[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Patrick McGuire.]
Every time a songwriter sets out to create music, they rely on a set of tools and creative resources to make music with. Tangible assets like instruments and recording gear blend with an artist’s natural talent and musical intuition with the result of new, hopefully meaningful work.
When it comes to a musician’s creative music-making prowess, we often put most of the focus on the quality of a person’s singing voice or the technical ability they bring to a song’s performance, and those things can certainly help in creating a solid piece of music.
But, as it turns out, a unique, authentic approach to making music can trump natural songwriting ability and technical ability in a huge way.
What makes music meaningful
There are plenty of exceptions, but time and time again the music that ends up resonating with audiences and pushes genres forward is made by musicians who express their creativity in original, authentic ways.
If you’ve ever wondered why so many young, unestablished artists with undeveloped technical musical talent are able to create influential music, it’s because they’re channeling an authentic perspective that listeners can relate to. Music provides countless functions in modern culture, but it’s most important job is to make a person feel known and connected to something bigger than themselves. This comes from authenticity.
Meaningful music is able to convey an artist’s innermost feelings and observations about the world and themselves in ways that reach out and make sense to audiences. Some of this music is deep and serious, but much of it isn’t. Authentic music explores a wide range of human emotions, perspectives, and situations.
This means that anything that you genuinely feel and experience is fair game to write about, whether you’re inspired by something lighthearted and inconsequential or deathly serious. What artists write music about varies widely from person to person, but being motivated to create something truly authentic typically sets musicians apart from the pack.
The imitation trap
Why aren’t more musicians embracing authenticity in their work? The short answer is because, like character, authenticity has to be earned.
Being both uncompromisingly authentic and creative isn’t easy, and many musicians choose to imitate their influences over doing the work of writing from genuine, thoughtful perspectives. Leaning in to another artist’s perspective and style is a tempting shortcut that artists often take in the pursuit of success. Some make a conscious decision to write from another musician’s playbook, while others create work with the sound and feel of another artist’s without knowing it.
In almost every instance, the result is music that sounds borrowed, hollow, and temporary. Many musicians enjoy temporary success by playing the imitation game, but it almost never lasts.
The risks & rewards of being authentic
Here’s the tricky part. Being an authentic musician isn’t an iron-clad guarantee that you’ll be successful (there are no guarantees in music).
Bringing real authenticity to your work doesn’t mean that what you create will hit a nerve and resonate with people, and there’s actually a fair amount of inherent risk in writing from a perspective that’s real and unguarded. The world might hear your work and ignore, mock, or misinterpret it. It can feel devastating to reveal yourself completely through your music only to see it get rejected.
This can be painful, but the truth is that most authentic music gets ignored in the modern age because of the unprecedented amount of new music out there. In other words, the world almost certainly isn’t out to not take you or your music seriously. There’s simply so much music out there that inevitably much of what’s being made doesn’t find or connect with an audience. This is why promotion in music has never been more important.
Authenticity is just one part of the equation, and this is where things like talent, timing, taste, and promotion come into play. Talented, hardworking artists who bring honest and unique perspectives to their work have the best chance at creating great work that audiences will want to hear.
Building an authentic musical perspective
There’s no single way to bring authenticity into your work as a musician, and being genuine looks and sounds different for everyone.
However, some things to pay attention to are the first things you think about when you make music. If the notion pops into your head that what you create needs to sound a certain way, zoom in on that thought and question it.
Are the boundaries and expectations you put on your work truly yours, or are they someone else’s? Working authentically means working from your own set of rules and drawing from your own perspectives.
Actually doing this is harder than you might think, and following through with it could upend your entire process. But what you gain from following your own path in music is worth the pain and stress of having to build ways of creating work from the ground up.