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Outsider music

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Outsider music

Outsider music is the term used to describe songs and compositions by musicians who are not part of the commercial music industry who write music that ignores standard musical or lyrical conventions, either because they have no formal training or because they disagree with conventional rules. This type of music, which often lacks typical structure and is emotionally stark, has few outlets; performers or recordings are often promoted by word of mouth or through fan chat sites, usually among communities of music collectors and music connoisseurs. Outsider musicians usually have much "greater individual control over the final creative" product either because of a low budget or because of their "inability or unwillingness to cooperate" with modifications by a record label or producer.[1]

Very few outsider musicians ever attain anything resembling mainstream popularity; the few that do generally are considered novelty acts. This notwithstanding, there is a niche market for outsider music, and such musicians often maintain a cult following.

Irwin Chusid claims to have coined the term in the mid-1990s (although it was already current in connection with jazz as early as 1959,[2] with rock as early as 1979,[3] and by the late 1970s had become a "favorite epithet" in contemporary music in Europe[4]).


  • Types 1
  • Notable musicians 2
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5


Outsider music includes various styles that cannot neatly be classified into other genres, the Allmusic guide describing it as "a nebulous category that encompasses the weird, the puzzling, the ill-conceived, the unclassifiable, the musical territory you never dreamed existed."[5]

Although an outsider musician, by definition of the word, typically operates outside the realm of the music industry, historians and critics have included a number of musicians who in fact operated from within the mainstream music industry and had significant success, even scoring hits on national charts. Pop music critic/popular culture writer Gina Vivinetto, for example, includes among her list of “outsider” musicians Brian Wilson, who not only was responsible for most of the successes of the mainstream surf-music group The Beach Boys but also charted a top 40 hit of his own with “Caroline, No;” and Syd Barrett, the original lead singer and songwriter for Pink Floyd, a band that had several hits in Barrett's tenure.[6] Irwin Chusid, in his book and companion album Songs in the Key of Z, includes Joe Meek, an English record producer with a number of hits to his credit, including the international hit “Telstar.”

There are some links between outsider music and anti-folk: the emotional starkness, the lack of formal training and the humour. Jeffrey Lewis names Daniel Johnston as a major influence, Syd Barrett influenced anti-folk's British strain, and there are similarities between the tuneless singing styles of outsider Wesley Willis and Paul Hawkins.

The book Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music (2000), by music journalist and radio personality Irwin Chusid, is a comprehensive guide to outsider music. The book profiles several relatively well-known outsider musicians and gives a definition to the term. The book inspired two companion compilation CDs, sold separately. The guide claims that fans of outsider music are "fairly unusual", "inquisitive" types who have an "adventurous taste in music". While the guide does not "contend that Outsiders are "better" than their commercial counterparts", it does suggest that they may be more genuine, depending on how cynical a person is "about packaging and marketing as practiced by the music business", given that a "gangsta rapper... is considered an authentic 'voice of the street'" even though they sell millions of albums.[7]

The guide argues that music that is "exploited through conventional music channels" has "been revised, remodeled, and re-coifed; touched-up and tweaked; Photoshopped and focus-grouped" by the time it reaches the listener, to the point that it is "Music by Committee" that is "second-guessed" by a large team of record company staff. On the other hand, since outsider music has little target audience, so they are autonomous, and able to go through an "intensely solipsistic" process and create a singular artistic vision. Outsider artists have much "greater individual control over the final creative contour", either because of a low budget or because of their "inability or unwillingness to cooperate with or trust anyone but themselves." The guide notes that "our inability to fully comprehend the internal calculus of Outsider art... partly explains its charisma."[1]

Notable musicians

Outsider musicians range from unskilled performers whose recordings are praised for their honesty, to the complex works of highly trained avant-garde composers.

  • Charles Ives has been described as "the outsider of musical life"[8] and, although he went almost entirely unknown in his lifetime, is renowned in modern times for his experimental work in composing music with quarter tones and other unorthodox musical concepts.[9]
  • Harry Partch (1901–1974) was a composer who built his own instruments according to his own system of musical scales.
  • The Shaggs were a 1960s rock band of sisters with only rudimentary musical skill, whose ineptitude became semi-legendary. The band was formed on the insistence of their father, Austin Wiggin, who believed that his mother foresaw the band's rise to stardom. As the obscure LP achieved recognition among collectors, the band was praised for their raw, intuitive composition style and lyrical honesty.
  • Syd Barrett[6] (1946–2006) was the original lead singer and songwriter for Pink Floyd. He left the group in 1968, partway through the band's second album, amidst speculations of mental illness exacerbated by heavy drug use. After he left the group, he completed two solo albums and attempted a comeback with Stars, but his mental disturbances marred both projects and he soon went into self-imposed seclusion for the rest of his life.
  • The Residents are a US avant-garde music and visual arts collective who have maintained complete anonymity throughout their career. They released over sixty albums, created numerous musical short films, designed three CD-ROM projects and ten DVDs, and undertook six world tours.
  • Captain Beefheart (1941–2010) is the stage name of Don van Vliet, who performed noisy, free jazz-influenced blues in the 1960s and 1970s. His music, which used shifting time signatures and surreal lyrics, had a major influence on the punk rock, post-punk, new wave and alternative rock genres.
  • Daniel Johnston[6] (b. 1961) is a Texas singer-songwriter with bipolar disorder known for recording music on his radio boom box. His songs are often called "painfully direct," and tend to display a blend of childlike naïveté with darker, "spooky" themes. His performances often seem faltering or uncertain; one critic writes that Johnston's recordings range from "spotty to brilliant." He also has a documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, centered around his life and music.
  • Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams.

Other notable musicians who are identified with outsider music include:

See also


  1. ^ a b "Time and Curiosity: Journey to the Outside"
  2. ^ Charles Winick, "The Use of Drugs by Jazz Musicians", Social Problems 7, no. 3 (Winter 1959–1960): 240–53. Citation on 250.
  3. ^ Bernice Martin, "The Sacralization of Disorder: Symbolism in Rock Music", Sociological Analysis 40, no. 2 (Summer 1979): 87–124. Citation on 116.
  4. ^ Zdenka Kapko-Foretić, "Kölnska škola avangarde", Zvuk: Jugoslavenska muzička revija, 1980 no. 2:50–55. Citation on 54.
  5. ^ Obscuro
  6. ^ a b c Floridian: The bipolar poet
  7. ^ Chusid, Irwin (2000). (A Cappella Books/Chicago Review Press))"Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music"Time and Curiosity: Journey to the Outside (adapted from the Afterword of . Retrieved 2014-07-15. 
  8. ^ Wolfgang Becker, "Corrispondenze dall'Estero: Da Colonia", Nuova Rivista Musicale Italiana 10, no. 1 (1976): 116–18. Citation on 118.
  9. ^ Burkholder, J. Peter (1995). All Made of Tunes: Charles Ives and the Uses of Musical Borrowing. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.  
  10. ^ Neil Strauss, Sunday, August 18, 2002New York Times"Lucia Pamela, 98, a Musician to the Moon, Dies", .

External links

  • Hello Outsider Music!Otis Fodder: article in MungBeing magazine
  • Plan B Magazine's introduction to Outsider Music
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