This is one thing Clive Davis has right. How you play, how you sing, how you look…they're all secondary to the TUNES!
If you want to reinvent the form, you'd better be REALLY talented. Like Freddy Mercury with "Bohemian Rhapsody". Or realize that the odds of breaking big via radio/video airplay are almost nil. And that you're going to have to slug it out via alternative marketing methods, i.e. word of mouth/playing live, etc.
For those of you not reinventing the form, STUDY the great songs of yore. Listen to those early Beatle albums. Don't take too long to get to the chorus. Insert a bridge. Have more than one chord in the verse. And write memorable words, those that convey a mental image and EMOTION!
The key isn't to test the limits, but to work within the form and make it your own.
That's what you do if you want a hit. But, hits are harder to come by and mean less than they have in decades. So, if you're breaking the mold, inventing your own format, before you go too deep into yourself, play your songs for a bunch of people. Friends, other musicians. And tell them to tell you the truth. If their eyes bug out and they start foaming at the mouth, you'll know you've got something. If not… Well, it's never too early to get on the harsh rejection pathway. But PLEASE, realize that there's a chance you're on the wrong tack, and your music is just too out there, or you suck. Don't blame it on the audience. That's the bane of the MySpace wannabe. The people whose music is just not "understood". It takes talent to make it. And most people don't have it. If you don't, GIVE UP! There are other ways to direct your passion about music. You can help OTHERS with talent. By marketing their music and maybe promoting their concerts. As for saying your mother likes it, and your girlfriend… People are afraid to tell you the truth. Many people on "American Idol" truly don't know they suck. So, enter a talent show early, find someone who you know to be honest. DO NOT LABOR IN OBSCURITY BELIEVING YOU'RE GOD'S GIFT TO MUSIC UNLESS YOU TRULY DO NOT CARE IF ANYBODY EVER LISTENS TO YOU! And, if this is true, you're not really an artist. There isn't an artist who's ever lived who hasn't wanted more people to be exposed to his music.
Okay, you've got the tunes. Now you've got to make demos. This comes LONG BEFORE the time to make an album. If you don't own a computer and know how to record your own songs then you're not serious. You're another Lindsay Lohan. Artistry and recording are now intertwined. The computer/Pro Tools/Logic are all part of the process. Even if you end up hiring a big name producer, familiarity with the means of production will serve you well in the studio. Your chance of getting what you truly want will be improved. And, you'll be aware of the POSSIBILITIES!
The song is the star. So, as long as the instruments are in tune and the vocalist is too, that should be enough for anybody with ears to recognize your talent. DON'T spend eons getting the sound right. Don't spend time and money getting famous players to perform. These are DEMOS! As in DEMONSTRATIONS! Write more songs, don't polish to perfection what you've already got.
Don't sign with a major label unless you write the kind of music that's played on Top Forty radio.
Don't know what Top Forty radio is? Start reading hitsdailydouble.com. Look at the "Billboard" charts. If you're a sensitive singer/songwriter, your odds of making it on KIIS in L.A. are just about nil. Oh, it can HAPPEN, but at WHAT COST? Isn't James Blunt on the verge of becoming a joke? He's got no cred. He's someone the girls like today and will forget tomorrow. Unless he releases another album JUST AS GOOD! Which sounds JUST LIKE THE FIRST ONE! Which is artistic death. So, are you into the money or the artistry? If the latter, beware of signing with a major label. Their paradigm ONLY works if they can get you on Top Forty radio and television. If you don't listen to these stations or watch those channels do you want to appear on them? And, signing to a major is like being a member of a Mafia family. You can't say no. You've got to play ball, do what they say, or you're dead.
If you're pretty, if you have a good voice (although with auto-tune this is hardly necessary anymore), if you want to party at discos with Paris Hilton and you're NOT signed to a major label, you're missing the boat. This is what the majors do. Massage you into a product, fodder for the machine. They like it best when THEY'RE the artist and you just play along.
If you're a rapper… Well, live business is bad. And the majors pay hefty advances. And, Top Forty is urban. So, you BELONG on the major label. Hopefully with someone who'll put other rappers on your tracks to help break you.
But, if you're an artist who doesn't fit the Top Forty radio paradigm ABSOLUTELY DO NOT SIGN WITH A MAJOR! You won't have success and you'll soon be at a day job. I know, I know, you can't pay the rent. You want the advance. Sorry, if you can't find a way to make it all work now, you're never going to succeed big time. It's a HARD LIFE for a musical artist. It's ALL ABOUT THE STRUGGLE! Work that day job. Make that music. And play live EVERYWHERE!
That's the indie label paradigm. Free music on the Web and live performance.
As for the indie label…
Sure, for discs make a deal. But get a good lawyer. Own your masters. Have a brief license period. DON'T GIVE SOME PRICK CONTROL FOR ALMOST NO MONEY! If they want all the rights for no bread you don't want to be in business with them. You're just gonna get screwed. Believe me, if they want you badly enough, they'll make a deal on your terms.
But better yet… Don't sign with ANYBODY! Don't even worry about making a deal with iTunes. Just give the music away on your Website and build community.
If you're on the major, good luck. You're on a magic carpet ride. Either they're going to hate the record you make and bury it or hype you to high heaven.
But if you're an indie. If you're doing it alone. Your music has to sell you. Plain and simple.
A street team doesn't sell you. Pushiness doesn't sell you. Great music sells you.
Once again, just about everybody sucks. We're all looking for good things. When we find them, we tell EVERYBODY! It's human nature. THIS is the game. Read "The Tipping Point" for instruction (and buy Don Passman's "All You Need To Know About The Music Business" too, if you haven't read it, you're operating with one hand behind your back). You've got to get your music to connectors, TASTEMAKERS! But now, on the Web, EVERYBODY'S A TASTEMAKER! Give away MP3s on your Website and TELL people they're free to e-mail/IM/burn/exchange them. Say they've got PERMISSION!
Put a feedback e-mail address on your site. And answer EACH AND EVERY LETTER! If you don't have time to do this, you're not gonna make it! You never know who's rich and will buy you gear, who's gonna play your music at the high school dance, who's gonna get you a gig. DON'T TURN PEOPLE AWAY! Indie music is now cottage industry. It's not us versus them, it's WE! As in WE'RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER! You're establishing a family. You won't have to ASK people to help you out, they'll OFFER! If they're not, you're just not good enough.
It's all about the slow build now. It's about coolness. You can be famous in a day with today's marketing tools, but be nobody tomorrow. So GO SLOW! Don't take every hype opportunity available. If it's not about the MUSIC, say NO!
5. Play Live
Music without live performance is like a relationship without sex. It's missing a core element.
Be good from the very first gig. That doesn't mean you've got to have choreographed dance steps, it means you've got to emit PASSION! That's the number one thing that translates on stage. Screw the clothes. In most small venues the sound sucks. But people can tell when you play like you mean it.
Play wherever and whenever you can. If you make just one convert opening for somebody else, that person could be the link to your success.
After you start getting some traction, focus on the sound. Buy better equipment. Get rid of the clams. It's not about perfection, otherwise nobody would have ever liked the Replacements. But it is about professionalism. Practice. Rehearse. Your act should be like a well-oiled machine. Stiffness, stage fright should be no part of it.
Give away and sell stuff at EVERY GIG! Even the most minor one.
Whether it be just a postcard, with your Web address. Give a way for interested people to get MORE!
And merch. Sell t-shirts. But they can't look HANDMADE! They've got to be every bit as professional as the ones the Stones sell. Or INTENTIONALLY unprofessional. And at first they must be CHEAP! Ten bucks. You want people WEARING THEM!
The major labels have it all screwed up. They're charging up front.
You've got to charge at the end, where there's REAL MONEY! Build your community, build your fanbase. Get people involved. Accumulate BELIEVERS! Once you've got this group, they'll give you ALL THEIR MONEY! They'll buy the CD even if they've already downloaded the tunes P2P, as a badge of honor, as an emblem of BELONGING! They'll pay for every gig, they'll buy merch, because we ALL WANT TO BELONG AND EVIDENCE OUR MEMBERSHIP!
It's a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll. If you're looking at shortcuts, you're doing it wrong. It's about slow and steady. It's not about taking a few years off before law school. It's about dedication, it's about no fallback position.
And you'll know if you're on the road. Because you'll have a coterie of people who won't LET you quit. Their lives will be ruined if they don't have you around anymore. It's NATURAL to want to give up along the way, but you shouldn't unless EVERYBODY who knows your music tells you to.
Music is not a diversion. It's life itself.
You know if you've got it. If you do, that's half the battle. The other half is dedication. You've got to want it more than anything. You've got to be willing to sacrifice relationships, real estate, remuneration, all in the desire to be part of the circus and MAKE IT!
Most people give up.
Then again, as stated above, most people just don't have it.
But some do. And believe me, for those talented folk there's a whole world of listeners out there just DYING to hear their material.