(Editor’s Note: Michael Oakley, the synthwave producer and performer, joins Vehlinggo and Synthwave.Net for a poignant guest post about an ongoing and, quite frankly, growing problem in the synthwave scene. Oakley, whose NRW Records releases are among the most popular in the scene and who has also produced and co-written songs for fellow NRW powerhouse Ollie Wride, has a novel perspective on the issue, so it made sense for me to ask him to write something rather than trying to attempt it myself.)
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery…,” said Oscar Wilde. That’s a famous quote which most of us are familiar with right? Have you heard the rest of that quote though, which puts its meaning in a completely different context: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.“
That last part matters, because it reveals the deficiency as well as the aspirations, in someone when they try to mimic someone or something else. We are primarily speaking about synthwave as a musical genre here, so let me just jump right in and present two scenarios to you:
Scenario 1: A musician/producer discovers synthwave for the first time and takes big inspiration from, say, The Midnight, Miami Nights 1984, or Timecop1983 (who I personally consider the most infringed artists in the genre). At this stage they are simply making music for the love of doing it and not releasing their music professionally with a view to making money or carving a name for themselves as the next big thing in the world of synthwave. This is what I would call a hobbyist.
Scenario 2: A musician/producer discovers synthwave and identifies the most successful artists and consciously or unconsciously plagiarizes/piggy backs off the most notable tropes of their sound. In essence taking a short cut to try and find the same success those well known artists have found by mimicking them. They then release this music professionally through an online distributor with a view to making money and promoting themselves as the next big thing in the scene. This is what I would call “Copycat Syndrome” (I love cats. Don’t judge.), or “copywave,” as it’s more affectionately known. (OK, I made up copywave for the purpose of this article.)
Every creative person reading this can relate to Scenario 1. In order to grow and develop in any creative field, you first have to dissect and learn how to successfully recreate the building blocks of the particular music style(s) you’re trying to create. This is the opening stage on a much larger journey to eventually finding your own voice and identity.
When I was a kid in the 1990s I was obsessed with Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, and New Order. All my cassette tape demos from that period sound like clumsy, rudimentary versions of all the same basslines, synthesizer sounds, drum machine patterns, and melody arrangements that all of those artists used. I wasn’t trying to release any of that music professionally, because I knew I wasn’t ready. However, that early developmental period was absolutely crucial to me finding my own voice many years later.
I personally consider Timecop1983 the most infringed artist in the genre.
Scenario 2 is most definitely synthwave’s biggest problem on multiple levels. Synthwave in its cliche’d trope form is a very-low-bar-of-entry genre of music to create. It’s easy for new producers to simply buy a couple of sample packs that include drum loops, melodics, and synthesizer presets, which then enables them to start making music that resembles familiar tropes of synthwave. This is where things get interesting, though, because whoever made those sample packs has created their own interpretation of what they feel is the most noteworthy tropes of the genre in order to sell a sample pack.
Then when another producer buys that pack and starts using it they are looking through someone else’s eyes when making their own interpretation of the same tropes. As such, one road to copywave begins. That’s not the only road traveled to copywave, though: There are people actively and systematically out there in the scene listening to other people’s work and deliberately trying to copy it and pass it off as their own original work. That’s the more insidious and nefarious side of copywave.
The Fine Line Between Homage and Copywave
It’s a very delicate fine line between being inspired by someone else’s work and tipping your hat to them artistically to then outright borrowing melodic elements and interpolating another artist’s work.
Even when I was recording my first album, California, back in 2016, I wasn’t immune to copywave criticism. The second song I released from that album, “Turn Back Time,” has a strong similarity to The Midnight song “Los Angeles” in terms of sound choices and arrangement. I know it and a small number of comments on the NewRetroWave video are only too happy to let me know it, also.
At that time I was listening to The Midnight’s first two albums on repeat in my car, so it was inescapable that something from them was gonna creep it’s way into my music. I realized midway through the mixing stage and had a very tough call to make. On one hand I recognized the similarity, but on the other hand I also felt like my song had enough originality in the melody, lyrics, and extra melodic touches that made it stand on its own two feet.
So I did the right thing. I reached out to Tim from The Midnight and sent him the song, acknowledged the similarity, and let him know that I was a huge fan and that his music had inspired me. I asked him if he approved and wasn’t offended, and he said he was flattered. He gave me his approval. If I had not received that approval then I probably wouldn’t have released the song as heard in its current incarnation. That would have compromised my integrity and risked me falling foul of a fellow artist in the scene that I looked up to and admire. I also felt confident that just a couple of months earlier my debut single, “Rabbit In The Headlights,” had demonstrated my own uniqueness and ability to be original in my own right and that this was a one-time coincidence.
Copywave itself isn’t just reserved exclusively to synthwave, though. To quote Oscar Wilde once more: “Talent borrows, genius steals.”
In all genres of music — all the way back since music began — is the concept of success breeding imitation. For every Frank Sinatra there was a Matt Monroe, Al Martino, and a Perry Como. For every Nirvana there emerged a Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, and Creed. For every Beatles there was an army of Merseybeat soundalike bands in the 1960s and since then an endless list of those inspired, including: ELO, Oasis, David Bowie, Radiohead, Pink Floyd, and U2.
Electronic music lovers will know Kraftwerk inspired a generation of late 1970s and early 1980s synthpop artists, such as The Human League, Depeche Mode, and OMD. It’s fair to say that within the world of synthwave the first wave of artists influenced the second generation of artists who have influenced the current influx.
A point of note to add here is that even The Beatles’ early period borrowed from the most popular tropes of rock ‘n’ roll and vocal groups of the time; before they went on to become the biggest band in the world. Remember that the term “pop” is derivative of the word “popular,” meaning the most popular aspects of music of its time. I also think it’s worth noting that even though inspirations were worn on all these artists’ sleeves in their early work, there was enough originality there to merit them as more than just soundalikes.
They went on to inspire a new generation, especially in the work of The Beatles, Depeche Mode ,and ELO. There was enough substance there coming from within them to carve their own signature and uniqueness. That’s something important to consider as we now relate this to synthwave as a genre and a question I would like to pose: If there really are that many copywave artists in synthwave — plagiarizing the most noteworthy tropes from other successful artists and passing it off as their own work — then why aren’t they anywhere near as successful as those artists? Why do people keep returning to The Midnight, Miami Nights 1984, and Timecop1983?
How Can Synthwave Be Original?
We’ve all been shopping at a grocery store and seen on one side of the aisle a two-liter bottle of Pepsi or Coca Cola for $2 and then beside it the store’s own brand of cola for just under $1. Sure, the private label cola has the same bright-colored packaging, the same looking brown fizzy liquid inside, and on the first sip seems like it indeed resembles a cola-like taste. Then why doesn’t it have the same satisfaction factor that the aforementioned brands have which have kept people continually coming back again and again to for generations?
Quality always stands out and rises to the top. I firmly believe that — especially in a scene dominated by independent musicians. That means it’s left to the court of opinion within the scene to decide what’s popular and what’s not based on their engagement with it; rather than the traditional way mainstream artists chart on Billboard as a metric indication of success. Not to mention mainstream music being rammed into our ears and eyes by an aggressive, label-funded promotional campaign to ensure that it’s inescapable we hear the next Justin Bieber song next time we walk through a shopping center, turn on the radio, or see their faces on TV and the cover of magazines.
The metric of success in our scene is word of mouth, Spotify playlisting, and veracity of posts in groups that reveal true popularity from the fans. Not to mention getting your music played on the NewRetroWave YouTube station as an almost rite of passage.
All the biggest, well-known artists in synthwave offer something unique in their music that makes them stand out head and shoulders above the rest. Both Timecop1983 and The Midnight have a sound at times reminiscent of MPM Soundtracks (an absolute favorite of mine, btw), but they add extra signature elements and brush strokes to bolster their sound away from mere imitation.
Both have added vocals and songwriting within their sound that changes the entire dynamic, but instrumentally their music has a very clear identity that you recognize when you hear it without being told who it is. The hardest thing to achieve as a producer is to create something complex which sounds simple but also accessible to the listener. Timecop1983 and The Midnight score very high on this for me, because as I said before, there are many copywave versions of these two artists but none thus far have come close to matching anywhere near the same success as them.
So to bring this all home. What is the point of this article? Apart from me pointing out copywave and my obvious disdain towards it, what am I suggesting here?
If you’re a hobbyist, then keep doing what you’re doing. Keep pushing yourself. A fool who persists in his folly will eventually become wise. It took me almost 20 years to get to a place where I finally felt confident in my ability to create and express my ideas at a high enough level to release professionally.
There’s a misconception in the modern interpretation of what being amateur and professional means. “Amateur” comes from the Latin verb “amo” meaning “to love.” Therefore an amateur musician is someone who loves making music. Somewhere along the line the meaning of that word changed into amateur meaning someone of little or rudimentary skill. So do what you love and love what you do as an amateur musician. When the time is right and you feel like you want to take your music into the professional arena, you’ll know.
If you’re an artist who feels ready to take your music to the next level professionally, then seriously consider what foundations you build your entire career on. As soon as you step into that arena you open yourself to criticism as well as praise and approval you hope to seek. If you build your foundations piggy backing off other successful scene artist(s) sound(s), then you won’t get far. That I’m sure of. You can post your music in all the usual groups, hustling for a handful of likes, but there will be no real traction or growth.
I’ve seen over the past few years how little traction self-promo posts get in the synthwave Facebook groups. You can huff and puff and try and blow down the door of NewRetroWave to get played on their YouTube station via the submissions page, thinking what you do fits the bill and sounds like everyone else. Maybe indeed you will get a track played on there — and the very best of luck to you — but if you don’t have something unique to offer or have a very clear identity within your music which cuts you above everyone else’s noise, then you’re not gonna stand out.
If you don’t have something unique to offer or have a very clear identity within your music which cuts you above everyone else’s noise, then you’re not gonna stand out.
My philosophy is to always be pushing myself to take my music into new ground. To consciously evolve and keep adding new elements and facets to my sound so that whatever my signature is within my music keeps having new ways of expressing itself. It’s me making the music so that’s the one inescapable constant. With that, there will always be a certain Michael Oakley vibe to what I do. That’s why it’s so important that I keep things fresh and find new ways of working, producing, composing, and writing to surprise myself.
The moment I feel like I know what I’m doing, I lose interest. Most musicians call their writing process “composing.” I prefer to call it “experimentation.” With experimentation you don’t go into it knowing what’s going to happen, right? It’s unpredictable and most importantly should be fun. I never write music because I feel I have to or to meet some deadline or product-based outcome. That to me would be my worst nightmare.
So, in conclusion, be you. No one else can be. We all come into this life to express ourselves and share our unique gifts to the world. Don’t settle for mediocrity in the face of greatness. Or as Michelangelo once said: “The greater danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”
You can find Oakley’s music on Bandcamp and all the other usual platforms. His latest release is the live album, One Night Only: A Michael Oakley Livestream Event Album. It’s available in physical and digital forms via NRW Records.