We all find comfort in boxes. They are a safe place to store things and we can label them to know exactly what’s inside. When talking about moving from one house to another, that’s a great thing, it takes the guesswork out of unpacking, but is it a great idea for your career in music as an artist or songwriter to put yourself in one?
I always encourage the artists I produce and do artist development for to NOT put themselves in a box and label yourself. Why say “I’m a country singer” or “I’m pop artist”? Isn’t music today too subjective for boxes and labels, I certainly think so. One mans pop or country may not be the next mans pop or country.
I am a firm believer in letting the audience and your fan base put you in the box THEY feel most comfortable with. I don’t think it’s the artists’ job to dictate to the fan what or who they are. Your fans do not care about genre, they care about music they like and research has shown that there are really only 2 formats these days, music people like and music people don’t. To prove this, try turning on your radio, as painful as it may be and spend 30 minutes changing stations. I bet you will find mostly the same songs across all stations. The pop stations are playing country and the country stations are playing pop. If you stopped the random person on the street and asked to see their iTunes library, you’ll find that people aren’t loyal to a format, they are loyal to songs they like. You’ll find playlists with Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, Chance The Rapper, Bon Jovi, Daya, The Chain Smokers, Tim McGraw, Beyonce, Thomas Rhett, Lady GaGa, Metallica and just about every other combination you can come up with.
When we refer to something being “outside the box”, it means that although outside its confines, there is still a box to refer to. Why not get rid of the box altogether and start your relationship with your fans with absolutely no preconceived notions. Even saying, “Look at me, I’m outside that box”, still points to the box. It seems every time something new hits in music people rush to classify its success as being “Outside the box” and there is never a shortage of statements from A&R reps saying that they are looking for something different, despite the fact that after saying that, the artist always comes out with a new album that most of the time is exactly like their previous albums and could in no way be classified as different or they sign a new act that is obviously a replacement or replication of something that has been successful in the past, there’s nothing new, different or outside the box about them.
When you do find something that is truly outside the box, it’s usually from the independent artists who are willing to and have the ability to not label themselves and be truly creative in the process of making music. They don’t have the label fighting against them trying their hardest to take the artists work and stuff it in a box they think they can sell. Most of the artists you hear on the radio now, that are having success that you would classify as different, were independent artists that struggled to not label themselves, let their fans define them and ultimately play the biggest role in their success. The labels then see the hard work and successes of those artists’, they swoop down, sign the artist and capitalize on it. Labels don’t invest in different up front, they can’t afford to. They like nice, safe investments that are guaranteed a return based on previous results. But, you have to be just different enough to stand out! It’s a balancing act for sure. I do know this though, if you start out labeling yourself, you are more likely to hear “We already have enough of that”.
So whether you goal is to get signed by a major label or be a successful independent artist, be moldable. Let the label or your fans decide where to put you. They are ultimately in charge. We’ve all heard the saying, “You can’t fit a square peg in a round hole”, so my advice to you is don’t tell people you are a square peg or a round peg. Let them put the puzzle together on their own and decide where the pieces go. There is something magical and special about fitting in anywhere. Be the Swiss Army Knife of artists’, be capable and proficient in several styles and don’t put yourself in a box you might never make it out of! Make sure that no matter what people are looking for, they can always find you!
I get why we do this, because it makes us feel safe, secure and makes us feel apart of something specific and larger than ourselves. You feel like you are joining a fraternity or sorority, but please always remember, if you are looking for safe and secure, you are in the wrong business. The music business is neither. Country artists want to be pop stars because the pop audience is bigger which means more exposure, more record sales and larger tours. Pop artists want to be in country because the fan base is historically loyal, small in comparison, but loyal and there is a much better chance of being a big fish in the small country music pond.
In closing, I advise you to not pick a lane, be the highway. Don’t pick a horse, bet on every horse in the race and don’t put yourself in a box, place yourself on the shelf for others to see and decide for themselves where to put you!
*If you have a topic that you would like me to discuss or something you want to know more about, just let me know! Visit the Contact page, send me a message or find me on Twitter and Instagram @thestevefreeman! For more Music Biz Tips be sure to Subscribe and get them delivered to your email.