How to Be Great—Not Just Good
Back in the mid-1990s, I almost exclusively thought about music, and baseball, and girls. Because of my obsession with the first two, the girls were not around that much. I'm sure this surprises you. Why wouldn’t a girl want to be around a long-haired bassist who played 85 shows a year and traveled by way of a death trap of a van with three other guys to some remote, disgusting bar in middle America? And then when not playing, was recording or writing music, or watching or listening to the Cleveland Indians games. It’s a shock I didn’t date more, isn’t it?
I wasn’t alone in my obsessions—all of Cleveland was nuts about baseball. It was the first time in my life that a professional sports team in my town had a legitimate shot to win it all, season after season. All of Cleveland was also nuts about my band, World in a Room. Well, maybe not on the same scale of the Indians, but we had our couple of thousand fans.
I remember seeing Derek Jeter make his first opening day start for the Yankees against my Indians. I was sitting on the third baseline that day and had no idea I was watching a future Hall of Famer. The radio people were saying he was a bonified "Five Tool Player." That sounded impressive, but I had no idea what it meant. Turns out, a Five Tool Player is a non-pitcher who can hit for average, hit for power, excels on defense, throws above average, and runs the basepaths with speed and smarts.
It was those five tools which had made Derek Jeter a top minor league prospect.
This got me thinking... I was once in a minor league band. Record labels were looking at us. We were on the local radio. We’d even nailed endorsements from Budweiser, Yamaha, Zildjan, GHS strings, and others. So what would it have taken for us to graduate from the small clubs and Podunk towns the way minor league players went from Rockford, Illinois, to Chicago?
I was at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, when I realized the equation for how I judge bands. Not just the band I’m in at any time, but bands I see in clubs, ones who now send me their CDs, or someone I hear on the radio.
If ever I managed a band, it is these criteria that I would use to constantly improve the group. It’s a simple theory, but each part takes years to understand.
Like the baseball Five Tool Player, I’m always looking for the Three S’s in every band. The Songs, The Sound, and The Show. Here's a short version of my thoughts on each:
Anyone can write a song. My kids can write songs. I love the songs my kids write because they are my kids and I love them.
So when I hear from a band, “We’ve written like 50 songs,” all I think is, “OK then—so what. Have you written any great songs?”
If you write a song and your family loves it, and so does your band and a few people you know, that's nice. Keep writing. Any songwriter has to write numerous songs before they find their own voice. Like the baseball player perfecting his swing, you have to take cut after cut to perfect your perfect stroke.
Most songwriters will write what they like, which is usually similar to the people they listen to most. It’s how you start. Move on from there.
It’s not enough to write songs that follow the rules or habits in the songs others have written. Yes, you should learn from others, and copy them to understand them. But at some point, you have to take the rules you are learning, and listen to what works for your talents. When all the skills you have learned from writing hundreds of songs become part of you, and you find yourself creating unexpected songs that are great, you will have found your Voice.
Someone once told me that Miles Davis said, “Once you find your voice, the songs come easy.” He also said, “It takes you a long time to sound like yourself.”
Those two quotes are in part how I define finding your Voice.
Each hitter has his own swing. When they are on, they connect often. Each songwriter has his or her own style. And when they are on, they connect. When they are faking it or taking shortcuts, listeners can tell. Hey might not be able to explain why, but the songs won’t have the same feel.
Always go with the honest approach in songwriting. Break some rules by making your own. But please learn some rules so you know which ones you are breaking.
I have two definitions to The Sound. First is the performance or recording of the band.
So many bad songs can sound good, but they’re not good. I’ll hear a recording of a song, and what I may hear more than anything is how well recorded it is. Lots of times a band will spend a ton of money on recording an average song. It may sound good, but once you get past the style, there is no substance.
On the flip side, a great song can never see the light of day if the musicians playing it are bad. Or if the venue’s sound system or sound man makes a mess of the band.
The second definition of The Sound is the harder to attain. It’s the genre of the band, but also that something special which sets the band apart from everyone else.
What makes you stand out? Does the singer have a unique but appealing voice? Is the guitar player making brand new sounds? Is the arrangement of the band something just unique enough to make a difference? When the song comes on the radio, does it sound like you?
A band can stand on a unique sound while the songs catch up. If you bring something brand new to the game, something that captures a feel, audiences will hang around. For example, REM had a great, fresh sound, but not great songs to start. As they grew, the songs got better while their sound evolved. But if you started a band now with a similar sound, you’d be hard pressed to get any interest. It’s always the first ones to the forefront that get noticed. Different gets noticed. A good different gets liked.
There are studio tricks which can help. You can incorporate unique instruments. But just like when finding your songwriting voice, it’s important to be honest. Make the sound that is not a copycat of others, but is clearly your own.
One simple rule here: get the crowd to take their eyes of the LCD and paint the floor black. If you can’t get an audience to stop watching baseball on the big screen or their Words With Friends on the iPhone, your songs are not connecting.
You have to play great, but also be entertaining. Hit all the notes and keep people looking at you. I’ve heard bands ask if it is better to move around on stage or play perfectly. My answer is always, yes it is. Do both. Own the stage.
A charismatic front man to be a focal point is always helpful. You can do a coordinated look or don’t. But if you look like being on stage is nothing special, expect nothing special in return from the crowd. Basically, just don’t be boring.
So that's it—my theory on what makes a band great. Songs. Sound. Show. Get all three and you’re a great band.
You may not be the Rolling Stones, Beatles, U2, or Springsteen. You may be a Chris Whitley, Shovels And Rope, Sputnik, Watershed, Hold Steady, Flogging Molly, or other less famous band that I consider all-stars on all three levels. That’s because within each of these categories, I have certain preferences. So does everyone else. I rarely like jam bands, live punk music makes me feel good, and a songwriter who can turn a clever phrase appeals to me. In my view, it doesn’t matter if you make a million dollars or barely sell out the local bar—if you connected to me on all three topics, I’m a fan.
You can make a career excelling at any one or two of the three disciplines. Starting out, you owe it to yourself and your art to work on all three to the best of your ability, until you find the niche that is right for you. And do it honestly. Put yourself our there for everyone to see.
We can see it when people cheat. We hear when people “buy” their sound. We see when bands pretend on stage. We know when a song isn’t honest.
... Which brings me back around to baseball—specifically, to The Yankees, again. Alex Rodriguez played for the Charleston RiverDogs this week. To many of my friends, they couldn’t care less. They call him A-Roid, and cheater for his assumed use of performance-enhancing drugs.
It’s a shame. Here was a guy who had all five tools that make up a great baseball player. But he cheated. He’ll never know where his talents could have taken him. Or we’ll never know where the A-Rod ended and the A-Roid took over. We like him less because of the news that surrounds him.
So I guess there is a fourth S to add to the equation: THE STORY.
Every band has a story. It’s in their name, the history of the band, the videos they post, the tweets they send, the interviews they give. How to manage a band’s image would be worth a few chapters in a book. It's safe to say that if you have an unattractive story, it will be harder to get anyone to listen to you. If you have an interesting story, people will be more likely to give your music (or anything, or any skill you're trying to sell them on) a shot.
The Story is harder to control. The first three S’s are things you can work on—they are your craft and your art. The Story, on the other hand, is almost outside the band. So focus on the first three and let the Story take care of itself. Get a PR person or manager to help you toward that end. Really, just don’t be an A-Rod.