I recall an old interview with Bo Diddley that I witnessed. Bo was famous for playing his home made box shaped guitar. He was asked, “Who are your influences?” By which he sniped back in Bo Diddley fashion, something like: ”Nobody, I don’t listen to nobody else so I don’t sound like nobody else.” At the time I thought that was one of the coolest responses I had ever heard. I found myself imitating Bo Diddley when asked the same question through the years. But the reality is that it may have worked for Bo Diddley, but my wiser self has found that the statement in my opinion is simply untrue. As an artist, we all have influences whether it be musical or simply our environment that inspires or colors our world. This mixture or concoction of life is what creates our output. The bigger issue is that for many artists, the input stops at early stages of life. Like the last high school haircut style you donned years ago, that to this day still never gets modified. Our music production gets stale in the same manner.
Is anybody buying your music? Only a few friends or family members downloading your MP3s? Does your music you are creating sound dated? These can be signs of a lack of growth. And please, don’t use the Bo Diddley line here, or the over-stated: there just aren’t any good bands to listen to since _ _ _ _ (enter year here). That’s simply not true. Every decade including the current has incredible, very talented performers/artists on the charts, under the charts, unsigned and signed now more than ever.
So if I asked you: “Who’s in the top ten on billboard right now?” Could you answer the question? How about, “What genre is dominating the top 100? How many units did the artist sell to appear on the charts? Are they signed or unsigned?” I can hear you muttering under your breath in disgust, “I’m an artist not a statistician, that’s simply not important to me, my purpose is to create music not follow others on charts.”
Your purpose is to be a professional musician. The only way to truly accomplish this goal is to know your environment. To know your profession. To be aware of what is going on around you and with your fellow artists. There are daily equipment/gear improvements, trends, and break-out artists that you should be aware of and inspired by.
My tips for keeping in tune with the constantly changing direction of all music genres:
1) Check billboard charts Top 100 and the Genre you are categorized under (Indie, Country, Rock etc) weekly. Note the artists on the move, and how many unit sales it took to get them there.
2) Access an online radio streaming resource where new music is intermingled with current or classic music like: Spotify, Itunes, Pandora and Jango. This way your exposed to new music within your genre, i.e. I personally listen to the Indie Top 100 daily.
3) Note the recording and production approach of the new music. What instrumentation is being favored? What style is the tone? What instruments are in the front of the mix or missing all together? How is the vocal phrasing being delivered?
4) Ask yourself, “If my song was playing within this list, would it fit, or stick out in an awkward fashion?” Sticking out doesn’t always mean you are original, it could simply equate to being out of touch. You need to write ‘some’ main-stream music within your genre that will attract listeners to discover your more abstract material. Many times an artist’s most popular song or best seller is not actually their best work. But it’s how the listeners will find them.
5) Watch for and observe new Music Video releases on VEVO and YouTube. What is the style of the music and video?
6) When applying for song contests, soundtracks or live show performance positions; note who is being selected over/instead of you. Visit their website, Sonic or ReverbNation page and listen to their music. Ask yourself, “Why did this band get selected instead of me?” Switch sides and act as the promoter and analyze why you would have selected that song or band as the winner. Was it the venue location? The genre of music? The expected type of audience? Or, perhaps your song just sucks? Being honest with yourself is the first step to improving your craft.
In summary: No, I’m not asking you to “sell-out.” I am not asking you to plagiarize someone else’s sound. I am advising you to be aware. Ignoring current trends, equipment improvements, and new music styles that listeners are buying; is like being a dentist and ignoring the invention of Novocain for your patients.
Be smart, be aware, be a pro.