It’s fair to state that 2016 has brought some serious blows to the music community, Bowie, Prince, and George Martin just to name a few (and it’s only April) these deaths made all the more shocking given each figure’s seeming immortality. 

Local musician Darling James aka James O’Brien (also the former frontman of The Boat People) has penned a piece following Prince’s death reflecting on  just what these recent losses means for the music community and what it says about how we consume and appreciate are modern day geniuses. 

As a kid I had a collection of Rock and roll trainspotting books. Each had brief biographies of ‘classic’ artists in alphabetical order often including a list of their important releases. The Great Rock Discography, NME Who’s Who In Rock & Roll, The A to Z of Australian Rock and others.

I spent hours poring over these texts, reading and re-reading the entries of artists I loved but equally wondering what strange music had been created by exotic sounding acts whose records I didn’t have access to like Moby Grape, The Jam or Emmylou Harris.

For those like me who are invested in the ins and outs of popular music (emotionally, financially or otherwise) 2016 has been a sad and intriguing year. And it’s not even May.

Late last year we lost Lemmy. I remember his moustached face staring out at me from the page as I tried to imagine what his music sounded like. When my neighbour played me the episode of The Young Ones that featured Motorhead performing Ace of Spades I quickly found out: it sounded bloody terrifying.

This year we lost George Martin. Many of us who formed bands as teenagers know what an influence this man had on us, even before we knew who he was. The departure of Malcolm Young as a member of AC/DC was met with stoic understanding by life-long fans, however the sudden exit in April of Brian Johnston has resulted in a kind of grieving, even though no one has actually died. But it’s the deaths of David Bowie and Prince that have been the most surreal.

In one of my much-loved rock ‘n’ roll books Bowie and Prince were given a special place in the front section as two of the “10 Greats of Rock and Pop” along with Dylan, Joni, the Beatles, Madonna etc.. Lists are of course irrelevant and it’s far from my purpose here to indulge grotesquely in the ‘canon of rock’.

[include_post id=”477811″]Many (perhaps even most) of my most pertinent musical experiences have involved acts that exist in areas of the industry that are a world away from these ‘greats’. In September last year I watched a group of 19 year olds in Jakarta called Gizpel play a set of dark, ’80s influenced pop that was so direct and energising I felt as excited as I did when Triple J first beamed into my home town in 1995 (which was incidentally when the rock and roll books got shelved).

What strikes me about Bowie and Prince though is that they weren’t just examples of hugely influential rock stars, they were both recognised as unusually driven, creative and prolific artists. They were always searching. Searching for another way in. Another angle. Another way to circle and jab at their subjects. And if they succeeded it didn’t really help.

There was always another subject; more stimulus to explore that required equal attention. I used the word “search” in a text message exchange with a friend recently after we’d both seen a gig by Melbourne artist Olympia. “I loved the set” I said. “I feel like like she’s on the search”.

What I meant was that every song and every micro-creative decision that made up the performance sounded and looked like she was scraping and chipping her way towards a central idea or destination. Which she’ll probably never get to. Which is good, because it means that in 15 years Olympia will still be writing songs that give me (and hopefully others) the feeling that we’re watching something important and vital; someone striving to get to know themselves by getting to know their work.

The trouble with searching is that it takes time. It takes time and it takes mistakes. Or perhaps missteps. I don’t think it would be controversial to suggest that if the uninitiated were to take a random dip into the work of Prince or Bowie there’s every chance that they could end up hearing something that would make them wonder what all the fuss is about. After all both these artists put out albums before their ‘golden periods’ and kept producing work (sometimes good work) in those fallow years between their commercial peak and their rediscovery or ‘heritage artist’ status.

Performers putting out music right now don’t get a lot of time. Whatever they put out needs to hit home and hit home quickly. It’s a cramped, sweaty, noisy cage that you throw your tracks into and you need to equip them to survive and conquer. If they don’t make it there’s literally millions of songs waiting to take their place.

[include_post id=”471874″]This means no time for searching. It’s a battle of tracks for maximum effect no matter how flimsy they are upon further investigation. At its worst we hear music that is little more than an aesthetic indulgence, often bathed in irony to the point of detached pastiche. This can be interesting no doubt, but it’s more an extension of curation, which is an important but different discipline. Critiquing the past, grappling with context and using these to show your aesthetic allegiances is part of being an artist but they are skills, not goals. On the flip side there’s music that is so calculatedly emotive that it can be hard to imagine who takes it seriously. But this is far from a new phenomena.

Thankfully there are lots of artists out there happily circling and jabbing. On my list there’s M.I.A., Courtney Barnett, Animal Collective, Violent Soho, FKA Twigs, Jason Isbell, Gold Panda, Hot Chip and many, many others. Whether they’ve put out one album or 10, whether they’re a singer-songwriter or dealing in warped electronics they’re all artists whose work has a clear through-line, an unattainable goal they’re desperately gunning for, just like David Bowie and Prince.

If we want artists of the calibre of those greats to continue coming through the ranks we need to invest our time, money and energy in the people that are doing the same kind of work. Reward and stand by those artists who are on the search.

Darling James & Machine Age
‘The Itch’ Co-Headline Tour 

Fri May 6 | Brighton Up Bar, Sydney
Thu May 12 | The Workers Club, Melbourne
Fri May 13 | The Milk Factory
Facebook event.