It’s 5 o’clock and you’ve just merged into the flow of freeway
traffic after a long days work. You
reach for your MP3 player, only to realize you’ve left it on your desk and will
somehow have to survive the evening without it.
So you flip on the radio hoping, to find some musical retreat for the
ride home. As the latest hits from the
most talked about artists float on the radio waves, you find yourself coming up
against the same old questions, “why do artists record bad songs?” and “why
does the radio play them?” Those
questions are soon followed by thoughts like “if I could only get so-and-so to
hear my song, I know she’d love it and put it on her next record.”
As commercially viable songwriters and artists, it behooves
us to know the current sounds catching the ears and pocketbooks of millions of music
lovers. However, with the changing
landscape of the music industry and radio no longer the gate-keeper of success,
our view of the business is not limited to the empty-calorie happy meals we’re
fed from top-40. We have access to a
rich, all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of original music with just the click of a
button and a credit card.
With so many avenues to discover new artists and talented
songwriters, why then do we still complain about multi-platinum artists
releasing aluminum sounds? The answer, I
think, varies as widely as the experiences and perspectives of those who give
them. For songwriters, the key may
revolve somewhere around our ability to weather the industry, network, and hone
It’s no secret that the music industry is a people
business. Who we know plays a great deal
into the opportunities that come our way.
We may have all the skills and personality necessary to write Beyonce’s
next hit, but without access to her circles, we can rationally write off the
likelihood of getting on her next record.
This may sound unfair, but consider it from a business point of
Let’s say you’re eating your Wheaties one morning, and as
you stare at the box you come up with a great new idea for their marketing
campaign. So you decide to call up the
people at General Mills and introduce yourself.
When the 1-800 number on the back of the box doesn’t pan out, you try to
leave a few messages with the 22-yr.-old temp in the customer service
department. But the fact is, without a
referral it doesn’t matter how good your ideas are. The creative team has its own agenda and hand-picked
staff of brain-stormers who have proven their reliability and worth over years
So how do we get into the circles of writers and artists who
are making the music that sells? We
network. We go to shows. We attend music festivals and
conventions. We become a member of our
local songwriting groups. We create and
sustain an online presence. We hand out
samples of our music. We co-write with
anyone who believes in our ideas, and above all, we persist against all odds.
Some of the most successful and most fulfilled writers and
artists are those who invest as much in others as they do in themselves. Focusing on advancing our own careers while
also benefiting the careers of our peers is a plan structured for success. The bigger the circle of writers and artists
we’re involved in, the more likely we are to be discovered. By bringing our art into local circles and creating
something notable in our communities, we can start a movement as powerful as the
grunge scene of Seattle, the singer-songwriter
scene of Atlanta, or the dance scene of Miami. Discounting the significance of the fans and
peers around us is as dead as the idea that a major label contract is the only
way to reach millions of listeners.
Who we know is such an important aspect of the industry that
it even overshadows talent and skill.
When we hear a major-label release on the radio, what we’re hearing is
networking in action. Imagine for a
moment you are J-Lo, Paris,
or Christine. Between touring, public
appearances, and keeping up your great skin and hair, you’ve got to find time
to write and record. On your 5-hour
layover in NYC, you sit down to write a melody and some lyrics over a track
already laid down by the producer and other names your label has paired you up
with. Your first instinct will probably
not be, ‘Hey, why don’t we check out some unfamiliar artists online and see if
they’d want to fly in to co-write with us?’
No, you’ve got your team of proven hit-makers, and you’d
like your next record to reliably find success.
Furthermore, you enjoy that you’re able to work with a team who listens
to and incorporates your artistic vision into the record. Finally, after breaking even on the first few
records of your contract, you’ve realized that there’s money in
publishing. Artists stand to gain a
significant piece of the pie with their hands in the writing of the record.
The fact of the matter is that many producers and artists strive
to write and record their own material rather than lose the writer and
publisher share by recording outside material - even if that outside material
is right for the record. Even as I wince
at that statement I have to admit I’m guilty of the same. As an artist with the desire to both express
myself and enjoy the financial rewards, I also prefer to write and record my
Another perspective I’ve had to recognize is that I am an
educated listener with educated tastes.
My neighbor, much to my constant frustration, is not. While she pulls into her driveway with the latest
Brittney Spears single pumping out open windows, I’m painfully aware of the
chasm that separates us on our musical scales.
What I think is drivel, she bounces to like Christmas morning. What I think is well-crafted and layered with
depth, she finds complicated and boring.
Interestingly, my neighbor and I differ on another point. She works in the film industry, and much the
way I feel about ‘consumer music’ she feels about ‘consumer film.’ Personally, I can’t get enough of Bruce
Willis blowing up a power station while single-handedly saving the world from
certain destruction. Set me in front of
a serious art film that’s star-studded and a shoe-in for best picture, and I often
check out. After all, I don’t always want
to think. I just want to be
Acknowledgment of my own consumerism makes it easier to
understand why some people don’t gravitate towards deep lyrics, or jazz for
that matter. A chef can’t imagine how
fast food still exists with the knowledge of how to prepare simple and tasty
meals. An electronics buff can’t
understand why anyone would settle for the equivalent of a boom-box when
pristine sound is available from Manley Labs.
So the question may be, why does the lowest common denominator of what
we value still exist? Because someone
still buys it.
As musicians, we can easily sink into the sludge of
cynicism. After all, how can we compete
with the money and power of the commercial industry? Why do we continue to try to improve our
craft when in the end, it seems to be all about our ability to market
ourselves? Because we’re
crafts-people. Because we’re the
heartbeat of humanity. Because we have
something to say, and without us, music-lovers all over the world would be left
with a vacant shell void of expression. I’ve
never met a songwriter who didn’t experience moments of defeat, cycles of
abundance and drought. My own experience
has taught me that unless I create for the pleasure of creating, my art soon
loses its soul.
So next time your favorite diva belts out another rendition
of ‘Baby Baby, you know I love you’, take heart. With belief in your music, a little talent
and lots of persistence, you can get your songs heard. Most importantly, set your sights on forming
relationships that last. If you’re a
songwriter, write. If you’re an artist,
perform. Do what you do as often as you
can. In this industry of music, no two
writers follow the same path to success.
We all need to choose the way that will bring us the kind of lifestyle,
relationships, and fulfillment we desire.