Having grown up in the South Wales Valleys, my connection with music has always been strong. Even decades on, I still so vividly remember the sound of our small mining village waking up for work each morning. Hundreds upon hundreds of men arrived over the mountains that created the valley we lived in, bringing with them unmistakable and deep choral voices that defined the sound of this beautiful but rugged part of the world so well. Miners by day and musicians by night, their talent was abundant and the male voice choirs they were part of built a substantial local following thanks to the amount of effort they put into their performances at working men’s halls across Wales.
Whilst it’s true to say that for as long as a choir was at home, this was not a commercial operation (and rather about community, about camaraderie, patriotism and pride), some of the finest such workingmen’s choirs did make it to London to record and perform professionally.
Not so far away in Cardiff, musicians such as Dame Shirley Bassey and Sir Tom Jones were shaping a more contemporary sound for Wales, chasing commercial stardom in ways inspired by a very American youth culture. A valleys-boy himself, Tom had built a great reputation as a musician, locally, but to achieve true commercial recognition and a chance of real work, Tom had to move away from home and again, towards London, if he was going to make it. Should Tom not be represented by somebody on Denmark Street (the heart of the UK music industry in its infancy), he might as well have not been singing at all.
The truth was, regardless of the kind of musician, it didn’t matter where the heart of a sound was; that heart had to travel to find business. And this was happening the world over. On the other side of the Atlantic, Dolly moved to Nashville, whilst Elvis moved to Memphis (two of the three musical hearts of Tennessee). And have you ever seen the film Coyote Ugly? Why did Violet leave her hometown of South Amboy, New Jersey for the bright lights of New York? It’s a well documented fact in history that musicians regularly moved to find the relevant commercial centres of their chosen industry, and each one of those commercial centres had a distinct personality, its own way of working. Applying some modern business terminology to the act of touting one’s self around town in order to get a recording contract, the ‘marketing methodology’ of a musician in Memphis would have been markedly different to the one in Denmark Street (or even in Nashville, for that matter).
Taking an opportunity to get a little more detail on that, modern marketing methodology was (and for many, still is) based on a marketing mix termed the four P’s: Product, Place, Price, Promotion.
The point of the mix is to create desire in a consumer’s mind, leading them (hopefully) towards a purchase. You offer a product or service (for instance, an apple) that a particular group of people wants. You make it visible in some place they visit regularly (for example, the supermarket), at a price level which matches the value they feel they would get from the product/service (what is the taste of that heavenly sweet apple worth?) and you use promotional tech-niques (such as in-store announcements) to let people know all about your product/place/price combination in the hope of selling lots of apples. Got it?
Now apply this to your own musicality. For aspiring artists searching for a record deal, the product / service (that’s you and your voice) would perhaps be made visible in the venues frequented by the influential people at the record labels. Those people would be invited as guests (dealing with the price aspect) and artists would communicate with a whole host of people in a variety of ways (making phone calls to personal assistants and other colleagues etc, some of them even at competing labels) in order to create awareness of and promote the gig/showcase. The combination of you/your voice/the gig/the venue/the free invite and all of the promotion undertaken will hopefully have created a desire for a particular label representative to listen to you sing. You’ll have needed to do lots of research along the way, and of course, there was no guarantee that things would go any further even if someone did show up, but it was a start.
Going back to Shirley and Tom and Dolly and Elvis, it was therefore with great excitement that I received my brief for this piece of writing; -to explain the main differences between how singers should market themselves in the US and the UK.
I was thinking of all of the stories I could retell; of subtle business and cultural difference, of places you should go, of things you should do, and people you should talk to in your area. But then it became apparent to me that this localised knowledge is far less relevant to today’s musician than the musicians of the past, for thanks to the internet, the land and sea borders we once held so important for the purposes in the way that they used to. Consumers certainly didn’t want to leave the comfort of their own homes in order to discover new music now that they didn’t have to, so neither did the A&R reps. These new technologies, shifts in behaviour and changes in values created a whole new way of marketing one’s music, one where location didn’t really matter at all. Whether Smalltown, Alabama or New York, New York, everybody had the same chance. Hoorah, I hear you cry. But is this really a benefit in the grand scheme of things? With the original brief now left to languish in the doldrums (along with my Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey collections, may I add), I turn my thoughts to today, and to tomorrow. If marketing is less about location than it was before, what does really matter when it comes to getting you and your voice noticed? How do you rise above not only the noise of a city, but the entire creative output of the internet? That can’t be an easy task.
Over the forthcoming issues of iSing, together we’ll discover exactly what is and isn’t working for content creators all over the world. Notice the terminology change, there? For whether you are a singer or a story-teller, the important thing is that you create. We’ll consider quality vs quantity as well as ‘the growth stage’. With bloggers such as charlieissocoollike and jacksgap having learnt by doing it for real, with that growth period available (even now) for people to scrutinise, we’ll ask ourselves whether our own industry would be so forgiving when it comes to accepting that a product does not arrive, but grows. We’ll also question whether singers around the globe should be looking to those bloggers for inspiration. He might not have been made famous by a corporate entity, but Charlie McDonnell makes his living from blogging. And he doesn’t just get by. He especially since he bought an entire house using his YouTube royalties.
Bringing this concept back to you, dear readers, I wonder whether a ‘record deal’ is still deserving of its place at the summit of the metaphorical mountain that represents your career aspirations, or is that SO last century? If the world has changed, maybe our dreams should, also?
I wanted to end this piece with one more little something on content and creativity, for those of you who are accepting of the fact that we’re all still developing our art, in some shape or form. The quote is from Ira Glass, an American Broadcast journalist.
“What nobody tells people who are beginners – and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.” Or in your case, one song.
“It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
I take so much strength from these words, and if any of them resonate with even a tiny part of your being, please find the strength to keep on doing what you’re doing. The reality is that every overnight success has been twenty years in the making, in some way.