Tips from the Independent Producer: Sound Different
Full disclosure: I have an adventurous and wide-ranging sonic palate, as a producer and also as a listener. It’s probably a product of when I grew up. Every song on the radio when I was a kid sounded pretty wildly different from every other song. This was thrilling to ten-year-old me; I spent hundreds of hours transfixed in front of the radio, wondering exactly how each otherworldly combination of sounds had been achieved. It was mind-blowing. Every song—and, by extension, every artist—had a distinct and unique personality, as expressed via its sonic imprint.
That’s a bit of context for today’s observation: I see a phenomenon constantly with up-and-coming artists, wherein they are very concerned with emulating very precisely a particular style or sound or textural palette (or, worst of all, a specific artist). I think a lot of really talented songwriters are doing themselves a huge disservice by taking this approach, and so I want to use my space today to encourage songwriters to embrace a spirit of sonic adventuresomeness, both in their live show and, particularly, in their recordings. Here’s why:
If other people are achieving success with a certain sound, that means that you have less chance of succeeding with that same sound, not more.
I was at a party a couple weeks ago, and I found myself sitting in a group of five female singer-songwriters. This can happen in LA. Anyway, I went around and asked everyone what their sound was. Every answer was some variation on “acoustic something or other.”
If something’s on the radio right now, here’s the thing: It’s already yesterday’s news.
And you know what? Most likely none of their recordings will be listened to by anyone outside of their small core group of supporters, because a) they’re all making similar-sounding recordings, which b) are going to sound like a bunch of other recordings that are already in the marketplace. Tons of people are making acoustic-based recordings right now; acoustic-based music has been really popular for the last few years. Which means that the marketplace is becoming saturated with recordings that all have essentially the same sound.
This observation is by no means limited to acoustic music. There will always be a market for acoustic music. The point is that when you go to a show and all four artists sound basically the same, they’re cannibalizing each other’s markets. Why would I buy each artist’s EP, if they all sound basically the same? Maybe it’s just me, but I’m always looking for the thing that sets itself apart from the pack. I don’t need a record that sounds like another record I already own.
Or, to put it another way: If an artist says to me “My sound is like Matt Nathanson,” my first thought is, “Oh, I should listen to that new Matt Nathanson record!” Because why would I want to listen to a cheap knockoff of an already-popular artist, when I could just go straight to the source?
Or to put it yet another way: The world doesn’t need another Matt Nathanson. The world already has Matt Nathanson. What the world needs is your unique voice.
I was working with a band last year, and we went through this interesting period where they were trying to insist that they wanted some very specific EDM production flourishes in their recordings—drops and so on—because “that’s what’s on the radio right now.” And I understand the impulse. But if something’s on the radio right now, here’s the thing: It’s already yesterday’s news. Audiences don’t want more of the same; they want what’s next. As an artist, you want to be like a wide receiver. You don’t want to be where the ball is now; you want to be where the ball is going to be. If you’re making a record right now, it will be three months minimum before those recordings hits the streets, right? Potentially much longer. And by then all those of-the-moment sounds that you put in your recording will sound badly behind the times. And you don’t want to sound dated, do you?
Also, industry doesn’t want more of what it’s already got. No one at a record label is going to sign someone who sounds exactly like an artist they already have—because they already have the original, and they don’t want to cannibalize their profits.
If you’re thinking of your career like a small business—and you should be—you should be constantly thinking about how to differentiate yourself in a crowded marketplace. What makes your music stand out? A good song isn’t enough. Everyone has a good song or two. What’s going to make people prick up their ears? What’s going to call attention to what you’re doing?
I want to encourage you to figure out a way to differentiate yourself sonically in the marketplace. Get a new guitar pedal and figure out a new dimension to your personal sonic landscape. Hell, get a drum machine. There aren’t any rules! Experiment with some synthesizer sounds in GarageBand. Listen to some dub. Expand your horizons. Making electronic music? Experiment with some acoustic textures. It goes both ways. The point is to push your boundaries. Make something interesting and forward-looking and unique.
You probably have a couple of fantastic songs that deserve to be heard on a wider basis—but if your recordings sound the same as a thousand others, they’re not going to stand out. And you want to stand out. Right?
Good advice. Just out of curiosity–you talk about growing up and listening to all this widely varied music, but you don’t give any examples. When did you grow up? What artists/songs are you talking about?
You’re right about trying to chase musical trends–a hollow, self-defeating pursuit. I find I learn more by looking back–how did they get that slap back at Sun, how are the drums compressed on “A Day in the Life,” how do the guitar and the hi hat work together in this Buck Owens song, etc. These explorations into classic techniques can be very rewarding (I’m a big fan of Mix Magazine’s Classic Tracks section). Recording cultural literacy.
Very well stated Jamie.. It is so easy, especially as a Songwriter, to fall into the trap of trying to write “commercially”, and it is such a buzzkill to the unique voice inside of you. I have been guilty of this, and probably will again, cause I’m smart like that…
Hi Brett and jt, thanks for the comments. Brett, I came of age in the 80s. A magical time for record production. I had certain stuff I bought and listened to at that time of course, but I’m really just thinking about what it was like to turn on the radio. It was a highly heterogenerous experience.
Terrific column. I grew up in the seventies, and I’m appalled when young musicians take, “Wow, you sound almost exactly like such and such a band’s third album” as a compliment. Aping some popular artist’s signature sound simply wasn’t cool.
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