The Key to Mediocrity in Music

March 18, 2010
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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.

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