The role of music is to help people feel confident; to feel courage that tomorrow (or even this afternoon) is worth facing. People don’t want Rock & Roll to make them feel less confident. If you don’t approach your own music with courage, you can’t expect that it will deliver the courage that people want from listening to music.
If we were to honestly look at a bunch of solidly successful people and compare them to people who aspire but don’t achieve, I would bet that one of the defining differences is one of those things that many don’t want to admit. People will talk about talent, skills, luck, connections, etc but they will rarely talk about the real ingredient that is most often what separates those who did from those who would like to but didn’t.
Courage is that thing. It is socially very fashionable to hide in the middle, to not seem to be more than your neighbor. That is fine if you want to be just another neighbor. However, if your aim is to be something more than your fellow man (woman, non-binary goat… I don’t care) being the same is not the way there.
If you hope to stand out, you must stand out. There are essentially two ways to stand out:
- be More of the Same
- be Less of the Same
Most who try to stand out will take the seemingly “safe” path of being more of the same. That means that they look at the way it is done today and set out to do that more “perfectly”. If everyone is using technique Z to present this thing, the more of the same path says to use technique Z at a higher level. If that means that the average is to use two widgets, you must use two to three widgets to prove your technical perfection in the field so you can say that other people are being lazy compared to your perfect execution. This works for audiences who want only iterations of what they have been seeing/doing for their whole life.
A few who try to stand out will take the seemingly “unsafe” path of being less of the same. That means that they look at the way it is done today and set out to do something different – however imperfectly. If everyone is using technique Z to present this thing, the less of the same path says to use a completely different technique even if it is a bit rough. If the average is to use two widgets, you must either use 43 or 0 widgets to show how you are playing at a different level entirely. This works for audiences who want something new and vital in their lives.
The former is typical Top 40 Pop Music, the latter is a new movement like Punk. That is Punk in 1978 as opposed to Punk in 2000. While the same name is used, Punk like The Clash and Punk like A Simple Plan are really not the same things at all. One was new, the other was a safe formula.
Either path has its purpose and can win. However, the mindset of those who successfully achieve using their chosen path of More or Less of the Same is exactly the same. The choice has to be handled with courage or it will not work. Let me give you an example:
There was a band called The Sisters Of Mercy. By all reports, the main guy Andrew Eldritch is/was a very determined fellow. Despite difficulties, Andrew pushed his vision until he made it. Three awesome records with no real peers later and Andrew is a legend in music. A leader among musicians.
There was a band whose name I have already forgotten who had a song cross my path. It was not bad, shades of Sisters Of Mercy. Worth checking out the EP. Sadly past that one song where some courage had been used, the other tracks were weak with fear. I didn’t buy that EP and those people will not be remembered.
I found myself around some people seeking advice on their mixes. Sadly most of the work was not inspired. It was very easy to tell that the mixes were not made from the perspective of delivering the Scene & Story of the Song but from attempts to tick all the right boxes in some sort of formula of the perceived idea that there is some way to make the perfect mix. Advice given back and forth to each other was on how to nail this formula that they apparently all knew (probably from watching too many YouTube tutorials from people with fancy rooms and lots of cameras and lighting but oddly no records).
My advice to each of them was to step back and assess what the Story of their song was so they could use the mix to lead the listener there. I was met with some pretty odd (and then very rude) responses. A few indicated that their track had no story – um so why is it there then? Some said, could you tell me what frequencies that would be I need to fix? I think one of them was doing client work and using me to do his mixes by proxy. One challenged me to a pissing contest – I think only after he had been to my site to ascertain my weakness as a singer as he challenged me “only” with a song with lyrics. To me, that seemed like standing on Eddie Van Halen’s grave and challenging him to a foot race. Easy to claim that I am the better guitarist seeing Eddie won’t take my challenge! Needless to say, I left them to that stupidity.
The advice I was trying to get across to these people, and now you reading this, is that nothing Great will happen until you have Courage. If you watch the Greats at work, you will soon note that they have courage of their convictions. That means that they know what they want and do the work to make that happen despite any of the little things.
Some pretend to have this courage by inventing pedantic rules around some perfect formula that must be followed to open the gate to the stairway to heaven. This is not courage but hiding behind arrogance in the form of a smokescreen made of little things. If you watch people like Steve Albini or Chris Lord Alge work (which you can on YouTube), they move with confidence. It can seem amazing to see Lord Alge toss knobs about in ways that seem overly casual (compared to the usual tut) but the results speak as the track sounds better. Not that I am actually a Lord Alge fan as such but he has a strong sense of his aims and works with courage of his convictions. He is famous as a Mix Engineer.
Not everything you do will be a Hit. Truly Great work often isn’t. However, if everything you do is full of fear, that is what your audience will feel.
Work with courage of your convictions. Know the Scene and Story of the work that you are making and impose your will on the work so that confidence and courage is what the listener feels. The only way to get there is to practice. Do your best today. Publish it. Do it again tomorrow.