COMMENTARY: Alan Cross has an open letter for musicians who send him their music demos

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Understand, too, that the rules have changed. Back in the day, people went to record stores and paid hard cash for a piece of plastic. They took that plastic home and played it again and again and again until they liked every song on the disc. If that didn’t work, the record/CD was written off as a bad financial investment. Today, music flows like water and the skip button is always beckoning with the promise is that something better is in the queue. Will your song defeat the ADHD of today’s average music fan? Or are you skippable?

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I know it may be your dream to be heard on the radio, but getting that kind of exposure out of the gate is a long shot. Playlists are of finite size, so competition for airtime is fierce. Most radio stations won’t even look at your music because they’re not in the business of playing unfamiliar music by an unknown unsigned artist with no track record or fanbase. If that sounds like you, then focus your energies on campus radio or blogs that specialize in discovering music.

Yes, there are exceptions to the above rule — in my experience, groups like USS and Bedouin Soundclash managed to defy the odds as indie artists and land on the radio with their first at-bat — but they’re rainbow-coloured chocolate-flavoured unicorns. Don’t expect that to happen to you.

Depressed? If so, stop reading because we’re done here. You’re not cut out to be a working musician. However, if the above paragraphs provided motivation, carry on.

True artists are about the music first. Money — if it comes at all — is secondary. If you eat, sleep, breathe, and live music, keep doing that. You need to play the long game. Focus on the art, not the money. If greatness lies within you, it will eventually come out. And when it does, people will notice. Greatness attracts attention organically. We will find you. If that doesn’t happen, then you may have to face the fact that your music doesn’t resonate with enough people.

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Too many of today’s up-and-comers are all about being famous. They’ve been brought up on shows like American Idol and The Voice where a parade of wannabes try to impress judges by singing other people’s songs. The music is little more than an afterthought. Contestants may have a good voice and some modicum of charisma, but these performances are really just a notch above karaoke.

You’re thinking, “I know people would love my songs if I was only given a chance to be heard.” Maybe, but you’ve got to earn that chance. It takes time, dedication, sacrifice, and even suffering for your art.

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Want some constructive advice? Watch Dave Grohl’s new documentary, What Drives Us, which features a long list of musicians from AC/DC to St. Vincent to Ringo Starr extolling the experience of getting in a van with the rest of the band and hitting the road. This is what made them successful: long stretches on the road enduring bad food, destructive behaviour, cramped dressing rooms, weird fans, and stinky bandmates. It can be awful and demoralizing, but it’s also an adventure where adversity brings a band closer together.

It makes you tough, exposes you to the world, and teaches you the meaning of the show must go on. Those scuzzy experiences inform the sound, attitude, artistry, and image of the group. You become better performers. And you learn a lot about yourself. Plus there’s nothing like a room full of strangers telling you the truth about your music in real-time. That more than anything forces you to get better — and fast.

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Yes, almost everyone in the film is from an act who made it big. But they would have never achieved that kind of success without the endless bootcamp of touring in a van.

When you finally get home after the tour, do some laundry, take a shower, gas up the van, and head out again. Repeat as long as necessary — or at least as long as you can. Build a fanbase. Gain credibility with the public, even if it’s one fan at a time. Always be authentic. When you feel that you’re the best you can be — and that you’re better than anyone else out there — let’s talk, okay? But not a second before.

I’m flattered that you want my opinion and I’m impressed by the confidence you have in your abilities as a songwriter and performer. And by all means, keep sending me samples of your work because I need to know what’s going on out there. It’s my job. But please forgive me if I can’t get back to you in a timely manner — or at all. Like I said, every day is a firehose.

Good luck with your music and your career aspirations. Who knows? We may cross paths in the future if you manage to go from good to great.


Alan Cross

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Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music Podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play

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