Consider what somebody takes on, when they decide they are going to create a musical product on their own, using their own resources and make it into something of cultural significance.
These days, they are going to need to be tolerably proficient and hopefully good at perhaps all of the following:
- Writing songs with an acceptable structure
- Writing lyrics that reach people
- Hooks and catchy musical elements
- Playing one or more musical instruments
- Audio engineering
- Record production
- Synthesiser programming
- MIDI sequencing
- Computer maintenance
- Sound design
- Sound effects
- Rights clearance
- Vocal harmony
- Packaging and artwork
- Digital distribution
- Live performance
- Entertainment law
- Copyright protection
- Royalty collection
To be really successful, each of these tasks must be approached with passion, enthusiasm, originality and dedication. Even if you don’t try to do it all yourself, the task is to find people that will help, who possess the requisite skill, commitment, belief and passion and who will do so for the limited funds you can muster, at first. That’s hard enough. Sure, there are many examples of successful recordings that skipped a few off the list above, but I’ll wager they’re the exception, not the rule. In every case, somebody in the chain provided just enough competence at every step of the way, to get the musical work to thrive.
And yet, every day of the week, somebody succeeds. There is music released that people like, in large enough numbers and who pay sufficient for it, that the musician who made it actually does ok. Maybe the days when musicians made millions are now over for good, never to return and although the task of making a great record might be infinitely cheaper and more flexible than ever before, it seems little easier and arguably, due to the fragmentation of the “closed shop” situation that used to prevail in channelling the anointed future number one songs to the public, having a hit is harder than ever. There’s no single place to take a great song that guarantees it will be heard and received well.
So why are so many people trying? It makes little commercial sense. In my view, it comes down to the sheer joy of mastering even some of the skills you need to learn. It isn’t rational to count on your music reaching an appreciative audience that will reward you handsomely for your efforts, but the journey is definitely worth taking.
So next time you listen to a solo artist (or even duo) that works on his own and succeeds, marvel at this rarity. Boston, Mike Oldfield, Jean Michel Jarre, Thomas Dolby, Ilium and Owl City, I salute you. It’s amazing that such things happen at all.