Artists Hit the Right Notes

It was a beautiful crisp fall day here in Portland yesterday. After rushing to get a week’s worth of laundry done, I needed to get out of the house and go look for stories (and of course, some good coffee). When I walked outside, I noticed two things: First, it was much cooler outside than the day before—fall is here—and I was glad I had elected to wear my fleece. Second, I could hear an outdoor concert taking place at the PSU campus. That piqued my interest, and I decided to go listen for a while.

It’s pretty common to have lunchtime concerts at PSU. They usually take place once a week, weather permitting. I’m not sure who decides what group gets to play on stage in the commons, but the concert series is a great opportunity to perform and be heard by anywhere from several hundred to a couple thousand people. Up and coming bands who are looking for exposure can put their music out into the public eye (ear, rather) and see what kind of reaction they get. As you can imagine, the talent level and quality of the music varies greatly from week to week.

I have listened to many of these concerts over the past two years, and I like to watch how the crowd reacts to each band. Most of the time, people sit down for a couple minutes and then move on (if they even stop in the first place). Once in a while the band is good enough that the crowd grows over the hour, but most of the time the people don’t stay around for long. They’ve got too much to do, and the music is not compelling enough to keep them around (Hmm. . . sounds kind of like blogging). Sometimes you can tell that a band has brought a core group of followers—they stand up close to the stage and dance or applaud wildly after each piece.

When a band brings its own fans, you know that they have learned the importance of marketing. One of the most important things a band does (besides strive to write and play great music) is market itself. Without a huge marketing effort, the band just isn’t going to take off unless they are extremely lucky (hmm. . .that sounds like blogging too).

The group I watched yesterday is going to have to work on its marketing if it wants to be successful. I sat there listening to them for half an hour and never once heard them say who they were or where we could listen to them in the future. There were no signs or flyers announcing that they were the “Flying Grave Diggers” (or whoever they were), and I didn’t see anyone taking email addresses for a mailing list either. Without a mailing list or some other way to connect, how are they supposed to keep their fans informed on what they’re up to? (hmm. . .that also goes for blogging. . . I really should be taking notes)

The other critique I have of the band is of a more musical nature. The band was a typical rock band—two guitars, a bass and drums, and as I sat there listening I found myself focusing on the lead guitarist. This is partly because I play the guitar myself and tend to focus on other guitarists’ techniques, but is also because the guitarist brought the attention on himself through his playing, and not necessarily in a good way.

I am not questioning his technical skills as a guitar player. He had very quick fingers, and played lots of riffs and licks that I can only dream about playing. The problem was that his playing often did not fit in with what the rest of the band was playing. I admit that I’m not very good at improvising, but I do have an idea of what a good guitar player sounds like. This guy knew how to play lots of notes, but he played so many that it sometimes distracted the audience from the lead vocals. He also had a tendency to jump to the minor pentatonic scale during his solos, no matter what key everyone else was playing in.

There’s a good reason why he used the minor pentatonic scale so much. One of the first ways a guitar player learns to improvise is by playing the scale over a I-IV-V blues progression, so when the guitarist is stuck for an idea on how to solo, the ‘default’ mode is to return to the minor pentatonic scale. Unfortunately, there are many times when this sounds out of place (a lesson I embarrassingly learned in front of a class one time), and the band’s guitarist needs to learn the same lesson. I hope he does and I hope the band eventually succeeds.

What were the lessons from the afternoon? Two things. First, if you’re going to be an artist, you have to have a plan for marketing yourself and creating a following. Second, an artist does not just know how to play lots of notes. Rather, an artist knows how to hit the right notes. Sometimes that will be lots of notes, other times not so many. Writing is the same way, and my goal is to bring you words that are worth reading, not just lots of words. If I take can take these two lessons and apply them, my odds of success will greatly increase.