You are what you eat,
You sound like what you listen to!
When we first start playing music we do it purely out of passion; we stay up late playing guitar on the edge of our bed or sing that crazy vocal run over and over until we’ve finally nailed it! We have music inside of us that we can’t wait to get out.
We put in the work to learn our instruments, write freely from the heart, and ideas pour out of us.
But where do the ideas come from? What shapes our sound?
It’s the albums & songs you played endlessly on your bedroom floor.
That music you heard throughout your life, but especially growing up, that is now embedded in you. It was your input and it became your OUTPUT. I’m sure some of your first songs sounded almost like copies of the artists you listened to growing up, I know mine did...sorry Pantera. And though you’ve (hopefully) grown past copying other people's songs you still sound like what you listen to. In short: You are what you eat.
Which brings me to this next point, I work with a lot of songwriters, artists, & producers that want to make a living doing what they love (aka music) -- which I love because I too have been able to “make a living” with music for a while now.
But what does that phrase mean exactly... FOR A LIVING?
“For a living” means as a job. It means we have to serve a market so people pay us for our art or we have to find a market that’s already looking for what we’re creating. Wondering ‘where are all the progressive, folk, EDM, ska music fans and WHY can’t I find them!?’ No? Only Me?
“For a living” takes you from being an artist, joyfully creating whatever comes into your head (which is a result of your influences & your personal taste), to being a business, and if you want to have a successful business you have to serve a market. Which means it becomes no longer about you.
Personally, I think it’s easier to look for what’s needed and then fill in the gap. If you listen to ads/commercials or promos for HBO, you’ll notice a common thread amongst the music being synced there. It’s modern, it’s edgy, it’s fresh, and probably doesn’t sound like the music you grew up listening to or even the music you listen to now.
So if we want to do this as a job we have to ask the question:
How do we write for the market? The answer: study what’s working!
I’m sure you’ve heard the term ‘reference track’, but in case you haven’t, a reference track is a song you use as inspiration for your own track. Whether that’s in writing, production, or mixing style, it’s a guide you can use to inform your own song creation. Which, by the way, is great market research! We can literally go and find music that’s achieving the success we want & study it! When I am producing or writing a song in a specific genre I listen to a playlist on repeat for at least a day before diving in. This helps to arm my pallette with the proper tools to create!
Let’s say, for example, you want your music in an iPhone commercial. Your first step would be to find a reference track. I don’t mean just pull up the reference track, listen to it, and then go back to business as usual. DISSECT IT. Listen to it on repeat and reverse engineer it so you know how to make a track like that for yourself!
If you can recreate that track (just like you covered your favorite bands in middle school), you can write something in the same vein that can achieve similar success! And as an added bonus, your artistry will add that unique twist that gives the song its own flare!
Which once again brings me back to my point, you are what you eat! You have already listened to your favorite music for years now, it’s already in you. You don’t even have to think about it. That’s why you have to add these new reference tracks that correlate with the success you want - whether that's a Top 40 hit or a folky song for an indie documentary, it has to become a part of your new tool belt.
**TOUGH LOVE WARNING**
Once you decide you want to go into business, it’s no longer about you. Meaning specifically: what you love, what you like, what you’re naturally good at, etc...It’s no longer about you. Once you're in business it’s about the consumer and if you’re going for things like commercials, Top 40 radio, sync, or even pitching your songs to artists to get cuts, you have to know what is current and what is working!
Your responsibility as an entrepreneur is to know your market and before you say, “but Kris, if I copy what’s on the radio I’m just selling out! Or I’m already following a trend that’s over and it’s too late for me.”
*adjusts hipster glasses*
I totally get that, I used to only be into B sides and obscure stuff too.
I used to be too cool for school, too ‘artistic’ to ‘sellout’ and write catchy shit. I still love Led Zeppelin, Heart, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Pantera, Metallica, and old school underground hip hop. But one day I realized that if I wanted to make this a job I had to stop being selfish and demand the world pay me for what I want to make since I like it. Because, maybe they don’t. So I started studying modern music & modern pop. And guess what?
I fell in love with it.
Maybe I had brainwashed myself into it, but somehow now it doesn’t feel like a chore. I listen to current music because now I think it’s SO COOL; The new production trends & songwriting hooks are magic! What’s even cooler is when I go to write you can still hear my rock, hiphop, and jazz influence! When I do a track, it doesn’t sound like a knock off of some pop track I’m trying to copy, I bring my own unique sound & flavor which is STILL embedded in me from my influences.
Trust me when I say this, every industry person I’ve ever talked to wants one thing -- whether it’s a label or sync agency, they always give the same answer:
“I want something that sounds like everything else, but doesn’t sound like anything else.” (Real helpful Joe Schmoe from whatever publishing company.)
You should still make songs that come from unfiltered passion, and you don’t always have to follow the rules & trends. BUT this is your chance to write for the market, insert your own unique artistry on top to help you STAND OUT, and turn music into a living! We don’t want to be soundalikes, we just want to see what’s working and use that as our roadmap.
The reality is - making music into a job takes more than just doing what you wanna do. It’s a business, BUT It’s a business you can put your own musical magic into.
Remember: YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT
So consume the music that has the success you want.
I hope you got a little bit of something out of this, sorry for the hard love. I do it because I love you.