Notes from an Independent Record Producer, Pt. 2: “Sound Different!”

2729 15
Notes from an Independent Record Producer
Independent music producer Jamie Hill. (Photo by Vendela Photography.)

The world doesn’t need more of what it’s already got

Full disclosure: I have an adventurous and wide-ranging sonic palate, as a producer and also as a listener. It’s probably a product of when I grew up. Every song on the radio when I was a kid sounded wildly different from every other song.

This was thrilling to ten-year-old me; I spent hundreds of hours transfixed in front of the radio, wondering exactly how each otherworldly combination of sounds had been achieved. It was mind-blowing. Every song – and, by extension, every artist – had a distinct and unique personality, as expressed via its sonic imprint.

That’s a bit of context for today’s observation: I see a phenomenon constantly with up-and-coming artists, wherein they are very concerned with emulating very precisely a particular style or sound or textural palette (or, worst of all, a specific artist).

I think a lot of really talented songwriters are doing themselves a huge disservice by taking this approach, and so I want to use my space today to encourage songwriters to embrace a spirit of sonic adventuresomeness, both in their live show and, particularly, in their recordings. Here’s why:

If other people are achieving success with a certain sound, that means that you have LESS chance of succeeding with that same sound, not more.

I was at a party a couple weeks ago, and I found myself sitting in a group of five female singer-songwriters. This can happen in LA. Anyway, I went around and asked everyone what their sound was. Every answer was some variation on “acoustic something or other.”

And you know what? Most likely none of their recordings will be listened to by anyone outside of their small core group of supporters, because a) they’re all making similar-sounding recordings, which b) are going to sound like a bunch of other recordings that are already in the marketplace.

Tons of people are making acoustic-based recordings right now; acoustic-based music has been really popular for the last few years. Which means that the marketplace is becoming saturated with recordings that all have essentially the same sound.

This observation is by no means limited to acoustic music. There will always be a market for acoustic music. The point is that when you go to a show and all four artists sound basically the same, they’re cannibalizing each other’s markets. Why would I buy each artist’s EP if they all sound basically the same? Maybe it’s just me, but I’m always looking for the thing that sets itself apart from the pack. I don’t need a record that sounds like another record I already own.

Or, to put it another way: if an artist says to me “My sound is like Matt Nathanson,” my first thought is, “Oh, I should listen to that new Matt Nathanson record!” Because why would I want to listen to a cheap knockoff of an already-popular artist, when I could just go straight to the source?

Or to put it yet another way: the world doesn’t need another Matt Nathanson. The world already has Matt Nathanson. What the world needs is your unique voice.

I was working with a band last year, and we went through this interesting period where they were trying to insist that they wanted some very specific EDM production flourishes in their recordings – drops and so on – because “that’s what’s on the radio right now.”

And I understand the impulse. But if something’s on the radio right now, here’s the thing: it’s already yesterday’s news.

Audiences don’t want more of the same – they want what’s next. As an artist, you want to be like a wide receiver. You don’t want to be where the ball is now; you want to be where the ball is going to be. If you’re making a record right now, it will be three months minimum before those recordings hit the streets, right? Potentially much longer. And by then all those of-the-moment sounds that you put in your recording will sound badly behind the times. And you don’t want to sound dated, do you?

Also, the industry doesn’t want more of what it’s already got. No one at a record label is going to sign someone who sounds exactly like an artist they already have – because they already have the original, and they don’t want to cannibalize their profits.

If you’re thinking of your career like a small business – and you should be – you should be constantly thinking about how to differentiate yourself in a crowded marketplace. What makes your music stand out? A good song isn’t enough. Everyone has a good song or two. What’s going to make people prick up their ears? What’s going to call attention to what you’re doing?

So that’s my thought for the week: I want to encourage you to figure out a way to differentiate yourself sonically in the marketplace. Get a new guitar pedal and figure out a new dimension to your personal sonic landscape. Hell, get a drum machine. There aren’t any rules! Experiment with some synthesizer sounds in GarageBand. Listen to some dub. Expand your horizons. Making electronic music? Experiment with some acoustic textures. It goes both ways. The point is to push your boundaries. Make something interesting and forward-looking and unique.

You probably have a couple of fantastic songs that deserve to be heard on a wider basis – but if your recordings sound the same as a thousand others, they’re not going to stand out. And you want to stand out. Right?

[Fore more music production advice, check out Part 1, Part 3, and Part 4 of this series].

Author Bio: Jamie Hill is an independent record producer, music engineer, and author. He was nominated for Best Producer in the 2014 Independent Music Awards. Hill works across a variety of genres, mostly in the independent and alternative music spaces, with bands such as ArnoCorps, Shannon Curtis, and many more. He has had chart success internationally with Swedish indie-pop favorite Jens Lekman, whose record An Argument With Myself debuted in the Billboard Heatseekers Top 10 in multiple countries.

Originally published at Pyragraph.com.

Free Updates: 
Get Music Promotion Tips and Exclusive Offers Delivered to Your Inbox

In this article

Join the Conversation

  • Elda Dellinger

    I have been told by producers that my music is very original. I wrote alternative in the 70’s, but as yet most producers I submit to are not as progressive as this article indicates. They are always asking for a sound that’s already out there. So I’m hoping that more producers will be look to the future like you soon before I get too old to play.

  • Radmila Neal

    Interesting article Jamie…..I always thought I have to sound like me but then was always advised to describe my sound as who do I sound like….
    rada neal
    http://www.pianopassions.com

    • I think the way to get around the ‘who do you sound like’ question is to best describe your sound as a combination or hybrid of artists. After all, you probably don’t sound EXACTLY like, for example, Regina Spector, but you might sound like “Regina Spector and Metallica combined” for example. Because hopefully you don’t sound EXACTLY like someone else anyways.

  • Tell the Stupid Record Companies that!

  • David

    Nice article Jamie, you are right on about not being an imitaion and being yesterday by trying to be today, unless it’s been a while since yesterday and it’s coming round the corner again.

  • Brian Heston

    Really? That’s not reality. Reality is the music business wants more of what it has because that’s all they know how to sell. You provide them with a new sound, direction, fresh ideas, & they tell you “well I like it, but I can’t sell it.” If you’re going to post these lofty ideas, please prove it with a current example, who the band is, who promoted it, etc. http://www.damienstruth.com

  • Pål E Grebstad

    Totally agree, i understand people saying they are inspired by certain artist. But saying you sound like said artist is total drag. I’m even part of this group on Facebook for muscians and
    often read bands that want to get together and play in a similar wain to pink Floyd and this general type of BS. I listen to loads of different bands and the most amazing part about them is that is not another band that sounds even a little bit like any of them. Most metal and hardrock bands seem to end up in this it all sounds the same. And trying to recreate the sound of the 70s and 80s just seem ridiculous to me

  • Nicole Fay Kupka

    I totally agree. With that said, would anyone mind giving some feedback?
    http://bandzone.cz/gienah

    We have 2 tracks, recorded by ourselves at home and I was wondering if a musician could give us some feedback not only about the music itself, but also the sound of the recordings.

    You can reply here or on the website in the comments section.
    Thank you in advance.

    • “Open The Gates” is a typical Metal sound. Nothing exceptional, heard it before from other Metal bands.

      “Condor” is better with the lead riffs adding dimensions to the sound, but still more of the same. The change to clean guitar was very abrupt and didn’t blend well.

      “Trust Breaking” has the best music. The raw rock guitars mixed with the metal speed and double bass takes your sound to a different place. Delve deeper into that place.

      A lot of metal, especially Metalcore, all sound the same; if you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all. Why listen to your Metal when there are so many others?

  • Tom Hendricks

    Start by dumping the band formula. Bands were the cutting edge… of 1963! Unless you are better than the Beatles, and you are not, stop trying to imitate them for the billionth time.
    Some of us think the real creativity is to break free of bands and go a different way from the 50 year old path that everyone else is on. You can’t sound the same and be original.

  • Paul Bailey

    I agree, the problem is when you are submitting your music for different opportunities. You maybe asked to send music close to the references they are suggesting or your creating a profile and the question is similar artist or bands you sound like. That drives me crazy because each song is different in it’s sonic sounds or top line . We are influenced by a vast catalog of music from different eras so to pinpoint who you sound like is difficult unless your doing covers.It is the industries fault for wanting us to sound like what’s on the radio today it is a catch 22 damed if you do and damed if you don’t. It’s not realistic!

  • “Sound different.” Perhaps my problem is that I’ve done too well with that one! 🙂

  • Mark Chiriboga

    In many ways I agree with the writer of this article. However, Brian Heston, commented below a valid opposing view of which I have had similar experience. I have elected to follow this writers approach. Essentially, finding my voice, not emulating others. This may make it harder to “sell” songs to the myriad of wanna be A&R people. There are many supposed A&R out there trying to make a buck with a shallow recognition of what is great music and what is sellable because they are simply working on a model that has worked for someone else, not creating new engagement for the listener. However, for me, writing to sound like what is popular now often leads to dissatisfaction and no further success anyway. I’d rather be happy with my produced art whether is sells or not. We can’t help but be driven by the time and world we live in, but I truly believe, eventually, it is our individuality that sets us apart and gets us noticed.

  • Bill Hudson

    One has to find one’s sound and voice like a beam of light. Stay on that course no matter what and keep at it. Folks may say I sound like this person or another but at the end of the day I do not and never written a song that may sound like anyone but me. Now there is a Bill Hudson sound to it and I have no idea how any of this happens. But a large part of it is don’t follow trends but true to yourself. Do your homework before you get in the studio.

  • travelergtoo

    That’s what Black Sabbath was told.