”For when you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says “You are here.”
– Douglas Adams, The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe
If you love music (and if not why the hell are you reading this blog?) at some point you will discover just how much of it there is out there. I am pretty well listened – I’ve studied all kinds of music formally and informally from a young age and am always seeking out something different to listen to, but I cannot hope to ever hear more than a tiny, sub-integer percentage of what is out there, incorporating the entirety of music history and all the new music being produced around the world every day. In the age of digital music, streaming services and the internet anyone who persists in complaining that there’s no good music can’t be looking for it.
For fledgling musicians, especially those who grew up as the best in their local area, how you react to discovering the sheer quantity of really good musicians will depend a lot on your reasons for singing or picking up an instrument, what you hope to get out of it and your identity as an artist. How you proceed from there can range from crushing discouragement (just like the victims of Douglas Adam’s torture device that this article is named after) to aggression, stagnation or, of you get it right, ultimate fulfillment as a creative artist.
It helps if you go in knowing your priorities as an artist, whether it’s to be the best musician possible or to make the most money. In this connection, the title of “Full Time Professional Musician” can be a bit of a red herring – there are many award winning international artists who still subsidise their art with day jobs, just as there are well paid journeymen slogging away in theatre pits and cruise ships. I personally found that when music was my only source of income it went from being my expressive outlet to something that wasn’t mine anymore, where pursuing anything creative just took food off the table.
This article is particularly inspired by freshonthenet.co.uk , whose moderating team I was honoured to join recently. Led by the mighty Tom Robinson (BBC 6 Music presenter, legendary singer-songwriter and Man Who You Really Ought To Listen To), the main regular business of FOTN is to receive and listen to an average of 180 new tracks a week from independent artists. The moderating team whittles this down to 25 each week for the Listening Post, which is voted on by visitors to the site to determine a final shortlist to be reviewed and featured – Tom also uses the submissions to select tracks for his Introducing Mixtape on BBC 6 Music.
As an artist, this is a great way to test your work next to that of your peers with a sympathetic (but candid) audience of strangers. But if you do the maths, you’ll start to realise just how much competition you’re up against in the drive to stand out, and a lot of very good music sadly falls through the cracks. Multiply those numbers by manylots and you start to get a picture of the music industry as a whole, a harsh world where many are called but few are chosen. But do not despair – with dedication, passion and tenacity you can succeed, though it can be a long road depending on the path you choose.
Here then are some of the most common ways musicians deal with the shock of emerging into the big, big world of music and trying to get attention.
For some people, music begins and ends with what they heard from mainstream media when they were a teenager. No new music will ever be as good and any unfamiliar music that might involve effort or different thinking is not welcome. And here’s the twist: they are as entitled to enjoy music that way as any other.
Some take up music making with a similar attitude, leaving them well equipped to cater to an audience who value comfort and familiarity above all else. Assuming you make the effort to reach a reasonable standard, a modestly lucrative world of pub, club, hotel (and even cruise) gigs awaits playing cover renditions of classic hits of yesterday, especially if you can establish a familiar reputation in a local community. You might even get the odd original song over as well, if it’s catchy and inoffensive enough.
The only problem is, it’s not really a business model you can build on. You’d better be really into the idea of playing the same songs to the same audiences in the same local area for the length of your career. And while the arrogance of the amateur can translate into a confidence that will take you surprisingly far, it is a fragile bubble that can burst when faced with a higher level of criticism (the audition episodes of TV talent shows are graveyards for this kind of performer) or mid-life crisis – one such musician once told me, “some people may say I haven’t followed my dream, but I’m 47 – there’s still time!”.
Advantages: it’s perfectly possible to find and occupy a small local niche that will support you for a lifetime.
Disadvantages: attempting to move beyond that niche will be difficult to impossible.
Subtly different from denial, in that purists possess more self-awareness and will go much, much deeper into their chosen specialism. They know full well there is other music, it’s just of no interest to them.
Purists can become arrogant towards other styles that don’t meet their particular standards – I know because I have been both a jazz snob and a music teacher, both havens for purists. They can be a mine of detailed information on their chosen traditions, will likely be highly skilled and passionate musicians and can have a peer-level respect for purists in other areas, though the resulting conversations might end up resembling taut religious disputes.
As with the deniers, the biggest weakness of purists is that they don’t know what they don’t know, causing them to miss useful lessons they could have learned from other perspectives. The reasons I could not continue as a jazz snob were 1) I kept encountering incredible musicians from other styles I was supposed to think beneath me, 2) I could not reconcile the concept of jazz as being free and expressive with the long list of “don’t do that”s the purists brought forth, 3) I noticed an inverse proportion between the success of my gigs and the amount of complex jazz voicings I insisted on playing.
Advantages: these are the artists that study and carry on traditions and can become renowned experts within particular niche scenes.
Disadvantages: stylistic zeal can translate into obnoxious arrogance very easily, torpedoing collaborations and wider appeal.
Some artists are born iconoclasts. They possess the uncanny ability to cut through the swathes of the underground to find the trends and influences that will define the next wave of popular culture and reinvent themselves accordingly, placing themselves as versatile curators of music and fashion.
Not everyone can be David Bowie or Madonna, though. The flipside is the army of reactive performers bouncing from trend to trend in a desperate search for relevance, playing pop punk one minute and rapping in affected AAEV the next.
The difference between the two (apart from the intangible charismatic qualities which you either have or don’t) is genuine passion for discovering and taking forward new music versus a cynical desire to cash in on whatever’s popular right now. In general, once a new genre has reached the mainstream it is too late for you to become a part of it without looking derivative, unless you were demonstrably connected to it beforehand (even then, don’t assume you will fit the new image, as many British jazz veterans discovered when Acid Jazz hit in the ‘90s).
Advantages: if you have the charisma, credibility and cultural ear to be a trendsetter, the vast world of music becomes your oyster.
Disadvantages: if you don’t, constant reinvention will just look like lack of identity and integrity.
The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner
For the rest of us mere mortals, the best we can do is acknowledge the musical and cultural influences that got us into music in the first place, learn whatever we can from everything else and proceed accordingly, trying to make each recording, composition or performance better than the last.
Your journey through the world of music is an ultra marathon and can be lonely and frustrating or fascinating and awe-inspiring, depending on how you approach it. Sometimes you will produce something that catches on (and probably not what you consider your best work – the artist’s life is funny that way), more often it feels like pouring out your heart to the passing wind. But it gets a lot less frustrating when you take a proper look at the other artists on the same journey and see them as fellow travelers rather than competitors, all just trying to make the best music possible. Instead of being disheartened by encountering better musicians than yourself, you can level be inspired by them. And if you help and respect them, they will do the same for you.
Which brings me back to Fresh On The Net. Try this (it’s exactly what I did):
If you like, go ahead and upload your best new track. But even if you don’t, still do the next bit.
On Friday afternoons GMT (excluding breaks for holiday and festival seasons), that week’s listening post will be published: 25 tracks that have been shortlisted by our team of music professionals and enthusiasts, so you know they’re going to have something going for them. Listen to them all and pick your favourite five, better still leave a comment on your choices (including any honourable mentions that didn’t make your five). If you find something particularly good, look further into that artist. Reach out to them on Soundcloud, Twitter or wherever – chances are you’ll find them grateful for the connection and you may learn something that’ll help you raise the level of your own work (no matter how good you think you are – amateurs stop learning when they think they’ve learned enough, pros never do).
If you submitted a track and it didn’t make the cut, don’t despair. A lot of very good tracks don’t, for whatever reason. If you like, candidly compare the quality of what you submitted with what you heard, but either way go back and record something even better. Keep doing it even if it seems like nobody’s listening (you never know who might be, especially once they get to know you from the connections you make).
Overall be the person that got into music because they love music, not because they think they are music. If you came in with a superstar complex either get over it or apply for reality TV.