How to Become a Recording Artist
In this article, we will explore some ways musicians can find their true artistic voice, develop their skills, and become a recording artist.
In our discussion of how to become a recording artist we’ll cover:
- Developing your own style
- Listening to learn
- Analyzing the Greats’ Influences
- Dissecting sound elements
- Stealing instead of borrowing
You turn on the radio and in a nanosecond, you know exactly who it is. Did you ever notice how you just recognize some artists immediately? All it takes is one note to know who’s singing or playing. How does this happen? Could you develop this trait in your own performing? Is it possible to sound like yourself and like no one else? Should you imitate the sound of those musicians you admire? Can you try to sound really original?
Sometimes you hear a musician who sounds an awful lot like someone else. You may even be fooled for a minute. (I remember the first time I heard Stevie Ray Vaughan, I thought it was Jimi Hendrix.) There are some artists who become well-known for their ability to copy the sound of another artist or play in the exact same style. Others are so unique they defy any categorization or comparisons with others. Each and every artist has their own unique artistic voice, whether or not they have learned to express it.
This won’t happen by accident. If you talk to the artists or read their words, they’ll describe the deliberate steps and processes they used to find their own “sound.” While each artist finds his or her own ways, the goal is the same. The ultimate achievement is to sound like yourself and no one else. To have a recognizable and unique sound is an important differentiator and an asset in the music industry. Artists rely on this differentiation to market themselves in a crowded field. By definition, you need to be “different” to have appeal. Record labels don’t sign people who sound like someone else, because that person and sound already exist. Everybody is looking for that “new” and “unique” sound. it’s so difficult to describe, yet you know it when you hear it. It’s your biggest advantage.
Where to start? Let’s dig a little deeper and explore some perspectives. As with other aspects of music, we can use our creativity and intellect to reach a deeper understanding of how you can find your unique musical voice. And remember that nobody else can ever sound exactly like you.
The Difference Between Stylists vs. Innovators
Throughout history, there have been musicians who were dissatisfied with their previous work or refused to repeat it. These artists constantly tried to find new sounds and approaches to creating music. In jazz, trumpeter Miles Davis once remarked that he couldn’t play ballads anymore because he “loved them too much.” This was after he had released several very successful albums of ballads but then all of a sudden stopped playing ballads. His cryptic comment, in reply to a Music Journalist who was interviewing him on the subject, was interpreted to mean that he was moving on to something new since he had already done his best work on ballads.
Indeed, Miles was never content to repeat himself, and in pushing the jazz idiom in new and exciting directions he continuously innovated new styles which then influenced countless musicians who followed him. Other innovators in jazz: Thelonious Monk (piano, Composer), John Coltrane (saxophone), Charlie Parker (saxophone), Duke Ellington (piano, Composer), Jaco Pastorius (electric bass), and Ella Fitzgerald (vocals). Innovators are always breaking new ground and pushing past boundaries of style and form. In this way, they cement their status as legends and remain instantly recognizable when you hear them.
Not everyone can be an innovator. Styles must become established and refined through a natural course of development. Once an innovation has happened, we need others to interpret the new style and show its meaning in relation to what came before and what is happening now. Frank Sinatra comes to mind as the consummate stylist, along with the other members of the Rat Pack: Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. Their singing style, sometimes called “crooners” defined the (male) vocal popular jazz idiom through the 1950s and 1960s. Sinatra had a career lasting many decades, yet early Sinatra doesn’t sound much different from late Sinatra. He found a style that worked well for him and stuck with it. Other stylists: Oscar Pettiford (piano), Hoagy Carmichael (Songwriter), Nat King Cole (piano and vocals), Kenny Burrell (guitar), and Sarah Vaughan (Vocalist). Stylists contribute to the musical lexicon by growing the new music’s popularity and showing where the boundaries lie.
There are also artists who fall on a spectrum somewhere in between these extremes. I’ve used jazz as the idiom to illustrate my point about innovators and stylists, but this concept and criteria can readily be applied to pop, classical, or any other musical genre.
In order to sound like your favorite musicians, it makes sense that you should know their influences. Understanding the influences of your own influences is an important and sometimes overlooked step to establishing your own style. Knowing what came before helps you understand your niche, and where you fit within the timeline of your style’s development.
Developing Your Own Style
At the beginning, you should largely ignore the issue of whether you want to be an innovator or a stylist. This advice sounds counter-intuitive, but your first order of business is to master the craft and technique of your instrument (voice is also an instrument) so that you will have the tools you need to express yourself in the idiom you feel most comfortable. Malcolm Gladwell famously wrote about the 10,000 Hours Theory in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Firstly, you must devote the time, discipline, and effort to study your instrument, until you reach a point where you can be confident in your skills and abilities. Nailing down all the basics and gaining true proficiency can take some time (10,000 hours, according to Gladwell). At an early stage of learning, it’s fine to be an imitator.
Eventually, we will return to the idea of innovator versus stylist, and you can keep it in the back of your mind. But for now, hone your craft as diligently as you possibly can. It’s important to take yourself seriously as a musician, and this means taking the music seriously, while still having fun, of course. (It’s like the old joke about a man in New York City from out of town who asks another man on the street how to get to Carnegie Hall. The wry New Yorker answers him with one word: practice.)
As you work on your craft, you should study the musical greats in all styles. Many great jazz and also heavy metal musicians were influenced strongly from the Classical and Romantic periods in Western Classical music. Of course, blues and jazz also borrow from the traditions of African, Latin, and World music. The cross-pollination that occurs when you listen outside of your genre helps open your ears and mind to many other types of music which combine to influence your own musical expression. It’s important to pay attention to what came before and to respect and analyze master musicians in as many styles as possible (more on this later). This study is an important step as you begin molding your own unique artistic musical style.
Listening to Learn
As you expose yourself to all these musical influences through recordings, videos, and live concerts, learn to become an active listener. There’s nothing wrong with having music on in the background or to relax while you enjoy yourself at home or at a party, but active listening implies a more focused approach. It means paying special attention to the elements of form, melody, harmony, and rhythm while noticing the arrangements, inflections, embellishments, ornaments, and other devices which, taken together, give each musical example its unique character. Music has the ability to evoke emotions, as does all art. Pay special attention to how a piece of music makes you feel, and try to analyze why and how it accomplishes this. You might listen to a track again and again, or play certain sections of the recording over and over. Or you might choose to listen to a single artist for a while in order to immerse yourself in their style. Active listening is analytical listening.
Active listening is also crucial if you want to really understand and learn from a particular piece of music. Try to choose quality performances to listen to, whether you are learning from recordings or attending a concert or recital. Take the time to research the artist and the composition thoroughly; try to find out everything you can about the history of the music and the performer. Active listening and analysis is just as important as practicing your instrument and learning to play or sing new pieces. While your repertoire is certainly important and you should strive to expand it, it’s wise to put aside time on a daily basis to just sit and listen. It’s part of the process of learning; you should be like a sponge for all the music you hear and let it soak into your being.
Analyzing the Greats’ Influences
As you listen to and analyze the music of truly great musicians, and especially the musicians you love, I recommend going a step further. Do the research to find out who influenced your favorite artists. Everyone was influenced by someone, and there really is “nothing new under the sun” as so many great philosophers (and the Bible) have noted. Make sure you find and listen to the musicians who influenced the artists you like. Then, look for those artists’ influences. Trace the influences back in time as far as you can. Learn to listen carefully for how each artist was influenced by whom they listened to, and notice how the style developed and changed with the times. It might take some effort and ingenuity to learn who influenced your favorite musicians. There might be interviews available where they mention their most important influences. Make sure to write down the names, especially if you haven’t heard of them before, and then go looking for the recordings.
In order to sound like your favorite musicians, it makes sense that you should know their influences. Understanding the influences of your own influences is an important and sometimes overlooked step to establishing your own style. Knowing what came before helps you understand your niche, and where you fit within the timeline of your style’s development. And since uniqueness is a requirement for marketing, this has the additional benefit of helping you find your own audience through proper marketing (see my other articles on this subject). Specifically, your influences’ fans are potentially also your fans.
Transcription is a tried and true method that professionals swear by. Writing down what you hear leads to heightened awareness of all the musical elements: rhythm, feel (groove), melodic and harmonic sense, timbre (tone), dynamics, and articulations.
Dissecting Sound Elements
Up to now, we’ve been discussing how to prepare to find your unique voice through practicing, listening, and analyzing music. It’s counterintuitive to say that you must start by copying others, but this is actually the best way to activate your artistic voice. Beyond mastering musical techniques, there are aspects of style which are similar to any language: vocabulary, inflections of tone, nuanced shading of meaning, and the idiosyncratic ways we express ourselves. Your initial goal is to imitate and assimilate, similar to how a child learns to speak. Try to figure out exactly how the sounds you hear are produced, whether acoustically, mechanically, electronically, or organically. They don’t have to be on your own instrument. (As a guitar player learning jazz, I was told to listen to horn players.) Listen for the specific rhythmic quality, timbre, articulations, dynamics, and phrasing that help determine the overall sound. Do your best to isolate all these elements and then imitate them as closely as you can. Keep doing this.
The goal at this stage is to understand how certain sounds are made, and how the musical effects are achieved. This may not always be apparent, and will certainly require some experimentation to imitate them on your instrument. If things come out sounding “wrong” or bad at this point, don’t worry. It’s normal for initial efforts at imitation to fall flat. Do this in the privacy of your practice space, not in public!
Stealing Instead of Borrowing
“Good musicians borrow, great ones steal” is a quote often attributed to the late great Jazz Composer, Band Leader, and Pianist Duke Ellington. Whether or not he said it, the concept is a valid one. Your goal should be to take the musical elements you love and make them your own. Imitation is a great way to learn, but the ultimate goal is to assimilate the elements into your own unique artistic voice. It’s not very flattering when someone says you sound exactly like another musician, although the statement may be intended as a compliment. Nobody really wants to sound exactly like somebody else, unless the goal is to do an actual impersonation. Even artist tributes will have their own character that differs from the original while paying homage. Irish poet Oscar Wilde famously said, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
This is where finding your own voice finally becomes real. You are inspired and informed by those who came before and are acutely aware of how they influenced you. Now you can synthesize all you’ve learned into something totally new. This takes time and effort, but it’s worth it. The result is something you can be proud of, whether you are a true innovator blazing new paths or a worthy stylist delivering a modern iteration of established work. Your diligent study and practice will eventually lead you to your own personal style and give you great credibility. Credibility is an important part of success.
Finding and using your unique artistic voice is a process which can take years to achieve. Your initial goals should be to gain solid musical skills, master your instrument, and engage in active listening and analysis. As you explore the influences of your influences, the next step is to imitate and steal, in order to make the music your own. A technique helpful to this process is transcription. You should try to write down all you hear, from different styles and instruments.
Transcription is a tried and true method that professionals swear by. Writing down what you hear leads to heightened awareness of all the musical elements: rhythm, feel (groove), melodic and harmonic sense, timbre (tone), dynamics, and articulations. Take it even a step further and record yourself, and then transcribe your own singing or playing. This is like holding a mirror up close to your musical image; it will help you understand what you are doing, how you sound, and importantly, how you can improve as a musician. While there are many tools available to you for learning, transcription is one of the most important and immediately available ones. Use it daily. If you haven’t yet learned to read and write music, you can always learn.
Finally, be patient with yourself. Like a good recipe, your unique musical voice is a mixture of all you’ve heard, practiced, and worked hard on in different settings. Keep exposing yourself to new influences, and dig as deep into the musical sources as you possibly can. Over time you will become seasoned, expert, recognized, and true to your own musical vision.
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