If you’re a songwriter, producer, artist, mixer or DJ, chances are, you probably know who’s topping the charts in your favorite genre and maybe several other genres as well. Whether it's top 40 radio, New Music Friday on Spotify, Apple Music Up Next or your friends and family telling you, you know what is popular and what is trending. And while it’s good to be up to speed on what’s currently happening in music, it can be a huge distraction as well. You’ve probably heard the stories of artists or producers who refused to listen to anything other than the songs or album they were working on to try to block out undesired influences on their music. What if you were able to channel your favorite influences rather than block them out? And what if you could create something really fresh, without chasing the current trends?
I’ve heard countless stories of songwriters, producers, engineers and creatives who chased what was trending in music, only to fall short of their goal time after time. Once they stopped trying to chase a moving target focused on creating with more authenticity, things started to happen for them. They had a hit single, got signed, got a production opportunity or the big gig they wanted. And while skills and experience play a big role in these opportunities coming, the biggest single factor that I’ve heard both from others and experienced myself is- staying true to yourself creatively will lead you to your best opportunities. I’d love to share with you a simple concept, that if put into practice, can yield massive results.
The first step in staying true to yourself is knowing yourself. What are your strengths? Your weaknesses? What is your best song, remix or DJ set? Here’s the process that I’ve used to help me discover my strengths, my sound and how to create my best, most authentic work.
IMITATION- "To copy or fashion oneself after”- the action of using someone or something as a model.
The process of imitation is crucial to finding your “wheelhouse” in a much shorter amount of time than it would take if you were just throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. If you are able to create songs and sounds that match those of your favorite artists, you will be well on your way to finding your sound. Analyze and dissect each part of a song you love and write down what you hear- what is the vocal sound? Is it dry? Wet? Layered with harmonies? What are the drums doing? What is the bass doing? Do your best to breakdown a favorite song of yours and have a knowledge of each sound that you can hear. From there, start building your own production using sounds that either match the song you are referencing or are inspired by your that song. One of my favorite imitation exercises is to combine the drum sound from one song with the vocal production of another song, the bass sound from a third song and the keys or guitar sound from a fourth song. Borrowing or channeling specific sounds from different songs will both help you judge the quality of your sounds, but also will help you create something unique. Imitation is an exercise, like training for a game of basketball, you don’t just play the game, you warm up and shoot around before the game. As you develop the skill of imitation, the key will be not staying here.
COLLABORATION- “The action of working with someone to produce or create something”.
Work with people whose taste you love and those whom you can trust. The goal should be to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts- your best ideas combined with someone else’s best ideas have the potential to yield something great. Find people who can be a sounding board to help you identify both what you do well and what you don’t do well. There are so many options as to what your sound and style can be, this feedback will be hugely helpful in eliminating options of what your authentic sound is.
EMULATION- "To try to be as good or successful as- the effort to match or surpass a person or achievement”.
Here’s where being aware of others’ process is important, rather than copy exactly what another artist or producer is doing, look at WHY they did things the way they did. My guess is, they’re playing to their strengths. If they have a great voice, they are making sure it shines. If they are funny, they are making sure to tell jokes or funny stories on stage or in their lyrics. If they’re great at drum programming, they are featuring that in their productions. If you don’t yet know what you are GREAT at, get feedback from your friends, your peers, and your collaborators. Another important piece of emulation is knowing WHAT your influences did to set themselves apart and become successful. HOW they did it is rarely repeatable for someone else because their influence’s success was based on a unique set of talents and circumstances, but WHAT they did is attainable. For example- getting a million streams on a song that you wrote or produced is an attainable goal, but it's unlikely that it will happen the exact same way that it did for someone else. Use these “WHATS” as a way to set goals for yourself and then focus on WHY you are doing what you’re doing. From there, the “HOW” will become clear.
CREATION- "The action or process of bringing something into existence”.
Now that you have some guidelines and parameters, just create! Don’t overthink or question each idea, there will be plenty of time for that later. Focus on creating what you hear in your head. If you have imitated your favorite songs and collaborated with people you trust, you should have a well-rounded toolset to work with here. You may use a synth sound that you discovered was a huge part of one of your favorite songs, but what will set it apart is that you’re doing something different with the drums or the melody or the bass. No one is exactly alike and therefore no one will create, write, produce or remix something exactly alike either. Don’t be afraid of creating something that sounds different or somewhat unfamiliar. If it moves you and your trusted collaborators, then there’s a strong chance that it will move others.
The key to this whole process is not ignoring your influences or trying to create from a space of a totally blank canvas. The key here is to channel your influences, your favorite sounds and your unique story and perspective as a human into what you are creating. Be as authentic as you possibly can, because not only will this be the best representation of who you are, it will be the best way to be sustainable creatively as it will always be coming from YOU. When you chase a trend, you will always be behind. By the time you catch up with what is happening, something else will be the trend. Don’t worry about future-proofing your music, simply focus on making music that moves you. So much of being true to yourself is being confident in what you are sharing with the world. If you have trained your ear, honed your skills and you have collaborators and listeners whose feedback you trust, then you can create with confidence and freedom. The goal here should not be to make fans out of everyone in the world, the goal should be to create what is true to you and attract the people who connect with what you are uniquely doing. Imitate, Collaborate, Emulate and Create. Since we are evolving, creative beings, this process will constantly be repeating. Embrace it and you will create your greatest work yet!