The following guest post comes from Sahpreem A. King, a multi-platinum music producer, DJ, and author of industry books ‘Gotta Get Signed: How To Become A Hip Hop Producer’ and ‘Surviving the Game: How To Succeed In the Music Business,’ among others.
In the music business, as in life, timing is everything.
How many times have we seen artists come onto the major music scene, only to find mainstream success much later down the road? The answer to this question is many: Destiny’s Child’s first album was a sleeper, but they kept making music, gaining industry wide adoration and eventually catapulting the breakout star Beyoncé into superstardom. Although successful, the band “From First to Last” was not nearly as successful as one Sonny Moore, aka Skrillex, who arguably revived dubstep.
I could provide more examples of “not the right time for superstardom,” ranging from Busta Rhymes to Luther Vandross to Pink to Eminem, but you get the point, I hope?
*Disclaimer: Before the wannabe music pundits get their panties knotted up over the statements I made regarding the careers of the artists above mentioned, consider the perspective of the statements and understand that success and superstar level success in the music business is as different as night and day. Consider that Jay Z, debatably one of the wealthiest and most recognized entertainers (rappers) in the music business, was not nearly as successful on his first album in 1996 as he is today.
(And by the way if you don’t like my article, write your own — it’s a free country!)
Oftentimes, an artist’s first major break into the music industry doesn’t include fame or fortune.
It’s not a matter of them not being talented enough, but other non-talent related factors being the cause of an uninspiring beginning. For instance, bad management, poor marketing efforts, weak production, lack of quality “hit level” songs, and other music business-related factors may all contribute to an artist’s failure to take the world by storm. Perhaps it may even have to do with an artist’s maturity, work ethic, or business acumen, but for this article, I will focus on the music aspects.
Everyday, I critique unsigned, DIY, and indie artists’ music (for a nominal fee of course) and provide them with career critical feedback that will aid the growth and development of their music careers (as well as the course of their lives). Keep in mind, I don’t sugar coat anything: if you want something sweet, buy a lollipop. My advice is not for the weak, timid, faint of heart, etcetera, etcetera. I go hard, because artists (musicians) need to be told the harsh truth about their musicianship, marketing, business practices, and general attitude towards success.
Sorry to say, the music industry isn’t little league baseball, and no one receives a trophy for just showing up and swinging at the ball. Recently, a music industry colleague asked me, “Why are you so hard on artists?” Below, I have shared my response, but it was not what the person expected:
Back during the early days of my music career, I found myself suddenly thrust into the role of music producer. As a rapper/DJ and beat maker, I hadn’t the foggiest idea what a music producer was or what he or she does regarding making a record. In my tireless pursuit to make sense of the whole thing, I found myself reading books such as Confessions of a Record Producer by Moses Avalon, and the music industry unofficial bible, All You Need To Know About The Music Business by Donald S. Passman.
It goes without saying, as a 21 year-old college drop out and general “know-it-all,” I had no comprehension of what I had read, nor did anyone else I regularly came into contact with (I hung out with dummies in those days). Despite the many hurdles before me, I created a workaround (or so I thought) and continued my journey as a would-be music producer.
While working on my first major label project with a platinum-selling group, I found myself way over my head regarding production. Most days I felt like Indiana Jones lost in a jungle with a broken compass, an empty canteen, and an entire tribe of indigenous people looking to kick my ass. As the project moved forward, the job of music producer became increasingly difficult.
Finally, one night, things came to a head when the main engineer of the project (also a proven music producer) got sick of dealing with my insecurities, immaturity, cluelessness, and outright unprofessionalism.
What still resonates with me to this day is when the engineer pulled my card (i.e., called me on my BS) in front of the group and my manager… ”Sahpreem, you suck as a producer and have no business producing music!” he said.
Now, as a young man, barely out of the ‘hood, testosterone-fueled, and my own advisor, my choices were as follows:
a) Choke him to within an inch of his life (I was very close)
b) Call up my homies and have him “dealt with” (i.e., beaten and robbed in the studio)
c) Grow the F-up, humble myself, ask him probing questions to find out the reasons why he made such a harsh assessment of me.
As I am not writing this article from the confines of a prison cell, it should be obvious that I went with choice C. After getting my face out of whack from such a gut-wrenchingly embarrassing blow to the ego, I kindly pulled the engineer aside an asked him to elaborate on his statement.
Here is what I discovered (in random order):
• My pre-production was not up-to-par and all of the samples I used in my track had to be re-sampled on higher quality equipment.
• I was too busy trying to have sex with the girls I brought into each studio session.
• I didn’t arrange the choruses and harmonies of the song properly.
• I brought the wrong kind of studio recording tapes to the sessions (yes, we used tape in those days).
• Instead of being present during critical editing sessions, I was at the hotel getting high and having sex with groupies.
• I failed to properly coach the artists on the timing of the verses.
• I didn’t have proper clearance for the samples I used.
• The songs were not properly arranged for commercial release.
• Some of my samples were out of key.
• Poor studio etiquette (I violated a lot of studio policies).
Many of these things (if not all of them) could have been avoided provided I had a clue of what I was doing (or some good common sense). Looking back, I should have taken the time to learn my craft, consulted experts, found a mentor, or possibly gone to music school, but hard-headed people learn everything the hard way.
After my reality check, I got my act together and began my quest to learn all I could about music business and music production, which lead to becoming involved in more award-winning projects and prompted me to become a music industry book author and writer in 2005.
To sum it up, the reason I am so hard on artists is because I don’t want them to go through the tumultuous trials and tribulations I experienced during my journey. Or, the million-and-one horror stories artists tell about their journeys to success. Below, I have included a list of areas I check for when critiquing music (regardless of genre):
• Sonic Quality. Does the auditory component of your song sound professionally recorded, mixed, and mastered, or does it sound like something recorded in your bedroom closet?
• Clear Vocal Performance. Are you singing or rapping on or off beat, is your lyrical cadence consistent, are you in key, are your harmonies in tune, are your words clear?
• Song Structure. Are you following the commercial standard of song structure for singing or rapping, is your hook too long, too short, or just right; is the chorus, pre-hook, bridge, or change correct? There are many ways to format a song, but can the audience easily follow along with it?
• Music Production. Are the beats original or samples, did you clear the samples, is the music composition original or did you borrow the melody from another song? Is the instrumentation fresh or are you using the same keyboard, sample library, or sound banks as the songs that are currently on the radio? Does the song have cohesive structure, i.e., can you tell where the verse ends and the hook begins?
• Song Content. What is the subject matter you are singing or rapping about? Has another artist already said what you are trying to say? Does your song make a statement? Can the lyrics be sung at a wedding 20 years from now? Are the lyrics full of clichés? Are the rap lyrics violent, negative, ignorant, misogynist, or full of incoherent references to hood life or outdated pop culture?
• Commercial Viability. Can your song play on the radio? Does it have the potential to serve as the theme song for a television show, a movie, or consumer product? Is it comparable to other music in its genre?
• Originality. Is your music composition (and the lyrics) different from other songs that are already playing on the radio? Does your music have the ‘WOW’ factor that so many labels today are seeking? Can your music pass a comparative analysis test amongst your fanbase?
These are just a few of the criteria I utilize when consulting artists; however, every now and then, I’m presented with a music phenomenon that defies all of the obvious laws of “critiquifying” (as the comedians Key & Peele would call it). On the other hand, if multiple industry professionals have given your music their nod of approval, lack of musicianship may not be what’s holding you back.
As I mentioned earlier on, the timing may not be right for you to become successful. With that in mind, don’t lose faith, because not all hope is lost. Be sure to keep pushing towards improving yourself as a musician and as a person.
Also, adhere to any advice that is given to you by music industry professionals, especially when actionable items accompany their assessment of your talent. For example, singing lessons are an actionable item.
My closing advice is this: become a master of your craft. Allocate time and resources to building a better music career. Avoid shortcuts whenever possible. If you need to record in a professional recording studio, then stop being a cheap ass and do it.
If you need to find a better music producer, then start interviewing music producers ASAP. If you need to quit your current band (maybe they’re holding you back or vice versa) then quit. In the end, keep working towards your existing goals as well as creating new and more challenging career goals. Be patient, but more importantly stay resilient, and in the end, you may discover that it just wasn’t the right time.
If you are interested in reading more on my music industry perspective, check out my book, Dude, I Can Help You! 18 Mistakes Artists Make and How to Fix Them, at or follow me on Twitter @sahpreemking.
Image by Ed Schipul, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).