Your Music Is Not Original

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.

Photo used by the Creative Commons license from Flickr by  Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer

18 Responses

  1. Jeff Robinson

    Ari, do you freelance as a writer for Music Connection Magazine or Discmakers?

  2. Paul Resnikoff

    No band is an island; no music is created in a vacuum. Which makes almost any discussion about ‘originality’ and copyright gray.

    • Anonymous

      Which makes the various lawsuits over trivial melodies ridiculous. There is only so many good sounding melodies out there. Chances are, even if you come up with a melody by yourself, someone else already used it in another song independently.

  3. FarePlay

    There are some artists who don’t listen to music by other musicians. I believe Neil Young is one of them. Then there are others who are trail blazers and continually reinvented themselves. Joni Mitchell is the best example I can think of. She was constantly inventening guitar turnings and evolving musically.

    Ms Mitchell was exceptional and I believe her best work was in the early 70’s starting with For The Roses and peaking with Hejira, one of the great albums of all times. For those who use the one song album rational to make a point about not purchasing CDs or vinyl, here’!Ks a great example of a complete work of artistry whose sum is as great as it’s parts. Last I checked, which was a while ago, it was selling for $6.99 on Amazon.

    Interesting to note that these mid career records did not sell anywhere near the levels they deserved, much to the displeasure of David Geffen. The fact that Jaco Pastorious was featured throughout Hejira makes it even more spectacular as a landmark recording.

    • River Waters

      I’m not sure what Ari’s point is and he is usually clear. Is the point to deflate a young performer’s ego? Or is he saying that, in order to market yourself to bookers (whose function is to fill paying seats, who won’t listen/watch you and come up with their own conclusions), you need to associate yourself with some famous performer? Or is the purpose to categorize the performer for the machine databases that are omnipresent nowadays?

      Perhaps there is some value to each of these purposes, but I think Ari conflates the meaning of unique with original. If you read poetry, you know how poets borrow, but still manage to sound only like themselves. There are very many of these voices in music and Joni Mitchell is a good example (oh, there are SO MANY, Ari). The songs of these performers don’t lend themselves to covers. So, to my ears, which are about 20 years older than Ari’s and have heard a lot more music than he has, that there is still a good deal of originality. Originality doesn’t sell, initially. From a marketing perspective, people want a known thing, a sure thing, a Coca Cola, because everyone knows it, loves it (even though it is awful stuff) and will buy it. As Monk said, you have to keep on playing what you’re hearing and let the audience come around to it, even if it takes 10, 15 years. There is no quick fix, unless that’s the music you want to play.

      • DUDE

        “Your music is not original” is a little harsh but I think its just a DMN click bait headline and its only tangentially related to what he’s trying to say. The point was don’t be afraid to compare yourself to other more well-known artists, or let your ego steer you away from doing that, because highlighting your similarities to well-known artists is more valuable to your marketing pitch than highlighting how different & “original” you are

        Most people (probably even most bloggers/critics/business heads) don’t have much in the way of technical knowledge about music, so the best way to give your audience a concrete idea of what your music sounds like is by comparing it to other music they’ve heard. If its something they heard & liked they’re more likely to check your music out.

        Associating yourself with a well-defined & not overly specific genre would be another good way to draw those comparisons, mightve been worth mentioning that as well

  4. Dave

    Hi Ari. Interesting comments. I think it’s important to note that nothing is absolutely original. Anyone who writes and/or performs is inescapably influenced by what they’ve heard and by what has touched them emotionally. Artist’s might not be able to pinpoint the artists that influenced them, but we are all products of our past experiences. Anything we have absorbed has brought us to this point.


    • Guile

      I believe that Ari’s point here is actually relating to marketing and branding of one’s work, not wholly the creative impetus, aesthetic et al.

      Sadly, these areas are where some of the most talented artists fail, and understandably because most artists and bands are not marketing or branding savvy. This is about Brand Identity, Image, and positioning as well as understanding your marketshare and segment.

      Most artists don’t have the objectivity to really take a look at these things effectively, many times labels handle the good portion of it via their own marketing and PR teams…which have nothing to do with anything the artist has to say (ask Haim about being compared to Fleetwood Mac and En Vogue).

      Ari appears to be addressing people who are trying to simply “get across the desk” to reviewers. Once across the desk you need to make writing that potential review as easy as possible (most blogs will rip content directly from a press release) Blogs move quickly, and need quick easy, digestible content. The more verbose, obscure, less tangible self assessments an artist makes tend to go to the bottom of the pile….or ignored completely.

      • River Waters

        Yes, I think you’re right. It’s just like selling soap. “It’s like Dove, but in vanilla, 90% the price and doesn’t leave a film.” And I’m not kidding.

  5. This is not news.

    Shouldn’t this be on your blog, not a “news source” for the digital music industry?

  6. Tim Curry

    Nicely written! People compartmentalize bands and styles of music they hear into categories in their own mind. It’s far easier to communicate what you might sound like to someone who has not heard you in a language that they already speak. i.e. the categories, bands, and styles that they’ve already heard.

    I’m surprised by the artists that people compare me to, but it’s also flattering and enlightening as well. I use these comparisons to describe my sound to others and it works much better than citing my influences.

  7. Michelle

    Hi Ari- I have really enjoyed your blogs and emails. I just found you within the last month or so. (I also just tried to post my comment a minute ago, and it seemed to have disappeared into the ether- an error page came up when I hit Post comment- so I hope this is not redundant) Anyway, your stuff is really articulate, straight forward and has a low ego coefficient. Very useful so far- Thanks!

    A banjo playing friend of mine once said “I don’t listen much to Earl Scruggs because I want to be original and I don’t want to be too influenced by his. My boyfriend had the best response to that- OKaaaaay- so he only listens to the mediocre. To my friend’s credit, he laughed with me when I told him that, and it shook him into changing his mind. I thought it was quite an absurd notion. Always listen to some masters! And a whole bunch of other stuff too.

    On a serious note, I really see the value of having a short description on the tip of my tongue and in my promotion with two to three well known artists that I can be compared to. The trouble/challenge for me is that I do a range of different types of gigs to sometimes very different kinds of audiences. Not trying to please everyone, by any means, but I love and have dreamed of for a long time, being able to play this range of material, including classic country, western swing, rockin country, boogie, and rockabilly. I love playing a night of classic country at Prissy Polly’s down home barbecue, and then being able to rock the dance floor at a local club with some r&b leaning country boogie and rockabilly, and then playing a street fair that mixes in some of each. The hard part (well, one of them) is figuring out how to have some semblance of consistency in my marketing and to describe all that with a short comparison. Any suggestions? Here’s my website and youtube channel, in case that helps- Mystbilly (youtube)

  8. RagaMutheBestBEEE

    “ooga chaka” = Hooked on a Feelin’ by Blue Swede. It’s every 4th song played on the radio in Hawaii.

  9. Todd

    ok, I’ve got a bit of my problem with my remixed music…

    a lot of people are comparing my music to Moto Blanco.

    So here’s some examples of my remixes:

    now, you can be honest with me. Is my music too similar to Moto Blanco?
    Cuz i’m really afraid that I’ve ‘Crossed the line’, if you know what I mean.

    I’m friends with Moto Blanco on Twitter & I would consider Moto Blanco my inspiration.

    So, have I crossed the line or am I right the way i’m going?

    The funny thing is, though: Moto Blanco have never criticized my music by saying it sounds like them.

    So, what should I do?