Musicians are getting better, even if music isn’t.

singerI could be just getting old and jaded but I’m rarely wowed by a new song these days.  What I am wowed by though is the level of musicianship I’m seeing from young people.  As I’ve mentioned before, I am one of the judges of Warringah Council’s “Northern Composure” band competition.  I’ve been doing that (as well as being the house sound engineer) for some thirteen years now and, this year in particular, I’ve been blown away by the amazing playing I’ve been seeing.  Last week I mixed a band that I would consider THE best band I’ve possibly ever seen.  Not just the best I’ve mixed at Yo-Yo’s, not just the best I’ve mixed in my career but THE BEST I’VE EVER SEEN.  And, hey, I’ve seen a LOT of bands. 

But it isn’t just them, though they were definitely something special and will be damn hard to beat in the final, there is just such a massive jump in playing ability in the current generation of young musicians I’m working with.

Guitarists who would make Steve Vai and Joe Satriani turn their heads, drummers who pull off the most stunning beats and fills, bass players that seem to have at least twelve fingers (all of which seem to be working overtime).  And as “musical units”, they are as tight as any of the world’s biggest name professional bands.  Somehow too, they seem to make it look completely effortless.  When I was in my teens, I was never close to that playing level.  Even the best players I knew at the time who were around my age didn’t come close to that.  Truth be told, even after playing guitar and bass now for some thirty years, I still don’t get near the same league as some of these kids.

Sadly though, it seems that this level of ability doesn’t include the vocalists.  At least certainly not in the same numbers it does on other instruments.  There are a few that have some truly amazing ability but if we’re talking ratios, there are ten absolutely, draw-droppingly good guitarists, bass players, keyboardists or drummers for every one good singer that I’m seeing out there.   Aside from the current (but in my opinion, getting old) fashion of the hard-core “screamo” singers (and I use the term “singer” loosely because, let’s face it, that ain’t singing!), those that are actually trying to create a vocal melody, in far too many cases, are letting the side down.

At the risk of pissing off all the other musos in the band, having a good vocalist is MORE important than having an amazing guitarist.  (in so far as a moderately competent guitarist that plays within their means will still hold a song together).  The vocal is the thing that most of the audience is going to be focussed on and, if the singer is shit, will be the thing that the band will ultimately be judged upon.  Not just in competitions, but in their working careers by audiences everywhere they play.  The rest of you will fade into the background if your singer isn’t cutting it, no matter how good you are.

Why are bands that are so highly musically evolved putting crap singers in the front man position of their group?  Why aren’t they demanding the same dedication to the instrument from their vocalist as they demand from themselves?  Band after band that I’m seeing (and mixing) are “carrying” a poor vocalist through a set.  The audience are cringing at the show instead of being blown away and all the brilliant musicianship of the other members of the band is being lost behind an out of tune, out of time and out of breath vocal.  It seems a waste.

Guitarists, bassists and drummers choose their equipment and tweak the sound of it to get just the right tone (or if they don’t, they should!).  They practice their parts, their scales, their beats, their theory.  All the while the singer seems to not even know how to hold a microphone correctly and it seems to be the accepted norm.  If there was something exceptional about their abilities in the job of being a front man, I could kind of understand their thinking but too often this is not the case.  I’ve seen other members of the band other than the singer be the sole suppliers of between song banter whilst a singer slumps around with his back to the audience waiting for the song to start and when they put the mic up to their mouths, what comes out is nothing short of… well… shit.

Not in all cases, I will grant you but like I said, there’s a definite statistical ratio that can be charted.

A microphone is just like any other instrument.  You need to learn how to use it to its best advantage and a lot of the young singers I see are doing that wrong for starters.  They seem more concerned with how they look holding it than how it sounds.  I’m not sure how much time other musicians expend on how they look behind their instruments.  Some maybe.  Possibly even a lot but I reckon it’s a hell of a lot less time than they spend learning how to play it well (based on the evidence of them playing it well!)  Shamefully it seems that a large proportion of vocalists don’t seem to be following the same ratios of time management.

Just because you don’t have to own a microphone to be a singer, doesn’t mean you don’t have to know how one works and how to get the best out of it.  Yet few of them do.  It’s like the guitarist getting up on stage without knowing how to tune his guitar or what the volume knob on it does.

Then there’s pitching… Don’t get me started on pitching!  Yes, it’s important.  Very important!  If you haven’t got that right, then you are letting everyone else down big time.  I will admit that historically there have been some highly successful bands with singers who cannot sing in tune.  I’ve never been a fan of them but I understand that musical taste is a personal thing.  To me, it ruins everything when a singer is off key.  Either fix it or try taking up another instrument.

If this were just a matter of all the members of the band being at around the same level of competence, I wouldn’t be doing this rant.  I understand that at some point you gotta suck before you can be good but when I see a band that has absolutely everything else cooking and some completely clueless schmuck spewing crap into a microphone, I want to walk out with my hands over my ears.

Most of these other musicians will have, at some point, at least had one lesson on their instrument.  Usually many more.  It seems clear to me that their vocalists are not expected to do the same.  That somehow swagger is all that is required and technical knowledge and proficiency is optional.  Personally guys, I think you’re being disrespected for all those hours you’ve spent practicing your licks by these wannabe rock stars who think that just gracing the stage with their presence is enough to do the job.  If I were you I’d revolt!  Tell them that it’s not cool to not be up to the standard of the rest of the band.  Tell them that you expect the same level of competency from them as they obviously expect from you.  Tell them that you’re mad as hell and are just not going to take it anymore!

You want to be a success in the music industry?

If it doesn’t seem to be happening maybe it’s because your singer is holding you back.

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