Be Interesting, Distinctive, or Both

My name is Dave, and I’m a fan of grunge music (Oh, wait, we’re not allowed to call it that…alternative rock? whatever, you get the point). The music we listen to during our adolescent years is crucial; it becomes a part of our very being. Perhaps it’s because we’re feeling so much at that age, and the music we attach ourselves to helps us explore and define what we’re feeling.

In any event: I was an adolescent in the early nineties, which means- Nirvana! Pearl Jam! Soundgarden! Stone Temple Pilots! Alice in Chains! Jane’s Addiction! I could go on and on, but that would be a different post.

So, what the hell am I talking about this for? One of my all-time favorite bands is Pearl Jam. I’ve seen them live a dozen times, I own every single album and more than a few of their live concerts on CD or DVD. I first bought their debut album, “Ten”, on cassette and I still own that cassette (though I have nothing to play it on). The album was released in 1991 and I came to it the following year, at age…13! So, yeah, I related to growling angst.

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The next year, a “new” band named Stone Temple Pilots released their debut album, “Core.” I bought it, and like many of my friends thought it was a muddier rip-off of Pearl Jam (I later learned that STP actually formed several years before Pearl Jam).

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The critical reaction was similar, with a lot of reviews pegging them as a lesser version of Pearl Jam or Nirvana. On their next album, “Purple,” Scott Weiland (lead singer) stopped his growling style (reminiscent if not derivative of Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder) and started singing in a more distinctive yet traditional rock/pop style. The band’s songs also started to transition away from trudging and dense to something based much more on hooks and riffs resembling traditional ’70’s garage rock. The band’s albums took on a different sound, which allowed them to fill a different void in the rock marketplace (back when there was such a thing). Pearl Jam evolved too, but because their album came out first, they did not have to weather comparisons.

I own all of the albums from both bands, and I can honestly say that after the debut albums (“Ten” v. “Core”), they all clearly occupy different space. Plus, I think you’re far more likely to hear 90’s era STP (particularly “Interstate Love Song”) on a modern “alternative” rock station than you are to hear Pearl Jam.

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So, why the long discourse on bands which are on the periphery of pop culture? (though Weiland was recently kicked out of Stone Temple Pilots again and Pearl Jam was briefly relevant for having a vague- and stupid- countdown clock to the announcement that they would release a new album release 3 months later!)

In the early nineties, there were a lot of bands jockeying for a small amount of space. Rock music so rarely becomes the focal point of pop music culture, and this was one of those times. The bands I mentioned earlier were fighting, with other bands from earlier (end of Guns n Roses, prime form Red Hot Chili Peppers, etc.) and newer bands (Silverchair, Candlebox…yikes) for the top of the charts. In some ways, this reminds me of what so many a cappella groups seek to do now- essentially, the same things. Stone Temple Pilots became one of the top-selling bands of the ’90’s because they found their niche.

You need to find your niche too. If you’re doing the same types of covers, in the same types of styles, as every other group out there, you’re dramatically limiting your group’s potential.  Find your own style, your own sound, your own identity and you can be something unique and uniquely successful. Stop for a minute, and think about the a cappella groups who truly have their own style… Arora (nee Sonos). Postyr Project. Swingle Singers. Of course Pentatonix. And yes, there are a few others.

You know what you like about those groups, and substitutions can’t and won’t match up.

It’s exciting when a newer group explores it’s identity, like Fermata Town’s jazzy spin on pop music. It’s also rare.

If your group isn’t trying to break boundaries or establish an identity, you’ve got your work cut out for you. First, you’re singing a cappella music, which means you’re usually singing something that another band or artist wrote and made famous (or at least made recognizable). Why should someone listen to your version which lacks the sonic range of a real bass, drums, synths, etc? Second, you’re singing a cappella music that other groups perform too. (see my two diatribes on song selection here and here). You will be compared to other groups that your audience has seen live or on YouTube, and it’s entirely possible you’ll suffer by the comparison. When you offer the same thing every similar group has already offered, the odds are against you, which is why you need to find a way to be distinctive or interesting. Try something wildly surprising or out of character, in terms of song selection or arrangement. Play around with effects pedals, or body percussion, or something else which the audience will remember.  Find a singer who can perform solos with a memorable and/or original delivery.  Do whatever you can to increase or enhance your stage presence.

Otherwise, you’re likely to end up like these guys.

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