A couple of months ago I was getting prepared to review an album that just plained sucked. This happens all the time, more often than any casual reader could possibly imagine. We live in age where almost ANYONE in the first world can make a record cheaply and send it out for review electronically with even less expense incurred. I had been commissioned to write the review, so there was money in it for me to produce something. I decided ‘I’m going to make an example of this band, but as kindly as possible.’ It didn’t exactly work out. The finished review was way too snarky and mean, so I pulled it. But this is what I was going to submit, as a review, to a website that has over 250,000 page views a week and I’m quite sure it would have been published. I think if you’re in a band, that’s worth thinking about. What follows is fairly succinct I think, but even still it’s also a bit of a low water mark for my personality. Hey, you try writing record reviews. It does THIS to you.
Dear Shitty Rock Band,
I’m not going to gleefully dissect your album for you. In short, I don’t like the songs or the way the whole thing barely holds together and my reaction to it is not much more complex than that. In the scheme of things, it’s not a woeful disaster. It’s not an affront to culture or human dignity. It’s a mistake. It’s extremely human in this regard.
Normally I’d acknowledge all this by ‘filing’ your album without an unkind word. Yet every year these albums are made and arrive on my desk and this time – for no particular reason related to what you did – I think it might be a good idea to explain to bands like yours why their albums disappear forever.
Firstly, what does this album do?
What is its function?
You like The Beatles and Bowie and The Who and The Rolling Stones? Good for you. That’s a type of rock music that virtually every single person you’ve ever met in the Western world has heard before. The best music distracts us from the mundanity of everyday life, that’s exactly why it’s entertaining. That’s how it’s entertaining. As such, good music is not something that reminds us of The Beatles, Bowie, The Who and The Rolling Stones (or REM, U2, The Beach Boys or The Sex Pistols), unless it has some sort of significant new inflection or half buried nuance. Presenting entirely derivative music to the marketplace (aka your take on the classics) is a little bit like asking people to go to the office on the weekend.
Do you like going to the office on the weekend?
Also worth considering is this surprisingly difficult question:
What have you actually done?
I know it’s incredibly difficult to balance the making of something that strives to push out from everyday life with self-criticism and cautiousness. But as in most things in life, you subconsciously know when you’re shitting in life’s punchbowl. You always have your suspicions.
Maybe someone casually suggested this to you?
Maybe a reviewer completely unknown to you has suggested this to you? (hint, hint)
Maybe no one under the age of thirty-five attends your shows?
Maybe no significant taste-maker of any description has ever taken a liking to your work? Not ever?
My advice is to act on these suspicions in some capacity. I can’t really advise you further on this other than to suggest that you not hire a publicist to promote your suspected turd in these situations. Also: don’t have said publicist send your album out to a website known for its bitchy and snarky commentary. That’s just a series of bad ideas, one after the other.
Lastly, why did you spend all that money on recording?
Get a grip.
You don’t need the polish of a studio unless you’re aiming to get played on the radio.
(Confused about radio? As a rule of thumb: If you suspect your album is a bit shit and you’re primarily influenced by The Beatles, Bowie, The Who and/or The Rolling Stones and you’re not already on the radio then you’re not getting on the radio. No amount of polish will change this.)
Do something else.
What type of something else?
There is an ideal model for rock musicians of your ilk: Guided By Voices. They were Dayton Ohio yahoos who recorded an album called ‘Bee Thousand’ album for the cost of batteries and beer. They liked The Beatles and Bowie and The Who and The Rolling Stones (and REM as well) and they spent years making those influences into something almost entirely their own. During this time of development, they hardly ever played live or sent out promotional copies of their early albums. Why? Because they had enough common sense to know that timidly ripping off rock’s canon was not good music. It was leisure and then, later, it was research.
I’m not saying don’t play in a rock band and I’m not saying don’t pay your dues to the classics. I’m saying you should think about what contribution you’re making to the history of music before making a contribution to the history of music. Where is your voice? It doesn’t have to be a slick or practiced voice and it doesn’t have to be completely original either. It just has to be partly original and partly unique. Until you’ve got those basics down, you’re not ready to be out in the world of music. Until you get the basics down there’s so, so much to be gained from hiding out, recording cheap and acting smart in the meantime.
Further to which, those early pre-reviews, pre-albums, pre-everything months can be some of the best there are in a band. My advice: make them last, for everyone’s sake, most of all yours.