What Is Your Niche?

What is your niche or your music style? Why would your niche or genera matter to anyone?

In this episode You’ll hear all about my genre hopping friends from the country and a chameleon killer drummer. We’ll get into this and more in this episode of Indie Confidential.

Broadly speaking a niche is understood to be a specifc segment of a market, and in our case, a sound and style, or genre. We all know there’s a vast array of popular musical genres, from widely known mainstream styles to those that are totally obscure.  Each has their own ‘colour’ and ‘flavour’ and each contributing to a particular market.

In rock, there are genres such as: post grunge; brit pop; acid rock; christian; hardcore; cow punk; rap metal; indie pop; glam rock; art punk; stoner; space rock;emo; prog rock; ska; deathcore; psychobilly; folk rock and skate punk, for example, and that’s just scratching the surface of the rock genre. The list is just staggering!

The music industry is built on niches, and whether you like it or not, you’re sure to be in one.  And if you think you’re not, you’ll soon be told what your niche is. It’s irritated me over the years, but people love to pigeon hole your sound. It helps them organise where you fit in.  It’s just the way things are and I’ve accepted it now. Stay with me here.

When you’re carefully putting your act together, you’ll usually have a vision of a style and sound you’re targeting. You’re writing your tunes with a certain aesthetic and when you’re asked, what your intended sound is, you’ll say something like: “Well, we’re indie pop with an element of shoe gaze”, for example. Then you’re almost sure to get a response such as: “Really, it sounds more like folk to me!” What?

At that, I’m afraid, is where the conundrum lies. You don’t know how you’re gonna be received, and you can try as hard as you like to be indie rock BUT everyone will think you’re folk. You see, we humans are conditioned to categorise sounds. If you hear Led Zeppelin, it’s classic rock. If you hear Nirvana, it’s grunge. So what do you do?

Well simply put, nothing. Your sound is the culmination of years of influence and your subconscious absorption of music.  Music that you didn’t really have a say about.

Your particular sound is what you do best, and embracing and exploiting it is the best way forward. Otherwise you’re gonna sound slightly odd and not at all genuine. It’s a little like when you first hear your voice recorded. It’s like, no way, that’s not me! What you hear though, is not what others hear.

Girl Power Pop

Throughout the 1990’s I was fortunate enough to play in a bunch of great bands. I was in a four piece fuzz power pop band called Holocene in 1994. We had this fabulous girl power pop thing going on, and were signed to Shock Records. 

I loved the garagey sound, stacked with melodies and harmonies, coupled with that attitude of the Brit rock bands. I consumed copious amounts of that style of music and in my mind, the songs I was writing were exactly that. Right in that fuzzy kaleidoscopic pop music like Ash, Cast, Teenage Fan Club, and Swervedriver.

I was at our manager’s house in Albert Park one afternoon with a demo of new tracks I had been slaving over for my band, Alcotomic. I was really excited about them and just couldn’t wait for the look of jubilance on his face when he listened to them. I patiently sat in the corner while he loaded up the cassette and hit the play button.

After the last song faded out, he walked over and turned off the deck, and then turned to me. He said, “You write really excellent alternative-country music, John”. I was completely dumbfounded. It was quite likely the worst thing I had ever heard in my life.

I hated country music with a passion, and it was an outright insult to suggest I was even close to country music. Country was a dirty word to us back in those days.

I remember flippantly covering my tracks by saying something like,  “Oh yeah, I’m kinda dabbling in different genres at the moment,” and then laughed awkwardly. But he knew exactly what came out of those speakers, and I suppose I begrudgingly did too.

But come hell nor high-water, I was never gonna admit it, let alone pursue that crap in my career!! But you know what? I should have. I needed to understand and accept what came naturally, and what I was actually very, very good at. Alt Country is a style that would have suited me then.

During most of my highly influential pre-teen life, I had been surreptitiously exposed to country music through my parents. Even though there was a stack of Beatles, Black Sabbath, Sex Pistols, and Deep Purple pumped out 24/7 by my older sisters, there was this subtle drip feed of Glen Campbell, Charlie Pride, Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson. It seems a hillbilly country intruder entered my mind through the back door while I was sleeping. Holy cow!  How did this happen?

The really important take home message here is, you must be yourself, be honest, and above all, be genuine. You cannot be a second rate version of a sound you really dig. Your potential fans are just not that stupid. Neither are industry folk and music aficionados. 

And if your goal is to connect with them, as you will, particularly in the early years of your music development, a second rate version of yourself will just not cut it.

You see … most of the tastemakers and gatekeepers are ex-musicians, DJ’s, producers, and music historians themselves. They most likely know more about sounds and genres than you do, and they’ll spot you as a phoney immediately. And then sadly, it’s over.

The next time you reach out to the Sony A & R, you will be quickly dismissed as that person from that crap second-rate band from Perth that sounds like such and such.

Country Living

When I was touring with Alcotomic in the late 1990’s, we used to come across this three-piece band from a country town, which will remain anonymous. They we’re lovely exuberant lads and we got along with them pretty well. 

But they had one major flaw, and I never had the heart to tell them. They genre hopped almost monthly in an apparently desperate attempt to keep up with what was currently happening in the scene.  But it was really badly done. They and their music smacked of desperation and it was awkward and embarrassing to watch them play.

On one occasion, they were playing a kind of heavy rock thing like Helmet meets Silverchair because Silverchair had a couple of tracks on Triple J. The band in question were dressed in black, and giving it a full nudge.

The next time we saw them, they were a B grade version of Buffalo Tom meets Weezer, who incidentally were also getting a spin on Triple J. For those of you who are unaware, Triple J is Australia’s national youth radio station, syndicated across the country, and responsible for breaking hundreds of bands.

The singer guitarist had bought a Gibson 335, and the band members were adorned in flashy primary coloured polo shirts, swinging their arms and doing the all the rock moves. I was really taken aback by the transformation. I couldn’t understand what they were trying to achieve or what benefit there was in being so obviously inconsistent. Didn’t they think people could see what was going on?

To my mind, allowing yourself to melt into hustle and bustle of a particular music scene, and absorbing the various nuances gives you an opportunity to belong to, and express yourself, within that niche. 

Being in Melbourne in those early influential years was an enormous help for me, in getting my bearings and identifying with a sound. Going to the pubs and clubs where bands where breaking through, and meeting people, helped me understand the importance of expressing yourself while taking up the flavours and textures of what’s current. 

Paradoxically, it is much more difficult to find your place when living in a rural city, starved of diversity and culture. I don’t mean this to sound condescending or arrogant, but maybe that’s why that band was struggling to find their identity.

Evolving over time as an artist is a totally natural progression, and to be expected. But evolving over a three week period? That will do you more harm than good!  There are other influences, such as the band you are touring with, and some bands find it difficult NOT to be affected by them.

There’s a certain amount cross polinisation that occurs when you’re spending every day with these acts. Afterall, they are most likely to have been chosen by the booking agent because you have some similarities. It just happens, and that’s when you get a ‘scene’ or ‘movement’ happening that punters are drawn into. Not a bad thing, if it’s good!

If your current niche or genre isn’t working for you, that’s fine too, because you can jump bands and explore different styles. That happens all the time. It’s OK to leave a band that’s playing punk rock and join a shoe gaze band. 

Skin Man

One of the great drummers I played with over the years managed to get away with doing just that. When he was with me, he was one hundred percent indie rock. He’d rock up with flared jeans, floppy hair, and printed T-shirts. After a number of incarnations, after our band folded. He ended up in a famous rockabilly punk band wearing pointy blonde hair, torn sleeved shirts, and tattoos. 

Everyone loved him. He was a good guy, a hard worker, and an excellent drummer that kept his eye on the ball, and people respected that. He is a fantastic example of how to carefully evolve into new niches and not alienate people along the way.

Alternatively, you can follow the road of the designer studio musician. They closely study the patterns and trends of popular music and then closely mimic a niche, in the hope that they’ll crack the code and clean up before the trend shifts onto something new. 

This involves having full-time access to a recording studio, a line-up of session players, and a team ready to execute a release a quickly as possible. I’ve seen mostly professional cover band guys, who are ace players, take that route.

I’ve seen this successfully done a number of times and it’s totally possible. It’s hard work however, and it can be risky. Failure means damaged credibility and possibly no career, but for them, there’s always a future in cover bands and session work.

So keep in mind, this is about the serious independent musician wanting a full-time ongoing and successful career. What then is the best way to move forward? Work hard and make the most amazing music you can, and above all, be honest and genuine. 

You can only be the best you and who cares what niche everyone thinks you’re in? If you do this, you’ll be adored or rejected, and that’s the best outcome.  Being just OK is average and mediocre – and that’s unacceptable. No-one will give a toss about you.

Do your utmost to make sounds that are your own. Sure, it’s gonna have influences. We all do. But if it connects with an audience, it’ll eventually blow up and because it’s your thing, fans will have to come to you; to hear you play or to purchase your products.

That’s the holy grail for us as original musicians. You need to be brave and stay with the game plan. One day, it’ll pay off. If it doesn’t, move on. Start again. Your niche will eventually come to you.

So what do we now know about our niche?

1. Your niche will most likely come to you and that’s because of a lifetime of influences and unintentional absorption of music styles that will surface in your music. When your influences are blended with others in your band, magic can start to happen.

2. You niche will naturally evolve over time and that’s expected. Forcing it, and frequently changing directions could make you sound un-natural.  And you’ll likely be called out as an imposter, particularly if it’s genre you personally love, but can’t execute. Hey, I love jazz, but there’s no way I’m tackling that monster.

3. Embrace your sound as is occurs naturally. Take some risks. Being yourself is paramount and will make you stand out from the pack. As an independent original artist, that should be your goal. There’s no hard and fast rule with this, just like anything in the music game, but the odds are with you, if you stick at it.

So, what’s your niche? Are you dubstep, delta blues, or neo folk? Do you have any niche stories you’d like to share? I’d love to hear them. Jump on indieconfidential.com and let me and others know of your internal struggle with your musical direction! Don’t forget to sign up to my mailing list for updates and giveaways. You can follow me on Instagram @indieconfidential and this blog can also be listened to via my podcast here.

The next episode is about taking care of business. Does your band need to be a business? Tune in next time to find out more.

I’ll catch you soon.

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