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About fifty times a day, I get asked, “How does my band get coverage in your magazine?” It’s not an easy question to answer (which is why you’ll frequently find me hiding in the corner, or curled up in the fetal position under my desk to avoid such interactions), but there’s one thing that I’ve been saying to more and more artists seeking coverage, who, quite frankly, we have no intention of covering. And it’s simply this: “Your record was not memorable.”
That’s it. Harsh? Probably. But in this industry, I’ve had more bands thank me for my honesty than get pissy because I said we weren’t gonna cover them. I think what happens too often is people (especially those who write fluffy articles geared towards “aspiring artists” – which, can we all agree, is a bullshit term?) are way too coddling to musicians, pretending that every artist has merit, talent, and the ability to make a career as a musician.
Unfortunately, reality dictates that just isn’t true. Of the hundreds of new records we get sent each week, only about 25% are what I’d consider “good” (read: worth another spin) and maybe that’s being generous sometimes. That’s the truth, sorry. The rest of what we get sent (either by physical mail or through email) is simply not very good. And we’re not going to lie about it. Maybe the musicians aren’t that talented, the songs are uninspiring, or (worst case scenario) they don’t have any business being in bands and realistically, they should not probably pursue a career as a musician.▼ Article continues below ▼
So, what’s my point? Of that percentage that piques our interest, only a small percentage is truly memorable. I’m talking records that engage you to the point where they start showing up in your regular rotation. Records that make us want to go out and interview the band, and spend our money each month printing and distributing copies of the mag with feature-length articles on them because we just have to tell the world about them and their art.
The rest of that crop is good, not great, but ultimately shows promise. And that’s who I want to speak to in this article. The group of bands putting out good records, who could be putting out GREAT records. Records that people fucking remember, and tell their friends about. And if there’s one thing I’ve noticed about separating the good from the great, it’s that it sometimes comes down to the performance captured on tape (or digital, or whatever you gall-dern kids are using these days when you’re not busy trespassing on my lawn).
What I mean by that is that many times, I can hear the potential when a great song is brought down by just an “okay” recording. And that’s the worst bummer of all. That makes me more upset than listening to a shitty album. Listening to a record that could have been amazing, had great songs on it but uninspired or uninteresting performances — that just infuriates me.
The classic example I like to give is the track “Suspect Device” by Stiff Little Fingers (and I’m sure you’ve heard me talk about this before). One of my all-time favorite songs. And by songs, I mean the actual underlying composition – the lyrics, the melody, the chord changes. Great stuff. But if you listen to the single version, it’s completely boring (compare both versions below). A waste of vinyl and a waste of a great song. An utterly forgettable rendition when compared to the album cut. Whoever made them record another version for the LP was a genius, because they must have slapped some sense into the band and forced them to deliver a better performance on the next go. The LP cut of “Suspect Device” is everything the 45 should have been: it’s punchy, it’s gutsy, it’s passionate, it’s completely and 100% unforgettable.
But it’s not just about showing passion. Not every song is gonna demand a flat-out exhausting performance like “Suspect Device.” In fact, just yelling into the mic because you think it somehow conveys passion is just as bad, if not worse, than a dull rendition of a track that should have that feeling on it.
I present to you Exhibit B: Rakim. Now, Rakim is one of my favorite rappers of all-time. In fact, on any given day, he might be my favorite. But go back and listen to those first few Eric B. & Rakim records. Really listen to his delivery. Here’s a man (well, teenager, really) who is so ridiculously in command of his delivery and performance that he doesn’t need to shout. He doesn’t need to be loud, in-your-face or inject a falsified passion into his flow. Despite his deceptively laid-back delivery, Rakim owns, and subsequently destroys, all of hip-hop by his unflinching command of the microphone. One listen to “Lyrics of Fury” will wear you out. It’s the most devastating four minutes of lyrical prowess in hip-hop’s golden age, and it’s the difference between a bomb exploding and a bottle rocket fizzing out. And Rakim pulls it off without breaking a sweat. Now that’s a recording you’ll remember forever.
I can’t teach you that “X-Factor” that everyone claims is part of all superstardom’s formula for success. There are just gonna be those handful of artists who, for whatever reason, have “it” and will make it. But there are also those who have the potential to break through based on memorable recordings (of memorable songs, let’s not forget). I want you to be one of those artists, truly I do.
So, what can you do? Be honest with yourself. Listen back to your current mix. Is it memorable? Is there anything you can be doing differently on this recording that would make the sonic experience (not the song, remember) memorable? A different arrangement? Different instrumentation? A different vocal take or delivery? More aggression? Less aggression? More polish? Less polish? Shorter? Longer? Bigger hook? Sparser drums? More restraint? Faster tempo? Slower tempo? Orchestration? Far-out synths? Think. Try. Experiment. Get feedback. A/B test demos with focus groups you assemble from whoever you can rope into listening to your stuff.
Really give thought to how the music you’re making sounds, not just the songs you’re writing. I can count tons of songs where I loved a cover version better than the original, because the recording was more memorable. I like Leonard Cohen, but if I’m being honest, I like him better as a songwriter than performer. His version of “Hallelujah” is not my bag. Sorry, LC fans. I know that’s blasphemy. But Jeff Buckley (regardless of how overplayed his version has become) killed it in the studio. That performance is ethereal. It’s angelic. It’s otherworldly. It’s something that refuses to leave you after you’ve heard it. You can close your eyes and still hear it playing in your head. Strive for that. And if you’re not there yet, spend some time seriously exploring how you can make the most memorable recording possible if the songs you’re got to work with are already good to start with.
You’d think this would be obvious, but way too often I chat with bands about how they approach the studio, and it’s usually something like, “Well, we wrote the songs, and then everyone laid down their parts and we overdubbed the vocals.” Does that sound like your band? More importantly, does that sound like any thought went into how those songs should sound on record? Come on, you can do better. Sometimes magic can happen that way, sure. Sometimes. But if you expect us (or any magazine or press outlet) to spend our time on your project, don’t you owe it to yourself to give more thought to how you’re going to perform (and yes, it should be a performance, not just a run through of the song) in the studio? I want something more for you, and from you. And you should, too.
Just something to think about for next time…
photo courtesy of Flick user bORjAmATiC. Used under a Creative Commons license.