How Artists Can Cut Through the Noise

Question: “How do I cut through all the noise out there?”

Answer: Artists, BE PRECISE.

I’ve been asked this question countless times recently, so let’s break apart this classic music industry question.

What is “the noise”?

It’s a challenging world to occupy as an artist, with a dizzying array of entertainment options seducing the attention of your fans and potential new listeners. The chances are that on your chosen release day for your new single, EP, or album, there are thousands of others launching at the same time. Not to mention the endless onslaught of “breaking news,” new binge-worthy shows on Netflix, a global pandemic, anxiety-drenched election cycle, apocalyptic fires, the latest police shooting, and protests outside your window. All vying for emotional attention, and yes these things have always been happening, but in 2020, phew…its next level.

The noise is the generic, the formulaic, the “just ok” that gets dumped onto the internet every day. It’s the B & C-level music out there with thousands of fake streams on Spotify that make you feel insecure about your own efforts. An average of forty thousand tracks are released per day, that’s 280,000 songs a week, or an estimated 1.2 million tracks per month. In a year, this equates to a mind-numbing 14.6 million. Before you get drained by the math, just know that most of these songs are not getting listened to. Regardless, everyone is constantly promoting and fighting for the same media real estate, playlist inclusion, and consumer attention during the 70 feet of scrolling we typically average per day.

The other “noise” that requires cutting through is the noise in your head. The swirling conflicting advice, the relentless self-doubt, the poisonous comparing of yourself to others, the expectations you set, the irresponsibility you hide. You know the noise of which I speak, the voice that follows you around all day and is rarely silenced unless you are creating in your studio or on stage.

Be precise in your approach to dealing with the noise, whether it’s external or internal.

To “cut through” implies some sort of piercing or sharp method or instrument. Let’s create that method, starting with your language.

To get precise about what you want and why, begin with watching carefully the words you choose. This is first an exercise in self-awareness and secondly, in rigorous discipline. Break apart and eliminate the following, and like phrases, from your artist vocabulary.

“I just want to get my music out there”.

Out where? Digital stores? That's easy to do with a cheap, or free, distributor and a few days. That's not what you mean right?

“I just want to get to the next level.”

What level is that? What happens when you get to this mysterious place? Will you know when you are there? What does it look and feel like?

“I want to grow my fanbase.”

From what to what? Who are your fans? Do you mean to grow your following (followers are not fans)?

“I want to tour.”

Why? Because it will be fun, or because you have run the math of the business model and determined it makes financial sense? Tour where?

“I want to get signed to a label.”

Why? Which label? Are you clear on what a label can, and is supposed to do for you? Beyond your own opinion of your music, why would a label sign you?

Catch yourself when you are using a passive voice to describe your ambitions or goals. Precision is native to the active voice. Replace passive phrases like the ones above with more intentional and powerful choices. Think of using “Will” instead of “Want”. “Will” is a statement of commitment and action.

Remove words that lack certainty from your vocabulary: “just”, “kinda”, “ya know?”, “right?”, “like”. This will train you to speak less and cut excess words so you can get to the point. It’s hard to edit yourself while you are speaking (especially hard for New Yorkers), so slow down and think before speaking.

Be precise everywhere. Including…

With Your Craft:

Ask yourself, “Is this my best work?” Should you release material that is just “OK”, when you know it to be so? Should you release music with untuned vocals and amateur production just because it’s the best you could do at the time and you wanted to “get something out there?” I would argue no. The world doesn’t have time for good, only great. I know this is entirely subjective, but YOU know when you have something special on your hands vs. something characterless or clichéd. Cut through the noise via the precision of your creations, ideas, words, visuals, stories, and messaging. A lack of precision can be a big contributor to a flat response to your releases. Maybe you have just never fully articulated your ideas with enough precision for people to “get it” and feel compelled to share it.

Cutting through the noise starts with you not being a contributor to the noise.

Be a voice, not an echo.

In Your Relationships:

If you work with a team, their work will be elevated by the precision with which you communicate your expectations for them and the goals you set together. In your relationships with band members or close collaborators, your communication and rapport will improve dramatically. Keep an eye on the tendency to needlessly apologize and talk to fill space. Be clear about what you want from your relationships, and develop the skill of being able to communicate it with precision.

The Handling of your Business and in Negotiations:

This one is simple. Be precise in what you ask for. No waffling, no dancing. You will ultimately earn the respect of those you do business with.

When You Seek Advice:

Many of the artists I talk to or consult for, feel lost. The level of success an artist achieves has absolutely nothing to do with how lost they can feel. Those with 100 million streams often feel just as lost as those who have trouble breaking 1,000. The first thing I do when working with an artist who feels lost is to strip away generalizations and get super precise in determining where they are and what they want.

Bring precision to the advice you seek. Information is commoditized, so do your research to get informed for yourself so that when you seek advice you are drilling down into a more precise request or inquiry that can only be learned by talking to those with experience.

In Your Strategies:

Be precise with what you want to gain from your releases. Do you want your release rollout to increase followers, engagement, streams, general awareness, credibility, opportunities? Not precise enough. This isn’t a strategy; it’s the desired outcome and one that you can’t control. Keep this in mind: goals and strategies are not the same things.

Start with a detailed articulation of your desired positioning (how you want to be perceived or talked about as an artist), refine your story (what makes you and your project worth listening to and engaging with), then build your strategy entirely around delivering your story in service of your overarching positioning. Keep it super simple and get this part crystal clear before getting tactical with your strategy.

In the Setting of Your Ambitions:

No longer will you treat your motivations, ambitions, and goals with a lack of precision. The metrics, the fame, the validation you are chasing won’t be enough when you reach them. Start with getting precise with yourself about the why behind your ambitions. Keep drilling deeper beyond every answer as you will mostly throw yourself softballs. It starts with asking yourself really direct, precise questions (or having someone else do it), and forcing to the surface equally precise answers.

A life in music is not kind to those who lack precision in their ambitions, as vagueness leads to being jaded. It’s worth the effort to uncover what you really want and why. I won’t say that it’s easy work. It’s not. The path of least resistance is to coast through release cycles hoping something will happen. It is taxing work to be precise in the articulation of your ambitions. At first. If you put in the work that noise in your head will begin to dissipate. Over time the mud will settle, and the water will clear.

Precision in your artistic life cuts the wasted time, wasted words, and wasted emotions. It opens up the space to be more persistent and to do so with peace of mind.

This persistence will ultimately allow you to outlast and outperform the mass of contributors to the noise, and a high level of performance anchored by persistence, born from precision, is a very sharp instrument indeed, one capable of cutting through any noise.

Soundtrack courtesy of “Cozy Cabin Porch Ambience — Rain & Thunderstorm Sounds” on YouTube.

What better than white noise as the backdrop to write about cutting through the noise?

If this resonated with you please share with other artists who might find it valuable and check out the rest of my blog posts here: www.thecompass-method.com

Patrick Ermlich is a life-long artist guide, consultant, creative director, and CMO of Gramophone Media.

Bringing Clarity and Direction to the Artist Journey

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