June 19, 2008 : Rory Tyer
Remember the movie That Thing You Do? In case you haven’t seen it, it follows some guys from Pennsylvania who form a band called The Wonders, win a local battle of the bands by playing their hit song (“That Thing You Do”), and end up attracting the attention of Tom Hanks’ character, a major record label executive who signs them to a lucrative contract and propels them to success.
The music industry used to work like that, and major record labels are still, of course, instrumental to the success of many bands. But the way the industry operates has been changing and continues to change. Recording, mixing, mastering, and selling music used to be the domain of major record labels, but the advent of the internet and the steadily growing availability of quality studio equipment at relatively low prices (among other things) have caused the music industry to begin to favor, more and more, the musician who is also an entrepreneur.
In other words, record labels are no longer (for the most part) simply looking for undiscovered talent. That’s certainly nice to find, but record label scouts are now more inclined to look for the undiscovered talent who have worked hard, taken advantage of the numerous opportunities available to independent musicians, and created somewhat of a following for themselves by selling music on their own, touring as much as possible and generating a decent amount of their own publicity. So, for the rest of this space I’d like to give a few helpful tips on the subject of writing, recording, and performing music, areas in which I’ve been learning a great deal over the past three or four years.
The first and most important step on the journey of music-making is to make sure that you’ve got something to offer your potential listeners. This is the most difficult place, because it’s a place to which all artists should continually come back: Is my music actually any good? Does my songwriting, musicianship, and live performance reflect excellence, or do I care more about my image than about whether my music is actually making a worthwhile contribution to the vast amount of really good music that’s already out there? It’s been said that we are all our own worst critics, and sometimes that’s true. But our generation has seen, I think, an outburst of “American Idol syndrome” - Everybody thinks they’ve got something great to offer, no matter how ridiculous they actually look (or sound). Find people who are sensitive and who care about you as a person, and get them to give you an honest assessment of your talent, songwriting, and overall musical abilities.
Once you’re satisfied that you take music seriously, you need to begin performing as often as possible, wherever and whenever you can – whether or not there is any money involved. Talk to managers of local coffee shops, find places where you know there’s been live music in the past, start hosting a weekly open mic night at your church. This is where you’ll learn how to be a confident performer, as well as getting good feedback on your sound and giving yourself reasons to learn more songs and expand your playing style.
Buy yourself some recording equipment (a good digital recorder and condenser microphone – all you’ll need for guitar and vocals – can be bought from somewhere like Musician’s Friend for under $500) and begin using it as often as possible. If that isn’t an option, find a friend who has some kind of recording equipment, even if it’s just a four-track tape recorder, and lay down some songs. Keep a notebook for words and ideas, and write (and practice what you write) as often as you can. Collaborate with other people who approach music the same way you do, and perhaps even some who don’t.
Where it goes from there is up to you. If you continually take advantage of the free marketing available to you from sites like Facebook, ReverbNation, and Virb, play as many places as you can, and consistently do what you do really well, it won’t be long before you’ll have opportunities to actually make some money from your music; then you can begin investing in better equipment, creating a demo or two, and expanding the boundaries of the places you can play live. The more consistent and persistent you are, the more likely it is that you’ll create something lots of other people are going to want to listen to.
There are many good websites with all sorts of advice on topics ranging from home studio setup to what kinds of gear you’ll need for live performances. The best resource, however, is someone who’s been in the music business for some time and who’s willing to sit down and share some solid advice with you over a cup of coffee. As far as my own advice goes, I’ll simply leave you with this thought: Creativity, as reflected in good music, usually takes many hours of hard work and discipline. Sometimes really good things "just happen", but most times you’ve got to work for it, over and over again, until it’s just what you want to say and how you want to say it, or just how you want it to sound. Excellence is a discipline, not something you fall into. If you approach music from that perspective, you’ll quickly find yourself becoming more and more able to create art that is meaningful, talented, and worth listening to.