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Sardines & Laundry Detergent
By Chris Standring

Imagine walking into your regular supermarket and heading straight to the laundry detergent isle. Let's assume that you have never done your own laundry up until now and for the first time you have to figure out what soap powder is right for you. You start scratching your head because there are 19 brands in front of you. You decide to go with your gut feeling; "Wash 'em good" is the one that leaps out at you. It has a nice design, big letters, bright colors and well, it's not too pricey!

Now let's head over to the sardine isle. Let's assume you are a big fan of sardines. You know exactly what you want. "Kipper Joe's" are your favourite. Why? Because they taste like no other sardines, there's something about them that is just mouth-watering. Truly amazing. All other sardines just seem dull by comparison.

Ok, this may all seem a tad cheesy but I have a point here that is often overlooked. A&R executives at record companies want 2 things.

1) Stars
2) Hit songs.

All very simple in analysis. But what makes up a star, and what makes up a hit song? Here's my take on it…. -

- Unique familiarity!

What? I hear you say! Contradiction? Not really.

The most frustrating thing about the music business is that record labels seem to want stars, artists that truly stand out from the rest in order to have longevity. However, radio, the biggest marketing device available to artists, clearly states that it wants CD's that fit into its rigid format. How can an artist or group then be totally unique if it is constrained by corporate advertising execs not wanting to rock their proven demographics?

The radio business is such an established, corporate entity that we artists cannot expect to change the way it works. We therefore have to work within its framework. Once you can accept that, we can then go back to our shopping isle.

Artists (once in CD format) are nothing more than sardines and laundry detergent. Ask yourself why a customer would go into Tower records and buy your CD instead of another? Familiarity? Not yet. So I guess Faith Hill, Sade, Britney Spears, and Elton John (to name one or two) will have that edge over you. Uniqueness? Possibly, but then are you on the radio? Oops, better get back to that familiarity thing.

People love familiarity. That is why a venue on a Friday night will pay a top 40 cover band a bunch of dough and an original group wanting stardom absolutely nothing! We HAVE to be unique in order to get the record companies attention. We HAVE to appear somewhat familiar for the marketplace. This is a tough call. Let me give you one or two examples.

Matchbox 20. When they come on the radio you go "Oh - Matchbox 20".
Dave Mathews Band. When they come on the radio you go "Oh - Dave Mathews Band!"
Toni Braxton
Mariah Carey
Prince…and so on… You can make up your own list.

These artists are clearly definable in the marketplace. Radio loves them (well Prince may have seen his day…ok the artist formerly known as something or other!) They have a familarity about their music when you first hear them, yet extremely unique. Whether it is the vocalist's voice or production or song. Something about the sum of the parts is familiar to us, something that makes us smile, and yet we know it is that particular artist when we hear them.

Is this luck or sound business sense? I think it is firstly the artist's talent, secondly the savvy producer's skill, knowing the radio marketplace and thirdly (and absolutely not lastly) the song itself.

So the question becomes, how can a new artist stand out from the herd in order to get record company attention? I think by recognizing that it is more about "envelope pushing" than going completely off the wall in order to grab some attention. Tap, into that thing that makes you sound unique. It could be a lead vocal sound, specific instrumentation that makes up your band or a unique blend of harmony on a chorus. Run with it, whatever it is.

Just remember, we are sardines. We have to taste good. But we also have to be remembered for tasting a little different….


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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