Kevin Cenepa asks:
If you are a solo artist with quite a few songs, what should be the next step? Recording first, or trying to play gigs and eventually recording after gigging for a while?
There are two primary activities in the music business, performing and recording. In this age of low cost digital record production there is a huge temptation to put the cart before the horse. Everybody with a mac, a mic , and a tune in his head does not automatically become a talented recording engineer because he can boot up Pro tools. Listening to ten thousand records doesn't make one a great record producer. Novice songwriters should be reminded constantly that every song they write is not a crystal tear from the eye of Zeus. And, every record they make is not an audio masterpiece destined to scream up the pop charts spraying fame and fortune in its wake.
The one true thing is music publishing and the single source of all popular music is great songs. There are many reasons that contribute to a record becoming a hit and there is a primary reason they fail. Most records fail because the song was poorly crafted and lacked one or more of the three "Ms" of songwriting. A great song is a meticulously crafted balance of melody, meter and message. The crafting of these elements into an esthetically pleasing, reproducible work of art is not about the writing, but the rewriting. It is extremely rare for a composition to reach its final form in real time. Most hit songs are assembled slowly from bits and pieces of phrases and notes that are moulded into a theme and carved to reveal a story.
Young songwriters with extensive repertoires should begin their careers by performing their material before live audiences. The starting point is in front of a mirror. Perform your songs for thousands of hours until you are totally immersed in every lick and every lyric. Careful attention should be paid to every detail of how one moves and what is spoken before and after a song is performed. This is show business and nothing should be taken for granted. The attention and respect of an audience has to be earned; and it is not always awarded. Sometimes the patrons will totally ignore the act on stage. When the volume goes up they just talk louder. Stopping to listen is a choice and the goal of the artist is to seduce the reluctant listener with the music.
The artistic quality of the material is what draws a room full of people to surrender to the performance. The audience reaction to any given tune establishes what is working and what is not working about each particular song. Repetition is the grind stone of perfection. The more times a song is performed live the more polished it becomes. The changes that evolve in the composition are subtle and the balance intricate. The words must be forged to the music and the tempo perfected. Through this process the many facets of a song are blended to complete the final arrangement.
When the repertoire of songs is buffed, polished and perfected the recording process can begin. This doesn't mean one shouldn't produce work records during the songwriting phase. Hearing the material as it is being created certainly helps evaluate the end result and it can demonstrate what works and what doesn't. Turning a finished song into a master recording is another arduous process that requires patience and skill. There are thousands of manipulations and techniques that can be applied to alter the quality and content of sound. A new artist cannot be expected to know all of them. This is where trial and error, experience and talent come into play.
Musicians in pursuit of enduring careers in The Music Renaissance must master many skills. Survival is the first level of success. If you can make a living creating and performing music, without having to hold a day job, you have reached the first plateau. In order to accomplish this you must control all the income streams. If an artist writes the songs, produces the records and performs the material in the live arena he is well on his way to survival. The symbiotic relationship between live performing and marketing music and merchandise to music fans provides the engine of the artist's business model. Drawing a crowd to a given venue, bonding with them and selling them recorded and branded merchandise is the game.
There is a gravity imposed by the status-quo that makes this pursuit difficult. Winning is about providing entertainment in a forceful manner that incites an audience to identify with the act. A willing fan supports an act by buying tickets, records, t-shirts, posters and whatever else an artist's dignity will allow him to endorse. A good show will bring fans back for more, and if it is really great they will bring their friends, again and again. If an act can become a dominant musical force in its home town, it can spread that popularity far and wide.
The invisible ingredient is talent. A bad song, poorly sung and weakly presented won't build a career. The audiences are sophisticated and know what they like. Polish your material by performing it live, then record it well and sell it to your fan base. That is the process that each new artist must follow and duration is the goal. If you are still making your living from music twenty years from now, you will have proven the point. And, you will probably be rich and famous. Start now, work hard and move your career forward every day. Evolve a clear vision of your short and long term goal structure; nurture it with imagination, passion and action. Most importantly, never give up.