Original article by Christopher Knab
If you’ve ever attended a music business conference like the SXSW event in Austin, Texas every year, or the New Music Seminar and walked into a Demo Listening Session, you may have encountered this: a panel of A&R Reps from major and independent labels evaluate a demo recording that’s been submitted to them. The first song is played, and after about ten seconds the Reps are holding their hands over their ears, or waving for the sound technician to “Turn it off!” Another song is cued up, and after twenty seconds the music is stopped and the Reps are muttering. “That really sucks,” “I’ve heard that before,” “That sounds like an ’90’s band,” or “Please, Nine Inch Nails already did over twenty years ago!”
Rude but honest comments like these are made by industry reps all the time at such conferences, as well as in the privacy of their own offices, homes, and cars.
Remember this. Just because you can record your own music, doesn’t mean you should!
It may sound good to your ears, but may be just crap to the gatekeepers who are paid to evaluate, critique, and sign new talent to their record labels and publishing companies.
When any label puts up the money to record and market any artist, guess what? They want to get that money back and make a profit. It’s really that simple. Record labels and music publishers are looking for music that will make money for them.
Your music must inspire their business creativity. They must be able to hear your music in the context of the marketplace they’re familiar with. Any good promotion or marketing minded person will tell you that when they hear music that turns them on, they begin to think of marketing strategies and tactics to help get that music noticed.
When I’m inspired by a demo CD or CDR that has been sent to me, I find myself thinking, “Oh, this would be perfect for such and such radio station,” or “I have to play this for the music reviewer at my local music magazine,” or “What a cool song; why don’t we do a contest around the title of it?”
Music that inspires that kind of response is truly music that is compelling music.
Your music must excite the gatekeepers. When that happens, the wheels of the music business begin to turn.
When A&R Reps are asked what they’re looking for, they often say, “We don’t know what we’re looking for, but we’ll recognize it when we hear it.” Your music must truly stand out in some significant, original, dynamic, and creative way.
Ninety-five percent of the demos out there contain regurgitated ideas that were ripped-off from more gifted musicians.
So,challenge yourself! Talent scouts hear hundreds of wannabees every week and complain about “indistinguishable groups who all sound alike.”
How does your music stand out from the rest?
Since the late 1970s, the cost of making a recording has gone down each year. Each year, more wannabes have inflicted their unoriginal music on an industry that has grown cynical and jaded about finding new music. Let’s face it, there will always be entry-level bands and artists who try to get their music to the ears of an industry they know little about, but expect so much from.
A&R Reps, for example, are looking for, but rarely find what one Rep at a music conference called “What the f**k was that music!” There’s a real clue to what your job is. Your job is to create great music, not just good music, but great music.
Great music is a lot easier to get people excited about and to market.
Who decides if your music is great? For mass market commercial music, it’s the employees of record labels and music publishers who must try to find truly original and outstanding music. And you know what? It’s very hard to find. So hard, in fact, that you won’t believe this… a Rep who finds as few as three truly great artists (in a lifetime of listening to new music), signs them to his or her company, and jumps over all the bureaucratic hurdles to get the company to commit to developing the artist—that Rep will probably be recognized as one of the great A&R people of all time. (Assuming those artists actually become commercially successful!)
So, you may be thinking, if such a high standard is required for getting signed, why is so much crap released these days?
Good question. Reps have had to lower their standards because there isn’t that much great talent out there. There’s huge competition to find the next big thing. I can assure you that there’s a sense of desperation among highly pressured Reps to keep their jobs and discover something that might make millions of dollars for their company.
But even though lower standards of originality are accepted these days, many qualities still take precedence when music is being evaluated for its commercial potential.
Songwriting skills: Writing a song that many people like isn’t an easy task. Do you really know the basic components of songwriting? If not, challenge yourself to learn the craft of songwriting.
Vocal Abilities: A dynamic, charismatic, individual singing style that is uniquely your own is as close as a musician can get to having a brand. Are the vocal stylings of your singer up to that definition?
Musicianship: Any music business professional can tell instantly if the musicianship in your group is ready for prime time. Amateurism is not acceptable.
Originality: Back to this again. It’s a delicate subject, but basically what the labels and publishers are looking for is just one thing about your music that makes it stand out.
Remember that the word “origin” is in the word originality. It’s OK for your influences to show, but no one is looking for a carbon copy of what’s already out there. They look for a sound that is different, but not so dramatically different that it alienates the listener. It could be a band’s sound, a vocalist’s style, a mix of instrumentation, or simply an attitude your music has that is truly unique.
One last tip about making great music: study the history of popular music. If you were brought up listening mostly to commercial radio, or watching MTV, you missed out on most of the great music that is our national heritage. Dive in to it. Get immersed in the history of rock, rap, R&B, soul, jazz, folk, blues, country—anything and everything. If that incredible adventure doesn’t inspire you, nothing will. There’s a world of great music out there. Absorb it. Make it your own.