Monday, January 26, 2009

The Radio's Echo

If you try to please audiences, uncritically accepting their tastes, it can only mean that you have no respect for them: that you simply want to collect their money.
- Andrei Tarkovsky

No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader's intelligence or whose attitude is patronizing.

- E. B. White

I'm writing a book. I've got the page numbers done.

- Stephen Wright

There are at least two ways of approaching a creative endeavor. The first is to look around you to see what everyone else is doing and try to take a little bit from here or there in order to conform to the general tone of things. The second is to shut all of that off and go within to find your own voice and muse, and only emerge from the cave when the job is finished.

If you've been confused by too much critical advice, it's probably because you've approached your work using the first method. Almost everyone in the industry can spot this type of song. It has all of the flair and style of the Emperor's New Clothes. It sounds like the radio alright, but it sounds more like the radio's echo.

As hard as it is to understand, you will not be successful until you digest all of the elements of commercial music until they are in your very fibre and blood, in your cells, and then ignore every bit of conventional wisdom you hear and write from who you are. Your contribution will be unlike everyone else's and yet it will find a symbiotic place in the ecosystem of commercial music. It will fill a niche no one knew existed until you came along. This is exactly how it is.

Whenever I encounter a writer trying too hard to "be commercial" I tell him/her that the worst kind of song is the song that's clearly written for the money. A song can earn tons of it and still be a very original piece of work. But if you write for the money you are playing it too safe to succeed. What do "Wooly Bully" and "City Of New Orleans" have in common? Both are hit songs, both are nothing you could have ever imagined writing yourself, and neither one was written for the money.

Focus on your craft and learn everything you can about songs and songwriting. Become a better musician, and a better singer if possible. Study the writers who have forged their own path, but don't imitate them. Learn from them how to be you. Songwriting is like a personal instinct-- mannerisms, quirky expressions and gestures. No two people express themselves in quite the same way. If you are having a dialog, do you imitate the other person's accent? Do you say the same words, make the same gestures, lean the same way? Do you answer predictably? Do you repeat everything you heard yesterday or do you think for yourself? Songwriting is no different. We learn the language, we learn the musical scale, we learn what chords work best, we learn what's legal and what isn't. But nearly everything else is a reflection of the individual.

If you've got the page numbers done, don't think the rest is just a matter of filling up the blank spaces on the paper with readable sentences. Give us some reason to turn the page. You'll find that reason in your head, heart and soul, not in someone else's.

copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt


Tim McMullen said...

I just got done reading a few score of student dialectical journals on Emerson's "Self Reliance." One of my favorite passages, and one that I really try to emphasize, seems to echo your message here. Though it can apply to all areas of our lives, it certainly fits the writer's realm as well.

"There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on the plot of ground which is given him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried."

It runs counter to the common wisdom for some corporate music (I was going to say hacks, but I don't even mean to be that pejorative) middle men, who, upon hearing a song with unusual phrasing or subject matter reply, "Don't you listen to the radio, kid?" But clearly, those great unusual songs do catch somebody's ear and make the splash; sometimes, like Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," they invent a whole song type.

The standard form works beautifully—it has for thousands of years—and it will continue to work—but the folks who come to it with a new voice, a new heart, and a fully-developed ear have the potential to blow us away...and make money too.

richfarmers said...

Craig, I always find your posts so inspiring and encouraging. I find myself eagerly checking for a new post every day or so.

I love what you said in this post, and I completely agree. I threw in the towel awhile ago, as far as shooting for commercialism. I tried writing with that mindset a couple of times, and the results were horrendous.

Now I just write "how I write", but at least it feels honest TO ME, which is the person I need to answer to.

That said, I have worked to improve my craft over the years, and I plan to continue to improve.

(And I LOVE the E.B. White quote!)

Anonymous said...


Those damned radio stations.

Our local peak music body has a yearly song writing competition. I recently requested the judging criteria so I could compare it with the criteria I had set for possible use within our club. There was no major differences between the two, with exception to one item which amounted to half of the points allocation. This item was commercial appeal:

" This competition is targeted towards offering career opportunities for songwriters.

"Therefore, commercial potential within the context of the category/genre being judged is a crucial component.

"A song may not necessarily score highly on lyrics and melody, but could have strong commercial potential - as is often demonstrated by commercial radio airplay."

It took a while for me to pick my jaw off the floor. I was utterly disappointed with them: pandering to the power of radio stations. Bastards.

Seems every organisation is in-kahoots with the devil: If you want to make the dosh ya gotta dribble out the dross? Some-one once said: "if the stations play dog songs and you write chicken songs, well, you ain't got a hope in hell".

I think there is hope though,we just need to keep doing our own Kahooting. Some of these things we may already do. Remember to be positive and not sound like a whinging muso:

1) When you play, remind the audience about real music is and what radio isn't. Ask them to be discerning about what they listen to, and to be vocal about their choices. Point to those you admire.

2) Support good local artist with whom you share optimal values by inviting them as a support artist.

3) Marketing: use every opportunity to distinguish between what is commercial and what is real.
a) PR Releases and Publicity
b) When promoting distinguish between real music and rest
c) Spread the word about an artist you feel writes well, or plays well, or is worthy.

4) Criag you have basicall said this too; deliver the best possible "you" that you can. Listeners perceive what is good and what is bad as the difference between what was expected and what was delivered.

The idea is to get the wedge in and keep banging away at it.

The list could go on but I'm rambling again.

Methinks I should ponder on this more...