Musician’s Corner: Are You A Critical Listener?
Unfortunately, too many artists and bands really don’t have a clue when it comes to realistically assessing the quality of their recorded music when submitting for airplay, gigs, or general promotion… the following article demystifies what those of us in the biz are really looking, and listening for.
I think many of us take the music we hear on the radio and the internet for granted. We quickly assess whether we like a piece of music or not, giving little regard to amount of work “behind the scenes” that went into getting “the song” out there in the first place. Rarely do songs just end up significant getting airplay by accident. A tremendous amount of work writing, recording, and marketing the music takes place long before we hear it blasting through our speakers. My experience as a musician, manager, and radio producer point to three key components that get immediate attention when listening to or screening new music by an artist or group. If you are submitting music for airplay consideration in any medium, pay close attention to these factors in order:
The first thing that anyone listening to music will notice is the production value. This is the overall sonic quality of a recording. This has everything to do with engineering, production, mixing and mastering. You don’t have to be Mutt Lange or Quincy Jones to tell if a recording has been done well or not. This factor is instantly recognizable within the first 20 seconds or so of listening to a track (more on this later). With all of the technology available today for recording, there is really little excuse for poor audio or production quality. While producing music has become much easier and affordable in recent years, most bands and artists are still better off leaving the engineering and production to a professional who really knows what they are doing.
The second thing that gets listened to is the lead vocal. You simply have to have a very strong lead singer… period. If the singer doesn’t connect with a listener right from the start, the whole song is in jeopardy, at least from the perspective of that listener. “Great” singing is obviously a subjective concept that involves many variables and preferences. Great singing isn’t necessarily limited to those with the best tonality, pitch, or vocal range. It also refers to the emotion, passion, originality, and authenticity a singer brings to a vocal performance. Think about it… have you ever heard a really good or great song that was sung, in your opinion, by a mediocre (or worse) lead singer? How likely are you to return to or purchase that song again for future listening? Very unlikely. On the other hand, many average songs get recorded by great singers and become hits. While it’s true that the song can help the artist; it’s even more true that an artist can hinder a song. Be objective and insist on having great lead vocals.
The third, and arguably the most important part to listen for when screening new music is the songwriting. The reason this is third is only because most musical recordings introduce you to the production quality and lead vocal long before you can assess the actual songwriting merit. This is why most A&R staff or radio program directors will usually listen to a song at least through the first verse and chorus. This is just long enough to assess the production, vocals, and songwriting in that order. If they like what they hear, they will let it play… and probably play the tune again and again. Think about your own music listening habits. When you hear a song you like, do you stop the song in the middle of it or do you play it over and over again? While it’s true that some songs do “grow on you” after several listens, this is usually the exception, not the rule. Psychologically speaking, the songs that have “grown on us” is simply due to the repetition factor wreaking havoc on our brains, and not necessarily due to a song’s overall quality.
So will your music pass the “20 second test”? Many industry pros will tell you that it only takes about 20 seconds or so of listening to most music to get a good idea if it’s gonna fly or not. The production quality usually gives clues about the quality of the rest of the track. If you can’t be objective and honest about the production of your music, chances are you haven’t been objective about the singing or songwriting either. Real honesty and objectivity is missing with most indie music out there. Sad but true. Too many artists and bands get this stuff out of order. For most groups, the focus is often on just existing first; quality and professionalism come later. This is obviously a mistake…a big mistake. Production value can be forgiven and more easily corrected than an average or poor lead vocal. And fortunately, lead singers can be replaced easier than getting someone to write, not just a good, but a great song.
Another observation and comment… Yes it’s important and cool if the musicianship of a group is top notch. You have to have musicians that can play, and can preferably play well. It’s great if the guitar player really shreds and the drummer is out of this world, but these aspects of a band are more important in a live setting than on an actual recording. The fact is that “bands” of musicians can be put together relatively easily at any time to perform live and put on a great show. Those players with excellent chops and superior musicianship skills are capable of quickly replicating most music made. Recording a great track of a great song is a little more difficult however. Technique should never replace feel and emotion… play for the song first, the record second, and ego third.
You have to have a great song with a great and hopefully memorable lead vocalist, competent musicians, and then combine these elements into the creation of a sonically superb recording. Analog or digital recording…? It doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day the question is – did it move you? I believe most people could really care less whether music is recorded on Pro Tools or on two-inch analog tape.
The Bottom Line: If you’re music is not ready to be “released,” then don’t release it… yet. Be a critical listener of your creations. Seek out feedback from objective music fans AND music professionals at the same time. The pros aren’t always the final authority anymore than your manager’s girlfriend is. A healthy combination of both, mixed with honesty and objectivity will do you more good in the long run than folks simply telling you what you want to hear. If you write great songs with strong lead vocals, and then give these songs professional production, you will be ahead of 95% of all other artists and bands out there. So are you interested in standing out from your peers or being just another one of a million bands out there? If you want to be heard, you have to separate yourself from the herd…
For 77 minutes of tips, techniques, and strategies to learn how to market and sell your music more effectively, more often… pick up my Musician’s Corner® New Band Tips audio book on CD HERE or on iTunes.