Go be a Real Somebody

by Craig Elliott

Photo by Craig Elliott

Don’t be ashamed of your own ideas. Most musicians get applauded for sounding like someone else. People try something out that they think is exciting, and everyone looks a little unsure. Then they play an old James Brown riff and everyone’s saying: ‘Wow! That’s what we want!’ Most of the time musicians are being encouraged to sound recognizable. What I’m doing [as a producer] is encouraging them at the points when they’re not.
- Brian Eno

Who Are You?

An aspect of being an artist is the path to finding your voice. Your ‘voice’ is your signature, your ‘thing’, that which you get known for, something to which you become associated. Sometimes, even, it’s a schtick. If you think of any successful artist, someone who stood the test of time, you’ll note one particular trait – they had a unique voice. They did something no-one else did, or they did something far better than anyone else. This is something you want to cultivate, for a number of reasons.

Karma Chameleon

Composers working for media have a special challenge in this area. Generally, you are expected to be aware of, and be able to compose in, any style imaginable – NOW. I’ve scored an episodic show where I went from comic opera to Joe Pass jazz, then to purposely cheesy PSA music to porn, 50′s bubblegum pop, to copping Prokofiev ballet, then to afro-cuban, and even more. To have these styles in your arsenal, and to be able to say ‘yes’ when asked to genre-hop, is a necessary skill especially when you are getting established.

It’s your thing – do what you want to do

Being versed in many styles is great for your musicianship and breadth. However, this is not your ‘voice’. It’s unlikely you’ll get very far specializing in ALL styles – it’s a bit of a contradiction in terms! What you want is for people to think of you as the person who is the go-to for “X” , but also a capable and professional expert who is also able to adapt and stretch to meet any demand.

You need to differentiate yourself from all those people who are doing the stuff everyone else is doing!

Right now, there are thousands of emerging composers out there, who are trying to emulate the heroes du jour – John Williams, John Powell, Danny Elfman, and Hans Zimmer, to name a few. Some argue that if a producer or director want John Williams, they’ll call him. WELL… yes, and no. No, if they don’t have 1/2 a million in their budget for John’s fee. So yes, the guys who can do ‘that sound’ will get calls.

However, there are two problems with this scenario:

1. The only way to compete in this area is to be THE BEST at it.

2. This is a limiting way to build a career. You might become known as the person who can do Zimmer, and when that goes out of vogue, or worse, when someone wants something original, you could lose.

It’s a short term career move.

Don’t imitate it, don’t abandon it – FILTER IT

This will happen naturally anyways – but try to cultivate your sound when you work. Create a mental environment condusive to this – this means that you have to stop judging your work when it really starts to SOUND LIKE YOU, and instead, recognize it as a good thing and push forward in those crazy directions! You have to develop an awareness of what you do that makes you unique. It doesn’t have to be the most insane thing ever, either – it can be simple. My thing is the guitar – I want to create scores using the guitar in unusual ways. Even if no guitar sounds appear in the final recording, I will use the guitar to compose – and THAT will end up helping to give the score it’s signature – because it’ll be different had I done it another way. I ‘own’ the guitar as a tool, it is part of me and my process.

Do Something Different

Be a little more daring. Try something you think might not work. Pick up a new instrument. I’m getting into instruments from around the world – the Bansuri is my current favorite. This year I plan to learn how to play violin, and eventually I’m going to get a Guzheng. Getting into a different way of playing can really open some doors to different ways of working, new ideas, and a unique path. Study a different style of music, study different composers. Open up – and filter what you learn. Don’t get too bogged down in details – it’s not an academic excercise. Even if you can’t play well, you will come up with some ideas that are unlike what you’d normally develop. Learn fast and take what you learn and make it your own. Each instrument seems to naturally lend itself to doing different things, which is why sometimes you can break out of a rut by composing on an instrument different than what you usually use.

The Devil is in the Sampler

One of the weird things about being a composer these days is watching a film or TV show, and hearing a sample you recognize. I KNOW that one “Thunder Ensemble” hit with the singing bowl ringing overtone from StormDrum2. I even know what velocity level it was triggered at. It’s a damn good sample, too. That’s a little disconcerting when I’m using it for another project – makes it feel a little… cheap. Like cheating. Now, I’m not against samplers, libraries, sounds, and effects, etc. But it’s worthwhile to invest some time into how you can differentiate, even in this area. How your sound, is… well, your SOUND – like a guitar player has their particular sound. Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimie Hendrix, Al Di Meola – these guys play different and they also SOUND different – it’s the TONE. Experiment with your samples. Tweak them. Use them “incorrectly” – play instruments out of their compass or pitch range. Use effects.

A Balancing Act

The one caveat in all of this, of course, is that it is important to stay current. Like the ability to compose in any style, you will be asked to sound en vogue. But it is possible to balance this with a striving to be unique, different… memorable. One of a kind. A Go-To.

All things under the Sun

This kind of thinking naturally extends to your whole music business, aka your BRAND. How you present yourself – visually, personally, the myth or legend, or story you create about yourself. This all gives a context to the music and how it is perceived, and can add to your value as a composer. It’s how well you can sell yourself and your ideas, the kind of music you produce. If you build yourself to be a special kind of composer, then people will see you that way and will look to you to deliver your specialty. I will be looking at the idea of ‘myth building’ in a later blog.


How do you differentiate? Do you have some great examples of artists making it work for them? (one of my favorites is Carter Burwell). How do you strike a balance between doing it all V.S. doing one thing?

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  1. Dave’s avatar

    Great advice Adrian. I spent one summer renting Harry Gregson-Williams, Hans Zimmer and Bernard Hermann movies thinking that if I just watched them enough I could magically write the same stuff work as much as them. (And when I wasn’t watching them, I was listening to Arvo Part and Terry Riley hoping for the same.) But lately I’ve tried to just come up with something naturally, and explore the peculiar parts of what happens, and try it that way. If anything – material comes out much quicker when I’m not trying to be someone else!

    Thanks again for the advice.

  2. pete whitfield’s avatar

    That’s great advice Adrian! I’ve read so much aimed at aspiring musicians that says fit into market genres, whereas finding your own identity is far more important. Do your own thing first, then find a way to monetize it.

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