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You Decide Why Your Band Sucks

Your album is brilliant! And yet it’s so overlooked! All people want is pabulum like what’s on the radio!

I got news for ya, pal. The crap on the radio? It may be crap, but it’s extremely well-crafted crap. Armies of producers, engineers and in some cases songwriters worked nonstop to make sure that that awful Ke$ha song gets firmly lodged in your head, that what you remember about the new Katy Perry song is the hook and not a missed note in verse three. Before the label marketing machine kicks into high gear, these tracks are all poured over and analyzed and micromanaged so they’re tight, lean, and while maybe artificial, essentially designed to just work. Even less-popular, more-abstract critical darling bands get their stuff down – maybe they’re not selling millions, but they’re not just firing off some half-assed “brilliant idea” and waiting for the kudos to roll in – they too are all about the details and the craft.

Your genius ideas? Not so much.

Look, when it comes to record sales, I’ve barely sold enough to buy a cup of coffee. Most of my stuff gets bewildered looks and not universal adulation. So I feel your pain. Nonetheless, I’m the first to acknowledge that I have some serious limitations as a songwriter, producer, and performer. For example, I can’t write a goddamned bridge to save my life – every time I try it sounds like someone dropped another song in the middle of the first one and then clumsily edited them together. My vocal range is limited, my vocal technique is kind of nasal and honky, I don’t woodshed my violin parts enough, I routinely buy instruments I can’t play, and my love of ethnomusicological experimentation perpetually outstrips my knowledge of music theory. Every day I work to improve these and other things, but I’m reasonably sure I’m never going to improve them to the point where I’m ready for the big time. Subsequently, I’m not going to complain that Nicki Minaj sells more records than I do. I may think her songs are annoying, but I acknowledge that she sells for a reason. I’m not a huge fan of Radiohead’s later output either, but I get why people are often blown away by it.  I simply make mistakes – or in some cases, choices – that they don’t.

Look, if you’re not a major star in the musical firmament – it’s not them, it’s you.

I spend time perusing the blogs and soundcloud and other sites, listening to a lot of unsigned or indie-signed bands. Many are quite good in concept, but the execution always, always falls apart in one or more of a few pretty straightforward areas. Maybe some of these things are someone’s artistic choice, and that’s entirely their prerogative, but if they make that sort of choice, they can’t automatically expect to still sell millions. Being bitter about someone who is selling well? Well, that’s just douchebaggery.

So what are you doing wrong?

Your vocals suck: This is the big one. Writing and performing a good vocal is a tremendously difficult thing to do, despite the fact that it looks easy and probably sounds easier when you’re alone in the shower. Pitch, tone, cadence, rhythm, processing, production, mixing – they all need to be spot-on, or your great vocal hooks won’t be remembered as great vocal hooks, they’ll be remembered as mediocre vocal hooks performed badly.

Pitch is a big deal, and it floors me how often I hear it badly, badly mangled. Sure, even the best vocalists drift a little, but they have enough control to get it back and not sound like someone blasting a boat horn during the chorus. Most of the time a vocalist’s pitch problems sound sounds like they could’ve been fixed if they’d just gone back and done a retake or even just comped that measure. It’s not rocket science, it’s just consistency. Of course, sometimes, it’s just someone who’s no good at staying in tune. For all the bitching people do about how artificial and annoying Autotune is, it’s still less annoying than a vocalist who is consistently a quarterstep flat.

Tone? Well, first you need to know your range. Just because you’re a manly dude doesn’t mean that you’re a good baritone, or because you’re a female that you’re automatically an ethereal soprano. Unless you’ve been practicing practicing practicing to extend your range, if you try and sing outside your natural range you’re going to sound like crap. Similarly, if you want a powerful, assertive voice, singing through your nose is going to make you sound no more powerful than your average Pet Shop Boy. Before you try all the crazy vocal histrionics and affectations that make your favorite artist sound so cool, get your basics right first.

Vocal cadence and rhythm are too often overlooked among indie bands. How many times in your average unsigned band’s song do you hear any melismatics? Most of the time, none, unless it’s a cover – you’re left with a one-syllable-per-note vocal that might as well just be someone playing jackhammer instead of singing. Now, think about how many times you hear someone put emphasis on a very weird part of a word in order for the lyric to scan properly? If I hear that stuff just once, that’s usually all I remember about the song – not the lyric, not the vocal melody, just the fact that they had to awkwardly emphasize the first word of “in July” or whatever to get it to fit.

Let me say this much about correct processing and mixing of vocals – no amount of crazy effects, fancy autotuners and pitch correctors, EQ, high-end compression or amazing microphone technology can rescue a shit vocal. Sure, loads of distortion may conceal the fact that your timing is a little off or that you don’t have good microphone technique – or you may just think it sounds really badass – but we’re back to the “decisions have consequences” issue – it may be an artistic choice, but stop bitching about not being able to sell it.

Your songwriting sucks: Maybe more nebulous to define, especially given the wide range of song styles out there. But hey, even a minimal techno song needs to go somewhere. If it doesn’t, it’s just background noise and nobody will listen by choice. All that cool programming you’ve done on those sounds may be super-awesome but it’s only going to connect with other people who program synthesizers, so you kind of have to prepare for that fact.

And if you’re trying to write a more standard song? Does your chorus sound just like a verse with different lyrics? Do you not have a bridge? Is your song just 3 chords over and over (and you’re not the Ramones)? If you answered yes to any of these, FIX IT.

Sure, you can say “oh, well, this is an example of Reichian minimalism.” Okay hotshot, I get it, you’re experimental, you’ve listened to Riley’s “In C” and you own a bunch of early Kraftwerk records. Fine. What you’re basically saying is that your audience is going to be limited to bunch of music students and/or fans of Krautrock. You’d sure as hell better be doing it well, too – just playing three notes over and over again with a DX7 marimba sound isn’t going to make you Philip Glass (and even he’s unlikely to get a song on the “Morning Zoo with Goober and The Blizz”, unless NPR undergoes a radical format change).

You can also say “well, that’s one of the conventions of my genre” for any stylistic choice you make. Nobody ever made it big hewing to genre conventions. Sticking to a tenet of your genre (or subgenre, or sub-sub-genre), especially if it’s counter to actually writing a good song, automatically dulls the impression the track could make.

Your Performance Sucks: This one is particularly prevalent in electronic music. I guess the ability for a bunch of IT guys to just fire up FL LogicBasletonTools ProX and bang out a track fosters this. A good performance has more than just notes and beats, it’s got some nuance, some form, and some dynamics. A bad performance is just some sounds played in a certain order. The problem, of course, is not restricted to the electronic genres, though. Bands that can’t quite start and stop together, drummers that can’t stay in the pocket over the course of a three-minute song, guitarists that hammer on a chord like they’re trying to split a log, bassists that believe they’re always the soloists, fiddlers that can’t stay on pitch, violists who assume that they’re intrinsically more interesting than everyone without actually having to practice, sax players who call poor embouchure “free jazz stylings”, horn players that assume they need to be the loudest thing on the record always and forever…it’s this sort of shit, people. Like a clammed note in a vocal, it’s the sort of thing that can be overcome with some diligence and a lot of practice. Sure, sometimes a sloppy performance is kooky and fun, and there’s whole genres devoted to sounding kind of terrible, like mumblecore or “shitgaze” and so forth…but when was the last time you saw a multiplatinum mumblecore record?

Your Lyrics Suck: Some people are natural poets. Some people aren’t. There’s often problems at both ends of the spectrum. A popular song needs to connect hard and fast, lyrically – that’s why so many are about basic, universal topics – the love song is ubiquitous for a reason, as is the sad breakup song, or the party anthem. It’s simple, direct, and comes with no baggage. Is it artistically great? Well, that’s open to opinion, but generally nobody’s gunna start a political movement with “Let’s party, baby.” So writing a song about mid-century epistemological philosophy or a brash treatise on the Italian futurist movement may be really cool, it’s going to limit your audience. Conversely, if your lyrics are just a string of profanity, trite clichés, or just “here are some words that rhyme”, again you’re not going to be drawing in the big crowds or critical raves.

It’s all down to choices. Your music is in your control, and your artistic vision is solely your own. Every decision you make has consequences, though, and whether that’s a deliberate choice to leave a warts-and-all guitar solo in the middle 8, or write a series of vexing lyrics or a 9-minute ambient-and-spoken-word track, it’s going to affect how the output is received. A genius song with a terrible vocal is still a song with a terrible vocal. You own your decisions, so it’s not the fault of the record industry, or of the pop-music belle du jour, or critics that don’t “get it”, or this nebulous fish-headed group you call “the masses.” If nobody likes your record, it’s because there’s something you did to it that made it unlikable, not because 200 million people were somehow brainwashed into not immediately realizing your genius. There’s a slim, outside chance that maybe “the world” just isn’t ready for what you have to say, but chances are, what you’re putting out just isn’t either connecting with people, or it isn’t good enough yet.

I know, I know, the kneejerk reaction is to decry the “least common denominator” effect.  Yeah, whatever.  That’s a lazy, arrogant argument.

If you don’t care how your music is received by anyone other than you and your bandmates, well, more power to you. That’s another decision only you can make. If you do care, then you have to sack up and take responsibility for your output.  And quit bitching about what’s popular.