The True Artist - Do You Have What It Takes?
by Chris Standring
There are musicians who are more than comfortable remaining
anonymous. You know, happy to hide behind their guitars or
keyboards and be sidemen to the stars of today or tomorrow.
Then there are those that have grandiose aspirations of stardom,
adoration and limelight. And then there are those who have
a driving desire and need to say something original artistically,
to express themselves and to communicate that expression
to an audience, be it a small niche market or wider demographic.
Those falling into the first category can make a living,
albeit fairly modest as a general rule. Those falling into
the second category often live in a little bit of a dream
world and, depending on their tenacity and 'smart' skills,
usually end up disappointed because the focus is set on the
destination rather than the journey. The third category usually
reap the rewards of the second category gaining all the success
and limelight, but as a result of focusing on their art rather
than the shallow and flighty end of the musician's world.
These are usually the most fascinating people too, because
they generally have a little mystery about them and because
they actually possess what most entertainers really want;
sincere and dedicated talent!
But there are also those that are in the early stages of
artistic development who are still learning their craft,
and open to influences. Possibly they will become great artists
in the future, possibly not. It will be a question of choices
and consequences, and doors opened and opportunities taken
advantage of - or not. Life certainly will take you places.
for those that do have aspirations of artistry and expression,
then I firmly believe you must have qualities that others
do not have. As an artist I believe one must stand out from
the heard in order to be heard. It is so easy to make a record
these days. One no longer needs to have the luxury of a recording
contract in order to stand on a pedestal and say "I
am an artist - buy my record!" With home studios costing
one 16th of the price they did ten years ago and with software
programs that do it all, you can churn out albums by the
dozen if you put your mind to it. And many do.
However, just because you can, why would you? - is my question.
Just for fun? OK, valid I suppose. But Isn't it better to
spend that time and energy searching relentlessly for something
unique and different? God knows record companies are releasing
enough crap by the hour, even signed artists are now under
the impression they have got something to offer. Maybe they
have, but for the most part I don't think so (as public reaction
and their soundscans will attest!)
Perhaps I am being extremely unfair, but I think too many
artists do not realize that they have a responsibility to
say something profoundly unique, certainly if they expect
any kind of career longevity. We live in a world where musicians
spend their lives emulating their heroes; singers spend their
lives emulating Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Stevie Wonder,
Frank Sinatra and so on. Rock guitarists spend their lives
emulating Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Paige, Jeff Beck and Eddie
Van Halen. Jazz guitarists are proud emulators of Pat Metheny,
John Scofield and Wes Montgomery. Saxophone players worship
Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Michael Brecker. And so
Before I go on I have to say that emulating heroes is absolutely
imperative in your formative years as musicians. You simply
MUST listen to the greats, past and present. One has to have
a strong grounding and musical knowledge and one simply cannot
get there without listening. However, way too many 'artists'
cannot get passed this stage. They need to have peer approval,
have to know that other respected musicians around them recognize
them and applaud their abilities. Often all this takes place
This 'peer approval' is a stage of development that is also
important. Every musician goes through it at some point.
It is absolutely natural, but I firmly believe that to become
a great artist, you have to move beyond that stage and look
inward. I always liken it those wedding band singers, who
despite having an honorable and justifiable (and in some
cases envious) career, they are all too often the 'performing
monkeys'. They are often fine vocalists but at the end of
the day they are seeking approval and applause and not communicating
or expressing anything artistic. They certainly know how
to entertain but do they know how to intrigue? It's a huge
gap. Nothing remotely subtle about it as far as I am concerned.
The real communicating artists seek unique expression. They
are not interested anymore in sounding like their heroes.
They have moved past that, now searching constantly, developing
and refining their own unique voice. Look at any of the true
giants of yesterday and today. Yes you can hear their references,
but they also have their own strong identity. At some point
during their development something bigger than them took
over. The chances are they knew it at the time and took advantage
of it and made an extra effort to really hone that uniqueness.
Finding that unique inner voice might not be as easy for
some. I think it starts by recognizing your technical weaknesses.
It is often those weaknesses that ultimately end up becoming
your artistic strengths. Let's face it, if you were able
to play the guitar technically perfect, at all speeds, meticulously
so every note that came out was totally clean and audible,
would this be ultimately interesting to an audience? Yes
it might be very clever and impressive, but for how long
could you listen to an album where every phrase felt like
you were having your teeth drilled!!?
Wes Montgomery played with his thumb because he kept dropping
his pick, ultimately enabling him to become the greatest
and most influential jazz guitarist of all time. BB King
has about three licks in his entire blues repertoire. Does
anyone NOT know BB King when they hear him? Thelonius Monk
refused to conform to traditional piano techniques and musical
ideas. He simply HAD to play music the way he heard it in
his head. He made such a bold musical statement during his
time that he is emulated the world over and revered by the
greatest musicians living today.
Technical shortcomings can be the very essence of your unique
artistry. Now, should those shortcomings get in the way of
what you need to say musically then those weaknesses might
need to be turned around so they don't restrict what you
hear in your head.
Remember, the true artist simply communicates from within.
All other extraneous thoughts, influences and distractions
need to fall by the wayside. The minute a lick or a phrase
that your hero played or sung (and made famous) ends up on
your record - watch out! You might be in trouble. Absolutely
steal from your heroes, but just remember that real artistry
is about what YOU have to say, not what your heroes have
already said before, and have possibly said better.
Push yourself to the max and search for that truly unique
quality within. After all, that next great talent we are
all so desperately waiting for might just be you!
Standring is the CEO and founder of A&R Online (www.aandronline.com).
He is also a contemporary jazz guitarist presently signed
to Mesa/Bluemoon Records. The music is marketed at NAC and
Urban AC radio. For more info on Chris' recording career go
to his personal website at www.chrisstandring.com