When I was in high school I was in a band. We had 6 members and each member played at least two instruments. We had a wide range of influences from Dave Matthews to Reel Big Fish to Billy Joel to Steve Miller to Phish and that “ooga chaka” song. We covered it all. We thought we were so original because we played so many different styles of music.
What I eventually realized was we were not original. We had a serious identity crisis.
When I started out my singer/songwriter career in college, Dave Matthews, John Mayer and Jack Johnson were the cliches. If you were a dude who played guitar and cited them as your influences it was scene suicide. The newspapers, blogs, and hipsters would shut off to you. But if you cited Bob Dylan, Elliot Smith or, really, any obscure band ‘you probably haven’t heard of,’ then you were golden. Or so we thought.
But then I started getting my first newspaper reviews and I was compared to DMB, John Mayer and Jack Johnson, but also to a bunch of other artists (old and new). Some were actual influences of mine and some I’d never heard before.
What I realized was that reviewers don’t list obscure bands that you sound like because it does their readers no good.
Well maybe on Pitchfork they do. That’s another story.
Mature music reviewers don’t need to show off by comparing obscure bands to obscure bands. They want to help their readers decide if the band they are reviewing is worth checking out FOR THEM. So, reviewers compare newer artists to artists most people will know.
I just got an email from someone telling me he was ‘truly original’ and didn’t know how to sell himself. It took me 30 seconds to pin 3 famous artists on it immediately. He was not ‘truly original’ – as much as he wanted to believe it.
Young artists get self conscious and embarrassed when people tell them they sound like someone else. Every young artist wants to believe he is truly original. He is the next Dylan. She is the next Joni Mitchell. They are the next Beatles. It’s an insult to be cited as ‘sounding like’ anyone. Young artists fear they will be called unoriginal, or worse, plagiarists.
Well Dylan stole from Woody Guthrie, the Beatles stole from Carl Perkins and Joni stole from Billie Holiday. But the way they did it was new. They grew as artists and eventually grew into themselves and became icons of a generation.
If you can’t figure out who you sound like, ask other musicians. I’m sure they’ll be able to tell you. You probably sound like your biggest influences – no matter how much you rebel against it. And it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Own it.
When people ask you who you sound like, have 2-3 WELL KNOWN acts to say. When you are asked who your influences are be truthful.
Don’t be ashamed to say you are influenced by bands who are well known. Or new. Or not considered cool. All people want is authenticity.
Citing obscure artists as your biggest influences (when they’re not) may give some hipsters a lazy lob, but those you are trying to win a story out of (or a fan out of) will glaze over and move on. If you are targeting the 7 people in Portland who are fans of your favorite band, then ok then.
That being said, there is a level of respect that is gained when you reveal you are a student of music and respect the history of your influences. After my high school DMB obsession, I delved into the bands that influenced them: The Beatles, Dylan, Weather Report, Chili Peppers, Paul Simon, Buddy Rich and Coltrane.
If you are influenced by Miley Cyrus. Truly. Then exclaim that proudly. If your favorite band is Nickelback or if all you listen to (honestly) is 50s doo wop, put it in your press release.
It seemed so uncool back in college to say I was influenced by Dave Matthews, but now, it’s kind of retro and cool again.
My music doesn’t really sound like DMB anymore – it did at one point.
The Beach Boys originally sounded like Chuck Berry and Zeppelin like Muddy Waters, but they grew into their own.
And you will too.
Ari Herstand is a Los Angeles based DIY singer/songwriter and the creator of Ari’s Take. His record release show is March 29th at the Hotel Cafe in Hollywood. Get tickets here. Listen to his music here. Follow him on Twitter: @aristake
Photo used by the Creative Commons license from Flickr by Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer