I attended college as a returning student at the age of 27. My world had little in common with the 18-20 year old kids that were there to see how much beer they could drink. I really enjoyed learning at that stage of my life. And while I have forgotten much of what I was taught over those four years, I absolutely remember every detail of a study I heard about one very cold Monday morning in lecture hall.
The topic of the lecture that day was behavior. Actually, the more precise topic was the behavior of woodpeckers –government funded, of course. LOL (insert comedic drum riff here). Anyway, Dr. No-Chin (professor) had stumbled upon the details of the woodpecker study, and like me, he found it quite interesting.
The story goes as follows: Top scientists had apparently fabricated a telephone pole from steel that looked, smelled and probably felt like real wood (at least at the surface). These “top” scientists temporarily erected several of these massive mirages in wooded areas where wildlife flourished to study the effects of synthetic but familiar props within the habitat. The story of the woodpeckers, and their determination to keep drilling holes in these steel poles is what has stuck with me all these years.
According to the good professor, the woodpeckers never gave up! Those cute little critters would pound away at these steel monstrosities until they literally bashed their little brains and beaks in. It was kind of sad, really, now that I think about the net result of their efforts. But what has kept this story alive in my mind over the years is that at no point did these genetically-hardwired creatures ever stop to evaluate their progress, their health, if it was working, or…the fact that they were dying. Hmm. See where we’re going with this?
I think aspiring songwriters and singer/songwriters have more in common with those little woodpeckers than we’d like to admit. Not all of us, of course. A small percentage of us have excellent self-management skills, a great work ethic, and ultimately we see our careers skyrocketing. But by and large, the other 90% of us tend to bang away at the same, no-win situations, and then wonder why nothing changes.
I see this puzzling reality all too often at Artist Development Network, where I work. Singer/songwriters come to us for…well, developing. Duh. It’s a very different type of business. I honestly have days where I feel much more like a psychiatrist than a staff writer and A&R guy. Yes, the average day for me is anything but average. I deal with sensitive, artistic personalities that have been around the block long enough to realize that things aren’t going to happen for them without professional help. They usually have above average intelligence. They are usually pretty, handsome, well-funded, great singers; but all have one thing in common: most have been trying the same things for years without success.
And let me tell you, changing behavior is a very difficult thing to do. Creative people, as I’m learning, are quite habitual. Just changing the way a particular line is sung can take hours in the recording studio. It’s very hard to re-learn things.
I have discovered, for instance, that simply changing hairstyles is pretty much a life-altering event for most men. You want to see how weird things can really get here? Sit in my office and watch what happens when a guy is told that perhaps his hair needs some attention, and that we’ve booked an appointment with a stylist. I’m pretty good with words, but what follows is usually not something I can adequately describe. Yes, the average male can dig in faster than a gopher in the path of a John Deer when hair is involved. The same thing goes for stage clothing and image. Most guys don’t easily get the fact that those jeans that Keith Urban wears for his album covers—the ones that cost about $100 per hole—are quite a bit more stylin’ than the Levi’s he plans on wearing to his next photo shoot.
The fact is, becoming a star means a lot of things. Suddenly, everybody’s nitpicking and detail-oriented. And there’s a good reason for this, too. Opportunities are not endless. Careers have expiration dates. You can’t blow it. Artists need to present themselves at their best, right out of the gate. Fans become fans when obvious and not-so-obvious conditions are met. The smallest details, the right clothes, the right hair, the right expressions, etc can add up to huge success or failure. We can’t possibly see this stuff objectively, for ourselves. We are, after all, the owners of our own bubbles.
So experts are called in, and Artist Development Network is basically a team of purported experts. It’s a tricky thing to do too. We’re on thin ice when it comes to image and intangible concerns. But we actually do know what works for our artists. And it’s not a “one size fits all” deal, either. I can honestly tell you that I would have signed Joe Cocker if he had been in my office 30 years ago looking for a label deal. I would not have tried to fix his hair, or that “I just got out of my wheelchair” dancing style he has. It all suits him and works as his own, unique artist package. But we also know when things don’t work. Cathy Lemmon (Artist Development Network Owner) has a finely tuned antenna for this sort of thing. She handles the bulk of the image-related duties here. She formulates an itinerary for positive image changes in the blink of an eye, sizing up singer/songwriters with a single glance.
So we concentrate on these things. They’re important. Weight, song selection, outfit choice, makeup, camera technique, stage patter, image…they’re all very important to your future. The whole package has to work. And if you weren’t blessed with a face that belongs on the cover of Cosmopolitan or GQ magazine, you can at least make whatever improvements are possible. Take a little lesson from Dolly Parton’s words in the movie Steel Magnolias, a classic. Dolly, a hairdresser who ran her own beauty shop in a small town, looked at her new apprentice (played by Darryl Hannah) and said: “Now remember sweetie…there’s no such thing as natural beauty.”
Back to the woodpecker thing: Don’t be one. You must have a working compass of your own, some direction. But you definitely need to stop doing things that don’t work if you’d like to see success. That alone is a great start if you aspire to be signed with a major label someday or have a hit song in the top 10 as a writer. After you’ve stopped doing things that don’t work, after you’ve cleared that hurdle, you can begin fine tuning and tweaking the little details.
I call that progress. Change is good.
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