Monday, November 2, 2009

Sobering Truth: A song is a souvenir

First, a parable about sweatshirts.

Once upon a time I went to the Scottish and Irish Music Festival. It was great! Not just the music, the whole event was fun. It was a colorful location filled with lively people, and vendors offered all sorts of interesting Celtic things to look at and buy.

One of the things I bought was a sweatshirt emblazoned with the logo of the festival and a list of all the bands that performed. I bought it not because I needed another sweatshirt, but because I wanted to take home something to remind me of the positive experience that I had at the festival. I bought it as a souvenir.

Now it's ten years later. Though my memories of the festival have faded and blurred together with several other similar events, I still wear the sweatshirt, and I still like it.

Now, let's think about the challenges facing an entrepreneur who makes sweatshirts and hopes to gain me as a customer. The sweatshirt designer could show me shirts that are better in every way than the sweatshirts I already own, and at absurdly low prices, but I still wouldn't buy any of them. I have plenty of sweatshirts already, and I don't need any more.

But someday I will buy another sweatshirt, even if I don't need one. It might be for another music festival, or a friend's rock band, or some social cause that I feel strongly about. Whatever it is, it will certainly be another souvenir, another token that helps me feel connected to something I feel good about.

Now -- as songwriter, you're the sweatshirt designer. People already have too many songs in their music collections. And, today, everyone can get an endless amount of music for free if they're willing to look around a little. And if they're not willing to dig for free downloads, then hey, 99 cents a song is not a lot of money.

Can you compete by writing better songs? It can't hurt if you write great songs, but you still have a formidable challenge if that's your strategy, because you have to go up against the favorite songs from the entire world, from every period of recorded history.

You might be able to twist some arms and get people to listen to your songs once, and they might admit that you've written some fine songs — but that doesn't mean that they'll add those songs to their collection and put them on their playlists.

No, if you want to win a place in the musical soundtrack of people's lives, your song better be more than just a song. It should offer people a chance to feel connected to something that feels meaningful and important to them. You song should tie the listeners to something that they already feel good about.

So how do you do that? There's no short answer, and I guess we'll have to explore this further in a later post. But for now, start paying attention to what musical artists (and their record companies) do to help you feel that their music is connected to something meaningful and important.

And think about how happened to collect your own listening library. Out of millions of songs available, what led you to these particular few thousand songs?

Every Monday is Sobering Truth day for the Unruly Beast.

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