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Sometimes, Failure Has Nothing to do With the Music…

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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).

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Comments (50)
  1. Anonymous

    “Can the lyrics be sung at a wedding 20 years from now?”

    Hehe, I wouldn’t use that as a success parameter if I were you.

    And here’s another piece of advice you might consider adding to your list: Don’t spend 3 years writing 30 songs. Spend 2 writing 1.

    Anyway, nice to see a serious article after Nina’s and Ari’s trash.


    Reply
    1. Paul Resnikoff

      Oh thanks for leaving me out Anonymous! I write way better trash then either of those guys combined.


      Reply
      1. Anonymous

        Nah, you don’t write trash, you’re just annoying. Like GGG. :)


        Reply
    2. GGG

      Spend 2 years writing 1 song? No wonder your career is in the shitter.

      Write as much as you can, maybe you’ll get 30 songs maybe you’ll get 1.

      Also, advice #1: Never pay someone to critique your music.


      Reply
      1. Anonymous

        “Write as much as you can, maybe you’ll get 30 songs maybe you’ll get 1″

        That’s not how it works. It’s way more productive to invest all your talent in one song at a time and stay with that song as long as it takes.

        Especially when it hurts. That’s when it begins to grow.


        Reply
        1. GGG

          Again, no wonder your career is in the shitter.

          There’s no one universal way to make art the best you can. However, in terms of modern rock/pop music, I guarantee you if we asked 100 of the best living songwriters, probably none of them will have worked exclusively on a single song for a year, let alone two. Maybe it takes a year or two to finish a song, but they would have written many more in that time.


          Reply
          1. Anonymous

            “There’s no one universal way to make art the best you can”

            True. And some of the most wonderful songs are written within hours. I love the way Boudleaux Bryant followed his wife around the house with a notebook when she improvised her songs.

            But what’s keeping most tunes away from the charts is impatience and the need for instant gratification. Writers stop when it hurts, and that’s sad. One hit changes your life. Ten turkeys won’t buy you a dinner.

            “Maybe it takes a year or two to finish a song, but they would have written many more in that time.”

            I’ll kind of meet you there. Writers never stop writing. But the successful ones will tell you that a hit isn’t written — it’s rewritten. Over and over and over again.

            And that’s particularly true for the most simple tunes.


            Reply
        2. R.P.

          have to agree with GGG. Your ideology is far too subjective.


          Reply
        3. hippydog

          Quote “That’s not how it works. It’s way more productive to invest all your talent in one song at a time and stay with that song as long as it takes.”

          Artists create differently.. IE: each to their own..
          there is no right way or wrong way to create..
          What works for you, might not work for the next person..

          nuff said?


          Reply
      2. hippydog

        Quote “Also, advice #1: Never pay someone to critique your music.”

        I disagree,
        sure, the “value” of paying someone to be honest with you is never really there,
        but on the other hand SO MANY artists really have no idea that they are stuck in cycle of mediocrity
        IE: they are ‘just good enough’ that they have some fans and friends that keep their ego inflated just enough they never actually become great.. Then they spend years wondering why they never go anywhere..

        sometimes that 3rd party might be just enough to nudge them into a better path..

        in my opinion ;-)


        Reply
        1. GGG

          Oh, I 100% agree a third party is often essential, especially if you are in a slump, but I think there are far more ways to get that input without paying for it. Based on experience of knowing/knowing of people that do that or similar things, I just think that practice is extremely predatory and takes advantage of delusional and/or naive people.

          I was a little too harsh on the guy in another post, he does give some good advice and it seems has a ton of experience which can be valuable, I just really do not like that practice.


          Reply
          1. hippydog

            Quote ” I just think that practice is extremely predatory and takes advantage of delusional and/or naive people.”
            Just 10 years ago I would have 100% agreed with you.. Over time I realized that the huge amounts of “free” advice is in someways more harmful..
            it aint “predatory” its capitalism ;-)


            Reply
            1. GGG

              Those things are certainly not mutually exclusive. In fact, I’d say they often go hand in hand.


              Reply
    3. hippydog

      Quote ““Can the lyrics be sung at a wedding 20 years from now?”

      Hehe, I wouldn’t use that as a success parameter if I were you.”

      Actually thats very good advice.. and pretty much dead on with reality


      Reply
      1. Anonymous

        Many of the songs I love would never be used at a wedding. :)


        Reply
  2. Faza (TCM)

    It is nice to read someone who knows their stuff for a change – although I would qualify much of the above with “if that’s the audience you’re looking to attract”. Not everyone is looking for mainstream pop success and many of us might have better luck (to say nothing of staying power) in niche markets. Except that means you have to apply the same kind of reasoning to whatever niche you’re aiming for – plus put in the work to becoma a master of that.

    My two cents would be something I learned as a programmer: fail fast, fail often, learn from your mistakes. If you do get your big break, you don’t want to mess it up ‘coz you’re clueless. If you don’t, you’ll still be building a solid foundation for your future works. Strange as it may sound, if you keep slogging away and getting gradually better, someone will be paying attention.


    Reply
    1. Anonymous

      It’s easy. All you need to do is produce good art and the money and power will come.


      Reply
      1. Anonymous

        “It’s easy.”

        You couldn’t be more wrong.

        “All you need to do is produce good art and the money and power will come.”

        You couldn’t be more right.


        Reply
  3. Minneapolis Musician

    Out of 100 songs that are enjoyable and fresh enough to be a hit, only 1 or 2 will actually be a hit…due to MANY factors besides the music.

    Nobody knows which ones will take off. Nobody.

    Artists with many platinum hits will tell you they never know which ones take off, or why. After the fact, people make up explanations.

    So you have to write a lot of them and see what happens. Working 24 months on one song?

    Waste of time, as I see it. The audience is not demanding enough to require music that takes 24 months of high-grade effort. This ain’t Beethoven or Gershwin or Ellington-type stuff that is required.

    Lots of luck involved when it comes to “good enough” pop music. Don’t kid yourselves and think effort = control of the result.

    http://www.reverbnation.com/GlennGalen


    Reply
    1. Anonymous

      “This ain’t Beethoven or Gershwin or Ellington-type stuff that is required”

      Yes — that’s EXACTLY what is required!

      How can you even say this??? I don’t get it.

      You have the brightest audience ever. Don’t insult it.


      Reply
      1. Minneapolis Musician

        Right. They loved “What Does the Fox Say”?


        Reply
        1. Anonymous

          I haven’t heard it (believe it or not :)).

          But the audience is always right imo.


          Reply
          1. Anonymous


            Reply
            1. Minneapolis Musician

              It ain’t Beethoven or Gershwin, and certainly shouldn’t take two years of heard work to come up with.


              Reply
              1. Minneapolis Musician

                or even hard work!


                Reply
                1. Minneapolis Musician

                  But it was gotten more than 333,000,000 views so far. Check the numbers.

                  So that’s your huge pop audience and what they love.


                  Reply
                  1. Anonymous

                    Again, I haven’t heard it.

                    But try to think of the audience as a person you know: Sometimes, she wants to have fun. Sometimes, she wants to be moved. Sometimes, she wants sex.

                    Put it all together, and you’ll know she’s right.


                    Reply
      2. GGG

        Wait wait wait….you think that’s required for top 40 radio? You just insulted Beethoven, Gershwin and Ellington about as badly as you can. Name one Top 40 artist that displays a fraction of the talent those guys had.


        Reply
        1. Anonymous

          “Wait wait wait….you think that’s required for top 40 radio? You just insulted Beethoven, Gershwin and Ellington about as badly as you can.”

          We know Beethoven and the Gershwins (don’t know what Ellington’s doing here) today because of their top 40 hits. Beethoven wouldn’t have survived without his da-da-dam and his da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-dam — and Schiller.

          Name one Top 40 artist that displays a fraction of the talent those guys had.

          I don’t even know where to begin.


          Reply
          1. GGG

            Top 40 in 1800 and 1930 is a little different than top 40 now.

            Ok, name 10 pop stars from the last 20 years that you would put at the same level as Beethoven and Gershwin. This should be good…


            Reply
            1. Anonymous

              “Top 40 in 1800 and 1930 is a little different than top 40 now”

              What you love about the good old days is hype. There’s no end to the amount of self-indulgence composers were allowed in the classical era.

              They got away with producing hours and hours of album fillers in return for very few hits.

              Not so today. Only hits are allowed.


              Reply
              1. GGG

                Irrelevant. What I love about the “good old days” (which, honestly, in this discussion is up through the mid-90s to me) is that objectively high quality musicianship was still a normal thing, whether people realized it or not, and whether or not someone had 1 hit out of 100 songs or 90 hits out of a 100 songs. Were there bland pop stars with silly songs? Sure, but there was also an equally popular artist who knew their shit and could play.

                Most top 40 pop stars for the past 15 years have not been musicians, they are a face of a brand. Jennifer Lopez didn’t even know what a pentatonic scale was on American Idol last night. She’s had a music career for like 15 years, never bothered to understand one of the principle aspects of the pop/R&B music she sings?

                Now, since most people don’t really know what they are hearing, I think tastes can certainly go back to high caliber musicianship sometime in the future, and really it still is important is almost every other genre of music. But in the meantime, the more we have people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing or in the case of many songwriters, are legitimately talented musicians who have no shame to write re-hashed, gimmicky songs, we’re going to keep getting re-hashed, gimmicky songs that people don’t care about 3 months later. This is why modern pop acts shelf-lives are so short. The music is disposable, there’s 30 people on one record, there’s no emotional connection, etc.

                There’s a reason Adele has sold almost 30M records.


                Reply
                1. Minneapolis Musician

                  GGG,

                  It was Clear Channel radio in the 90s and beyond that has done this.

                  To them, music was just “content” to keep the audience tuned it so Clear Channel could play them commercials.

                  Just like YouTube (as Don Henly said in the article on this site)…just “content”.

                  The DJs who loved music and wanted to play new, exciting things for you…they were automated and disappeared.

                  Result: a generation or two that has never even HEARD innovative pop and rock music.

                  — Glenn

                  http://www.reverbnation.com/GlennGalen


                  Reply
                  1. GGG

                    I agree it was the telecom act and CC that was the vehicle for this, but the industry is still the people supplying the shit.

                    I use Adele as an example all the time because one of my favorite moments in Grammy history is whatever year she won all the awards, (2012 show I guess). The night had been filled with all these “hot” committee-made pop stars performing with probably 6-figure stage setups with lights and pyro and backup dancers and all that shit.

                    Then there’s Adele. Sings with like a 5 piece band a couple backup singers on a dark stage. She’s not conventionally attractive by pop standards, she’s over-weight, blah blah. But she had the best performance because it was genuine. Meanwhile she’s selling more albums that probably everyone else that performed combined. Yet majors keep pushing out these brands instead of musicians. It doesn’t make any sense. Adele isn’t some musical genius, she’s just the only one making music as opposed to a commodity to sell a brand.


                    Reply
    2. R.P.

      not necessarily true. ask Ron Fair.


      Reply
    3. hippydog

      Quote “Nobody knows which ones will take off. Nobody”

      I do, but for some reason no one listens to me ;-)


      Reply
  4. River Waters

    This is all hackneyed advice, but I suppose someone has got to repeat it, again. Rap, which he mentions a lot, isn’t even music; it’s organized noise. But people buy it because they hear something in it that confirms what’s already in their hearts. That doesn’t make it any good. People go to McDonalds every day to eat that crap.

    Very, very, very few people listen to music to expand their awareness, but that is precisely what music, at its greatest, can do.

    The author forgets the audience, which sometimes just does not understand what the performer is getting at, he is that far in advance of them. The French and the art critics of the time dismissed Van Gogh. That is also a cause for commercial failure that has nothing to do with the work.


    Reply
    1. Anonymous

      “This is all hackneyed advice”

      That’s for sure, but it’s a step up after Nina’s and Ari’s give-your-property-away nonsense because it’s true.


      Reply
      1. GGG

        Ari’s I’m-doing-this-right-now-with-my-career advice is infinitely more useful than an article by a guy hocking books, who’s one step away from a self-help scam artist. Charging bands for advice? C’mon, that’s music industry scamming 101.

        But it makes sense you like him. You’re not too dissimilar I imagine.


        Reply
        1. Anonymous

          I didn’t say I like him. I suggested that he provides more useful information for new acts than Nina and Ari, but that doesn’t say much.


          Reply
  5. Iain

    Unfortunate that so much practical advice is delivered with so many glaring and juvenile writing errors. He is a professional writer?? REALLY? Sure I understand the use of “street” colloquialisms, but plain old spelling and basic grammar issues are simply sloppy and unacceptable. More importantly, they undermine the authority of the article. It is rather disappointing that such an article is republished here with no acknowledgement of all the high-school level writing errors.
    “Jus’ sayin’.” ;)


    Reply
    1. Ignorance is bliss

      I see that you are the type of person that goes to the movie theatre and critiques the quality of the popcorn, but couldn’t tell someone what the movie was about. Rather than focusing on the spelling and grammatical errors, how about focusing on the content of the message?


      Reply
    2. Danwriter

      Well put. I was debating whether to address the prose, starting with the first sentence: “How man times have we seen artists…” (Some of the content is debatable, too, but that’s another story.) Not giving guest posts at least a cursory edit pass does indeed diminish the authority of the content, and the site itself.


      Reply
    3. Paul Resnikoff

      You guys are right. We didn’t edit carefully enough and unfortunately it affected the impact of the argument.


      Reply
      1. TheReanimator

        ok well then um, how about *fixing* it then????


        Reply
  6. Chris

    My one piece of advice for any band when in a studio – record EVERYTHING. As soon as you step through the door start recording. Record your guitarists tuning up – the amount of times I’ve heard amazing riffs coming out of a warm up would astound you. That first take of a record? Nearly always the best one!

    That tune that your bassist has been humming to himself for days? Get him to record it – jam around with it but record it. You’d be amazed what can and most often will come out of it.

    Oh and your A&R man? Keep him as far away as possible!


    Reply
    1. @sahpreemking

      Chris…good advice. In retrospect, that is something I would have liked to included. I’m a strong believer in recording everything and I apply the same concept to filming. You never know, when you’ve struck gold until you start editing takes. Also, I have been in several situations where the A&R—also a music producer—was too hands on during a project, which pisses of the producer and causes the band to have doubt about what they’re recording.


      Reply
  7. R.P.

    One of the better articles on DMN, but what he should be crediting is an engineer that cared enough to tell him that his stuff was shit, and what he needs to propose to students and young kids that want to get into the game is to study from a very scholastic level, as much as they can. Theory of music, music notes, voice leading (if possible), song writing, etc etc. The more they study it, the less they will see that although a fair amount of luck exists in the industry, as it always has, you can make it less about luck and more about science and math. There are proven winning formulas in the music industry, and very, very little people who even know what they are and how to achieve the results.


    Reply
    1. @sahpreemking

      RP,
      Sound advice! I couldn’t agree more…
      Back in those days, music business and industry related education and training was in short supply and very high-priced. In fact, most music programs on the college level wouldn’t accept you if your weren’t a musician, but now their are schools all over the place and the internet is full of knowledge, so their shouldn’t be any excuses today, why artists don’t put in the work.


      Reply
  8. Veteran - US MUSIC INDUSTRY 1970-today

    standing ovation sir. as a consultant to upstart bands/artists I amplify much of what you state.


    Reply

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