Music, these days, is disposable. It’s sonic wallpaper really. It’s background noise. It’s cookie cutter clutter made by committee. If you were to take a look at the hits on the charts, you’d discover that they have a long list of “co-writers” and “co-producers.” And most songs out there do indeed sound the same because why mess with what sells, right? Simple chord progressions, simple hooks… I’d describe today’s “electronic dance music (EDM) influenced hits” as cartoon music by cartoon characters for immature ears who enjoy repetition. And that’s fine, I guess, because it’s what’s “in” and “happening.” So be it.
However, what’s the secret to a lasting career in music? My thought is this: music is no longer about music. So if you want a lasting music career, my simple advice is this: be real. The more authentic you are to yourself, the more that’ll resonate with audiences. You’re only as big as your audience lets you be. Therefore, if a whole subset of the population feels like they know you, they understand you, they can relate, then you’re “in!” Once you’re in with an audience they’re essentially lifting you up on their shoulders as one of their leaders. They’ll look up to you. They’ll memorize your lyrics, however funny, foul, inane, or cerebral they may be. They’ll pay to see you in concert because they want the experience of having been in your presence. They might not even know the names of your songs or care about who produced them or whatever, but they’ll feel a kinship with you. Why? Because something about you being real with them touched them. And they feel connected to you and like the old adage goes: they either want to be you or be with you.
For a lasting career in music, it all comes down to great songs and great performances. Without those two things you don’t have a career. Your songs should speak to people in such a way that they go, “Yep, they’re singing about exactly what I think/feel.” Your performances should give people a certain kind of feeling they rarely get in everyday life.
Why do you think Lady Gaga made it big? She, like Madonna before her, “expressed herself,” and lots of young ladies, gay boys, and others loved that she wasn’t afraid to just be really “out there” and “own it.” They identified with her and wished they could be up on stage with her, touching her meat dress or just dancing with her during “Bad Romance” or “Just Dance.” Her image, style, persona, charisma, compassion, and willingness to be fearless, despite all the haters, is what sold her to her tribe of fans. And they’ve loved her enough to support her foray into jazz with Tony Bennett, because, hey, she’s their icon and she can do whatever the hell she wants to do!
Lady Gaga dressed outrageously and she’s perhaps more known because of the way she looked than the actual songs she sang. So she made her mark by being different than all the other cookie cutter looking singers out there, and it worked.
Besides “being real” with your audience, I’d say you need to do what John Mayer did… sure, he’s known for the songs soccer moms love, but his career is lasting because he’s also known for sharing a lot of opinions and funny scenes from his life via social media. And when he got too intense with his audience and they started to say, “Whoa, pull back there Johnny,” he went away for a bit. He played with The Dead, being a Blues-jam “musician” for a spell. And when the timing was right, he got back on social media just enough to properly reconnect with old fans and gain some new ones. He, like Lady Gaga, wasn’t afraid to experiment musically after his initial huge success. And his audience said, “Ok, we’ll give John Mayer’s other sound a listen. We’re willing to go there with him.”
There’s something about certain music artists that help them make a decades-long career whereas others come and go quickly. Dolly Parton, The Rolling Stones, Green Day, John Mayer, Lady Gaga… these are just some of the greats who’ve managed to be in the public eye for years and still be appreciated. Do your homework on them. Read their biographies. Google their names and read articles about their careers. Then consider what it was about them that made them stand out, do well, and last a long time “in the business.” Follow their example if you want to be/become one of them with your own music career.
If I had to sum up, I’d say this: the secret to a lasting career in music is to be real, be your authentic self, experiment as needed after initial success to keep it interesting, diversify where people see you (on TV, on YouTube videos, etc.) and be consistent/tried-and-true as best you can. Some names are big names simply because they never stopped caring, singing, touring, recording and doing media appearances. While others bought a farm in New Mexico and decided to happily blend into the background, the biggest music stars stayed hungry and excited and willing to adapt. Perhaps that’s what makes music stars so idolized– while most everyone else does their same old, same old 9-to-5 job, music stars handle all sorts of variety thrown at them and handle it well. It’s like they have to juggle a million different people, tasks and ideas around them. No wonder they’re paid a pretty penny.