How to make a sound from the Underground (and not hate yourself after).


Music loving ladies, tune-jamming gents; I would like to issue you a challenge.

Walk into any of Toronto’s hallowed music venues – or perhaps approach a group of talented musicians inconspicuously creating some gorgeous sounds in any one of our parks – then ask them what they think of, (a) mainstream music, and/or (b) the ‘music scene’ currently garnering the most attention. If in twenty tries you receive more than two replies that are overwhelmingly positive, and more than five that aren’t some variation of “Dude. It’s horseshit,” I’ll eat my hat.

And I have dreads. So it’s a big-assed hat.

I certainly don’t find this opinion hard to understand; rather, it’s a difficult position not to take (I believe I’ve mentioned it to my cat twice this afternoon). On the face of it all, the landscape is bleak. The most commercially successful artists are for the most part pre-packaged delivery devices for simplistic drivel, and your best chance to make a living doing what you love seems to not necessarily be playing what you love. Artists are rewarded for adopting the musique de rigueur (authenticity non-withstanding), and sometimes even more so for skipping the interpretation step, and simply lifting already popular material. I’m not here to tell you that these things aren’t true.

I’m here to tell you to quit your bitching.

I’ve come to the belief that the best mindset for any truly passionate musician that may be operating outside of the mainstream is outlined by the serenity prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.”

In the dark morass that is today’s music industry, labels have found that pubescent darlings sweet-talking pre-pubescents through song into opening daddy’s wallet is one of the few highly profitable models available to them. Good luck trying to convince Sony to sign your mandolin/ukulele duo or experimental jazz-soul act over Little Jimmy Sweetcheek’s winning smile. I’ll take the creative juggernaut that is the hip-hop collective Doomtree, over the crunk stylings of Birdman any day, but I’m not going to fool myself into thinking rapidly delivered raps about growing up in the midwest are going to woo the bigwigs away from pushing odes to Gucci and Bentley to adoring masses.

So what’s a lowly singer-songwriter, conscious hip-hop lyricist, or any other artist creating from the heart to do? What can I change? Well, here’s the first step – and this one’s pretty complicated so you may want to spend a while ruminating on it – ready for this?

Keep doing exactly what you’re doing.

Maybe I should specify that: keep doing exactly what you’re doing…musically. Practice twice as hard as you have been and improve your craft, but stay true to whatever it is that’s naturally been coming out of you for years. Now, maybe you’re just not that good as a musician or a songwriter. Cool, you’ve got an enjoyable hobby to unwind while you enjoy job security, stability, and attractiveness to the opposite sex that will elude us donkeys of starving musicians for decades to come. Maybe what’s true to you is progressive glitch-hop that sounds like magpies belching to 90% of the populace. That’s cool too – don’t expect to pull in that Drake cheddar, but you become the best damn magpie-belcher there is. Eventually, your prospective audience, however large or small it may be, will come to you. Or you may be insanely talented and accessible, but not give a hoot about gaining a wider audience that will allow you to make this your career. Well, I’m not sure why you’d read articles like this, but big ups. That ain’t me babe, that ain’t me.

Here’s the second step: lose that idiotic notion that all aspects of business, marketing, promotion, et alia are evil and somehow diminish your art. Get over yourself, B. Yes, Michelangelo was sending out sculptures and carved crucifixes pro bono for over a decade, but then he was commissioned to do the Sistine Chapel. If you believe in what you’re doing, trying to get other people to believe as well is nothing to be ashamed of.

So how can you stay true to your art and at the same time be heard by through the cacophony of acts assuring the world they’re the next big thing?

In my lil’ ol’ opinion, there are two methods of equal importance. Firstly, look at the career paths of those contemporary independent artists that have inspired and influenced you. (No matter how much you love them, artists coming up in the pre-pirating and file-sharing era might as well have started their careers on Mars for comparative purposes). You’ll often find invaluable information when discovering what they themselves and any ‘team’ (be it a full managerial team or simply a tenacious significant other), did in their quest for success. Somewhat disappointingly, it seems that many who have been able to make it out of obscurity then adopt the facade of “God, whose genius alone rocketed them to success with nary a word said offstage or email sent.” Well, this totally accurate formula that I just finished constructing on my abacus is telling me that that’s true for exactly 0.00031% of artists. So, you know. don’t count on it.

Secondly (and far more heart-warmingly), there are those who use their years of experience in the business to try to help the up and coming artist who’s willing to help herself. For example, Brian Thompson doles out daily tips and podcasts for jumpstarting and continuing to manage your career at The DIY Daily. No matter how well you think you’re doing, chances are, you could be doing it better – and it never hurts to learn a new trick or two. The only thing to remember here is the sage adage: “opinions are like assholes – everybody’s got one.” While a ton of great info can be acquired from these saints of human beings, one should always use their common sense in deciding which methods are (a) right for you, and (b) good methods in the first place.

Then there’s the hardest part–the courage to put it all together. It’s scary putting yourself out there, man, I know. The only thing I’ve found that helps is to get in the lab and work. Work your fingers and ears off, work your brain into mush, and work that music into something that you, yourself, with all your insecurities and self-doubt, can’t deny has real merit. That’s the point where something’s going to happen; when everybody that comes into contact with it is going to be touched by it, and when you can tell ‘the scene’ to go suck it.

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