Musician or Wannabe?
Written by Paul D. Race for School Of The Rock (originally published on CreekDontRise.com Acoustic Instrument page)
Editor's Caveat: I have never made a living entirely from music or been signed by a record label. That said, I've known many people who have, and I've done time on both sides of the glass in the studio, as well as meeting with record producers and A&R folk. In addition, I've also had many years of experience observing, and sometimes working with, coaching, or teaching, young people who have at least some musical talent. Sadly, I've also seen many wannabes who thought that hard work and preparation were for suckers hit the wall hard, then blame God and everybody but the person in the mirror for their disappointment.
No matter the genre, certain principles apply. Something like 99.99% of musicians who want to be rich and famous never sign contracts with major record companies. Sadly, the fact that people devoid of talent occasionally do get signed gives false hope to wannabes who are slightly less devoid of talent. But the artists with the greatest chance of success, and the greatest potential for real "sticking power" when they achieve it are those who combine their talent and dreams with a continuous drive to learn and improve.
True, with the rise of internet publishing, it has become possible for "independent acts" who really do have their act together to shape some sort of career long before they are noticed by the established recording industry (if they ever are). But getting noticed on the Internet will only take you so far if you haven't done your homework.
So this isn't a list of things I've done right, because I’ve missed a few myself, to my hurt. Nor is it or an attempt to make people who were hoping to coast to success on some natural talent feel bad. It's an attempt to point out that true musicianship requires more than exceptional talent in one area, and that music is one area where "professional" relates to preparation and attitude, and not to cash flow.
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In the meantime, take a deep breath and read on -
Okay, so you play or sing well for a person your age. Or maybe you're some sort of virtuoso. Or maybe you really do write better songs and sing them better than anything you hear on the radio. Fine. A lot of people do. Like maybe a million. Because exceptional talent is actually a very common commodity in the music industry. Why don't you hear more good songs on the radio? Because certain aspects of the music industry operate industry largely on favoritism, nepotism, "good-ol'-boy" dynamics and even, though they have other names for it now - kickbacks. (Just like most other industries, come to think of it.) To get by on talent alone you have to be exceptionally exceptional.
I have known a few acts who would not likely have received a recording contract with a national label, but who worked so hard and made such an impression as "independents," that some label realized they could not afford to ignore them any more. Ironically, most of those artists would probably tell you that's when the work really got hard. But they were prepared for it.
How do you compete in a field where the really big players often ignore or misjudge talent, and tens of thousands of small players are aready working their behinds off? Well, the truth is that the odds of really being a "contender" are against you. But if you are seriously thinking about some sort of career in music, you should consider doing all you can to level the playing field.
Here's something you should know - the best musicians - especially the ones with the greatest longevity - are the hardest workers, even if they make it look easy. And a strong work ethic and professional outlook will distance you from the wannabes much better than learning another cool lick or buying another fancy toy. (Great dimples help, too, but you don't have as much control over that as you do over other things.)
Not everybody who has ever had a radio hit has done everything we talk about in this article. But most of them have, and almost all of the folks with real "staying power" have. Are you a wannabe flash in the pan or a wannabe musician? Here's a list of things that take commitment, but should move you out of the "wannabe" class into the "musician" class. And best of all, most of them cost very little but time and energy.
Every high school in the country seems to have a girl who sings exceptionally well for a 16-year-old. Ten years from now, the vast majority of those women will still sing exceptionally well for a 16 year old. That's not tragic for those who always meant to lay music performance down - along with their 5-Star notebooks, varsity jackets, and schoolgirl nicknames - when it became time to "grow up." But it is tragic for those who wanted a music career, and thought that the same doors open to them when they were 16 would still be open when they were 26, even if their music maturity never paralled their physical maturity. Guitarists, horn players, and drummers also suffer from this syndrome, though not in as great a percentage.
Unless you're fated (notice I didn't say "lucky enough") to get a record contract with a national company by the time you're 16, you will need to keep improving as a performer (and as an all-around musician) just to stay on an even "playing field" with the next generation of kids who sing or play exceptionally well for their age.
Whether your plan includes ongoing lessons, workshops, musician's co-ops of some kind, or just diligent personal exercise, practice, and study, you need to have a plan for being a better performer every year than you were the year before.
And it's time to take other aspects of your hoped-for musical career more seriously. It's cute to be clueless when you're a sixteen-year-old with exceptional talent. It's not cute when you're twenty, or twenty-five.
Learn Music Theory
Popular music theory (the kind used in Rock, Country, Worship, Urban, and about anything else you'll hear on the radio) is relatively simple. That's why you lose serious "cred" if someone tells you "This song is a three-chorder in G" and you have to ask them what chords it uses. Beyond that, understanding how music "works" will help you understand the songs you're performing and consequently improve your performance, and maybe even contribute to the arrangement.
Once you're grounded in basic music theory, you can learn more about music from every song you learn, and you can learn much more easily to "play by ear" (which is really "improvising according to the rules of modern music theory"). You're also much farther on your way to writing effective songs, which will be important, too, eventually.
Learn a Musical Instrument
Singers who can't even pick out a tune on the piano or accompany themselves on the guitar while working out a new song will always be at the mercy of other people. Other people will set the tempo, choose the key, establish the "feeling," of the song and so on, if they're not outright choosing the songs. If your goal is to be a creative contributor, and not just a "singing head," you need to be able to think (and sometimes act) independently of your handler, er accompanist.
Piano is best for writing arrangements and complex harmonies, especially if you take lessons that expose you to songs with complex harmonies. Buying the piano/vocal books for groups you like and learning the piano parts is excellent practice for eventually writing your own songs. If you want to play piano during performances, though, you'll learn quickly that the "piano vocal" book never has the part that's actually played on the recordings, so it's up to you to figure out the real part - another very helpful exercise.
Guitar is great for learning and performing rock, alternative, singer-songwriter, and related songs. It is especially useful for understanding and working with the various basic rock rythms. (I've heard too many singers who sounded like they were singing a different song than the rest of the band because they just didn't "get" the intricate rythms of some song.) Even if you never learn the guitar well enough to perform with it, you should learn it well enough to understand how the instrument "works" and to work out arrangements or songs when you're by yourself.
Barring piano or guitar, any instrument that uses chords can be helpful, although instruments that use drone strings, such as 5-string banjo or Appalachian dulcimer, tend to use a limited range of chords, so they won't give you the variety of chord progressions, etc., that you can get from piano or guitar.
At the very least, if you took trumpet or violin or SOMETHING as a child, try to keep up with that. And pay attention to such things as how melodies are constructed, and how they work around the chord changes of your favorite songs.
By the way, aside from all career objectives you might have, learning a musical instrument creates neural pathways that, for some reason, seem to assist in solving complex problems. Great minds like Albert Schweitzer and Albert Einstein have been known for playing music while they were musing over some problem, then rushing back to their desks with fresh insights.
Another consideration is that - like a language - the younger you are while you learn an instrument, the more likely you are to internalize the musical principles you are learning, and the more likely those are to benefit all of your musical efforts for the rest of your life. And a person who only “sort of” learned piano when he was young, I can tell you that my poor piano playing handicapped my musical aspirations. So if your plan is to learn piano after you get rich and famous, consider a change in your timeline.
Recent medical research also shows that learning an instrument well in childhood, and playing it most of your life will also help protect brain functions in later life. So unless your plan is to die young, consider it a contribution to your long-term quality of life.
Now for another, more mercenary note for singers - most people who see you sing have no idea whether you have any "musicianship" other than the ability to carry a tune. Tom Jackson - a performance coach who has worked with some huge acts to make their concerts more compelling - used to find out any "ancillary" skills that the artist had and exploit those, albeit briefly, onstage. So a guitarist who only knows three chords on the piano can still start one song off behind a keyboard. Or as singer who knows just a bit of guitar can learn an impressive solo to use as an introduction to a song. Or a musician who can credibly 'take a break" on a horn can do that once an evening. Tom would work the artist to death until they had absolute confidence in the 12 or 18 bars they selected for this exercise, even if they couldn't do it on another song to save their lives. Inevitably, audiences were impressed that the artist was more than just a good voice or whatever. Sometimes the artists' own band was, too, even when they should have "known better." True, it's a hundred times better if you actually learn the instrument, even if you only use it offstage, during your songwriting or practice sessions. But, hopefully, even having just the appearance of greater musicianship for 12 or 18 bars may encourage you to "dig deeper" or try other musical ideas.
Learn the History of Your Genre
Personally, I think everyone should at least know the difference between Mozart and Beethoven, but I'm a teacher and history nut, so go figure. If nothing else, you should know the history of your own genre. Let's face it, the critics do, and so does anyone in a position to do you any good in "the music industry.'
All pop music is derivative. But the most derivative music is created by wannabes who don't even realize that they're being entirely derivative of another entirely derivative group. Many of today's acts are really standing on the shoulders of giants, and your music will be richer if you go back to the source, instead of being a copy of a copy of a copy - you get the idea.
In the last few years - in part courtesy of American Idol - I've heard plenty of wannabe rock stars who don't know the Beatles from the Eagles. Wannabe Christian Music stars who don't know Larry Norman from Michael W. Smith. Wannabe rappers who don't know M.C. Hammer from Wil Smith. Wannabe country singers who don't know Dolly Parton from Tonya Tucker. The list goes on. About the only area of music where this doesn't happen is Jazz, because Jazz performances tend to honor not only the song, but also each major artist who has left his or her mark on it over the years.
In the meantime, if your favorite artist names his or her influence, go back a layer and see, not only what the earlier artist brought to the table, but how much of that your current favorite was able to incorporate into his or her performance. Then go back another layer. You may well discover that some far earlier artist gives you more ideas and inspiration the ones who were on your earbuds when you started this exercise. And you may avoid some mistakes of the past.
Learn the History of your Repertoire
Sure, you may have learned "First Cut is the Deepest" from Sheryl Crow, but she probably learned it from Rod Stewart, who probably learned it from Linda Ronstadt, who certainly learned it from Cat Stevens (not to mention the dozens of other first- and second-tier artists who've recorded it). Sure, you can probably do a good Sheryl Crow imitation, but if you want to take this song out of the Karaoke class, figure out what the other pros have brought to it. Every song has a history; every songwriter moreso.
A few years ago I saw a musician do a fine performance of Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff," but lose credibility because everyone in the room knew and liked Eric Clapton's version better, and there was nothing in the wannabe's performance to indicate that he had ever heard of Clapton.
Learn who wrote your favorite songs and try to figure out why they "work." If possible, learn the songwriter. The "Rat Pack" owed much of their success to the lyrics of Sammy Cahn, for example. Whose stuff works for you? Why does it work for you? Does the songwriter have other pieces that you could work with? Especially songs that haven't already been popularized by people who are way better than you?
Here's one more hint. If you're going to perform a song that's been popularized by a superstar or a supergroup, get to know the original artists' other work as well, so you can figure out what - besides the song itself - they brought to the table. Show respect for the artist as well as the song. Being able to squeeze more notes into a song or stray farther from the melody than, say, Paul McCartney did, doesn't necessarily mean you're better than Sir Paul's simple straightforward performance. For examples of how to do it right, listen to Linda Rondstat's versions of "Desperado" and "That'll Be the Day." Linda could outsing the original vocalists seven ways, but her recordings are a tribute, not only to the song, but also to the Eagles and Buddy Holly, respectively.
In contrast, I've recently seen quite a few vocalists who think they're "updating" songs completely miss the point of the song. The effect is almost always comic, at least to anyone who was around the last time a true artist sang the thing. If you sing Elton John's "Benny and the Jets" as a ballad, or Carole King's "I Feel the Earth Move" as an emo, you may think you are being very clever, and so may everyone in your entourage. But you've already told the rest of us how serious you really are about a career in music.
Study the Present and Recent Performers in Your Genre
Especially those with some "holding power." This especially applies to singers, but applies as well to anyone who plays a melodic instrument.
Pay as much attention to when the currently reigning stars in your field hold back as when they belt. Notice how and where they stick to the melody, as well as how and where they add grace notes, or stray from the melody.
As I write this, the trend in certain young wannabe vocalists is to avoid the melody at all costs, and to squeeze as many extra notes into each line as is humanly possible. The worst examples will add licks from Britney Spears, Whitney Houston, and a dozen other singers with radically different styles into the same song, just because they can. (For a hilarious recording of a singer doing this on purpose to make fun of wannabe pop divas, listen to Sara Ramirez' performance of "Find Your Grail" in the Spamelot sound track.)
When you study the best of the best, you'll realize that each of them knows that before the song can sell the singer, the singer has to sell the song. I've told young singers who start racking up superfluous extra notes in the first verse or chorus that they have to "earn those notes" by proving they can make the actual melody sound good first. Do they listen? Usually not, but you have to admit it's a good point.
Furthermore, randomly mixing licks from singers with a dozen different styles isn't going to make you sound like anything but a human juke box. As you study the greats, figure out what they have that that might work for you, then rework it intentionally into a consistent style that is entirely yours.
The takeaway here is that vocal pyrotechnics should never be used as a replacement for a thoughtful, musical interpretation of the song. If you are going to bring out the fireworks, it should only be after you've "sold the song."
Write Your Own Songs
They'll probably be really lame, at first. But the exercise will help you to appreciate other people's songs more.
I'm not going to promote a single way to write songs - every songwriter is different. But if you can take a songwriting class, join a club, take lessons or somehow force yourself into an environment where you have to write, you'll eventually figure out what works for you. With the right kind of coaching, you may be able to make your songs "work" for other people as well.
In the meantime, you'll learn things like: When are two verses in front of the first chorus better than one? When do inner rhymes advance the song's motion and when do they distract from its deeper meaning? When does a bridge help and when does it get in the way?
And all of those things should help you figure out better ways to arrange and perform songs other people have written as well. Especially those with some "holding power." This especially applies to singers, but applies as well to anyone who plays a melodic instrument.
Learn to Arrange
Most rock, pop, country, and worship bands use "head arrangements," which means that almost nothing is written down. Before they start playing they verbally agree on the sequence of verses, choruses, etc., in the song. The conversation might included phrases like "Four bar intro," "Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus," and "Trashcan ending." If you pay attention while this is happening, you eventually earn the right to make your own suggestions.
Singers need to learn to pick out appropriate harmony parts for every song. Even if you're the lead, you might wind up having to tell the drummer which part to sing on the chorus.
Instrumentalists need to learn, not only to "play by ear" (which, as you'll remember, really means "improvising according to the rules of modern music theory"), but how to add movement to the song by "filling in the gaps" without "stepping on" the melody, as well as what to play, when to play, and when to lay out.
If you want to have a future in any kind of pop music, be it rock, pop, country, urban, or gospel, and you expect to have sheet music that tells you how to do all of the things in this section, you are in the wrong place.
Learn the Basics of the Music Business
For most of my adult life, a lengthy tome called This Business of Music has been available, updated every few years, in every library in the country, often in the reference section. Sadly, the spine of the book seldom shows any wear. Yet I've witnessed several "seminars" that purported to expain the basics of the music business to dozens of attendees who spent two or three hundred dollars for the privilege of seeing a Powerpoint equivalent of the first few chapters. There are other books that are easier to read, or at least to carry around, and if that's the way you have to go, fine. But try to get something written or updated after the rise of the Internet, because the dynamics of the mp3 marketplace, etc., have changed the industry in some unforeseen ways.
At the very least, you should know how musicians make money (besides being paid for a bar or bar mitzvah gig, that is). When is it a good idea to self-publish? Why do publishers feel like they deserve as much as you make on each song? Who makes money when songs get played on the radio? Who makes money when mp3s get downloaded legally? Who owns the recordings when a label has paid for the studio time? What do A.S.C.A.P. or B.M.I. or S.E.S.A.C. really do for the artist, and how can the Harry Fox Agency help you avoid getting sued for putting someone else's song on your album? The best resources (such as the one I just mentioned) explain all of this and more.
Years ago, a friend's band had a big, national radio hit with a Joni Mitchell song, yet they saw no income from that to speak of. But a couple of other friends wrote a song that was never an "A side" by itself, but happened to appear on another artist's album that went gold, and they got a nice, unexpected chunk of change. In fact, they still get small checks in the mail every so often, over twenty years later. If you ever imagine that you'll be making a living off of your music, you owe it to yourself to know why things work this way.
And it's altogether possible that knowing at least the basics may help you make wiser decisions under pressure. And believe me, there will be pressure.
Expand Your Skills as an Individual Performer
I love playing in a band, backing a great singer on some instrument, singing background vocals on the chorus, while the rest of the band fills in all of the other parts. You may, too. But don't confuse growth and possible success of the band with your personal growth. Maybe you're "just" the bass player or the saxophonist. Sadly, bands come and go, but you'll still be here. For your own sake please don't neglect your own learning and self-improvment to devote all of your energy to the band's welfare. A band with healthy dynamics gets better when all of its members take their personal development seriously. And if your band doesn't have healthy dynamics, do you really want to invest your whole musical future on it anyway?
Learn to Self-Promote
For many of you this will be the hardest thing on this list. For others it will be too easy, because you'd rather sit around experimenting with logos and press releases than you would learning new chords or working on the next song.
With digital cameras, home recording, and the World Wide Web, it's not hard to establish a "web presence" with a contact page that lits you collect e-mail addresses for gig announcements or whatever.
Physical press kits are becoming a bit rarer, but still needed in some circumstances. Typical contents include: a "head shot," a full-length shot holding your guitar or whatever, a nice-looking and nice-sounding demo CD, a bio, and a press release template that allows you to plug in updates (such as awards or concert times) every time you send it out.
One danger of a web page or blog is that you could wind up spending all of your time writing, tweaking, or blogging instead of working on your music, so if you have a sibling or parent who can oversee the day-to-day operation of your web page in the begining at least, you'll be way better off.
There are whole books on this sort of thing, of course. And as you have more gigs, more professional photos and recordings, your web presence and press kit can expand and improve, but this will give you an idea of where to get started.
Ironically, the hard part for many folks is not starting a web site or press kit, but keeping it up. Lots of part-time or wannabe artist sites I've looked at recently haven't had anything new posted for months, or, in some cases, years. I'm bad about that myself, but since I stopped gigging all the time, my music site is more of a placeholder than anything else. At least it doesn’t have a page listing “upcoming concerts” with the most recent date in 2009.
Sadly, most people who do everything in this article and more still never achieve the music career of their dreams. But the vast majority of this group eventually learns to find pleasure in some kind of music-related vocation or avocation. And most of them have some grasp on why things didn't "work out" like they had hoped, which helps them get on with their lives.
Frankly, even if things do "work out," many pop music performers - like athletes - have a limited life-span anyway. But those who pay attention and continue to learn often "land on their feet" in the music industry's equivalent of a "front office" position.
Either way, the folks who took time to become musicians while they were pursuing a career as performers are seldom sorry for the time and energy they put into it. This is one area where the word "professional" has less do with whether you get paid than it does with your attitude and preparation. And a true professional (even one who never got the "big break") will still maintain a professional attitude toward music, and be treated as a professional by other musicians for the rest of his or her life.
The folks who are sorry, for the most part, are the ones who were sure they were going to coast to success on some modicum of natural talent without ever working at it, and who, twenty or thirty years later, have no idea what went wrong. It's one thing to be a clueless wannabe when you're sixteen. But if you're still a clueless wannabe at the age of thirty, or fifty, nobody is impressed.
Here's a final, very sad note. A week before this writing, just before an appearance at a national award show, talented pop singer Whitney Houston suddenly died. Sadly, Whitney had never been able to control the direction of her own life, even her own addictions or relationships. However, this note isn't a a criticism of her alternately blessed and tortured existence. It's just to point out that, while fans mourned one of the great singing voices of her generation, the song playing again and again on radio and television was actually written by Dolly Parton, who, in addition to being a popular singer, is also a songwriter, arranger, publisher, closet guitarist, and music business executive. I'm sure that the last thing Dolly was thinking of this week was royalties pouring in, but the hard truth is, that in the week following Whitney's death, Dolly Parton earned more money than most musicians earn in a lifetime. Why? Because, in spite of her plastic surgeries and self-effacing humor, she is one of the most talented, well rounded, hardworking, productive musicians of her generation. And the number of lives she has touched in very real, positive ways is beyond counting.
When we lost Whitney Houston, we lost a great singer. When we lose Dolly Parton, as we inevitably will, we will lose a force.
Wannabee or musician? The choice is yours.
This "essay" is not meant to be the final word on the subject - but it will hopefully get readers thinking, and maybe a few angry. We will welcome reader feedback, from all kinds of readers. Simply contact us, tell us "where you're coming from," and let us know whether we should use your name or a pseudonym if we want to post your comments. If you want to tell us we're idiots for something we say, go right ahead. Just have some evidence to back up your assertions. :-)
Best of luck, all, enjoy your music, and support the arts.
Also - Dolly - if you see this, try and stick around a while - we love you!
All material, illustrations, and content of this web site are copyrighted (c) 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 by Paul D. Race. All rights reserved.
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