Saturday, May 23, 2020

Miniscule Following: Where to Go from Here? Self-Assessment May Reveal Insight

It’s cheap and easy for almost anyone to make music on a computer where they live, then put it on the web for people to stream.  Confusion about terms like indie, DIY, lo-fi, and bedroom pop aside, we’re all aware it’s possible to “go viral” which can catapult an unheard-of artist to instant popularity.  We’ve heard it can be lucrative.  If accidental, it’s usually a really catchy melody with relatable lyrics from a young person with a great voice who looks good.  If it’s more of a slowly-building, steady-growth situation,  maybe there was some investment in promotion along the way.

Breaking through the noise of all the home recording musicians out there now is a huge challenge.  The average music consumer might not realize traditional record labels will spend a ton of money to “break” an artist.  In today’s changed music business, if anyone is going to invest in helping to break you, they want some assurances it will be a good investment, understandably.  What do those assurances entail, one might wonder? 

You have to show proof of things like:
An interesting backstory
Evidence of being “on the verge”
A popularity trajectory
Lots of existing fans, “fan engagement”
Lots of existing streams
Lots of likes and follows on social media
Lots of subscribers
An appealing web site and online presence
A strong “brand”
Press attention in blogs, news, magazines
Self-generated internet buzz
Radio airplay
Film/TV placements
A marketing plan
Drawing live performance crowds

How do I rate my current situation?  Undeterred by a lack of success, and still trying to write and record great songs.  Like most creatives, not excited to self-promote.  Like many songwriters, not excited to "pitch" songs to famous artists, but would love to be able to boast "cuts".  No real press clippings to boast about at all, no email mailing list subscribers to boast about at all.  No live performances (caveat:  in the novel Corona/Covid age, playing field levelled) at all.  Still chasing the dream of writing really good songs, still haven’t yet (arguably).  No radio play, no idea how to achieve this.  No film/TV placements due to the DIY sound quality.  Still trying to improve on my home recording ability to achieve better sound quality.  A poor physical appearance due to being old and overweight – hence, intentionally not a lot of pro photos of myself out there, and no videos featuring me. 

Overall, just some old fat white guy in Michigan who can’t sing very well who likes to think he can write and record interesting songs in his house in his spare time.  Would love it if some famous major label artist would record one of my songs and it would become popular, which would then spur other artists to want to do more of the same.  More of a songwriter than a solo artist.  Not out to get famous, but would love more popularity and appreciation of the recorded output.  Secretly hoping the slowly-building discovery and appreciation will ramp up a bit, despite the reality that the style is almost the total opposite of what is popular these days!

I find myself in 2020 to be someone who has a catalog of released albums that is larger than most famous major label artists, a musical artist without youth, looks, professional videos & photographs, or a great singing voice on my side, a prolific songwriter/recording artist who doesn’t perform, a solo artist who has a really small following by fans who buy and/or stream my music on the world wide web, an independent musician who does everything myself without help from anyone.  When you find yourself in such a situation, the glass half empty part of yourself might advise you to be realistic and find another passion, but the glass half full part of yourself might advise you to keep at it because a following and some sales translates to success, however miniscule it might be.  So far, I go with the half-full approach, refusing to give up, while admitting the harsh realities of my abilities, talents, and skills. 

I'm happy to continue to hope it takes a long time to infiltrate people's attention spans for discovering new music like mine, let my music slowly seep into getting recommended via playlists and word of mouth, let it percolate down into more people's music consumption habits over the long haul.  It is highly likely it's all a pipe dream, and after I'm dead and gone, there will be no trace evidence that I ever put new music into the world at all.  I'm cool with that.  Maybe self-assessment can help me narrow down what it is I like about making music.  Maybe you can identify and relate to my self-assessment:

Marketer/Publicist:  Self-promotion is something I have no talent for or desire to do, not wanting all the negative things fame and celebrity would bring, yet still wanting increased awareness and sales of my music, having no budget for such things whatsoever, while remaining unwilling to do anything that would help like losing weight, getting dressed up for pro photos/videos, pitching, networking, playing live, seeking publicity, or advertising, happiest doing absolutely none of these aforementioned things.
Performer:  Not bad with stage presence despite lack of confidence in singing, like the applause and attention as everyone does, realize it’s not as fun as songwriting and recording, happy to have the ability and some experience, but choosing to not ever do it very much at all.
Singer:  Not naturally gifted at all, no formal training, realize training and practice likely won’t help much, happy to be able to record own lead & backing vocal tracks on own songs and have them pass as real singing, just not very good singing.
Instrumentalist:  Possibly a little bit naturally gifted, no formal training, not willing to put in the time, money and effort for lessons and practice, realize playing in a band would mean focusing on getting really good at one instrument, happy to be self-taught and adequate at playing several different instruments, able to make multi-track recordings myself to sound like a full band.
Producer/Engineer/Recording Artist:  Possibly a little bit naturally gifted, no formal training, self-taught via experimentation, happy to be able to make my ideas of how I imagine a completed song become a reality.
Songwriter:  Possibly naturally gifted, self-taught in the craft via listening closely to songs I like, can begrudgingly do it on assignment, enjoy it more than any other creative endeavor, possibly a little better with lyrics than melody, happy to be able to do it, but only when the urge strikes.

So, there.  I did it.  I self-assessed the main aspects of music I’ve undertaken.  What did I learn?  I guess it helped me to be honest with myself in thinking about and typing those, and although it confirmed what I already knew, the act of writing it down is an act of being realistic about it, and then to know the areas in which I could enlist pro help if I ever had extra money laying around.  Even more profound is as a result of this little exercise in this little blog post, I wonder if I would hire pros at all - even if I hit the lotto and had plenty of time & money suddenly to help with things like marketing.  I might still choose not to market and secretly just continue to hope I accidentally get popular or magically go viral somehow, but who knows?  You don’t know what that’s like ‘till you’re in that situation.  I know I wouldn’t want the pressure of a loan I’d have to pay back via endless touring like a record company would offer, that’s for sure.  There’s a satisfaction in doing it all myself, but it’s also overwhelming at times. 

I said you can’t be great at everything, but well, Paul McCartney can write beautiful, timeless melodies literally in his sleep, can play a lot of instruments well, can sing well, is a great performer, and is still a way above-average lyricist, so he’s a popular artist who is a rare exception in that he appears to actually be good at everything.  Bob Dylan is a great lyricist, is perhaps underrated at writing melodies, can play several instruments competently, but you wouldn’t ever list him as a great vocalist, and you probably wouldn’t find very many people who say he’s pleasantly appealing as a singer or performer for that matter.  He can sing though, and does in fact sing.  I’m a lot closer to Bob than Paul, no doubt, but dare I even compare myself to either in any way?  Well, I just did, so I’m bold.  Why not, I say.  The drastic difference in the size of the fanbase shouldn’t prevent a comparison.  Any combination of strengths and weaknesses can result in mass appeal.

Another grand revelation of this honest self-assessment is that maybe I’m a little too self-deprecating, rating myself lower than I should, and not accounting for how big an accomplishment it is to be able to teach yourself to do all these things I’ve done.  I should be prouder, and not be afraid to reveal it.  On the other hand, glass half empty self is chiming in that maybe hidden in my self-assessment is a bit of inherent humble-bragging I secretly hope will be revealed by reading between the lines and looking at the overall accomplishments by the astute readers among you.  That would require a pro shrink to help me decide…which is another thing I’ve never been willing to pay for. 

I am proud that I can figure out a lot of things on my own without anyone’s help, including how to stay fairly sane, and how to write and record a bunch of acoustic rock songs that don’t just sound kind of like real songs, they actually are real songs, and they’re pretty damned good.  What else have I learned?  Don’t be afraid to state your opinion of the music you come up with, be both honest about your weakness and strengths.  Stick to your instincts to please yourself with your involvement in music, do the parts you enjoy that make you happy, and don’t stop because you’re not popular….yet!  Not giving up the dream is the same as living the dream.  I like to pretend there are real people out there who are either songwriter/home recording hobbyists like me, or who are simply fans of my music, who might enjoy reading about my random thoughts like this about the hobby and/or craft – whatever you call this thing that I like to do.  Hopefully some of the imaginary people I envision who read this blog will find this post to be inspiring in some way.