“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 h
olding their hands over their ears, or
waving for the sound technician to turn off the bloody music.
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
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
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 evaluated...like:
* 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
* 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
* 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
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.