Mar 182010

Since starting to blog about music, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to a lot of bands and artists, especially local ones. I’ve received quite a bit of music for review.  And I’m definitely a fan, not just of the music, but of the musicians. I’ve met many of them personally, and I want them to succeed. Even if I write a negative review, I’m pulling for that band or artist to improve and grow.  (If I really thought someone either had no talent or was a real turn-off, I wouldn’t bother to write anything at all.)

That said, there’s a common thread I’m noticing in a lot of the music–one key ingredient that creates a weakness in the quality or marketability of the music more than any other.  And unfortunately, most of the artists and bands I’ve listened to are suffering from this malady to some degree–some more than others.  (Uh…that’s malady, not melody.)  This weakness can keep otherwise truly talented people from achieving more success. It limits the audience musicians can have, and it keeps them stuck in mediocrity.  They might be able to gain a following on a local level, but probably will not go farther than that.

Want to know what it is?  What is this weakness that plagues so many?  Here are some things it isn’t:

  • It isn’t production value; much of what I’ve heard is well arranged and recorded.
  • It isn’t packaging; the album art and the posters and the MySpace pages are mostly well-done, and appealing.
  • It isn’t musicianship; for the most part, as I said, there’s a lot of talent sitting out there.
  • It isn’t passion; most musicians care very much about what they’re doing.
  • It isn’t promotion; lots of these guys are doing a pretty good job of that, too.

So…what is it????  What is the key to mediocrity?

Weak songwriting.

Weak songs are the Achille’s Heel of today’s musician.  The players can be skilled, the music can be flawless, the recording can be perfect, and the record packaged professionally, and you can promote the hell out of it.  But if the songs are weak, the record falls flat. Period.  Good songwriting won’t guarantee you that you will “make it”,  but not having good songs on your record almost guarantees that you won’t. That’s how important it is.

Now, I recognize defining “good songwriting” can be a slippery slope, because you’re dealing with subjective opinion, and so much of it is a matter of taste.  So let me say that the thing that’s brought me to this conclusion–especially for any musicians who are reading this–is that I know something is wrong when you send me your CD and I listen through it twice, and when I come away, I can’t remember any of your songs. The melodies are limited and bland, and there is no hook.  To me, melody and hook are the most important parts of the song–those are what that keeps it playing in someone’s head. Without reducing it to formula, this memorability is the essence of good songwriting, and that is what I find lacking in so many of the songs I listen to by up-and-coming artists.  If you want anyone to buy your record other than your friends and family and people who already know you, people need to remember you after you leave the stage, or after the song stops playing.

Now, there are a number of artists who’ve used this memorability factor to try to cheat the system, finding other ways to be memorable, like wearing next to nothing, acting outrageously, changing their name to something that makes absolutely no sense (“GaGa”? Seriously??) and other such mindless crap.  But most of the people I’ve been watching and listening to aren’t just seeking fame for its own sake; they want to be heard and respected as musicians.  If that’s you, then my point stands: get better songs.  Make finding, writing and/or singing great songs your number one goal. Don’t believe for one minute that hype alone is going to sell your records.

Okay, enough of the soapbox; time for some practical ideas. If you’re a musician who wants to take it to the next level, here are some ideas I have for how to improve with songwriting:

  1. Listen to good songs. Listen to songs you like and remember. What is the “hook”?  What captures your attention?  Why do you like the song?
  2. Re-work your “good songs”. Don’t be afraid to re-evaluate a song when you write it, and don’t settle.  What do you think is the “hook” in your song? If you didn’t know you and weren’t biased, would you listen to it?
  3. Don’t be self-indulgent. What I mean by this is don’t pick songs to sing publicly just based on whether you like them personally, or whether they mean something to you.  As an artist, it’s natural to write based on your feelings and what’s meaningful to you; but if it’s going to be remembered, there has to be something in it that connects with your audience.  This means you need to write with the audience in mind. If you want to sing only for your own pleasure, sing in the shower. If you want people to pay to hear you perform, you have to perform for them.  So write for your audience, not just for yourself.  And this goes for choosing songs, too–pick songs that sit well with your voice and showcase your talents, not just ’cause you like the song. :)
  4. Get honest feedback from people who don’t have a vested interest in your success. Get your music in front of strangers, and ask their opinion.  The reason for this is as I already mentioned, your friends and family are biased; they are going to like your song because you wrote it, and no other reason.  If you really want to know how a song is going to be received, play it for people who don’t have any connection to you, or any reason to like you, and take an honest assessment of their response.  (And don’t take it personally; you’re trying to perfect a product. If someone doesn’t care for a particular song, it isn’t a referendum on you as a person.  Just keep working on your craft.)
  5. Collaborate. If you find weaknesses in your songwriting, get another mind working on music with you. This helps each of you complement the others’ weaknesses and blind spots.
  6. Don’t be afraid to sing someone else’s song. If you’re a performer, and a songwriter pitches you a good song that sits well with you, you both stand a chance to make money and get attention with it!  Don’t be so dang possessive; you might be passing up a great opportunity.

So that’s it.  Get out there and write!  I’m pulling for ya.

Jan 052010

Among the several thousand hundred several vistors to this blog each week, I know there are some musicians that stop by here, as well as music fans. I know this in part because when I write a profile about a band or artist, I usually send them a link; and in part because bands sometimes contact me about a gig they’re doing or music they’re releasing. One band about whom I gave a negative review even found my piece online and emailed me a humble and gracious reply.

As I’ve said before, the reason I say anything, positive or negative, is because I’m pulling for the band or artist I’m talking about and want them to do well.

Anyhow, in watching a lot of bands and even folks on the open stage, I see a lot of stage-presence no-no’s–things that throw a blanket over an otherwise pretty-good set of music. So if you’re a musician thinking about hitting the local scene (wherever you are), here are some do’s and don’ts I think might be helpful:

  • Don’t…tell the audience what each song is about before you sing it. Songwriters are notorious for this, because their songs are their “babies” and they often feel they must introduce them. Occasional in-between-tune banter between is okay, but when you tell the story behind every song, you insult the audience’s intelligence (as though they can’t figure out what it’s about by listening to it). Besides–they aren’t there to hear you talk, but to hear you sing. And if your songs always require that much explanation, you’re sending a message that the songs aren’t good enough to stand on their own. Just sing the friggin’ song, and let the audience decide.
  • Don’t…talk about your “dream.” Just stay away from the word “dream” when you’re onstage. Why? Because these people aren’t your family in your living room; they are the public who have no vested interest in your dream. Artists who get onstage (or on camera, for you American Idol wanna-bes) and rattle on about their dream and how much it means to them to perform, blah, blah, blah…it comes off as sheer desperation, not confidence. It’s a turn-off, and instantly labels you as a charity case. If your dream is to perform onstage in front of an audience, then dangit, don’t waste the audience’s time talking onstage about your dream; LIVE your dream. Sing!
  • Don’t…act like you are bigger stuff than you are. I know there’s a school of thought that arrogance gets attention, but where I went to school, it’s a big turnoff. Perform the heck out of the song, but don’t pretend you’re a rock god(dess) and that everyone there was just dying to see you perform. These aren’t the peasant folk come to adore you; these are hard-working people who might buy your record someday if you earn their respect. Don’t be shy and self-deprecating, either; confidence is cool. Just respect the fact that your audience can spot a phony a mile away. Be who you are, and don’t be what you aren’t. And again…just let your talent stand on its own. People will see it without you flaunting it all over the place.
  • Don’t…keep asking the audience how they are doing tonight. Ask us once if you want to, but sking it over and over makes you look like you don’t know what to say next. We’re doing fine, thanks. Get to the next song, so we can dance.

On the other hand…

  • Do…be prepared. Memorize your songs, and write down your setlist (because you will forget at some point). Don’t fly by the seat of your pants and expect to coast on your pure Mozart talent. People appreciate natural ability, but they respect you when you care enough about your own talent to work on the details.
  • Do…work on transitions. The most awkward moments of a set are between songs (which is why artists make the mistake of asking the audience 20 times how they are doing tonight–and we’re fine, thank you). Keep the set list in front of you, and if possible, practice through the set list before you go live. If you need to stop and re-tune, have something already in your head to say to the crowd (besides asking how they are). Keep things moving as smoothly as possible, and get to the next song as soon as you can.
  • Do…connect with the audience. A writer friend told me today that writers too often write for themselves instead of for their intended audience; I think the same is true for musicians. Too many artists get lost in their own songs and forget the audience is there. You sing for yourself in the shower; onstage, you sing for the people who came to hear you (and maybe paid money to hear you). You’re the one on the platform, but guess what? It’s actually not about you; it’s about them. Make eye contact; engage the people. Communicate with your song. Be genuinely appreciative of your fans. If you’re losing their interest, change things up to bring them back around. It’s only okay to lose yourself in the song if you can draw the audience into that moment with you–and times like those can be pure magic, by the way.

There’s a word I’ve used several times in this post that shouldn’t be missed: respect. This is a huge word to remember, on many fronts. You need to respect your audience, who are taking their time (and possibly spending their money) to see you. You need to respect your gift enough to hone it and polish it. And you will go farther and gain momentum–not just onstage, but over time–if you gain the respect of your audience, not just covet their praise. Respect them, and they’ll respect you. Pure, raw talent might get you to turn a few heads; but earning respect wins you loyal fans for life.

Nov 242009 is giving you an early Christmas present. From now until November 30, 2009, is offering a $3 credit, which you can use to purchase any of their millions of MP3s. The credit is good only for MP3 downloads.

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Free music from Amazon? Who could beat that deal?

Oct 292009

This post is from my recent entry on

When you’re in a major city like Denver, the number of bands and artists playing around the area almost every night of the week can be staggering. Nearly every weekend there are several well-known acts playing around town, in any of a wide range of theaters and venues. Not to mention the dozens of bars and clubs where local and indie bands play to smaller audiences. And the ticket prices and cover charges range from free to take-out-a-second-mortgage.

Having such a range of choices is great, but it can also be intimidating. So here are a few things worth knowing which might help you find your way around. (If you’re not in Denver but in some other city, a lot of this information will help you, too.)

  1. If your town has a local events paper, check it to see who’s playing in town. In Denver, it’s a free weekly magazine called Westword. Virtually every theater and bar in town posts their upcoming shows in there. There may also be websites posting the shows in your town. (On Fridays, I try to post a few of the more promising possibilities right here on Examiner.)
  2. Try doing an Internet search on bands or artists playing in town that you might like to see. These days, most of them have websites and/or MySpace pages. You can read about the act, their genre of music, and sample some of their tunes online.
  3. Do an Internet search on the venue as well, to see if they have a website. Sometimes you can buy tickets directly from the venue online. (A word to the wise: sometimes what is presented on a website makes a venue look bigger or better than it really is. Just exercise caution; a bar or nightclub that looks upscale online might turn out to be a dive.)
  4. The posted start time is not always the actual start time–especially with the bars and local gigs. Three times in the past two weeks, there was a delay in a concert I attended because a band got in late. One time a show started 45 minutes later than the published time, without any explanation as to why. When several bands are on the ticket, it takes time for one band to tear down while the next one sets up. Bigger acts and venues are usually a little more consistent. Just plan to be a bit flexible with the smaller gigs. Relax, have a beer. Often the music will turn out to be worth it.
  5. Be aware of the age restrictions for the show. Some venues will specify that they are family-friendly; bars are usually age 21+, although depending on the club and the laws in your state, sometimes they will let minors in to hear the music, provided that they do not try to order alcohol. They might mark minors’ hands to identify them as underage. But even with precautions like this, be advised that some bands are decidedly not family-friendly. As much as possible, know about the show before you go.