Time and time again, the sort of music that finds its way to the top of relevance, prominence, and appreciation are ideas that manage to blend listenability with stark originality. When musicians create new, fresh musical ideas presented in accessible, engaging ways, listeners take notice. With this in mind, it makes perfect sense why so many artists and bands do everything they can to set themselves apart from their peers––and often end up generating ideas indistinguishable from everyone else in the process.
Sometimes when songwriters and people in other creative fields try doing something completely different, new, and unconventional, they end up coming up with ideas similar to thousands of other artists. Why?
There’s a few reasons behind this, but the most notable one is the fact that no matter how great the effort and inspiration, it’s impossible to escape our influences and past experiences as artists and listeners. You might want to create something completely new and revelatory, but you probably won’t be able to do it if that’s your overarching goal in making music.
There’s no metric to tell us for sure, but let’s assume there are 10 million songs out there written every year. Out of those songs, how many become successful and actually find an audience? This is another statistic we have no possible way of knowing, but for the sake of the argument, let’s assume 1%. Why do the vast majority of songs and the writers behind them fail to catch on with listeners?
And when writers obsess over trying to make their mark by looking and sounding different than everyone else, they often fail to do the difficult, necessary work of finding their own unique voice and songwriting strengths.
There’s obviously huge factors at play here like recording quality, luck, promotion, and natural songwriting ability, but one of the biggest reasons so many songs fail to engage listeners is because they simply lack real vision. And when writers obsess over trying to make their mark by looking and sounding different than everyone else, they often fail to do the difficult, necessary work of finding their own unique voice and songwriting strengths.
It can take years of trial and error for songwriters to find their vision and creative voice, and any successful writer will tell you that their work is inspired and shaped by the music they listen to, not in spite of it. Instead of turning away from influences, great artists are able to create music knowing full well that what they do is informed by what they love.
Rather than trying to shut out and ignore the music around you, take some time to define what it is you appreciate and resonate with in the music you enjoy listening to. When you begin to carve out what aspects of music you enjoy or detest, you can begin shaping your voice as a songwriter rather than simply making music is as different as possible and seeing what sticks. Nothing about this process is easy or straightforward, but if you love making music and simply can’t be happy without songwriting being a part of your life, letting that love guide your work more than the desire to do something different will bear better results.
Patrick McGuire is a musician, writer, and educator currently residing in the great city of Philadelphia. He creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.