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The Long Haul: Choosing Substance Over Style

One of the mantras I drone about constantly to DIY musicians over at my blog The Developing Artist [http://artistdevelopmentblog.com] is that to be successful as a musician, you need to aim to be in it for the long haul. You don’t want to be flash in the pan; you want to light a fire that will burn for a long time. To do this, you need to focus on substance more than style. In other words—talent FIRST.

The music market is very competitive, even more so now that digital technology and social networking have enabled thousands of indie musicians to flood the market with their stuff. Without a doubt, you need to find a way to stand out from the crowd. Many artists today choose to do this by finding some sort of gimmick or shtick to find a niche, and some even resort to outrageous stunts and so on—anything to get noticed. And you know something? Sometimes it actually works. People do get famous for doing things like this. The problem is, without any substance behind the style, the fame won’t last much longer than the proverbial fifteen minutes. Why? Because there is no solid talent underneath the hype.  When the hype wears off, fans will begin to see through it. End of career. See my point?

This is why when I talk to young DIY musicians about their careers, I always encourage them to be “long haul” thinkers. You can work on your image and branding all you like—pick the right suit, learn the right moves, develop an onstage persona, all that stuff—but at the end of the day, what’s going to make you last 20, 30, 40, 50 years as a musician is if you are an excellent musician. In order to be a long-haul musician, you have to work at becoming the best musician you can be. That is the substance of your career, the foundation upon which your evolving style can be overlaid.

To illustrate, think about building a house. Think of your style (that is, your onstage persona and all that surrounds it) as the exterior siding on a house, and the landscaping, etc—all the things that give your house plenty of “curb appeal.” But the substance (that is, your actual musicianship) is the foundation and framework of your house—the slab, pillars and beams that give your building structure. You can have the best curb appeal in the neighborhood, but if your house has no inner framework, your house is doomed to collapse. The beams and pillars aren’t very exciting, but they have to be there if your house is going to survive the first big wind that comes along.

That’s what substance is to style with regard to your music. Whatever you do to build your “brand” as a DIY musician, there has to be a framework holding it up—and that framework is plain old, honest-to-goodness musicianship.

So what does this mean for you? It means that if you’re a vocalist, you don’t just work on your stage performance—you work on developing your vocal chops. Scales, breathing techniques, vocal coaching, all the stuff that’s boring. If you’re a keyboard player, don’t just practice looking cool; don’t take shortcuts with your training or practicing. Do those tedious finger exercises and build up your skills. If you’re a band trying to make it, you’re going to need more than a flashy press kit or well-produced demo. You’re going to need to practice until you’re practically at each other’s throats, until you are playing effortlessly together, as a unit, not separately.

The point is, whatever you do in music, work toward mastering it. Build a solid framework for your house, so your performance style will have something to rest upon.

Being a great musician won’t guarantee you a successful music career, but the “fake it till you make it” approach will ultimately result in failure. If you want to be in this for the long haul, work on becoming the real deal. The style will come in time, if there is genuine substance behind it.

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About the Author


Jeff McQ is a songwriter/composer/musician with a diverse resume that includes everything from directing music in church to scoring short films. In addition to his role as chief editor for Music Is My Oxygen (and writing our DIY Musician Channel), Jeff also covers the local music scene for Examiner.com in his hometown of Denver, Colorado, and maintains The Developing Artist [http://artistdevelopmentblog.com], a blog dedicated to offering advice and encouragement to indie musicians.

When he's not tinkering in his home studio or blogging for hours on his laptop at the local coffee shop (to the annoyance of the baristas), Jeff McQ enjoys taking in local shows, going on road trips, wandering aimlessly, and talking to himself.

Posted in: DIY Music


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