What career tips can a developing artist in today's music business learn from one of the late giants of progressive rock? Quite a lot, actually.
When Chris Squire died unexpectedly on June 27, 2015, legions of fans the world over were saddened, myself included. With Yes, the band he co-founded in 1968 with singer Jon Anderson, Squire sold tens of millions of records worldwide, and their music became a staple on rock radio airwaves. But Yes's songs (of which Squire was a key writer) rarely made sacrifices at the altar of commerciality. Squire cast such a long shadow of influence over generations of musicians, that it got me thinking about the reasons for his success and what aspects might be relevant for artists trying to succeed today. So, here are Three Things Every New Artist Can Learn From Chris Squire:
1) Develop Your Own Unique Voice: Popular music often is formulaic and derivative, so this advice might seem counterintuitive. But musicians who create something lasting and impactful are always individuals, striving to be themselves and no one else. Chris Squire certainly was unique, playing bass with an immediately identifiable sound and style. Most bassists lay down a groove and stay in the background, bringing their instrument to the forefront for brief moments. Not Squire: he played up front, competing not only with guitar players for attention, but vocalists too. His parts were liquid and melodic, more like lead guitar than traditional bass. Yet he never lost the pocket or let the bottom drop out of a tune, even when playing wildly complex riffs. What's more, Squire provided backing vocals at the same time, singing with the range of a pre-pubescent choirboy all the way into his late 60's.
Not everyone has the innate ability and dedication to become a legendary player like Chris Squire, or to write groundbreaking music that will last the ages. But every musician eventually has to go beyond emulating their influences, and do their own thing, if only to let their own true voice be heard. If the music is what matters most to you, put the time into developing yourself. Strive to play something different and put the time in to develop the chops you'll need to do so.
2) Don't Be Afraid To Reinvent Yourself: Even during it's heyday in the early 1970's, progressive music had a "selective audience", largely due to the fantastical themes and bombastic soloing in much of the music. By the late 70's, with punk rock and new wave on the rise, prog-rock seemed comically out of touch and pretentious. Yes were among the most indulgent prog offenders, they had a huge stiff of an album with 1978's Tormato, and were at a crossroads. Their lead singer and keyboardist left the band. So what did they do? Squire and his remaining bandmates Steve Howe and Alan White brought in Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes of British new wave band The Buggles (yep, the "Video Killed The Radio Star" MTV guys) call the new band Yes and released Drama in 1980. The record wasn't a huge success, but how ballsy (or desperate, depending on how you look at it) was it to morph these two bands together? Talk about the least likely thing to do, mix new wave and prog-rock! And then in 1983 Squire and his bandmates reinvented themselves again and had the biggest album of their career with 90125.
When the music feels stale, when it feels like you're treading water, reinvent yourself. It doesn't have to be a dramatic change like putting on makeup or changing from Alt-Country to a Djent band. Learn a new instrument, go somewhere new, get uncomfortable for a bit. It might be just what you need to grow as a musician.
3) Play Music Because You Love It: Look around and you'll see a lot of artists (I use the term generously here) calling themselves entrepreneurs, hocking fizzy wine and department store rags. Sure, it's harder to get paid for just playing music these days, but there seems to be a point where the money and conveying the impression of wealth and success becomes the most important thing to these people. The media and the music industry venerates these artists to such a degree that some artists have actually told me they feel like failures because they're not entrepreneurs; all they have is a great song, or can play their asses off.
Played with heart and skill, music can touch people very deeply. It can change the world, and many people believe it to be a sacred thing. Exchanging emotions and sharing a moment with others may be the richest (and only) reward many of us ever get from playing music - and that's OK. We're not all meant to be legends or multimillionaires. We can play because we love music and that's enough. Chris Squire was supposed to tour this summer, until he was sidelined by his illness. He was 67, and had been playing and touring for almost 50 years. Clearly he loved doing it. I doubt he ever regretted not having a line of jeans at K-Mart.
Rest in peace, Chris Squire, and thanks for the music.