How to Describe Your Music

How to Describe Your Music

From How to Call Attention to Your Music

By Derek Sivers

People will always and forever ask you, “What kind of music do you do?” Musicians often say, “All styles, really.”

If the stranger you said that to happens to be a fan of African music, watch out! You better combine the poly-rhythmic drumming of West Africa with the rich vocal harmonies of South Africa,with the microtonal reeds of Northeast Africa. And if they have any awareness of the rest of the world, then your CD better combine rage-rap, country line-dancing, Chinese opera, ambient techno trance, Hungarian folk songs, and the free jazz of Ornette Coleman. (Hey – you said “all styles” didn’t you?)

This example is extreme, but constantly remember: people know nothing about you, or your background, or where you’re coming from. If you say you sound “totally unique” – then you better not have any chords, drums, guitars, words, or any sounds that have ever been made in the history of music.

When you speak to the world, you are speaking to strangers from all kinds of backgrounds and tastes.  Open your mind. Realize you don’t sound like all styles, and you’re not totally 100% unique.

Do them a favor. Don’t assume anything. Say what it is you sound like. Narrow it down a bit.  If you do this in a creative way, (“We sound like the Incredible Hulk having sex.”) – you can intrigue people and make them want your CD, or want to come to your next show. Whereas if you had said, “Everything” – then you didn’t make a fan.

A short description – 10 seconds or less

Did you ever see the movie “The Player”? Hundreds of screenwriters in Hollywood are pitching their movie ideas to the studio executive.  Each one has about 5 seconds to impress him. The ONE sentence they use to describe their story decides whether the studio will read it or not.  You need to come up with one good sentence to describe your music. It has one goal : MAKE PEOPLE CURIOUS.

It should not try to describe every note of music you’ll ever make. It should not try to justify your existence on Earth. It only has to describe your music just-enough to make people curious to hear it.

I described my band as “a cross between James Brown and the Beatles”. Of course not everything I did sounded exactly like that, but that phrase was just enough to make hundreds of people want to hear more. I would see it work, every day, as I told it to people. You’d watch their eyes look up, watch their face change as they tried to imagine a cross between James Brown and the Beatles. Then they’d say, “Wow – I have to hear this!” And that’s all I wanted.

The shorter, the better. Give them one good sentence (a few good words), and stop talking. Let them imagine the rest.

How to describe your music

How do you come up with one good phrase to describe your music? Here are some ideas:

* Email everyone you know (especially your fans), saying you’re trying to come up with a single phrase to describe your music, and ask their help. Maybe make it a contest.

* Notice what’s most unique about you. Do your songs have a recurring theme? Unusual instrumentation?

picture: Michael Renouf,

photo: Michael Renouf,

* Find a few 14-year-old kids, and treat them to pizza if they’ll sit and listen to a few songs, and describe it for you while waiting for the pizza to arrive.

* Read a music magazine that’s describing other people’s music you’ve never heard before.  Notice which phrases make YOU curious to hear more.

* Offer to pay a music writer to help you. This is what they do for a living.

When you’ve got one you like, start trying it out on people. Watch their face. See if it lights-up.  See if they get curious.  When you’ve got a great one, you’ll know it. Use it for years and years.

Hillbilly Flamenco

Two words, to describe your music, can change your career.  David Feder and his band Salagua-Azul always wanted to get into big music festivals. They had been performing for years, and doing OK, but the agents that book music festivals would never give them a chance.

At a show, a drunk fan said, in between songs, “You know what? You guys are HILLBILLY FLAMENCO!”The crowd laughed, and so did the band. They joked about it again on stage that night,and again on the drive home.  The next day they started to notice that they all STILL remembered those two words, “hillbilly flamenco.”  It was funny, but described their music well. The crowd liked it. They decided to use it more often.

They started telling the audience, each time they played, “If you are wondering what kind of music this is, this is hillbilly flamenco!” And the end of the show, they’d ask the audience, “And when you tell your friends what kind of music you heard tonight, what kind of music is it?” The crowd would say, “HILLBILLY FLAMENCO!”

And believe it or not… it worked! People started telling their friends about this band, because it was so easy (and fun) to describe.And then, one day, they were talking to one of those booking agents who books festivals, and told him, “This music is perfect for your festivals. This is hillbilly flamenco!” The booking agent laughed and said, “Ok – I’ve GOT to hear this!”

Now David Feder and his band are playing the festivals they always dreamed of. He told me his career took a definite turn the day they started using those two words to describe their music.

– Derek Sivers

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