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In A Flash:
- Pigeonhole yourself.
- Master your instrument.
- Command that damn stage.
Putting together credentials to show people that you are a Rockstar is not enough. You need to do your job. What is that thing that people say? Believing that you are good is not enough, other people have to believe it too.
I take that title from an interview by Kelly Clarkson that I watched some time back. Her first album was such a mish mash of styles that she, at one point, wanted to call it “Pigeonhole This”.
Meaning, pick a genre. Be known for a specific music style or sound. Music is diverse. The reason I am giving this its own section header is because it is the most important criteria when you are embarking on promoting and marketing your music. Knowing how your music is categorized will help you tremendously in targeting the right kind of music listeners (and help you with your banter with them) and to properly place your music in music stores and online distribution network.
How do you know which genre your music falls into? Answering the following questions will help. You don’t have to answer them as fast as you can, in fact you should take the time to think about it. Genres may change over time or from one album to another.
- Who are your musical influences?
- What are your songs about? (Is there any specific themes or story that you tell?)
- How do you describe your music to people?
- What kind of artists that other people say your music resembles?
- What image do you think your music conveys? Visualize this in your head. If you are staging a concert to 300,000 people, what would be the things that you wear? How would you set-up the stage? How do you want the audience to react?
Question no 1 would be most helpful. Look at the list of your influences. Do they fall in a specific category? Does your music mirror them? Don’t call yourself punk rock if you are not. You can refer to this website for basic definitions of genres.
How you perform, how you market yourself, what you should wear, what kind of image you project, in short anything and everything that you are in the music business flows from what music genre you are categorized in.
Wait, before you object and say that doing this limits your creativity, consider this. The music market is global. You are competing against millions of musicians for wallet share and ear share. Selling your music one person at a time will take you a million years. So, you must pigeonhole yourself and concentrate on the group of music listeners who already have a predisposition or interest in the kind of music that you do. A punk rocker will not even bother to browse through acid jazz music listing and vice versa. A visual kei fan will not look for world music. Try this. Go to Amazon and look for your favourite artist. Then, scroll to the bottom of the page. Do you see that Amazon automatically generates recommendations of similar artistes? Amazon does that because that is how consumers behave. They are more inclined to try out new music if it is in the same genre that interests them. Ignore this fact at your own peril.
MASTER YOUR INSTRUMENT
Be it your vocals or your strut or your guitar, you need to master it. There is no such nonsense like miming because of acid reflux, or forgetting lyrics because you didn’t write the song, or playing bad because you are using a new group of sessionists who are not familiar with your music, or singing off-key because your earpiece doesn’t work.
There are many ways to master your instruments and if you are reading this you should already know what to do. Listen, mastering your instrument is the most important job of a rockstar. The 3 things that I list below are your duties; tasks that are compulsory for you to perform in order to meet your KPIs. There are no buts about it.
- Set aside a specific amount of time EVERY DAY for your instrument. It could be 1 hour, 2 hours, 30 minutes even. The point is you must train every day. 30 minutes is equivalent to about 6 songs. Don’t tell me you cannot force yourself to sing or play 6 songs every day? The more you train, the more you are adept at improvising and the more your muscles (yes, vocal chord is also a muscle; so is your brain) retain memory.
- Record your practice sessions. If you can, video it even. Imagine and take every practice session as if you are performing in front of an audience. Pay attention to how you sit or stand, practice your swagger and guitar solo, run around the room and slide across the floor like you are on a 70ft stage; you should practice your banter and how you will segue from one song to another without boring your audience. Taping and watching it will allow you to criticize yourself and tweak your style. Try different themes. For instance, think up an imaginary set where the songs centralize on a relationship – from the time you meet the girl till the time you break up (or get married and have kids and whatever, you get the point). Figure out how you want to present these songs, and why you chose them in a particular order. Do you want to start from the break-up; or do you want to start in the middle and then reminisce about the time you met and then seal the deal with the break-up? Another theme could be a night of covers – so you choose a whole set of cover songs. What is the significance of these songs, why you chose them, how do you want to sing and improvise on the songs etc. There are so many ways to make your practice sessions interesting.
- Banter counts. You may hate it and say let my music speaks for itself, but that is just being self-absorbed. You need to learn to speak to your audience, to relate to them and make them part of your performance. I don’t think it is necessary to have flawless communication skills. How you speak and in what language and how fluent you are do not matter. But if you think saying How are you tonight? ; or Now you sing! ; or I love you all is enough, you are wrong my friend. Your audience needs to feel special and connected to you, so if you don’t know how to speak to them, this is why points no 1 & 2 above are so important. Bantering will only feel natural and personal when you are used to doing it, so practice practice practice. Go back to 1 and 2, rinse and repeat.
I don’t make exercising a point of interest because you need to exercise daily and eat well even if you are not a rockstar. But if you are a rockstar, try to run or do some form of cardio exercise at least 30 minutes 3 times a week. You need to keep your stamina up and your body toned, with or without a gig to look forward to. Hate to say this but you are paid to look good. People don’t just buy your music; they buy your look and the whole package.
I like running coz you can listen to music while you run. It’s easier than you think. 6 songs = 30 minutes. It’s doable. You just need to discipline yourself and remember that it is part of your job. It is not optional.
COMMANDING THE STAGE
You are no rockstar if you can’t command the stage. The size of the stage is irrelevant. It is how you keep the attention on you so people will not even bother to check their mobile phones for messages.
Familiarize yourself with youtube and other video-sharing network. Ideas don’t have to be original. You can use similar ideas but adapt it to your own style. Make it a habit to watch music videos, concerts, interviews and practice sessions (these days many musicians upload these too). Learn to identify what you like and don’t like. Copy these during your practice session, record it, watch it and improvise. Do this every day.
To have stage presence, you need to:
1. Be a little cocky. You’re the rockstar, you know it and dammit you are going to strut like the rooster that you are (to borrow a phrase from Mick Jagger). The only way you are going to embarrass yourself is if you don’t act like one.
Nidji – Biarlah, live at the AMI 2008
2. Leave nothing to chance. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Do you think the way Teru stands and the rest of the gang’s stage movements are accidental?
Glay – Shutter Speed no theema, live in concert
3. Do/play/sing (or all three!) something that you are damn good at. Leave all experiments at home. On the stage, there is no try.
KT Tunstall – Black Horse and Cherry Tree, live on Jool
4. Three lessons from the next one:
(i) If you want to preface your song with a story, share your own personal experience so that the audience can connect;
(ii) If the song requires you to hit high notes, make damn sure you can hit those high notes; and
(iii)You don’t have to jump around if you don’t need to. Your “feel” and emotional energy is enough.
The clip below, subtitled, illustrates all the points above. See how strongly restrained and tightly Sakurai held on to his emotions (up to a point where it almost bubbled to the surface but he reigned it back in); and how his facial expression changes (happy, sadness, pensive, regret etc) according to the lines of the song. Then, watch the audience reaction. You don’t have to understand the meaning of the song to get what it means.
Mr Children – Shirushi, live
5. And the last lesson, have fun. You need to like what you do. When you are onstage, your enthusiasm infects the people who are watching you. Showmanship first, skills second. It works on both fast and slow numbers. Marty Casey’s performance still gives me chills no matter how many times I listen to it.
Ayumi Hamasaki – Trauma, live in concert
Corky and the Juice Pigs – I’m The Only Gay Eskimo, line on Mad TV
Tenacious D – Tribute, live in concert
Pink – Trouble, live in concert
Ryan Star – Losing My Religion, Rockstar Supernova
Marty Casey – Wish You Were Here, Rockstar INXS
Damien Rice – The Blower’s Daughter, live at the BBC session
Some reading resources that may help:
- Improving your Stage Presence
- How to Improve Stage Presence as Lead Singer
- 12 Tips to Improve Your Stage Presence
- How to Improve Your Stage Presence (instructional videos)
- Stage Presence Basics
For more articles go to Rockstar Manual.