What Makes Your Music Interesting?

These last couple of weeks, I’ve been SO busy with geek-things, that I’ve had little time for picking up a bass and making noises. It feels like a bit of a shame to have lost the momentum I picked up whilst posting my series of new video experiments to vimeo, but it also feels like a good break, time to think.

The 3 ‘live blogging’ events I’ve done have all been very different, but have all contained lessons for the discerning social-media-monkey-muso.

The first one – the London Songwriter’s Week session with Andrew Dubber and Tom Robinson – was perhaps the easiest to see the value in, given that it was a session about the wonders of the internet for musicians, especially those looking to collaborate.

But over and above that, there was another interesting lesson to do with being, well, interesting. I was there purely because Andrew Dubber asked me if I fancied it when I saw him a few days before – it sounded like fun, and basically anything Dubber’s involved in is going to be a time to learn and have a laugh, so I went for it. Which meant that instead of being there as a songwriter, I was there as a social media ninja. As well as blogging it, I was answering questions, and getting to talk a little about what I do with my career in the context of how those lessons will help people. I didn’t say much about what I do as a musician beyond being a solo bassist, and having had some success in terms of playing ‘big venues’ (the Level 42 tour) and getting played on the radio, but even that was only to contrast it with the levels of engagement I get from comparatively small numbers of people online. I didn’t take any CDs with me, and I didn’t really plug my music.

However, Tom Robinson – genius singer/songwriter and radio DJ extraordinaire – was interested enough in what I said that he went to my website. While looking at the Flickr embed on my photos page, he was ‘ambushed’ by a video that lovely Annie Boccio filmed of Lobelia and I playing Philadelphia. She’d uploaded it to Flickr (in two parts) and I’d favourited them, thus adding it to that flickr slideshow of all my favourited pics. Tom heard it, left this very positive comment, and then emailed me to say how much he enjoyed the song. Here’s the one he saw:

I’ve yet to follow it up properly, but by going along to an event out of curiosity and a sense of adventure, I got to ninja-fy for a load of lovely eager singer/songwriters (many of whom have also probably checked out my music, who wouldn’t have if they saw an ad in mag for a ‘solo bassist’) but also to meet and make friends with Tom, and get him curious enough about who I am and what I do that he stumbled onto a video on my site, that I didn’t upload, or even have to grab a specific embed code for.

That, my lovely bloglings, is social media at its best. It doesn’t happen all the time, and it may or may not turn into a radio session or whatever – the point being, I was found by being interesting, not by being good. Being good just gave Tom something to get excited about once he’d heard it.

Everybody’s a genius until you hear them. Why are people going to listen to you and not the other 100 million bands on the web? What makes you interesting? Give it some thought, and post a comment below (yup, I’m actually soliciting band-spam for the first time EVER on this blog, with one rule: you can’t use any words that describe how ‘good’ you are at what you do. I’m not concerned with your perception of your own quality, just what makes you interesting 🙂 )

21 Replies to “What Makes Your Music Interesting?”

  1. I’m entertaining. I amuse people with videos and lure them into my music.

    I agree entirely, Steve. Being good doesn’t cut it. You have to be interesting to get anywhere. Coincidentally I blogged about my mantra (“Funny is always better than good”) a couple of days ago, and used you as an example of a musician who gets people interested without using music. Great minds think alike. 😉

  2. Very sobering! I’ve just realised I haven’t a clue what makes me interesting. I mean there must be something… everyone has a tale to tell, after all. Just not sure what mine is…

    I do feel, despite the obvious advantages the internet brings to creatives, that it’s very difficult to be interesting. I mean, I’m just a small fish in a massive ocean… and I don’t know what I can do to make a difference there.

    Your blogs and site (and general social media-ness), Steve are very inspirational… but clearly, social ‘media’ on its own isn’t enough. Getting out and about… networking the old-fashioned way, is still an important part of the process.

  3. I know the answer! my answer, I mean. I think about this kind of thing 🙂

    The lasting interest of Single Bass is the songs.

    But SB also has a couple of varieties of more immediate and superficial curiosity-prompters.

    One is the solo bass thing – the novelty value (still) of that. “What, you mean it’s just you and the bass? ::puzzled/intrigued:: How does that work then?”

    The other is the gender thing. “Oh you don’t see many women playing the bass” or “isn’t that rather unusual?” To which I usually reply airily “oh no, not really, there’s lots”.

    There’s also a kind of odd secondary win in that some people’s technical expectations are (I’m fairly sure) lowered by my gender, and then they’re surprised like “oo-er, she can actually play”. Which is probably more memorable than if they’d expected me to be any good in the first place ::haha::

    These hooks have served me well over the years – but all along there’ve also been people who seem to barely even register that it’s being done on a bass, and do just appreciate the songs.

    The gender thing is a bit of a dodgy one in a way, because that hook wouldn’t exist but for sexism, (a) leading people to doubt women’s skills, and (b) channelling girls away from the bass and onto more supposedly girly instruments. But I can’t deny that however much I personally play it down, it works in my favour in this context. (There’s a great book by Joanna Russ called “How to suppress women’s writing” which has some interesting stuff on being perceived as the “only woman” in your field.)

    I could say loads more about how I see the internet helping me in future to frame these different shallower and deeper attractions, but it’s probably better if I put the energy into actually doing it 🙂

  4. Simply put, I play what I feel. It’s an approach I’ve long studied, and it’s very liberating to just sever all the strings of the safety net and just play. I’m really happy when people enjoy it, because it’s true self-expression.

    Yes, there is often a 9-string bass involved, and lots of effects, and as it’s all instrumental solo bass I try to put together a stage show of sorts – so I suppose some people find that and the pyrotechnics of it all interesting. I’d rather they enjoy the music than the technical aspects though!

  5. What makes me interesting? I can only guess – maybe I’m really boring to everyone else? – so here goes…

    Firstly, an eclectic set of influences – growing up learning classical piano and flute, listening to progressive rock, playing pop and rock songs on guitar and bass, my brother and I raiding the local record library for the most exotic music we could find (e.g. shakuhachi, Indian, Bulgarian women’s choir, native American, etc. long before “world music” became trendy), etc. etc. I suppose that comes from a natural tendency to want to explore. (Or a natural tendency to be easily bored?)

    Next, a bit of a lack of enthusiasm for what’s already been done to death. If you’re going to sound the same as everyone else, why bother? (I know, I know: cos it’s fun to play music! 🙂 )

    Also, most of what I’ve created so far has been sequenced, but (hopefully) not in that sterile, bad MIDI file kind of way. I spent several years sequencing backing tracks, but soon realized that listeners don’t really care whether it’s “real” instruments or synthesizers. From a “What can I create with this?” point of view I think it’s far more interesting to do things that the aforementioned “real” instruments can’t do; if real instruments can’t do those things they probably haven’t been heard much before and, as a result, are potentially new and interesting.

    Mix all that up, throw in some gross inconsistencies (as is typical of humans) and… well, I’m still not sure whether any of this actually comes out in my own music, but I like to hope so.

    @Jennifer:

    When I went to uni there were twice as many girls as guys studying music, and quite a few of them were utterly brilliant! So, no sexism there.

    Re “supposedly girly instruments”: a teenaged guy recently told me that “only girls and gay guys learn piano”. LOL! 🙂

  6. Thanks so much for your answers – quality stuff all round.
    Ben – I loved your post the other day. Great stuff, and thanks for the mention.
    Jennifer – having seen you play way back when (you were quite possibly the first solo bassist I’d ever seen play a whole set), I can attest to all the things that make you interesting.

    On this theme, I just stumbled across this blog post from yesterday by Trip Wamsley (he’s @tripwamsleybass on twitter) – Trip’s great at talking about his musical journey in a way that is honest, engaging, that invites you into his own process, his sense of the importance of what he does within his own life, and communicates quite effectively just how nuts he really is. 🙂 It’s definitely worth reading.

  7. I don’t know if it’s a good thing to be interesting in the kind of way that you can explain in a single sentence of blog comment. I feel like all this emphasis on your story or your hook or your one interesting quality is pushing artists to be gimmick-based, and that really bothers me because I personally hate gimmick-based artists… because, as a music fan, I’m interested in good songs, not gimmicks, and gimmicks are so often compensating for a lack of quality. If you’re only interesting for one reason, then you’re only interesting in the short-term, just until the appeal of your gimmick wears off. I’d rather be interesting in small regular doses. Like, writing some interesting songs, then writing some more interesting songs later, and so on.

  8. Chuck I’m not sure why you think that interesting=gimmick. I certainly don’t see any of this as gimmickry. Quite the opposite. There’s no reason why it has to be in single sentence, there’s no reason why it even has to be unique, or anything. Just interesting.

    If you write interesting songs, what do you write about? Who are your influences? What inspires you?

    You don’t need to do anything. However, if you’re not interesting, I’m not going to hear you – I get LOADS of messages every day via myriad channels from bands saying ‘hey, check us out, we think you’ll love us’ – almost never do they give me a reason why. If I was to listen to all of them I’d a) be spending hours a day listening to mostly music I have no interest in. And b) I’d be polluting my ears, and feeling pretty down about the world of music…

    Instead I filter. And I filter by interestingness. My taste isn’t defined by keywords like rock/jazz/pop/metal. I like good music, and good music, in my experience, is always interesting. And that interestingness is far easier to distinguish from the crowd than it would be to invent new superlatives that tell me why a particular band are the most besterest rock band in the whole universe ever, more geniuser than even the most fantabulous bands.. etc. etc.

    Not gimmicks, not hyperbole, just talking about what you do, why you do it, and why it’s interesting. 🙂

  9. Interesting post, Steve. Actually, it’s not so much interesting as it is “engaging,” which is a characteristic also found in good music.

    I think being interesting and being interested in something is a two-way street. As listeners or artistic “consumers,” we have to actively participate—engage the subject matter—either emotionally, intellectually or both to find something interesting. When we musicians can spark engagement with listeners, then they will find the music interesting, and we find their participation energizing.

    My goal is to play music with integrity, set a high standard for myself, and stay open to new possibilities. By always focusing on musical integrity, then I am free to experiment and truly be creative—and I think certain listeners want this. They want to be engaged and that’s why they might find my project(s) or playing interesting. It is not a style or genre issue—my concerns are with fundamental integrity and artistic expression.

    To take a non-musical example from another era to reinforce my point, I’ll refer to this little clip of W.C. Fields doing one of his famous juggling routines: http://tinyurl.com/yozv7p

    I’ve been watching his clips recently (I love juggling) and I find that he works from a high level of technical integrity, but yet he presents his craft in such a way that completely engages me—and millions of others. It’s entertainment with artistic and technical integrity.

    Of course, W.C. Fields is not interesting to many, and neither is my bass playing. But I don’t care about engaging those people who don’t want to listen—they are not my audience.

    My goal is to always play music with integrity while exploring new creative avenues. My type of playing is boring to some, but quite a few people here and there seem to find it engaging
    . . . interesting!

  10. The cognitive dissonance between the twee perception of the main instrument I play (ukulele) and my decidedly non-twee appearance.

    Exceeding the admittedly lowered expectations of said instrument.

    I can be an entertaining sort of lout with or without the uke. (When I’m not just being your run-of-the-mill curmudgeonly lout, something I try to avoid as much as possible.)

    My band combines other unexpected instruments (tuba, trombone and sometimes a washboard instead of a drumkit) with the ukulele and we swing pretty well, both on the standards we cover and on our own material.

    We strive less for “jazz cred” and more for “fun” when we play and so far, knock wood, that’s the main thrust of the feedback we get.

  11. I am not sure that what I do is that interesting.

    I play in about seven or so bands, two of them out and out function bands, a big band, a duo, a jazzfunk band and various other outfits. All of these are great fun for me, a great opportunity to hold down a groove and sometimes do some soloing but in all cases a chance to play with some wonderful people.

    That is all very interesting for me but I don’t know how interesting it is for other people. They will hopefully enjoy the night’s music or dance but they may only be vaguely aware that someone is playing that funny instrument with the thick strings at the back.

  12. There’s something bothering me about this, and it’s taken me a while to work out what it is…

    It may just be semantics, but I think even “interesting” as a word is not quite it.

    The problem with “Interesting” (and “good” actually), is that the response you get from your audience is “Oh that’s very interesting” or “ooh that’s very good”. Good/interesting is not Great.

    What makes you great? I would argue that each one of the people who has commented here (without exception) is Great. You have something that is more than the sum of your parts, and that is to be treasured and valued.

    Although I guess this post is an exploration of what parts are being summed, so maybe I’m speaking out of turn.

    As you were.

  13. This feels a bit weird telling you what I think makes me interesting. I would prefer to hear other people’s thoughts on what mkes me interesting, but that’s not going to happen here so here goes…
    I’m always up for trying new things and not afraid to take risks.
    I collaborate with lots of interesting people – instrumentalists, vocalists, dancers, poets, painters, performance artists, film/video makers.
    I play, among other things, an ugly rectangular cello that people are intrigued by.
    I seek out interesting/unusual venues to play at.
    I also use a lot of unconventional playing techniques. I sometimes worry that they may look like gimmicks, though they certainly aren’t
    Oh dear, I’ve waffled on a bit. Sorry.

  14. john excellent stuff as always – I greatly value your input on the blog, you always bring a whole load of clarity and wisdom to the discussions. Thanks.

    HH – I’m sold, I’m off to investigate your music as soon as I’ve posted this.

    Mike not out of turn at all, thanks for the comment. I do think the distinction is a semantic one, and I hope that the answers here stem from self-perception and process rather than a reductionist attempt to ‘be interesting’ to a particular audience – sometimes, as in Jennifer’s case – the observation of a consistent audience reaction can be useful in encapsulating the kinds of things that people are likely to respond to, or find interesting, but the crux of the answer to the question is def. not intended to be ‘what are you selling?’ in that way, but definitely more from a self-reflective place.

    Thanks everyone, this is clearly one of those cases where blog+comments=bigger-than-just-the-blog. You lot are fab 🙂

  15. Good point Steve. The thing is, I look at what I think makes me interesting, and I feel like, lots of other artists are interesting in similar ways, and I have a hard time expressing what I think makes me interesting concisely enough for an elevator-pitch. Influences? Bah. /Everybody/ has those, and it’s almost always boring as fuck listening to somebody list them off.

    So then I worry that maybe I’m not actually that interesting. Another thing is that like a lot of musicians I have a hard time talking myself up. We hate coming off egotistical and get really overly self-conscious about it. So I hope that my music does the “being interesting” for me.

    Here are some guesses, though:

    I’m interesting because I’m never quite satisfied with what I’ve already done, or content to keep doing the same. I’m always trying to challenge myself to write a different kind of song, or a different kind of riff or lyric, than I’m used to. Unfortunately, if most critics can be believed, this also makes my stuff “incoherent” and difficult to like.

    I’m interesting because I was in a sci-fi goth band that was described as “Philip K. Dick talks Sebadoh into raiding Joy Division’s medicine cabinet.” We had a song about a suicidal mad scientist who invents a time machine to go back and prevent himself being born, but then it turns out that it doesn’t work that way. Then I broke the band up because the guitarist was too drunk.

    I’m interesting because I’m a new dad who’s still trying to rock without turning into dad-rock.

    I’m interesting because I can’t decide what I’m influenced by. For the past few weeks I listened to almost exclusively doom metal. Now all of a sudden I’m obsessed with Magnolia Electric Co. Next I’ll probably end up listening to nothing but Edgard Varese for a whole week. All this stuff ends up in my music somewhere.

    I’m interesting because my creativity seems to thrive on personal chaos. Over the past year-and-a-third I lost my job and my wife found out she was pregnant at almost the same time, went on tour for two weeks as Samuel Locke-Ward’s bassplayer on almost no money, then had to move to a new town, had the baby, and then my house (the one I had to move out of) went into foreclosure. During all of this I finished and self-released one album and home-recorded about two more albums worth of stuff in my garage.

    I’m interesting because I work as a web applications programmer, and am interested in applying this skill outside my normal job to help other musicians be interesting on the Web, because all this crap going on in the music business lately fascinates me like a puzzle. Supposedly programming and music involve a lot of the same neurons, yet it seems all too rare that someone does both.

  16. Great stuff as ever Steve. You always have a knack of asking the right questions to spark responses! Very INTERESTING!

    I think ‘interesting’ is very subjective and possibly something I’m always striving for I guess.

    Ego is something that totally turns me off a musician, whether they are actually good or not… but being interesting (or ENGAGING as John Goldsby puts it), is something completely different and also very attractive.

    I’m on a voyage of discovery at the moment involving all sorts of musical connections online. I’m connecting with lots of extremely interesting musicians around the globe. Some I’m glad to say are becoming collaborations.

    Put simply, I believe that what makes me interesting is an openness, a lack of ego and a willingness to make connections with lots of great people. I feel this adds diversity, depth and ‘interest’ to what I do.

    Thanks for the opportunity! Russ (@RussBass)

  17. Mmm…

    Great can be a subjective definition too, but I do think that the question raises notions about who finds it interesting as well as what is interesting. Our audience is part of this equation whether we like it or not, and we’re constantly playing off intrinsic motivation against extrinsic motivation, as you showed in the original post, if not the question.

    What makes me interesting? I haven’t a clue.

    Some of my most defining and greatest works have been the ones that have been scratching around in the dark, poorly executed, and I assumed that no-one would take any notice of them. But clearly from the reaction I get they do something for people.

    Some of the things that I did that I thought were really interesting were ignored by the audience or went down like a lead balloon.

    Anyways, I feel like I’m detracting from the post. Hell, I’m not even a musician – I’m a painter!

  18. Though I’ve been a pro muso (bassist) for around 14 years, I’ve have just recently ‘gone solo’ and only have two shows under my belt-the first show opening for maestros Steve & Lobelia at a house concert I booked for them in Santa Cruz, California (Jan ’09). So not much to go on yet, but I feel my main points of intrigue are that 1. I’m ‘TRAINED BUT NOT TAMED’. I invoke a trance state starting with myself and then out to the audience. Basically, passion, I suppose one could call it, though I may just be perceived as a lunatic wrestling insane sounds out of a giant hunk of wood with bridge cables attached to it. And 2. I try to tap into the limitless power that music can have upon us. I’m not trying to say I do this the ‘most bestest’ just that it’s my goal to open the door for the listener, to let them feel (even subconsciously) that infinite flow of music that’s just out there being channeled by musicians. Tough to do, but as far as being interesting, I want them to glean that vibe from me. But that’s just the initiation of what music can do. BTW, I really liked John Goldsby’s point about technique, I try to be proficient enough so that I can enter the aforementioned trance state while still producing music that is pleasing to the audience, basically: STRENGTH IS FREEDOM! Now a side point. I feel that some music is made to sell and is a product, but the stuff that really counts in my book is music that is made to bring higher consciousness to the listener. Music has a special place in history, and our lives as a mystical stimulater of the spirit. Music changed my life, it’s power pulled me out of the ‘I’ and made me think about life from the perspective of others, causing me to value kindness to strangers, a non-judgmental mind frame, and all around altruism. These are lofty goals that I don’t always reach, but the point is that music got me started on a path that helps me connect with humanity as a whole. That’s the kind of power I seek to inject into my own music. Hopefully earning the label of ‘interesting’ and pulling people into music the same way i got pulled into it. I’m reading this bad ass book right now called “Harmonies Of Heaven & Earth”by Joscelyn Godwin, it talks about the varied powers music contains, I can’t help but give a sample here: ” What lies beneath the surface of music and what gives it its transcendent power? For many people, music is the primary catalyst for experiences of expanded consciousness. Musicians and lovers of music-all those who have ever reflected on its inner reality- feel that the true philosophy of music cannot deal with physics and psychology alone. It must include the universal and mystical aspect of which Plato, Kepler, Rameau, and Novalis wrote, and of which Wagner said: ‘I feel that I am one with this vibrating Force, that it is omniscient, and that I can draw upon it to an extent that is limited only by my own capacity.’ The spiritual power of music surfaces in folklore, myth, and mystical experience, embracing heaven and earth, heard as well as unheard harmonies.” Anyway, I highly recommend that book, great reading for any level muso. Whoa!! Looks like I over stayed my welcome, sorry so long, great blog, as always Steve! Thanks! You’re inspiring me to get off my duff and get the ‘Uccello Project Blog’ going for real.

  19. What makes this band that I am working for unique is the mix of music and personal interaction that they are trying to achieve. The band started with the basics: an album that grabs people’s ears and a solid live show. From there its just a matter of creating the connection between fans and the music.

    We have a free album giveaway that is especially useful to promote shows in new areas to reach people quickly. Most unique though would be the street team of card carrying members we are creating. Show up to any show and get a few dollars off at the door. We assign fun projects. Most importantly, we create a sense of community, and a bond that all street team members share. I have met total strangers who once I mention the band show me their super secret Team Illuminati card ID. It makes things fun.

    Go download Team Illuminati’s album here:
    http://www.777contest.com

    Great post as always Steve!

    -JIM

  20. @ Bill C:

    When I went to uni there were twice as many girls as guys studying music, and quite a few of them were utterly brilliant! So, no sexism there.

    Hmm. Without meaning to get overly pedantic/nit-picky, I think you can only really conclude “No sexism going on that was evident from the numbers”. It’s unlikely it was miraculously an entirely sexism-free zone – racism & sexism & so on always tend to have subtle manifestations as well as obvious ones.

    Re “supposedly girly instruments”: a teenaged guy recently told me that “only girls and gay guys learn piano”. LOL! 🙂

    ::laughing:: (really did make me laugh out loud)

    priceless comment!

    though tragic in a way because he must have missed hearing a lot of great piano players!

    @ Steve:

    (you were quite possibly the first solo bassist I’d ever seen play a whole set)

    Ooh, was I? I never knew that.

    Come to think of it, I don’t think I had actually seen anyone else do a whole set before I did it. I knew that Fred T Baker was doing solo bass performances by then, though (not sure how full-length-ish at that point, but he certainly was doing support slots not much later).

    Fred was bass tutor on the Wavendon jazz course in 1985, and that was a crucial ingredient for me in setting off in that direction – that and the fact that my band had just split up. Fred’s stuff was what made me think “Ooh, maybe I don’t actually need a band to do my songs”.

    Solo bass hadn’t occurred to me as a possible way forward before that, and I’m not convinced I’d ever even heard any till then (I think I may have heard Fred cover “Portrait of Tracy” before I heard the original).

    On the course we each got a one-to-one sesh with him, and I was like “how were you doing this thing? how are you doing that other thing? tell me everything you know that I haven’t already figured out” 🙂 And the first SB gig was summer of 1986 (though with only two songs).

    @ chuck:

    Supposedly programming and music involve a lot of the same neurons, yet it seems all too rare that someone does both.

    Hmmm, not that rare in my experience! I agree that a lot of musicians aren’t interested in computer geekery, but a quite substantial number of the computer geeks I know are musicians too. But maybe that’s partly just who I hang out with 🙂

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