Fakeman is back with some reflections and thoughts on the phenomenon that is #Synthfam, and asks whether it’s doing all it can to secure the long-term future of the genre.
The synthwave scene has some quite strong consistencies. The aesthetic being the most obvious of these. The source material has, up until recently, also been very much all about the 80s. We have enjoyed a slight variation of this in recent times, but it could also be argued that a large chunk of the more modern synthwave sound is very much a 2nd generation, influenced by the ‘original’ artists for whom their earlier works are the starting point for newer producers (more on this later).
The strongest consistency of synthwave, however is something that has very much become more prominent in the last two and a half years, and that is the concept of Synthfam. The collective mind, experience and support of fans, producers, consumers and visual artists that make, contribute to and enjoy the scene. Be it via chat groups, Twitter, Facebook, Discord or IRL, Synthfam communities have very quickly become the backbone of the scene and an extremely strong driving force in its future.
Now I hate to do this, but I would like you to consider the peak of the COVID 19 pandemic for a moment (I promise we won’t hang around here for exceedingly long!). For those of us who have been lucky enough to enjoy synthwave since its earlier days, I think we would all agree that 2019 / 2020 saw probably the largest explosion in synthwave engagement. The nature of the music and the already established online communities lent themselves to a wonderful support network and common online ground through which people could find friendships, inspiration, companionship, new music and entertainment at a time when the world was truly on its arse. One huge example of this would be Shauny P’s weekly ‘Synthrave’ show that quickly became a virtual nightclub most Friday nights. The community that was established through that show still exists online today and post-lock down have enjoyed several live events and get togethers in person that truly showed how galvanising-a-force Shaun was for those people and how they found such strong friendships through music at a dark time for everyone. I am sure many would say that they have become friends for life.
Now it is true that other music scenes also enjoyed, welcomed and were supported by online engagement during the pandemic, however it is this writer’s opinion that it was only really vaporwave that saw the same levels of support as synthwave during that time when it came to the increase in production of creative content.
The real-life engagement with synthwave was at its peak pre-pandemic with several live events and those ‘cream will rise to the top’ artists undertaking international tours to share their music with thousands of fans, worldwide.
Was it about to break into the mainstream? Who knows? I don’t think so, however those events not only functioned as an entertainment business opportunity for those that did it right, but also as a social occasion for the community to socialise and see enjoy each other’s company. So by the very nature of the pandemic, the live event space (and the IRL relationships people enjoyed at those events) was the area that was hit the heaviest and it is of no surprise that the online Synthfam concept of engagement came to be such a dominating force in the years that followed.
Now if you consider the online communities, groups and social media worlds, it is not 100% clear and often contradictory on by whom or when the concept of Synthfam was created and it is not the aim of this piece to apportion the creation of the name to an individual, despite many attempting to take the credit. I would suggest that it existed as a ‘label’ pre-pandemic but saw that escalation and embrace in 2019 / 2020. What I would also suggest however is that much like the pre-August 29th, 1997, days of Skynet, Synthfam is currently enjoying a celebration of its purpose and position in the world of synthwave, but with potential inklings of self-awareness that could have a negative impact on the scene itself. Now before you throw your arms up in protest – Let me explain why…
The music world is full to the brim with fandoms. Lady Gaga has her Monsters, Justin Bieber has his Beliebers. I also learnt today that Ed Sheeran has his Sheerios. Now by their very nature, these fan bases love all the music that their heroes release. They consume, they promote and the celebrate the music. All the while the artists surround themselves with trusted writers and confidants who they bounce their ideas between so that by the time the music reaches the fanbase, they are getting the absolute best version of what that artist has to offer. Sure, sometimes a track just writes itself and needs no real changes –a born banger – but 99% of the time, the tracks those fans enjoy have gone through the long and arduous process of critique and polishing.
A large amount of synthwave is different. I mentioned before that Synthfam consisted of producers, visual artists, fans and bloggers – a huge creative space. And most of those content creators choose to share their works directly with each other and fans for comment. Yes, some have their trusted sources pre-release for critique, but I would argue that the nature of synthwave and its every increasing number of bedroom producers has placed Synthfam in a tricky situation of being that confidant to each other on a much larger scale. There is a want to be supportive and celebrate the latest music, however there is little critique or a want of critique from 2nd generation producers. This ‘everyone wins’ attitude removes any potential disagreement and keeps the spirit of synthfam alive. What it also does though is enable those artists that choose to take strong influence from existing synthwave material that has been successful and simply reproduce it. Whilst some might not see it, there is an elephant in the room when it comes to what Michael Oakley once referred to as Copywave. You can read more about Copywave and Michael’s Vehlinggo article HERE. Similarly, there has also been a huge pressure put on bloggers to review dozens and dozens of new tracks weekly and give a positive response. Where they choose to only review what they like, there is evidence from some bloggers that they are hounded until they provide a write-up.
To put it simply, the supportive and safe space of synthfam (and I 100% believe that this is what it is) could be lending itself to the stunting of the scene’s growth overall by affirming the work of producers that does little to keep the genre fresh or simply copies the work of their peers. Now it might be that this is what synthwave ultimately is and will remain, a genre that celebrates a 10-year period of electronic music and the subsequent in-scene influences and will remain that way with the fanbase that it has and a few breakthrough artists. But so many individuals and groups within the scene itself wish for the mainstream and / or feel that it is about to explode.
In the 2011 movie ‘Moneyball’ Brad Pitt’s character said ‘Believing that the old ways will keep working for you is a fool’s dream. It’s time to adapt or die.’ Now I do not think synthwave will die and the irony of this quote in the context of a genre that is based on celebrating the past is not lost on me, but adaption is key. As is keeping artists interested in the genre with its perceived limitations and lack of interest from the mainstream. Not everyone wants to be famous – but there is no harm in getting a little more engagement for your efforts from an expanded fan base. But all this does require the synthfam to be brave, honest and a critical friend. I have previously aired such views online and on reflection, maybe I was a little too harsh with my approach (and lets be honest, Twitter also has a limited character count!) but we should not be afraid to challenge each other for the betterment of a scene – especially when it comes from a place of love.
A good friend of mine speaks of the rap scene and how it adapts to musical trends. Rap is a huge genre and whilst the nature of rap, its lyrical base and its writing has been consistent, what does change from period to period is the instrumental elements of the production. Rap artists are not afraid to try new things, seek new inspiration and deliver you a product that you like and recognise, but with a new twist, sample or take on another genre’s production.
Synthfam and synthwave would continue to grow and prosper if we found a way off this often merry-go-rounded world of genre music production that, whilst synthfam correctly want to support and praise as part of the community spirit, might not be doing all it can to provide the bright and varied future that would create the deserved levels of exposure and interest from outside the scene.
The very concept of this FutureSounds platform was to encourage debate, discussion and the sharing of thoughts and ideas around the music we all love. As always, we welcome your views and opinions on the future of our scenes and what we can collectively do to allow them to prosper – Don’t be shy. Let us know what you think.
Now you’ll need to excuse me – I have to return some videotapes.
Written by Patrick Fakeman
Featured Image Source – Pixabay.com