Student Outlook: The Evolution of the Musical Chameleon – George Barbera and Musical Color

Guest post by Chiara Eskew (G ’15). We encourage feedback and commentary on all Student Outlook contributions. Leave a comment below or tweet us at @NYUMusicBiz.

"Sahara" by George and the Barbarians

Just as new species form, we are beginning to see the new species of artists emerge as they adapt to a new musical environment. They are often viewed as underground artists at first, until they prove their “worth.” In the past, we have had similar artists sporadically spring up and adapt well to a competitive environment. Picasso, for example, defined himself as an artist of disfigured images, but he also had his “Blue Phase” during which he expressed a more realistic interpretation of the world. He was careful to separate his phases though. Such artists are like chameleons of the music world, able to change “colors” — or overall image/sound/style — when necessary, but retaining a certain image long enough to produce a high level of success and survival. One such modern artist is the musician named George Barbera. He is a conglomeration of a music producer, a skilled multi-instrumentalist, a singer and songwriter, and a composer of various genres. George has formed a small community around himself to help with distributing his music which he puts together all in his bedroom studio. He mimics the efforts of Macklemore to get his music out to people without using a major record label which would infringe on his artistic freedom. The one obstacle which he is facing is how to convince consumers that his ability to be varying in musical creations and looks is what distinguishes him and makes his music valuable. The idea is far ahead of its time as people are so programmed to see brands as valuable, and yet at the same time they are exhibiting signs of boredom in the branding and formulating of music. George Barbera, therefore, in recognizing this obstacle is working on phasing his artistic creations and choosing to present to consumer one “color” at a time.

His first “color” is Sahara, a single from his band George and the Barbarian’s debut album which is yet to be completed and released. The song is a metal rock song that mixes with an 80’s rock theme. It is expected to be live on iTunes in three to five weeks, but in the meantime it can be viewed on Soundcloud. Check out this song which represents the sound of his band! All the instrumentals, vocals, the composition, and the production of the song were done by George Barbera showing off his all-compassing musical abilities. If you want to see some of George’s other “colors” check out the other songs on his Soundcloud or visit his Facebook page.

George Barbera’s music encompasses music’s evolutionary growth. Just as with organisms on earth, music has evolved. According to neuroscientist Steven Brown, music may have originated as a ritual’s reward system which worked as a cooperative device that enabled the individual costs of producing music to be outweighed by the group survival benefits. Furthermore, it is believed that polyphony (different harmony lines not carried out in unison) predated monophony (harmony lines carried out in unison) implying that “contagious heterophony” was a precursor to human music and speech. “Contagious heterophony” can be found in the howling of wolves. The howls are sequenced and, therefore, do not occur together. Such blending of voices was used to establish group identity, and group communication to solidify social order and teamwork. Thus, the blending of voices was the first step in vocalization which led to both speech and harmonic constructions for the purpose of making music. As humanity entered the world, the complexity of music increased both in intellectual meaning and actual structure. Unison of voices in time and pitch developed, strengthening the idea of unity amongst community. Cycles of polyphonic and monophonic music were incorporated into human cultures with time. New ideas and combinations of old ideas transformed music even more. But still the main purpose to form community remained intact in the music of humans.

In our world today, however, money has become such a huge focus of music’s purpose. This has taken music away, in some part, from its intrinsic communicative element. In order to market to large masses of people, rather than smaller communities, companies have forced artists to become more like a machine; and songs more like products to be mass produced. The problem with marketing an artist is that you often times must brand that artist, give the artist a look, a genre they excel in, a name that brings to mind a certain image to consumers. But all this labeling and defining of the artist limits the artist’s ability to create and takes away a vital part of the freedom of human communication. The artist must limit what he/she puts into his/her music and cannot express the varying parts of him/herself. If the artist expresses too many different styles, consumers find it hard to distinguish the artist and therefore do not value him/her. While initially distinguishing an artist was important to convey to people that the artist was special, a leader of some sort, the ways artists are distinguished has become so formulated and applied to all artists, that artists are becoming less and less distinguished from each other. Music has become less valued as a result and music companies have been suffering. This has led to heightened competition and a need to adapt.

So where does all this leave artists today? Do they have a future? I predict that the new artist will be what I call the “all-encompassing” artist. This artist is one who is able to do a lot of the work him/herself that major labels have been doing. In having this ability, the artist will be able to escape the formalization and mechanization that music companies have been forcing on artists. Furthermore, the “all-encompassing” artist will have the ability to reflect a variety of human communication, changing up styles, looks, etc; and this will be the new distinguishing factor. However, what is important for such an artist, is that he/she recognize the need for organizing these phases of varying creativity; the artist needs a balance between free creativity and ordered marketing. Perhaps, the artist will also return to methods more in tune with music’s origin and join small groups of like-minded people to form a community that will help with the extra responsibilities formerly executed by major record companies. This is the only way I see music continuing in its healthy evolutionary growth, while still retaining its intrinsic purpose of strengthening community and reflecting the society and species from which it comes. And it just so happens that George Barbera is an “all-encompassing” artist.

Eskew is a first year Music Business graduate student. In undergrad, she double majored in music and math. Her senior thesis analyzed music, the brain, and how they apply to the music industry. Eskew is currently interning in Blue Note Entertainment’s Talent Buying department. She plans to pursue a career in the label sector where she can work intimately with artists, and hopes to continue her own musical endeavors as a flutist, singer and composer.