As a musician who loves music, I see a ton of shows, and a ton of really good shows. In recent weeks, I’ve been blown away by how many amazing singers I’ve had the good fortune to see — people with deep, silky voices, or high, falsetto voices, or bluesy, soulful voices. There’s so much talent out there, it’s scary.
But I’ve also seen a ton of highly talented acts who were, for some reason or other, forgettable. I may have enjoyed it thoroughly at the time — total immersion in their beautiful sound — but then a month later, I can’t even remember their name.
Getting an audience is one of the toughest parts of being a musician. But converting that audience into a devoted following who will come out to shows, buy your albums, and follow your updates—that’s even tougher. As musicians, there are lots of things we can do to build a following, but at the end of the day, there’s one thing more important than anything else — doing something that makes you stand out.
Coming Up with a “Statement of Difference”
This advice may sound very cliché, and yet, I don’t know a single artist or band who has sat down and deliberately contemplated this question in detail. Seriously, what if you and your band came up with a sentence or two answer to the question: how are we fundamentally different from others already out there? Maybe it’s the spangles and bangles that everyone wears at your shows, maybe it’s the screech-y voice you sing with, maybe it’s your combo blues-disco vibe.
By taking the time to write down a “Statement of Difference” you’re making a clear and deliberate choice about who you want to be and how you want to affect your listeners. The answer might even surprise you. It could help you focus on the part of you that’s the most YOU and give you a simple North Star that guides everything you do.
Or you might not know the answer yet. In which case, start experimenting to try to figure it out. It’s OK if what makes you different changes over time — in fact, it should. The musicians and artists who have remained the most relevant over a long period of time seem to constantly be re-defining what makes them different. Just think of how many versions of Madonna there have been. Or David Bowie, who over time has gone from omnisexual fantasy rocker to elder musical statesman.
What Is No One Else Doing?
One of my favorite stories in the world revolves around our friends the Dead Rat Orchestra (DRO). They were opening for post-rock royalty Godspeed You! Black Emperor in 5,000 person venues, and night in, night out, no one was listening to them. The audience came for the main act, so why would they pay attention to three bearded folk artists howling into a mic on the stage?
A forgettable band would probably just turn up the volume in this situation. But the guys from DRO knew they needed to do something different to catch the audience’s attention — give them an experience that was totally unique.
So they took off their shoes, grabbed acoustic instruments, and started their set completely un-amplified in the middle of a giant theater. Rather than getting louder, they got quieter. And funnily enough, the entire audience grew quiet and listened to them. People were excited to feel like part of something different and special. The rest of the tour was a huge success.
This solution fit perfectly with the Dead Rat Orchestra’s overall approach to their music. They define themselves as avant-garde folk artists who translate classic folk traditions into modern music. They play this one song where they bang rhythmically on a log with hatchets, while singing over the top recalling old labor traditions. Playing quietly and acoustically fit perfectly with their statement of difference—embracing their folky, tradition-based approach by turning the large theater into a more intimate, communal space. And the audience loved experiencing it.
Take It One Step Further
Being different doesn’t necessarily mean you have to invent an entirely new melody or instrument or go totally experimental. We wrote an article recently about the whole Sam Smith/Tom Petty controversy and the ease of unintentionally copying melodies. But despite copying Tom Petty’s melody, I don’t think there’s too much argument that Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” sounds completely different than “I Won’t Back Down”. Smith defined his difference as an incredible R&B crooner within a reinvented soul tradition, and it’s nothing like Tom Petty.
In fact, many of our favorite acts live within long-standing traditions. Jazz guitarist Stephane Wrembel jumps to mind. I haven’t seen him for a few years now, but I still remember a show of his from my high school days. Stephane plays gypsy jazz guitar in the style of Django Reinhardt, but I’ve never before or since seen someone embrace that distinction so fully, complete with fluid, wandering guitar lines, old-timey snare drums and shoestring bass.
Seeing this guy shred these super-bouncy Parisian gypsy lines stood out to me (and still does) because he took it one step further than anyone else. He did it so well that it makes everyone else look like they’re just dabbling.
Embracing Your Voice and Experience
I still remember seeing a totally unheard of Somalian hip-hop artist named K’naan in 2002 at a small club in Montréal. He was opening for a much bigger hip-hop act, but K’naan blew him off the stage that night. He had a bongo on stage. His lyrics were incisive and clear. He presented himself as a poet rather than an MC. I wasn’t surprised when a few years later K’naan blew up, reaching billions with his recording of the official song of the 2010 World Cup (“Wavin’ Flag”).