In the real estate business it is often said that there are only three important words: Location. Location. Location. In the music business those words are: Preparation. Preparation. Preparation.
The average person has absolutely no idea how much hard work it takes to have a career as a major artist. Yes, talent and looks are important, but they are only part of the equation. I have known singers to have successful careers in spite of modest talent and average looks.
First and foremost, you must prepare your voice. Although country music does not demand the same kind of vocal mastery that is required in some other forms of music, you must be able to breathe well and support your voice so that you:
Sing in tune
Sing with flexibility and ease
Sing without damaging your voice
You have to be in control of your voice and able to make quick adjustments when you are in the studio. There’s more than one way to sing a phrase and your producer may have ideas about how to improve your performance that may never have occurred to you. You make their job a pleasure when you are responsive to change.
In addition, country music is very lyric-driven. It must be clear and honest and simple. Think of singing as speaking on organized, rather than random, pitches. You must speak to your audience from your heart, rather than sling a bunch of loud notes at them. Your vocal technique should be word-based rather than voice-based and your audience should be able to understand every word.
You must live your songs and know what you are singing about and why. This is not as obvious as it may appear to be. I suggest you create a setting and dramatic background for each song, and that you write out a short subtext for each song as you learn it. Try to be as specific as possible. The subtext should answer these four questions:
- Who is singing the song? (Is it you, or are you imagining a situation that happened to someone you have known?)
- What does the singer of the song hope to accomplish or change? (Tell a lover good-bye? Stop a lover from leaving? Start fresh after a broken heart?)
- Who else is actually there? (Is the loved one in the room or is the singer leaving a voicemail message or lamenting to a group of best friends?)
- When and where is the song being sung? (If it’s 3 am and tempers are flaring, it will feel like a different song from the one you might sing a week later when you’ve cooled off a little.)
“Joe and I are breaking up for the third and final time. It’s 3 am and he has just come home covered with lipstick smudges again. This time we’re really through and I want him to know just how badly he’s blown it.”
The answers to these questions will give you an emotional context for your song. Your listeners may not know exactly what your subtext is, but if you have one, they’ll know something important is going on and relate it to their own experiences.
Become a well-rounded musician. Learn to play an instrument. In fact, learn to play several. I highly recommend the guitar because it’s easy to learn to strum a few chords and you can get started playing music right away. I also recommend learning to play the piano, because it will teach you the language of music. It’s all laid out for you there in black and white on the keyboard.
Join a band or put a band together. This is imperative. You need to learn how to run a band and entertain an audience under every kind of condition. Touring drives record sales and creates a fan base. Record executives need to see that you have honed your craft through extensive experience onstage and that you can command the attention of a crowd and build a following. Get as much onstage experience as possible. Without it, you have no proven history and it will be difficult to convince anyone to make a high-dollar investment gamble in your career.
Don’t present yourself to the record labels until you are sure you are ready. Why should record label executives wager their careers on someone who is not thoroughly and professionally prepared? Until you are, it is discourteous to ask them to spend their time considering you. Their time is limited, but their memories are long. You will never have a second chance to make a strong first impression.
How do you know when you’re ready? A—B yourself. Sit in the car and listen to the radio playing the current hits, then listen to a recent tape or CD you have made. Listen first to the radio, then to your tape or CD, then back and forth. You’ll know you’re ready when you can honestly say that you can imagine a program director choosing to play your CD in the one open spot they have in tomorrow’s play list rather than the latest release by an established artist who has already developed a following.
Radio space is limited. Every one of your favorite singers is probably thinking about their next album right now—and they’ve already done the hard work of getting where they are. That’s your competition.
A career in music is not for the faint of heart. Prepare your voice, sing from the heart, become a skilled musician and a seasoned performer. There are no shortcuts, but someone is going to be successful, and it just might be you!