Upstream and mainstream

Music that stands on the frontiers of our culture doesn’t often get heard by most people. Whether it’s the product of government funding, arts programmes or the whim of imagination, if music is challenging, it generally gets ignored by the public. In one of the questions we have on the 15Q interview, we ask the artists how non-mainstream forms of music can reach wider audiences?

The answers, like the artists are always varied. Some think fringe music belongs on the fringe, but there are others who have been encouraged by opportunities where their music has reached the mainstream. When this happens it’s often through advertising or film. But why is it that when a band lends their song to a brand it is considered selling out? Perhaps because it strips the meaningful associations we already have with that song and places it in the context of something as unimportant as a television commercial. Perhaps because it removes the cache and makes the song available to everyone. Think what you want about it, it usually means good news for an artist struggling to be heard and even better news for an experimental or fringe musician.


While a song might arrive at your ears with a pre-ordained association to a brand or even something as vague as knowing you saw it on the telly, it won’t remain that way for long. Music is stronger than any commercial and a good song will transcend any brand. You’ll make it your own eventually.

So it’s with open arms that we should receive new music via these less than perfect channels. If it comes packaged with brands and visuals, it’s better than not having arrived at all. Another way that new or challenging music can gain mainstream exposure is through film. This seems like a lot cooler, more credible way for an artist to be heard by a new audience but it’s a double edged sword. Film music comes bundled with a fixed association that is much stronger than a simple advertisement. Film is a powerful medium. Moving images and sound tell us stories and engage us in meaningful ways. So when music gets heard for the first time in a film, chances are that those associations will stick around.

Do you think Bill Conti’s Rocky theme tune will ever exist outside of the context of that film? In fact the association is so strong it has become part of the sonic vernacular. Quoting that song connotes the overcoming of adversity, struggle and triumph and Sylvester Stallone’s unforgettable turn as the fated Rocky Balboa. The same can be said for any piece of music, purpose written or not, that’s been used in a clever cinematic context. Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries will for some, always be linked to Apocalypse Now.

So is it always a more desirable opportunity for new or challenging music to be delivered to the mainstream through film? Consider the work of Gyorgy Ligeti. A peer with the giants of modern music, Stockhausen and Koenig, Ligeti’s music while perhaps more accessible still wouldn’t have reached the mainstream consciousness if it had not appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. A fan of Ligetti, Kubrick also used the Romanian composer’s music for The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, which contributed considerably to the indelible tension and curious unease of Kubrick’s work.

Krzysztof Penderecki’s Polymorphia has been used in several films including The Shining, The Exorcist, Wild at Heart and Fearless. French composer Erik Satie was part of the early avant garde movement and his music has no doubt reached many willing listeners through film. Both The Gymnopédies and the Gnossienne pieces have appeared in many films. Stravinsky made music that shocked and appalled the public in his day, but now they form part of our mainstream film culture. Firebirds has been used in Shirley Valentine, Crush, Jade, Short Cuts and Fantasia. Even Webern got a look in, his Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10 was used in The Exorcist.

It’s up to you if you can look past first impressions. Whether you’ve seen it in an ad or at the cinema, if the music moves you, chances are it will stir your interest enough to look further into the artist and their music and that is never a bad thing. Why struggle to swim upstream when you can go mainstream?

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