Why No One Cares About Your Music

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The hardest thing for musicians to hear — and the reason so many are held back for so long — lies in a simple, nauseating realization: your music doesn’t matter.

Of course I think the music matters.  All musicians are passionately, desperately and hopelessly in love with music.  It’s why we chose such a difficult career path.  But, most people who are music fans and music reviewers, unfortunately, aren’t as obsessed with the music itself.

Yes, high school girls will sport “music is my boyfriend” tumblr themes and music reviewers will claim to have a “love” for music, but they don’t.  Not like we do.  It is our nourishment, our water, our air, and our lover.

Musicians turn down high paying jobs all the time for the pursuit of our dream and our passion – even if it keeps us in the poor house a lot longer than our non-musician peers.

What am I getting at?  If you’re going to manage your music career then you have to understand who you are targeting and what sells.  If you want to make a living with music then you must understand that people need a story.  Your music isn’t enough.  Yes, of course, your music has to be solid and undeniable if you want to reach the level of professionalism that I’m assuming you are striving for, but that’s only the beginning.

You must have a great story!

Everyone has a great story, but most just don’t realize it yet.  People love to be in the know and to be able to educate their friends about their favorite new band’s backstory.  Radio stations love to be able to give the 10 second explanation of why you stand out.  Jay Leno needs a two line introduction that will get people to stick around.  And journalists, especially, need a story to write about.

When was the last time you read a review about a band in your local newspaper (or Pitchfork) that discussed the music: the song structure, guitar tones, harmonic and melodic choices, drum tones, the pocket, innovative syncopation, varied time signatures, sonic flourishes, unusual studio techniques that they HEARD in the recording and not told by the press release?  The things that musicians get off to, reviewers and average listeners couldn’t give two shits about.

And that, my friends, is the disconnect and the reason publicists and managers exist.

You need to find the most interesting storyline for your project and run with it.

Everywhere.  This should be your band bio, listed in your press release, told in interviews, written up everywhere about you.  It’s the “he was discovered busking on the streets of LA and now has chart topping radio hits” story.  Adele’s breakup album.  Taylor Swift’s love life.  The White Stripes’ brother/sister/husband/wife/ex-husband/ex-wife confusion.  Bruno Mars’ behind the scenes songwriting career.  Bon Iver’s northern woods of Wisconsin home recording.  Deadmou5′ giant, demented mouse head.

You need something that every newspaper reviewer wants to write about.  The story that bumps every other album release off the cover.  The story every die hard fan tells their friends when showing them your YouTube video.  Some bands decide to go the gimmick route: performing in costume or focusing on their weird instruments.  And that’s fine.  As long as there is a tangible story that people can talk about.

A great song is one thing, but a great song with an amazing backstory is what will put you above everyone else.

Photo is a video screenshot of the Minneapolis based rock band the 4onthefloor. They are a great example of a band with an excellent story (and killer music). I profiled the lead singer, Gabriel Douglas, in How 10 Musicians Make Good Livings In Today’s Music Industry.

57 Responses

  1. @sahpreemking

    Nice piece Ari!

    I have an uncle, “Brooklyn Ron” who used to always tell me (when I was a rapper in the 90’s) I needed a gimmick. His wife (my aunt Hildy) used to design clothes for the rap group the “Fat Boys”, so I guess by my uncle’s standards, being fat was their gimmick…LMAO! During family get together’s, he would mention that I do things such as, wearing a jeweled hubcap or clock around my neck, or getting a midget to be in my rap group, long before Flava Flav and the Ghetto Boyz where on the scene. I guess in some way he was on to something, but I agree, that every artist needs a hook, and that hook should be a “good story”, but a true one. Too many artists particularly rappers invent their own back stories i.e. Rick Ross—a notorious big time drug dealer—who just so happened to be (in real life) a former Miami-Dade Corrections Officer. Too bad for rappers, the rise from “the hood” story has been over done.

  2. hippydog

    Quote “What am I getting at? If you’re going to manage your music career then you have to understand who you are targeting and what sells”

    Everyone should write out that statement and post it on their fridge door..
    not kidding even one little bit..

  3. Paul Resnikoff

    “The things that musicians get off to, reviewers and average listeners couldn’t give two shits about.”

    That’s a dangerous statement Ari, because it could convince artists to de-emphasize the incredible nuances and details of their music, which takes lots of thought and endless time to master. Because I don’t think that fans don’t give two shits, rather, they don’t consciously give two shits about that stuff.

    For example, musicologists can discuss all sorts of differences in the musical approach of the Beatles, and average fans would quickly tune out of that discussion. It’s boring! Only a tiny percentage of people can appreciate or care about music theory and composition. But that doesn’t mean they are not responding on another, perhaps deeper (and not conscious, less cerebral) way! And that can mean everything.

    • Ari Herstand

      Great point Paul. However I’ve never met a musician that compromises their quality out of laziness. Creating quality music is what musicians live for. It goes without saying that the music needs to be quality. Musicians need to also win over fellow musicians (not just average fans and reviewers) to gain respect and recognition. If a more established musician becomes a fan, then their fans and naturally reviewers will jump on board. Hl THAT could then be the story… ala Carly Rae Jepsen /Justin Bieber.

      • Yep

        Ari, you may want to watch ‘Howard Goodall’s – The History of Music’ (BBC 1) In particular, he studied the late 20th century and ‘The Beatles’ He analysed their catalogue in the context if the last 500 years of anglo-American music composition. He concluded by saying that ‘The Beatles’ catalogue represented almost every single music movement from the 15th century to present day + therefore they are the best music makers of the last 500 years.

        Most fans of this band are not (consciously) aware of this. However, I would argue that it is (unconsciously) genetically hard wired into us. So, most sane individuals instinctively ‘care’ about The Beatles, without really understanding why.

        The reason they care so much is because it is vital for progression of the human race. By putting these musicians on a pedestal we are, literally, keeping ourselves alive + giving ourselves a reason to LIVE.

        • GGG

          Yes, I agree with you and what MM said below. Most people don’t know anything about how music works. Hell, there’s people who make music who don’t even know basics. But I think most of the songs we see as classic, whether it’s literally classical music or a modern era classic, i.e. The Beatles, have objective elements that made/make them standout. Same thing with artists. Their entire catalogue may not be riveting hits and they probably even have some bad songs, but they have many more quality tracks because their objective talent is not just mediocre.

          To me, it doesn’t particularly matter if the general populous knows those things are because people like whatever moves them. I don’t expect the world to suddenly major in music theory, so it doesn’t matter. So it’s more on the creators to be better musicians, it’s more on the labels to back more deserving artists, its more on the ‘inside’ to push each other to be better, work harder, etc. This is why I hate how many legitimately talented songwriters have no shame making such disposable pop music. It’s an insult to the people who have made long-lasting hits while keeping integrity.

          • Yep

            Yep. If you listen to a lot of music then it’s easy to identify rubbish music compared to a ‘classic’ timeless track.

            The culinary equivalent would be a McDonalds burger compared to some fine dining. You feel full and satisfied after the burger BUT within 30 minutes you feel ill and want to get the hell out of the restaurant! Go to a good quality restaurant and your become satisfied, you want to hang out there and you feel great for hours after it.

            The problem is a few days later to want to go back to McDonalds for another fix, you don’t have the time (or the money) to eat a the great restaurant. That’s why the charts is full of rubbish music.

  4. Minneapolis Musician

    Excellent point, Paul.

    The audience usually won’t know exactly why they feel a tingle and an excitement from a certain song, but as a musician you know it’s because you modulated between a minor and a major harmony in the hook.

    Of course, I am always saying that the pop audience today seems to be conditioned to enjoying good enough music. Typically stuff with a strong beat and an attitude sung by attractive or interesting people who have an image. It’s more image and attitude, I suspect.

    • Me

      “the pop audience today seems to be conditioned to enjoying good enough music. Typically stuff with a strong beat and an attitude sung by attractive or interesting people who have an image. It’s more image and attitude, I suspect.”

      It’s ALWAYS been that way.

      • Minneapolis Musician

        Yes, it no doubt always has been that way.

        The Beatles were an interesting case of being 1) Interesting, attractive personalities that young girls could swoon over, and 2) Extremely dedicated and creative songwriters and experimenters who had great record engineering and production support.

        Therefore they got the widespread pop adulation AS WELL AS the respect from more sophisticated music lovers.

  5. Jonathan

    It is not up to the musicians to create stories. This is the journalists’ job description. Oh. I forgot: uneducated bloggers are not journalists. So they don’t get what “job description” means. Not our fault!

    If you think Miles Davis spent one second of his day to “make a story” you are either very high on drugs or just visiting planet Earth from another universe.

    • Ari Herstand

      You’re right, Miles Davis, or any of the other major label artists with full teams back in the day did not create their stories. But it’s a different era my friend. DIY musicians were not successful in the era of Miles either – they are now (because they do shit like this).

      My point is, musicians cannot sit back and wait for people to “discover” them and make everything happen for them because they think they have a great song or great album. It doesn’t work like that. Not today.

      If musicians want to succeed (or advance) BEFORE they have management, (expensive) publicist or a label, then they have to take on these duties themselves.

    • Me

      Not every artist needs to create a story, but there are definitely some that do. The White Stripes created a story that they were brother & sister, and when it was revealed they weren’t related but were actually married at one point, that became another story. On top of that they had a specific imagery (white & red stripes) and dress. And then there was the music.

    • Ken

      Actually Miles was very conscious of his image and spent a great deal of time crafting one. He also made a conscious decision to change his music to fit his audience in the ’60s and again in the nineties. People praise his pioneering off jazz / rock fusion but neglect the fact that he ridiculed musicians for going electric and playing the type of free jazz he later was lauded for with Bitches Brew. And of course at the end of his career his covering Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper tunes had more to do with trying to stay current and reach a new audience than with finding those chord structures challenging to play. Miles Davis was definitely the real deal but his public persona was also a deliberate crafting of heightened reality. Miles was no fool and when it came to the business of music Miles spent a lot more than a minute thinking about the business side of his music and image.

  6. CK

    We speak about music in terms of the musician’s story because we are (or are becoming) unable to speak about music in terms of sound and emotion. We’ve become accustomed to a well-known wine and have lost our pallet for a good wine. Identity has given way to sensationalism. The greatest thing music ever did for us was allow us to create the stories for ourselves.

    • Minneapolis Musician

      In many ways pop music provides “anthems” for certain demographic groups. These groups can then “sing their feelings and affliation” by singing and playing the songs.

  7. Chris H

    Nobody cares because, not to sound like a 50’s “rekkid” guy, it’s got to be relatable. For me, I can’t stand whiny ballads, but others can’t get enough. For me, a great beat, being danceable and a catchy hook go a very long way, for others not at all.

    Point is, know what your going for and be fully committed to that.

  8. Dave

    Hi Ari,

    Simply put, you’re explaining to everyone the concept of branding and you’re dead on target. Every successful endeavor, artistic or otherwise, starts with a brand that must be promoted to reach an audience or a customer. An interesting story becomes part of an artist’s brand. Stop by MS next time you blow through Mpls.


  9. Jeff Robinson

    In viral marketing this concept doesn’t fly:

    “You must have a great story!”

    Complete nonsense. Making a novelty video or prostituting you music through gimickry is NOT a story.

    • GGG

      It’s not necessarily about going viral. Not everyone wants to go viral, since almost all of those people crash and burn within a year or two, or shrink right back down to moderate obscurity. 20 people showed up to a Carly Rae Jepsen meet-and-greet in Toronto the other day, for example. Biggest song in the world for a year, nobody gives a shit now. Psy? Gotye? Where are these people?

      I have no desire for any of my bands to go viral. Unless you’ve got a record filled with songs that have the same the exact same or greater magic as the one blowing up, you already enter that realm of one-hit-wonder, no matter how good the song is. It’s just the mentality of a viral-hit-of-the-summer.

      Making/having a story will at least let your press (if you get any) be spread out as more people might want to cover it in a non-kneejerk way. If they’re interested in YOUR story as opposed to having to jump on the viral hit bandwagon.

    • Ari Herstand

      I know it’s hard to stomach, Jeff, and it’s definitely not cool for the general music loving audience to hear – let alone musicians, but the genuine ‘story’ I’m encouraging (like the examples above) are honest pieces that make you unique. Something, like the Bon Iver story, that people can talk about. Bon Iver’s music feels like the northern woods of Wisconsin – so it all made sense and beautifully fit with the music.

      The White Stripes are another example of gimmick AND story (and great music).

      But I think people are misreading this, thinking I’m saying that bands should care more about the story than the music. Not true. And as stated above: your music has to be solid and undeniable first… but that’s only the beginning.

  10. Analog Music News

    Ari and Paul,

    It’s hard to say this without sounding like a troll, so I’ll just direct you to the main thrust of this article, which wasn’t even news in 1962.

    I come here for digital music news – and I do get that sometimes, which is nice – but isn’t there another marketing maxim that says “If you’re advertising a product, deliver that product”?

    “You Gotta Have a Gimmick,” from Gypsy, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

    If your embed tags don’t work: http://youtu.be/gFRSawe33sA

    If they do:

  11. Jeremy

    It could just be me, but I respectfully disagree with the main premise here. As someone who receives untold number of unsolicited emails from promoters and musicians every day, I can assure you that I care not a whit about anyone’s story or back story or anything else until I hear the music. The music makes me interested in a band’s story, not vice versa.

    And, as a matter of fact, the more I am pitched something that seems obviously constructed to assure me how interesting a band’s story is, the less I am inclined to want to read it.

    But I understand that that’s just me. Given that I’m also someone who passionately cares about things like chord changes and song structure and melodic choices, I’m probably off about this as well. 🙂

    • Ari Herstand

      Wish there were more like you Jeremy.

      Buuuuuut, once you LOVE the music, wouldn’t you like to easily find a story to share with your friends when you tell them about your new favorite band? Other than “dude, you HAVE to hear this bridge where they seamlessly float into the minor 3rd, change keys three times, syncopate the hi hat to foreshadow the final chorus’s new tempo just before sliding back into the original tonic?” – I imagine eyes glazing over…

  12. Jeremy Wray

    Hmmm… I have to say, that all the music I’ve ever fallen in love with, from Simon & Garfunkel, to Bob Dylan, to U2, to The Smiths and Talking Heads etc., I did because I heard the music. Either on the radio or played by freinds. Not because I heard a “story” about the band.

    Thus if it’s two shits we’re talking about, then for me it’s the story of the band that I couldn’t give them for.

  13. Veteran Talent Buyer / Promoter

    I’m a buyer, buying consultant, and talent consultant. I currently have over 50 clients who retain me on an annual basis.

    It’s not the music – it’s not about the music. Not purely. It is about the performance of that music. Everyone loves a good song sung well, and it is true there are only two kinds of music – that which we like and that we which we do not like – there’s good music and there’s bad music, as the saying goes.

    We as buyers need a story to sell our audience. It starts with a great act. You must be inspiring to start with. That’s the minimum expectation. Beginners need not apply. Neophytes need not apply. We’re looking for people highly skilled at their craft who have the ability to ENTERTAIN an audience. That word, entertain, means different things to different people – even among buyers.

    We too often set our sights on lofty places, when the money is right in front of us. I see at least 20 acts a month, and I listen to at least 30 new releases a month. Once we move past the obvious skill applied, it gets down to the “X Factor,” that undefinable component of personality and expression that connects with a broad audience.

    My best advice after 40 years? Think globally, but damn sure be the biggest whale locally. We who buy local talent love those kinds of fishes.

    • bullshit

      This is pure bullshit. There are no people looking for talent. There is no such thing as “talent buyer” outside the very narrow pop-shitty-production-limiter-noise genre that dominates the bought Top 20.

      I challenge you to give your official website to prove that you are who you claim you are.

      • Ari Herstand

        A “Talent Buyer” is a person who books music in clubs, festivals, etc. That’s what they are called. Every club has one. “Booker” and “talent buyer” are synonymous.

      • GGG

        I challenge you to read a book on how the music industry works.

    • Versus

      “that which we like and that we which we do not like – there’s good music and there’s bad music, as the saying goes”

      Like/dislike is not the same as good/bad…
      Music journalism should discuss the good/bad, but it just focuses on gossip instead.

  14. Mark H

    You make some very valid points here, but I would suppose it cannot be over-stressed that this advice is only pertinent if you are trying to make music your career – which is almost impossible, quite frankly. I don’t think you took it far enough! At the point of making music your career, you should be eating, breathing, and living with self-promotion as the main focus. It’s sad, but true. That’s extremely tough to do, and I’ve seen many high hopes dashed upon the rocks when it became very evident that becoming a “star” is based upon nothing more than the finicky tastes of the time and not much to do with actual talent or hard work. On the other hand, you can build a small and loyal following that appreciates your art for what it is – you may never make it a real career, but you can get the satisfaction of knowing that you have more to stand on than a fleeting image. Thanks for the post!

  15. Fab

    As a music lover/buyer, I agree with importance of the stories. I can like Bon Iver or Radiohead, but I don’t give a f*** about their next album, live act, if I’ve no connection with their personalities, which is attested by their stories. We have lot of bands now, new music and new bands are discovered every month, only a special connection with the artists can build a long term relationship.

  16. Minneapolis Musician

    How come painters and other visual artists don’t have these discussions about how to be rock stars?

    • Minneapolis Musician

      Meaning, visual “rock stars”. Famous artists.

  17. Darby

    “Yes, high school girls will sport “music is my boyfriend” tumblr themes and music reviewers will claim to have a “love” for music, but they don’t. Not like we do. It is our nourishment, our water, our air, and our lover.”

    This is so true, it makes me almost sad because these days no one really understands that the way we feel for music is more than just an emotion. I couldn’t agree more with this article. It’s very unfortunate that music has to be such a difficult career path to choose.

  18. Montey Rosbeth

    Thinking up a gimmick one day, we decided to be the only band that wouldn’t play a single note under any circumstance… silence… music’s original alternative. And then, just when we thought that fame would last forever, along came this band that wasn’t even together. Now that’s alternative.

  19. Ben

    The thing is that we have become a disposable society because there’s a constant influx of fresh talent. Not a couple, not a hand full, not a hundred but millions. Do you see how many people audition for American idol? They all want to be rock stars.

    How many times have you seen a street musician just kill it. Perfect pitch, great voice. The sad truth is that he probably makes more than most people will in their music career. I was at the farmers market and this middle aged guy has a huge bowl full of money. Easily $100 for 2 hours.

    Everybody has talent! When the supply is high the demand is low because there are a thousand other artists that sound the same so what’s the incentive to stick with one past the one hit wonder stage. Unless the powers that be, I.e. Big labels that can get you a spot on the tonight show or something, no one cares about your music. You have to be validated by someone of authority and that’s what a big label does. They go around and shop you around like ,”check out so and so,”. Over and over again. Without that you got nothing.

    Till you are on the map no one gives a shit. It’s just like high school!

  20. Greg

    You bring up some good points, but I think having an interesting story to tell is only part of the equation. Having an interesting back story doesn’t always equate to success as a musician. I can think of plenty of bands that have backstories with enough substance for a film adaptation. For example, Swedish black metal band Dissection. Their vocalist was a satanist, went to prison for murder, and when he got out, recorded an album, then killed himself. This band has been around for 20+ years and is still virtually unknown outside of the metal underground. Compare that to someone like Beyonce or Lady Gaga. Surely, neither of them have a backstory that is as interesting. I think the best path to success in music is making yourself marketable. An interesting backstory can help your band be marketable, but much more of being marketable relies on the ability to capture the ethos, or zeitgeist, if you will, of pop culture at the moment. Trends come and go. People want to find ways to represent themselves to be impressive to others. Change always occurs as a reaction to some perceived norm or establishment; you can’t expect to always have the same level of success if you never change your sound

  21. Bob m

    Great article, I have always hated playing my music for even friends and relatives. I am a drummer by trade but 2 rite my own instrumental music on the side. I have no problem with people coming to see me play Rosanna, let’s stay together, or any other pop tune…but to see the glazed look on their face when they hear an instrumental tune I wrote is excruciating.

    I have come to realize that when I play original music I have written it is for me, if anyone else wants to listen they can ask me. Otherwise I just don’t let them into that world.

  22. Chris Standring

    I honestly think this subject is moot in any realistic sense, because it is a band’s job to be great writers and great performers and present an image that is truly authentic. Authenticity is the keyword here, meaning nothing can be constructed in order to sell a story. The story is simply the result of the sum of the parts. Taylor Swift’s love life is a story? Really? No. She was signed to a major label and is a great writer. She is a tremendous talent, and is certainly easy on the eye, but there is no story except her parents owning Swift trucking. Not a story anyone really cares to hear about. Melody Gardot has a story. She had an accident, but who is first and foremost a great talent. The accident is something perhaps to write about but she couldn’t possibly have constructed it. It’s a journalist/PR job, So telling musicians to have a story is nothing but a fun discussion to me. The story is the result. It can’t work ahead of time, and certainly rarely comes from the artist. My two cents.

    • Versus

      Authenticity? But this is “art”, as in “artifice” and “artificial”.
      It need not be authentic at all. It’s a creation.

      • mark

        swift is a great writer? wow, really low standards

    • Bilko

      “The story is simply the result of the sum of the parts.”

      I believe it’s more than that. A story is what connects the parts into a coherent whole, thereby building an identity for the artist. It tells us how various episodes in the artist’s life are related to one another. It tells us how they came to be the person that they now are. In essence, it tells us who they are.

      Without such a story, they are more-or-less anonymous. And that simply won’t do.

  23. Versus

    When and why did people stop caring about music?
    Did the changes in journalism come first or did the the audience stop caring?
    Is it due to the decimation of music/arts eduction in schools?

    Because people used to talk about the music. And even about audio fidelity. Friends in my elementary school and high school, whether working-class or middle-class, would talk about things like stereos, grooves, the sound of the drums, arrangements, debate about music being under or over-produced, etc. These were non-musicians, by the way, just regular kids. So what changed?

    • Bilko

      Welcome to the world of celebrity culture, where human lives are the dominant form of entertainment.

  24. Ashkan

    In the world of capitalism i don’t think so this gonna work! All that artist you nominated have big producer and they are all something like puppets, If a they want to fade them out, they will do with just one clap…

  25. righton

    Good points in the article; just it’s backwards: gimmick first and story second.

    The reason is practical: you need to make yourself identifiable in the marketplace. A gimmick being a strongly unique trait gives the music consumer a reliable way of locating you.

    It doesn’t matter that gimmicks tend to be inherently superficial; they do their job just fine.

    Some example of the best gimmicks:

    Jimi Hendrix: guitar tricks (playing with teeth, lighting on fire, playing backwards)

    The Who: demolishing their equipment at the end of performance.

    The Beatles: squeaky-clean family-friendly suits look.

    Rolling Stones: Bad Boys

    Madonna: bold outspoken erotic-tease-party girl

    Prince: mysterious, moody, funk-genius

    Eminem: white rapper in black dominated genre

    Lady Gaga: loner-freak-nudity loving-high fashionista.

    Duran Duran: jet-set music videos (before they were common place)

    Miley Cyrus: mainstream culture boundary pushing semi porn chanteuse


  26. Mike

    Telling bands they need to have a great story and be newsworthy is like telling a company they need to create a breakthrough product that disrupts the marketplace.

  27. time

    Great article.

    It sure is common sense that you must communicate who you are before you can expect people give their precious time to you.

  28. unseenhero

    IF I have to hear the commonly used BULLSHIT line about some struggling artist or actor living in their care for 2 years I will shoot someone.

    There’s a story for ya I kills homeless musicians who live in cars because I needed to take out my frustration Or I could say I was hated on FB which I am nobody gives a rats ass about my music except one or two people who do know how good it is. So I go on there and rant about all sorts of shit.

  29. unseenhero

    IF I have to hear the commonly used BULLSHIT line about some struggling artist or actor living in their car for 2 years I will shoot someone.

    There’s a story for ya I kills homeless musicians who live in cars because I needed to take out my frustration Or I could say I was hated on FB which I am nobody gives a rats ass about my music except one or two people who do know how good it is. So I go on there and rant about all sorts of shit.