zombie/White Zombie bringing a noisier, heavy metal style to the genre. The artistic direction of shows became darker as time went on.
Then by the late-‘90s, you had artists like Marilyn Manson with lyrics and shows so jarring and controversial that the media claimed his music was directly causing violence with younger listeners.
But the point here isn’t about any one genre – there are dozens of genres like shock rock that seem to disappear for a bit before returning in full force. Even disco – one of the most beloved genres of the ‘70s and hated genres of the 80s has made a recent comeback with many electronic songs borrowing disco themes for inspiration.
What is it about them that keeps them coming back?
The Role of Nostalgia in Modern Music
People underestimate how much of a role nostalgia plays in the new music we hear on the radio every single day. Pop punk bands try to sound intentionally reminiscent of bands like blink-182 and Green Day who pioneered the genre. Not enough to copy them, but enough to where any fan will recognize the similarities.
The same happens in hip hop where samples are frequently grabbed from other songs, some of them decades old, and chopped up into something that’s familiar without being a direct rip-off.
It even happens in genres like country and pop where a hook might just be the melody of an old song or the lyrics from another artist’s track that used to be hugely popular on the radio. These artists get credited for their contribution to the song (they wrote the catchiest part of it, after all), but there’s more to the sampling than a good fit.
All of it comes down to nostalgia. We revive dead genres because we get the nostalgic itch to hear it again.
Old songs become new and new artists in the same style become popular. Artists who can crossover between genres bring attention to a style that hasn’t been heard in a while and potentially even bring a new audience to older artists.
These “revivals” are extremely common, but they’re hard to plan for. There’s no telling what will work before it happens, but one thing’s for sure – if you can create new music that makes people feel nostalgic, that’s a winning recipe for success.
Writing Nostalgic Songs
Nostalgia doesn’t have to come from sampling or mimicking either – it can come from using production techniques used in the styles you’re trying to replicate. For example, old doo-wop songs used group harmonies and spring reverbs to bring a certain sound to the genre – those same tools are available to you today.
To understand how different vocal production techniques change your overall sound, I highly recommend checking out our eBook, The Ultimate Vocal Producer’s Handbook. Inside, you’ll find everything from writing topline melodies to common vocal mixing techniques.