When you deal with music industry personnel at record labels, booking agencies, radio stations, distributors, stores and online...most of them are not musicians. Frustrated musicians, maybe. Wannabee musicians? Possibly. Appreciators of music? Definitely.
In my case, after twelve years of record retailing, ten years of alternative radio work, eight years of running my own record label, and over a decade as a music business consultant, I’ve listened to countless thousands of hours of recorded and live music. And you know what? After all this, I can tell you straight out that everyone on the business side of music can recognize a competent, incompetent, or master musician. When it comes to auditioning new music, it doesn’t take more than ten seconds to judge you in some accurate way.
We can tell when a musician knows their instrument. We can tell if a vocalist has something magic happening or not. We can tell when a drummer can’t drum, when a bass player doesn’t know a bottom from a hole in the floor. We judge you, perhaps unfairly at times, and our prejudices, tastes, and attitudes toward musicianship can have a profound effect on whether or not you become successful.
You can never go wrong being a master musician. It’s no guarantee of success, but it’s a big deterrent if you are not a master musician on your instrument. Obviously, we can also spot developing talent. We categorize you when we first hear you play. Once I was at a club when a band came on. From their first chord, everyone looked at the stage to catch the amazing performance of the lead vocalist and hear his unique voice. At another showcase, the band started to play and emptied the room. Why? Because they played horribly. The guitar was out of tune with the bass, and the drummer couldn’t even keep a steady beat.
In case you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of bands out there, more every year…thousands of musicians, and thousands of bands, and thousands of new releases growing every year by the way.
Note: Ten years ago, in 1999 the record industry, both major and indie labels combined released 28,000 new releases. Last year,in 2009 over 134,000 new releases clutter the landscape and when it comes to sales, only around 6,000 of these new releases sold more than 1000 copies! Yikes!...Do you think maybe that a lack of professional playing skills might just be a good part of why so many music releases fail to catch on? Huh?...Do ya think?!
Buy a clue. Be the best musician you can be. Don’t go out too early and practice in front of an audience. A musician is an artist. Artists develop their skills over a lifetime of learning, refining, and perhaps even re-defining.
This issue of musicianship is rarely discussed any more, perhaps because 'just getting your music recorded and out there' is very fashionable these days. But as exciting as a performance can be, it can get tired very quickly if a band's playing skills are sub-par.
Please note: there’s a big difference between playing simply and being a show-off that exaggerates your mistakes and turns people off.
For example, playing simple, straight-forward rock n’ roll isn’t as easy as it sounds. Simple can sound deceptively easy, from the acoustic blues of Robert Johnson to the “chugglin” of Creedence Clearwater Revival, to AC/DC and the Ramones, up to the Arctic Monkeys and the The Ting Tings. Believe me, it isn’t easy to sound simple. It actually takes incredible playing skills to pull off that kind of music.
Investigate and you’ll find that some of the simplest sounding music has been rehearsed for countless hours. That music has lasted and will last a long time.
The business of music demands more than the hobby of music. If you’re content jamming with friends and playing occasionally, don’t confuse this with the determination you must eat for breakfast if you really want to make your living as a musician. The quality of your musicianship will enable or prevent the promotion and marketing of your music.
Music either makes a lasting impression on a listener and becomes part of the fabric of our culture, or becomes a “passing fancy in a midnight dream.” However long you take to make your music, it’s a blink of the eye compared to the potential life span of a classic that people never get tired of.
Being a master musician simply means being dedicated enough to your profession that you care enough to play your very best, all the time, every time.
Do that and you stand a chance of making a lasting impression not only on the industry gatekeepers, but potentially on generations of music fans.