How to Professionally Record a Song and Get Heard: Part 1 — “Know Your Genre”
Founder and CEO of Rockin’ God’s House and music veteran Abbie Stancato wrote an article recently entitled “I Recorded a Song and No One Will Listen” in his “Ask Abbie” column. It tackled a common plight among aspiring recording artists: they put tons of effort and money into recording a song but can’t get anyone in the music industry to listen to it. People have so many questions about this topic that we’re expanding the article into an in-depth series that will run several weeks.
The first step in professionally recording a song and getting it heard can be summed up in three words: Know Your Genre.
Abbie wrote about this in the previous article:
…the best produced song in the world is worthless if the vocals are anything less than spectacular. I’m not talking about having the world’s greatest vocalists; I’m talking about a quality of vocals which fit the song. Bob Dylan was never a great vocalist. His music was written and produced to accentuate his unique voice and style.
Every Christian artist on the CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) scene owes some degree of its style to one or more of the secular genres of the twentieth century: rock, blues, pop, etc. Christian music adds its own flavor to these genres in a variety of ways; but for the sake of this article, I will be using quite a few secular examples. This is not a promotion of secular music nor does it mean I condone the lyrical content for many of the artists mentioned below. In fact, I’m not thinking in the realm of lyrics at all. This is strictly concerned with musical structure, songwriting style, and performance technique.
For the sake of my first example of “knowing your genre,” let’s pretend you are a folk singer that adores Dylan, and you want to record songs in his genre. If your answer is simply “folk music” to the question “what is Bob Dylan’s genre?” then you’re not quite ready to step into the studio. Sure, Dylan’s early albums were marketed with the label “folk genre” by his handlers, but what musical genetics lie in Dylan’s veins? What is he really about from a musical perspective?
A genre is always a little more complex than we realize. There are more ingredients in any one genre than most people consciously observe. If you’re a folk singer who wants to sound like Dylan but with your own flavor added, you first need to read interviews with Dylan or read excellent, well-informed reviews of his albums — like this article. You need to know what forces shaped him. Dylan’s roots are in rustic Americana from the early years of the twentieth century — everything from stripped-down bottleneck blues to Woodie Guthrie. Does Dylan’s gravelly, disheveled voice have any precedence? Absolutely. Listen to Blind Willie Johnson — especially John the Revelator — and his vocals that sound like a bucket of rocks being poured out on cement. Bob Dylan has played Blind Willie on his personal radio shows, and he’s covered Blind Willie songs. To understand Dylan’s genre, you need to understand Blind Willie Johnson — and that’s just one example.
The more research you do about your genre, the more insights you’ll uncover about what makes a song work in that context. You’ll have quite a few “ah-hah!” moments that will give you great ideas for what to do in the studio. Continuing with this example, if you’re a folk singer, don’t just rush into the studio with a vague idea that folk music means playing stuff on acoustic, singing poetic songs, and sounding like Bob Dylan. Go deeper than that. Know the history of the genre. Know what pumps through its veins.
It might be tough to do that if you’re a band that formed with a vague vision of where you were headed with your sound. Maybe your band figured out your sound organically. Maybe you’re not even sure what genre best describes you.
Let’s pause for a moment. We need to address something before going any further. Quite a few musicians bristle at the idea of being “labeled.” They might say something like, “I just play my music, man. It’s too deep to be labeled. Don’t try to put me in a box.”
Well, incredibly complex and legendary singers like Bob Dylan had to have labels slapped on them. Why? Because record stores didn’t sell their albums in showrooms the size of airport hangars. They didn’t have unlimited space to set up racks of records divided into every possible sub-category of musical style. Sure, e-stores now have more liberty to create sub-genres, but mainstream markets like iTunes still keep it very simple with only a few basic, overarching categories. If you want to have your music taken seriously by people in the recording industry, you need to appreciate their dilemma: they’re trying to present artists to consumers in a way that is efficient and easy to understand. Consumers — especially in today’s world — make very quick decisions about whether to purchase or pass on an album. Record labels need to know what kind of fan will buy your music.
In other words, if you don’t know what your genre is — i.e. what section of the music store will your albums be sold — then no one else will either. Likewise, if you go into a recording studio without having refined your sound based on a thoroughly researched grasp of your genre, then your recording will likely sound diffuse, wandering, unsure, and certainly not compelling, regardless of the production or sound quality of the studio. The power of your sound and what makes you who you are as an artist has to begin with you. There’s not a producer, sound engineer, or session musician in the world that can fix that problem if you don’t have a clear, specific goal for your sound in the context of the genre you have chosen.
If you simply aren’t sure what genre in the marketplace fits what you do, start with the band that most influences you. Research them. Find out how their record labels and publicists describe them. Then dig deeper. How does that band describe themselves? What variety of musical genres and artists influenced them? Who, in turn, influenced those artists? Keep digging deeper. You’ll have some serious epiphanies about the wide variety of fascinating ingredients the make up your favorite band in the world.
For example, most people summarize the grunge era as guys with flannel playing guitars and singing loudly, sloppily, and angrily. Not so fast. Do your homework and you’ll discover that the grunge era was actually a revival of classic rock — and some grunge bands were virtuosos on their instruments (i.e. Soundgarden). Some experts actually call it the Neo-Classic Rock era. Any band trying to capture the grunge sound would have to research the musical style of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath first — probably the two biggest musical influences on grunge — before trying to grasp how Pearl Jam or Nirvana or Soundgarden came up with their music and performance styles.
Some people might ask: why research secular music at all? Why go to the world? Why not stick to researching the history of CCM?
It’s simple: the history of CCM is, well, not very long. Within the scope of popular Western music history, Christian Contemporary Music, especially Christian rock, is a young genre. There is not a great deal of variety or history to research before you are forced to research secular artists that influenced Christian artists — especially considering that many Christian artists started out in the secular industry before coming to Christ. Hopefully that will change someday. As each year passes, as more and more Christian artists emerge from different creative traditions, the Christian industry will hopefully become as musically rich and creative as the secular rock industry that’s been refining and tirelessly improving its sound since the 1940s (or earlier, if you trace rock music to the blues, jazz, and Gospel).
What makes an artist sound captivating and unique on a recording is simple but hard to achieve: the artist must know their genre’s history extremely well, they must master that genre inside and out from every angle, and then — and only then — can they add to the conversation by introducing their own creative twist to what they already know.
You can’t say anything unique in a conversation if you haven’t been listening to the whole conversation from the beginning.
Do your research. Know your genre.
And stay away from the recording studio until you do.