You don’t have to stretch the language very much — nowhere near as far as when you hang the “poetry” label on “Gonna slap my bitch, gonna rap and get rich,” for example — to consider the solo artist or singer/songwriter a “band.” (About that poetry example, now, don’t for a minute assume I mean all rap is crap; that Mos Def is one smart, talented man, and a good actor, too, and he’s just one example among many.)
Whether your own definition comes from the old-fashioned music dictionary (a singer/songwriter playing guitar and/or piano and doing originals mostly, maybe some quality cover tunes) or the New Urban Slang Thang (you sing and/or rap while working turntables and/or a beat box or synth), you’re a working pro, too. It’s time to talk about the smallest of the “bands” working out there, the solo act.
Like anything else in life, there are pros and there are cons, and I mean that two ways: I mean there are advantages and disadvantages to doing a solo act, and I also mean that there are real professionals doing it and some doggone fakes too. One of the issues that arises with solo acts even deals with the very definition of what “performing” is, and there’s a real pitched battle going on about it among musicians, singers, critics, and audiences.
Let’s dispense with the rest of the definitions first. It comes down to just a few terms — like “backing tracks” and “auto-accompaniment.” And we can approach this issue with one of my own Personal Anecdotes from the Wayback Machine.
Way back in, let’s see now, 1985, I think it was, I was doing a regular gig at a restaurant/lounge, sometimes as a solo and sometimes a duo or trio, depending on whom I could bribe or drag along with me. It wasn’t working out particularly well, since the owners didn’t know what kind of music would work at their place, didn’t try to market the entertainment to a particular clientele, none of that. So some nights I’d be doing my favorite jazz standards (guitar and vocals) and some nights I’d look at the belt buckles and headwear and do Eagles tunes.
So, I agreed to transition out while they brought in a succession of acts to fill in with a tune or two during my breaks, perhaps two or three different solo and duo acts a night for a couple of weeks. Believe me, I encountered every style of music, hair, and apparel in the entertainment biz that month. But there was one new thing, something I’d not really seen before outside of the then-new karaoke bars: “pro karaoke,” I guess you’d call it.
This vocalist, a fairly talented black man with a B-grade Vegas outfit, a slick and soulful Tom Jones, had a pair of loudspeakers like everyone else who came through, but instead of a piano or guitar, he had a rolling cart, about three feet tall, with tape decks and a little mixer section in the middle. He rolled it out, plugged it in, connected his microphone, hit the “play” button, and did his thing.
I thought that was darnedest thing I’d even seen. I was working with a drummer/percussionist that night, and all he could say about it was how many of his colleagues would be out of work if “this fake music” caught on. I’d witnessed the beginning of a trend.
It has now gotten to the point, after a decade or two of The Human League, Run-DMC, and other “push-button bands,” that this is accepted, although not always acceptable to other pros, truth be told. But if you don’t play an instrument, you can legitimately go out and play gigs now with digital accompaniment, in the form of simple playback equipment, auto-play and MIDI keyboards, even iPods. But is this “performing”?
Well, the singing part is, right? And if the venue is a restaurant, a small lounge, or a private party, then expectations are different anyway. The pre-packaged performance wouldn’t work for a concert, unless you’re doing rap or hip-hop — but, come to think of it, that could change, couldn’t it? (Watch this column for updates.) Still, in the world of local gigging musicians, it is happening more and more, and is more mainstream all the time. People are used to it.
But are the musicians who are losing gigs used to it? Well, yes and no; they know the reality of the music marketplace, but it sticks in a lot of craws. But are musicians really “losing” gigs because of technology, or is it the sophistication (that is, the lack of it) in the audience that’s the problem? People who care about live music will find it; restaurant owners who want to take one inexpensive step up from muzak can now find decent singers with backing tracks. Everyone can get what they want, and there are more options than ever.
So, if you’re a singer/songwriter or solo artist who wants to spice things up a bit in your act, you can easily find a way to add some backing tracks, too. If you already play an instrument, just make sure that you are adding flavor, not changing the whole menu; don’t overproduce every number, don’t add string section all the time, and keep it sensible and, above all, tasteful. “Push-button performer” is not something that you want to be identified as, so don’t overdo it.
And never forget: There really is no such thing as “pro karaoke.” And there never will be.
Erik Jay is a writer, designer, and BMI composer/artist who lives in L.A. with one wife and two dogs. At his site, erikjay.com, you can take Door #1 for his editorial and design work, or Door #2 for original music.