Remember when the Internet was convinced that Ben Folds was spending his days playing piano on Chatroulette? Only he wasn’t! And now we know why — he’s been too busy crafting his advice manifesto for young artists.
Yes, this morning a friend forwarded me a link to Ben Folds’ nearly 2000 word treatise, “To aspiring musical artists who have time to read this stuff.” It’s actually filled with some pretty good advice for any type of artist. In fact, I’ve already sent the link to a couple of non-musician friends already. I wanted to try to edit this thing down to 800 words or so, but then decided to turn back on the idea because I thought doing so wasn’t doing it justice. It should read at its fullest, I think. Anyway…
I’m often asked for advice to aspiring musicians and I’m just immature enough to take a stab at it on this flight to Boston. Really, I’m not dead sure of any of this, but here goes… if nothing else, maybe I’m thinking aloud – stuff that I need to remember for myself. Forgive any perceived tone of all-knowingness. It just comes out that way when I’m trying to make sense of it all.
“Take my advice – Don’t Listen To Me” – Neil Young
Point number one, with a bullet …
+ LIKE THEY USED TO SAY ON VH-1: MUSIC FIRST
We talk a lot about how computers and internet have changed and will change music. Usually what people are talking about is the distribution of music and not music itself. That’s not really something an aspiring musician should be all overly concerned with. It may become important for you to be savvy about distribution and promotion, but it won’t do you any good if you’re not making music first.
I realize the big question for most aspiring musical artist is how to get your break. There isn’t really a break. It’s a lot of different breaks, some good and some bad. There will be significant lucky opportunities that you may or may not recognize as such. It’s not an exact science and the landscape is constantly morphing. Advice on how to ‘make it’ is dubious business. I do believe that if you’re not ready musically, the best opportunity in the world isn’t even an opportunity.
++ WORK DILIGENTLY TO FIND YOUR VOICE
“Everything I’m not made me everything I am” – Kanye West
Finding your Voice takes a lot of frustrating time. That’s a painful period that all artists go through, sometimes more than once. I think that most artists don’t want to admit that period ever existed. We all like to pretend we came out special and it all just magically happened. You will eventually find that it takes no effort to just be yourself, but the road to that place can be long and rough. The truth is that most artists would not want you to see the evolution of their Voice. It would be very embarrassing. Imitating your heroes, trying on ill advised affectations. It’s all part of the trip. It’s why all those Before They Were Stars footage is so cringe worthy. Nobody wants to be seen in that light and so successful musicians do the new generation a disservice by denying their shady artistic past. I for one, will do my best to cover my tracks because I don’t want anyone seeing that sh*t!
My earliest attempts at singing were painfully affected. I tried to sound like a singer. I gave that up and played in bands with ‘real singers’. This was in my late teens and early to mid twenties. I would write a song and coach the singers to perform it the way I heard it. While I couldn’t put my finger on why my singing sucked I found that I more easily identified the fake ass singer affectations in others and would encourage them to straighten up the delivery, as if they were sing speaking. As I heard myself coaching them on rehearsal tapes, I heard the Voice that would bring my songs to life. It took no real effort just to be me but it took some time and effort to realize that. We have to learn that we have no control over who we are musically but we do have the choice to be that or to try and be some other motherf*cker. The latter is a lot of work.
The thing about writing is that there’s such a narrow language that is used in conventional songwriting in any era. I enjoy putting an instructions manual to music, for instance, to see what it feels like to operate outside the conventional lexicon and cadence. Even putting sentiments in your own words, as if it were an email, can be quite un-pop and awkward when paired with music. For me, Awkward = Freedom. Whatever you find that emancipates you from that narrow slice of currently acceptable pop vernacular and pacing might be your freedom. Unless! You’re one of those people who just think Rock. They exist. Then you’re a Freedom Rocker, one of the proud and few. I’m just a Freedom Nerd, but that could always change.
+++ TECHNIQUE AND FORGET ABOUT IT
Be schooled in form and technique as much as you can swallow and abandon it when you feel it’s nearly killed you. Know how people did it before you. Play covers and have respect for the mastery of what came before. It will make you suck for a while. Any gains you make as a musician, especially technically generally have the side effect of rendering you unfocused for a short period of time. Basically, you can expect to play and write like a goober for a while when digesting concepts. Then it sinks in and you come out of the haze, stronger with a broader palette, sharper pen and more confidence.
++++ FOR GOD’S SAKE, PLEASE TRY TOO HARD!
How many times do we say or hear “they’re trying tooooo hard!” I say, try try and try again but just put the effort into the right things. That’s probably the basis of good musical technique. Intense effort, focused into what it takes to express. All other muscles, thoughts and effort needn’t be recruited. Work what it takes to be “in it” and send everything else home. That’s tough. For instance, when playing a scale you don’t want your other fingers rigid and pointing up to the ceiling. When you’re singing, you don’t want a clenched jaw. It’s a waste of your effort. Paddle like a freak beneath it to keep it afloat but don’t wear yourself out paddling against your own team. Same with your artistry. Don’t spend effort on crap like… well, being cool. It’s a killer. It takes effort to appear as if you don’t care. What a waste. By the same token, don’t feel you have to beat every note into people’s heads and be Guy Smiley all the time. Just make music and have good manners. Training yourself to relax unnecessarily recruited muscles, tendencies, thoughts – it’s effort in itself.
+++++ NOBODY IS VOTING FOR YOU IN NOVEMBER
You’re not a politician, you’re an artist. We break artistic promises constantly because every moment is different and new and the job of the artist is to surf that. We change our minds. You’re allowed. David Bowie was allowed. Madonna was allowed. We are a profession of flip floppers. Ch-ch-ch change when you feel it.
You can’t make people like you. You just can’t. You can’t make people who won’t understand your music, understand your music. Effort spent trying to win votes steals from energy needed for pure expression. You will probably begin your career by promoting yourself on some level sans management or label. Embark upon said career understanding this: Promotion is not about swaying people’s musical taste, or altering your music to fit a theoretical audience. It’s about taking the music you naturally make and finding it’s home.
ON ONE HAND… You may soon find you’ll be praised for being you. Be willing to wake up tomorrow and not be ‘that guy’ that people clapped for. Keep an open mind to the distinct possiblity that you might be moving on. Be willing to release your audience and yourself. Don’t try actively to do evolve, just be willing. Some are going to like the way you did it yesterday but they can always relive the magic by listening to your old recordings. When you made those recordings you were likely discovering something in the process. Doing it again is the empty repetition void of discovery. Charting new territory often sounds more like the ‘old you’ simply because it has the element of discovery. The style may be quite different.
As Robert, Darren and I were getting into recording the new record, we realized that imitating our early selves would be instant death. We didn’t know what the hell we were doing when we started and that’s part of what made it what it was. So we set out into the unknown in some way with each song. The irony is that the record reminds me most of our first record now.
ON THE OTHER HAND… You will often find yourself being flogged for being you. That’s tough but take some solace in knowing that you’re on the right track. You’re hitting a nerve and that’s why people might bother to beat you up some. Anyway, the beater uppers don’t really stop to think about the human behind the artist. We’re all guilty of being beater uppers from time to time. If you’re being used as a standard, take that as a compliment – I’ve been slow to realize this. An artist on any level is a symbol to people who will never know them personally. Human nature is to express who we are by sometimes exalting or trashing an artist. Being either symbol is a service so just appreciate that someone is working their little thing out somewhere by taking it out on the symbol that is you or your music crap. Punching bags probably keep people off meds.
You can never control what’s in or out of style. When you’re lucky, your ideas and your style are in. You find your first success when your style is in style. Then, it might recede sometimes. Recently anger went out of style in music and I was apprised of this upon releasing a rather sarcastic record. I felt like a jackass. That record was not quite what most people wanted to hear or feel and maybe it will never be. The actual music wasn’t really being criticized – I was personally criticized. Criticism that gets personal invalidates itself, so I shouldn’t have let it bother me. Remind me not to do that again. If only a few people cathartically connected to that album (many did), I should have stuck by my guns. I should have said, yeah I was kind of pissed and I made the most of it by writing about it, pounding a piano and making some jokes. It’s called expression. One constant about the music business in any era is that the first people to buy your new album do so because they liked your last record. It hurts to disappoint them out of the gate but sometimes you have to. Eventually they’ll get over it and those who connected will be grateful that you bothered.
In some cases, parts of your audience will grow WITH you. If you try to second guess all of this and keep your audience, you will lose them instead.
Likewise, avoid engaging in public criticism of other artists. In fact, don’t waste your time doing it in private if possible. You’ll just embarrass yourself in the long run and put nasty energy out there that comes back. You’ll engage in creative bullying. Nobody needs to be told what they can’t do. If they can’t do, they’ll find out. Lift your standing if you must by the quality of your work but not by pushing somebody else down. If for no other reason, it can stifle your own work as you succumb to the idea that there are rules of what sucks and doesn’t suck. It’s like letting praise get to your head. If you allow that stuff in, you’ll also allow the ugly comments in. Contradiction number seven hundred a forty two: Your success depends on what people think… and you’re not supposed to care? That’s right and good luck.
Wow. How’s that for advice. Should I try and be more specific? I hope any of this makes sense. It’s the best I can do on the plane.
Again no corrections or reading of this. It’s a stream of blog.
Finally, here’s something I learned from Ben Folds’ Wikipedia page: he’s been married four times. So if you see him giving relationship advice anywhere on the web, run away.