Tempe, Ariz., 1998
Every so often, a young band asks me for advice on how to get better. Other times, veteran musicians toiling below the radar have asked me how to get noticed. In either case, I never know what to say. I'm a music critic, not a musician, after all. And I'm barely even that. Like a lot of people, I actually pay my bills with another job, although in my case that happens also to be in journalism. So I'm not sure how much wisdom I have to impart in these matters.
But people do seem to want answers, whether or not the person giving them is flawed himself. And I've definitely been obsessing over music long enough to have an opinion or two. Plus, I'd actually like to help! So I figured I'd type this up as some kind of ready-made answer for anyone wanting to know how to make their music better. With luck, that will lead to their getting noticed, too. Listicle, ahoy:
1. Practice as much as you can, in as many ways as you can. This may seem really obvious. But hey, you asked. I got the opportunity to write the occasional album review that a lot of people might read by constantly writing album reviews that probably no one should ever have to read. I know it doesn't sound very punk rock, but the only way I can tell you to make a good song, a good record, or whatever, is to keep making lots of music and learning from your mistakes. If you're lucky, you can keep most of the bad (or, in a lot of cases, simply "good"-- the line between what will get you noticed and what is merely acceptable can be very small) stuff low-profile enough that no one will have to know about it when your great material finally comes around. In short: The only way to be a songwriter is to write a song.
2. Practice in ways where you'll get feedback from real people. Every once in a while, a staggering genius will come along who can work in total isolation and create something that later speaks to millions. If that's your goal, then you're probably too brilliant to waste your time reading my advice, anyway. And you should probably by a lottery ticket, if only as a backup plan. For the rest of us, it's probably not enough just to keep writing and recording music in a vacuum. You won't get any better until you see how other people react to your music-- music is a form of communication. "When it hits..." Better still, play your music for people who have no incentive to be nice to you. I still have plenty of high-school tapes that sounded awesome to me at the time. If I'd had the guts to play those songs more places where I could see what people liked and what people thought was laughably awful, I probably would be less embarrassed by my old recordings today. Play lots of shows. Interact with like-minded musicians or music fans online. Exchange ideas. Grow up in public. Keep your ears open and your skin thick. Make something beautiful/memorable/distinctive. In order to be a musician, people need to get something out of your music, and again, unless you're one of those preternatural geniuses (or you have a built-in marketing/PR machine behind you-- hi, "American Idol," Justin Bieber, etc.) you're going to need to put yourself out there in front of those people to find out what that is-- and where you can push them to blow them away with something they never knew they might like. In short: The only way to be a successful songwriter is to write a song someone likes.
3. Make music you like. I can't tell young bands how to get better, because what I want from them is to show me something that sounds like it's coming from them, something that I might not have expected, something new to my world. Your music may need to be part of some kind of dialogue with other people in order for it to improve, in order for it to speak to an actual audience (audiences > critics), but if you start reducing your songs/tracks to a science, to some kind of demographically targeted marketing tool, well-- it might turn out great (there are exceptions to every rule-- see #4 or #5, not sure how long this list will be yet) but there's also a risk people might not like it anyway, and if you at the very least aren't enjoying what you're doing, then you might as well be doing something else you don't enjoy that will be more lucrative. As Jonathan Richman says in a press bio he wrote for himself in the 1990s: "He promised himself that if it ever became work instead of fun he’d quit that day. And…if it ever does, he will." So yeah, somebody out there needs to care about your music in order for your music to affect people the way you might like. But life isn't fair. The reasons people care about music at any given time don't necessarily have anything to do with the reasons they might care about your music a year from now. If you like what you're doing, and the people you trust like it, and you're having fun, then don't worry about the critics. You're not making music for them, are you? Besides: They'll come around. In short: The only way to be a successful songwriter in the way that matters most is to write a song you like.
4. So yeah, as I was saying in #3, there are exceptions to every rule. That's often where the most interesting developments in music happen anyway-- look at the relationship between capitalism and art at Lil Wayne's Young Money label, or Sweden's Sincerely Yours, or for Robyn or R. Kelly or M.I.A. or Justin Timberlake or John Mayer, and the ways that in a certain situation, just having fun and just trying to sell copies and just trying to express yourself can all be the same thing. There are no rules for making great pop music; if there were, it would be classical music (no offense to classical music, which is often over my head, but that's the point). One of the great things about pop is that, as with sports or TV shows, everybody can have an opinion on it. You might not want my mom to be a music critic, but if I play something for her and she thinks it's just annoying or filthy or weird or whatever, that's no more or less valid than my thinking it's awesome. It's just informed by a different context. Most music these days seems to have a specific niche in mind-- a distressing lack of ambition, in my opinion, which will only make pop music less and less important to people who aren't already music fans... there's a reason there's so little space for pop in The New York Time ' Sunday Arts & Leisure section-- but at its best, a great song or track can speak to anyone. What I rave about is the stuff that speaks beautifully to me and that I think might speak beautifully to other people, make them feel something or laugh or dance or see the world in a new way or kiss their lover or buy the next round or. Or. Or. In short: The only way to be a successful music-type person is to remember there is no "only way" to be a successful music-type person.
5. I've said it before and I'll say it again: THOU SHALT THINK FOR YOURSELVES. I was talking with my uncle the other day about the Church of England minister who not long ago told congregants that in certain cases it's OK to shoplift. My uncle, interestingly to me, noted that situational ethics is pretty much the foundation of liberalism (in the sense of a liberal society, I assume, not in the narrow liberal-conservative U.S. political sense-- although you may be able to see how it could apply there, too): There are people who want hard-and-fast rules of life to be set down for them, and who say they live by those rules, and then there are people who view every situation as different, and who consider what it must be like to live in another person's shoes before passing moral judgment-- who live life as it comes to them, in all its complexity (I guess in reality we're all a little of both, right?). For some reason that reminds me of what I hope for out of music: What will make for a great record, a great band, varies as much as the infinitude of situations every human being faces every instant every day on the face of this increasingly interconnected planet. Don't take anything a pretentious blowhard like me says as gospel. Listen to your heart, make it happen, do your best, have a great summer, stay cool, achieve your dreams and stuff, shantih shantih shantih whatever and ever amen. In short: Just do it.