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Unoriginal Music - by Christopher Knab
“Unoriginal music that lacks inspired ideas.”

If you have ever attended a music business conference and walked into a Demo Listening Session you may have encountered a situation not unlike this scenario.

A panel of A&R Reps from major and independent labels sit around and listen to 30 seconds or less of a demo tape or CD that has been submitted for their evaluation. The first song is played, and after about 10 seconds the Reps are holding their hands over their ears, or waving for the sound technician to turn off the bloody music. Another song is cued up, and after maybe 20 seconds the music is stopped and the Reps are muttering amongst themselves. “That really sucks”, “ I’ve heard it all before”, “That sounds like an 80’s band”, or “Please, Nine Inch Nails already did that”.

These and other rude but honest comments are the natural order of things at such conferences. And in the privacy of their own offices, homes, and cars more crude and rude comments are made about your music.

Remember this. Just because you can record your own music, doesn’t mean it is interesting! What may sound ‘good’ to your ears, may be just crap to the gatekeepers who are paid handsomely for their ability 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 is really that simple. Record labels and music publishers are looking for music that will make money for them, and for you.

Your music must inspire their business creativity. They must be able to hear your music in the context of the marketplace they are 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 am inspired by a demo tape or CD that has been sent to me, I find myself thinking thoughts like; “Oh, this would be perfect for such and such radio station.” or, “I have to play this for that music reviewer at my local music magazine”, or “What a cool song, why don’t we do this contest around the title of that song”. Music that compells that kind of response to the listener is truly ‘inspired’ music for music business professionals. Your music must EXCITE the music business gatekeeper. When that happens, the wheels of the music business begin to turn.

When asked what they are looking for, A&R Reps often respond with comments like “We don’t know what we are looking for, but we’ll recognize it when we hear it.” What we can read into their comment is that your music must truly stand out in some significant, original, dynamic, and creative way. 95% of the demo tapes out there contain, regurgitated ideas that were ripped off from some other more gifted musicians. Challenge yourself! Talent scouts in this business hear hundreds of ‘wanna-bees’ every week.

What is it about your music that makes it stand out from all the rest of what music buyers in the mid late 90’s has been complaining about as “indistinguishable groups who all sound alike”?

Since the late 70’s the cost of making a recording has gone down with each passing year, and with each passing year more and more wannabee’s have been inflicting their unoriginal music on an industry that has grown more and more cynical and jaded about finding new music. Let’s face it, there is never going to be an end to entry level bands and artists trying to get their music to the ears of an industry they know little about, but expect so much from.

For starters, WHAT the A&R Reps are really looking for, but rarely find, is what was once described by a Rep at a music conference as “What the fuck was that music!”. Now there is a real clue to what your job as an up and coming musician really is. Your job is to create GREAT music, not just Good music, but GREAT music. The music marketplace doesn’t need more ‘Good ‘ music, it needs truly GREAT music, because

GREAT music is a lot easier to get people excited about, and to market. . MUNDANE might be a good name for a band, but keep it to yourself!

And who will decide if your music is great? Employees of record labels and music publishers whose job it is to try and find some truly original and truly outstanding music, and you know what...that is very hard to find, very very hard to find. So hard in fact that if you want to know the truth of it, if a Rep finds 3 truly great artists in a lifetime of listening to new music, and they have the ability to sign them to their company, and then deal with the bureaucratic business of trying to get your company to commit to developing that artist, they will probably be recognized as one of the great A&R people of all time if and when that act actually becomes successful.

So, you may be thinking, if such a high standard is required for getting signed why is there so much crap being released these days? Good question, and the answer is...the Reps have had to lower their standards because there isn’t all that much GREAT talent out there, but there is huge competition for trying to find ‘the next big thing’, and I can assure you that there is a sense of ‘desporation’ amongst the highly pressured reps to keep their jobs, and discover something that might make millions of dollars for their company.

But even with a lower standard of originality being accepted these days there are still many considerations that take precedence when potentially commercial music is being

* Songwriting skills: Writing a song that many people may like is not an easy task. Do you really know what the basic components of songwriting are all about? If not, challenge yourself to learn the art of songwriting.
* Vocal Abilities: A dynamic, even charismatic, individualized style of singing that is uniquely your own is as close to a ‘brand’ as a musician can get. Are the vocal stylings of your singer up to that definition?
* Musicianship: I already addressed this essential ingredient in depth in my last column “Being a master musician”. Basically, any music business professional can tell instantly if the musicianship in your group is ready for prime time. Amatuerism is not acceptable.
* Originality: Back to this again. It is a delicate subject to discuss, but basically what the labels and publishers are looking for is really just ONE thing about your music that makes it stand out. This invisible but very apparent ingredient has to do with not sounding too much like what is already out there, but also not so dramatically different that it alienates the listener either. It could be a band ‘sound’, a vocalist’s style, a mix of instrumentation, or simply an ‘attitude’ that can be heard in your music that is truly unique.

Lastly, let me give you a one last tip about making GREAT music. Study the history of popular music. That’s it. If you have been brought up on listening to commercial radio, or watching MTV as your main diet of music, you have missed out on the really 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, and anything and everything that is out there waiting for you to listen. If that incredible adventure in listening doesn’t inspire you...nothing will.

There is a world of music out there waiting for you to hear yourself in. Listen to it. Absorb it. Make it your own.

Christopher Knab, Music Business Consultant

for Effective Product Development / Promotion / Publicity / Performance.

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