It happens almost weekly here: A talented artist who simply kills it in live performances finishes his or her long-awaited CD and sends it to us for review. But when I turn the music on, the first thing I notice is not the artist's dynamic voice or great compositions. Instead, what stands out from the get go is depressingly thin, low budget instrumentation, usually featuring electronically-produced sounds that attempt to mimic real instruments. So the artist's otherwise great love song is backed by an ersatz string section created not by violins but by a guy on electronic keyboards. And that popping upbeat tune that is screaming for a horn section? Well, instead it gets an artificially created sound that is to horns what cubic zirconium is to the Crown Jewels.
It happens almost weekly here: A talented artist who simply kills it in live performances finishes his or her long-awaited CD and sends it to us for review. But when I turn the music on, the first thing I notice is not the artist's dynamic voice or great compositions. Instead, what stands out from the get go is depressingly thin, low budget instrumentation, usually featuring electronically-produced sounds that attempt to mimic real instruments. So the artist's otherwise great love song is backed by an ersatz string section created not by violins but by a guy on electronic keyboards. And that popping upbeat tune that is screaming for a horn section? Well, instead it gets an artificially created sound that is to horns what cubic zirconium is to the Crown Jewels. The end result is a fatal miscalculation by the artist and one...big...missed...opportunity.
Often the biggest offenders in this sonic dumbing down are independent artists, both those who came from major label backgrounds (and should know better) and younger artists who are creating their music on a shoestring budget. And budget is usually the unsolicited excuse I hear from them ("Man, I would have loved to have had a Grand Piano on that song, but I could only afford an electric keyboard"). I totally understand the challenge that these artists face in funding a project. But I also understand that they're missing the big picture of their opportunity and are shortchanging their own careers by assuming that there is an acceptable, lower standard that applies to their music; that music consumers are willing to grade on a curve. My kids' soccer league may give everybody a trophy at the end of the season, but the music world is results-based, and consumers absolutely pick winners and losers based on objective quality of the product, with no extra points for hardship.
I've written before about how the explosion of internet distribution and more readily available recording tools have leveled the playing field, allowing independent artists working out of their houses to record and reach music lovers around the world in ways that effectively compete with international major record labels. But the flip side of this egalitarian opportunity is a harsh challenge: If you want to compete with Beyonce or John Legend for a music dollar, you'd better deliver a product that is as good as, or better than, theirs. To consumers, a $10 CD is a $10 CD, and their money will be spent on whatever music sounds best to them. And indie artists, already at a disadvantage in marketing push, have no chance of competing if they're cutting corners on the quality of the instrumentation, production and recording.
Please don't misunderstand: I completely comprehend the challenge of putting out a high quality album, and I have sympathy for artists who are struggling financially to record and release their music; but that sympathy only goes so far. I've seen literally dozens of artists who, without big budgets, have found a way to get the job done right. One of our SoulTracks favorites, Angela Johnson, has issued five albums, each of which sounded full and engaging, with just the right instrumentation (yes, including a horn section) to bring out the best of her compositions and bright voice. More recently I reviewed the new debut album by Nayanna Holley, a Cali-based singer who had her friends and fans contribute through Kickstarter to allow her to record the disc. But you'd never know that from the resulting CD, a beautifully rich affair that allowed her songs to shine, even including a real string section on a couple songs. And when, a few years ago, I recommended P.J. Morton's Emotions everywhere I went, I did so knowing that I was talking to people who would intuitively compare the overall quality of the self-released disc to music issued by Sony or Concord or EMI, just as they should.
What distinguishes Angela, P.J. or Nayanna (or dozens of top tier indie soul singers) from many other artists? While all three are talented, it isn't just their talent that sets them apart. In each case, they understand both their musical vision and the importance of how they project themselves to their audience (see our L. Michael Gipson's essays on Being A Star Before You're a Star). No doubt that there is a wall standing in front of each independent artist who wants to execute on a grand musical vision. Often the difference
between success and failure is cleverly finding a way to climb that wall rather than apologetically asking for the wall to be lowered. Each artist who has conquered that wall has his or her own story, but often it involves taking a little more time, working with a strong network of talented friends, bartering services (e.g., if you play sax on my song, I'll sing background on yours) or just asking for favors in order to ultimately put all the needed pieces together to make a professional album.
For those artists who don't have the network to put those pieces together, they need to find them. As one commentator told me, "You can't know the right people if you aren't in the right circles. Are you hanging out at open mics and networking with other artists? Getting to know folks at local studios and consulting with them for their recommendations? Looking into community theater and local choirs for the kinds of creatives that can provide background singers or know people who know people? If you're not in a music school - which is the ideal place to create the kinds of professional relationship you'll rely on for the rest of your life - you have to be strategic about your relationship building in unconventional ways, to know who can play your chords right and possibly on the cheap."
In the end, the message to artists is pretty clear: The world is open to your music in a way now that simply didn't exist a decade ago, and the opportunities are intoxicating. But like the underdog team in the movie Hoosiers, even if you get to the championship game there will be no special treatment for you -- you have to play good enough to win. Don't waste this opportunity or shortchange your career by putting out a product that comes with asterisks. Better to release a great single or EP than a mediocre album. If you have the talent and the musical vision, invest the time, creativity and available resources to make sure that the product you release is consistent with that vision and is something of which you're 100% proud. It is not only the way to scratch your itch without regrets, it also gives you the best chance to reach an audience that rightfully won't lower its standards to listen to your life's work.
By Chris Rizik (November 2012)