The True Artist - Do You Have What It Takes?
By Chris Standring
There are musicians who are more than comfortable
remaining anonymous. You know, happy to hide behind their guitars
or keyboards and be sidemen to the stars of today or tomorrow.
Then there are those that have grandiose aspirations of stardom,
adoration and limelight. And then there are those who have a driving
desire and need to say something original artistically, to express
themselves and to communicate that expression to an audience,
be it a small niche market or wider demographic.
Those falling into the first category can make a living, albeit
fairly modest as a general rule. Those falling into the second
category often live in a little bit of a dream world and, depending
on their tenacity and 'smart' skills, usually end up disappointed
because the focus is set on the destination rather than the journey.
The third category usually reap the rewards of the second category
gaining all the success and limelight, but as a result of focusing
on their art rather than the shallow and flighty end of the musician's
world. These are usually the most fascinating people too, because
they generally have a little mystery about them and because they
actually possess what most entertainers really want; sincere and
But there are also those that are in the early stages of artistic
development who are still learning their craft, and open to influences.
Possibly they will become great artists in the future, possibly
not. It will be a question of choices and consequences, and doors
opened and opportunities taken advantage of - or not. Life certainly
will take you places.
But for those that do have aspirations of artistry and expression,
then I firmly believe you must have qualities that others do not
have. As an artist I believe one must stand out from the heard
in order to be heard. It is so easy to make a record these days.
One no longer needs to have the luxury of a recording contract
in order to stand on a pedestal and say "I am an artist -
buy my record!" With home studios costing one 16th of the
price they did ten years ago and with software programs that do
it all, you can churn out albums by the dozen if you put your
mind to it. And many do.
However, just because you can, why would you? - is my question.
Just for fun? OK, valid I suppose. But Isn't it better to spend
that time and energy searching relentlessly for something unique
and different? God knows record companies are releasing enough
crap by the hour, even signed artists are now under the impression
they have got something to offer. Maybe they have, but for the
most part I don't think so (as public reaction and their soundscans
Perhaps I am being extremely unfair, but I think too many artists
do not realize that they have a responsibility to say something
profoundly unique, certainly if they expect any kind of career
longevity. We live in a world where musicians spend their lives
emulating their heroes; singers spend their lives emulating Aretha
Franklin, Janis Joplin, Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra and so on.
Rock guitarists spend their lives emulating Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy
Paige, Jeff Beck and Eddie Van Halen. Jazz guitarists are proud
emulators of Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Wes Montgomery. Saxophone
players worship Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Michael Brecker.
And so on...
Before I go on I have to say that emulating heroes is absolutely
imperative in your formative years as musicians. You simply MUST
listen to the greats, past and present. One has to have a strong
grounding and musical knowledge and one simply cannot get there
without listening. However, way too many 'artists' cannot get
passed this stage. They need to have peer approval, have to know
that other respected musicians around them recognize them and
applaud their abilities. Often all this takes place subconsciously.
This 'peer approval' is a stage of development that is also important.
Every musician goes through it at some point. It is absolutely
natural, but I firmly believe that to become a great artist, you
have to move beyond that stage and look inward. I always liken
it those wedding band singers, who despite having an honorable
and justifiable (and in some cases envious) career, they are all
too often the 'performing monkeys'. They are often fine vocalists
but at the end of the day they are seeking approval and applause
and not communicating or expressing anything artistic. They certainly
know how to entertain but do they know how to intrigue? It's a
huge gap. Nothing remotely subtle about it as far as I am concerned.
The real communicating artists seek unique expression. They are
not interested anymore in sounding like their heroes. They have
moved past that, now searching constantly, developing and refining
their own unique voice. Look at any of the true giants of yesterday
and today. Yes you can hear their references, but they also have
their own strong identity. At some point during their development
something bigger than them took over. The chances are they knew
it at the time and took advantage of it and made an extra effort
to really hone that uniqueness.
Finding that unique inner voice might not be as easy for some.
I think it starts by recognizing your technical weaknesses. It
is often those weaknesses that ultimately end up becoming your
artistic strengths. Let's face it, if you were able to play the
guitar technically perfect, at all speeds, meticulously so every
note that came out was totally clean and audible, would this be
ultimately interesting to an audience? Yes it might be very clever
and impressive, but for how long could you listen to an album
where every phrase felt like you were having your teeth drilled!!?
Wes Montgomery played with his thumb because he kept dropping
his pick, ultimately enabling him to become the greatest and most
influential jazz guitarist of all time. BB King has about three
licks in his entire blues repertoire. Does anyone NOT know BB
King when they hear him? Thelonius Monk refused to conform to
traditional piano techniques and musical ideas. He simply HAD
to play music the way he heard it in his head. He made such a
bold musical statement during his time that he is emulated the
world over and revered by the greatest musicians living today.
Technical shortcomings can be the very essence of your unique
artistry. Now, should those shortcomings get in the way of what
you need to say musically then those weaknesses might need to
be turned around so they don't restrict what you hear in your
Remember, the true artist simply communicates from within. All
other extraneous thoughts, influences and distractions need to
fall by the wayside. The minute a lick or a phrase that your hero
played or sung (and made famous) ends up on your record - watch
out! You might be in trouble. Absolutely steal from your heroes,
but just remember that real artistry is about what YOU have to
say, not what your heroes have already said before, and have possibly
Push yourself to the max and search for that truly unique quality
within. After all, that next great talent we are all so desperately
waiting for might just be you!
|| Chris Standring
is the CEO and founder of A&R Online (www.aandronline.com).
He is also a contemporary jazz guitarist presently signed to
Ultimate Vibe Recordings. For more info on Chris' recording
career go to his personal website at www.chrisstandring.com
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