This is the fourth installment in a series about musicians. Read previous article

Musical Motifs

Musicians can learn a few things from corporations. Company mottoes, like Nike’s “Just do it” or Google’s “Don’t be evil” help businesses define themselves, prove inspirational to their customers and provide marketing drive to their sales departments.

Solo musicians and bands can derive similar benefits by devising their own mottoes or “motifs” which define their musical and marketing goals.

For example, I used to play in a band with a drummer whose musical motif was “Don’t suck.” What I like about this phrase is that it encapsulates many concepts into a few words. First, it clearly states that the drummer never wants to be part of a lackluster band performance. Second, in order to make sure he gives quality performances, the motif requires that he practice his instrument enough to insure that he will always put on a good a show.

One popular band with a motif that helped them rise to the top was the Beatles. John Lennon said the Beatles thought they were the best band in the world and thinking that is what made them what they were. In the early days of the band, he would shout, “Where are we going boys?” to which the other Beatles would yell back, “To the toppermost of the poppermost!”

noteHaving a suitably inspirational motif can also help push musicians beyond their comfort zones. A number of established performers continually stretch themselves to see what new goals they can achieve – sometimes falling flat on their faces in the process. Sting performed opera on Broadway and was criticized for having a “thin” voice but he also formed amazing jazz/rock fusion bands in his post-Police years and had a great deal of success as a solo artist.

Creativity requires perpetual motion and demands constant exploration. There’s no guarantee of success but as Woody Allen said, “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”

The key to a performer’s career success may be in the next innovation they try. It could be a new instrument they master or a new genre of music they create by remixing already established ones.

Paul McCartney said that the Beatles kept innovating musically because they made a conscious decision to never repeat themselves. Though a musician’s style and reputation is based on a certain amount of repetition, in today’s market, the genre boundaries that used to exist have become increasingly porous. Taylor Swift, a country music darling, just released a pop music album. Josh Groban, a vocalist who studied classical music, successfully crossed over to the mainstream charts and Tom Waits has mixed musical genres going back 100 years and in the process has developed a rich, unique sound and a devoted following.

Music has always been boundless in its possibilities but today there is widening acceptance of artists who performs in a variety of styles and genres. Consumers now have almost unfettered access to most of the music ever recorded via internet streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, and as a result, their musical tastes have broadened. In addition, fierce competition for listeners has made the unique songs stand out from the mix. Lorde’s “Royals,” took the world by storm last year due to its minimalistic production and powerful lyrics and Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” had similar success the previous year. These songs cut through the noise because they sounded like nothing else and because the artists who produced them were pushing the envelope to achieve this goal. Musicians have the potential to create striking works of originality, and developing musical motifs might be just the inspiration they need to move to the next level.


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