Solo artist, or singer-songwriter
With all the problems mentioned above, it may seem easier to start a solo project. Unfortunately it’s not – the problems you’ll encounter will be different, but just as hard to solve.
In most cases, solo projects will be started by singer-songwriters.
If you can’t sing (or if your voice doesn’t fit the project you intend to do), then you either have to find an appropriate singer, which will turn you into a duo (see below); or you will do a pure studio project, which will turn you into something like a producer. This will also be discussed below. If you can’t write songs, then you either have to find a place in a band, you will have to team up with some musician (which will turn you into a duo again), or with a producer who will be able to do that for you (which will turn you in to a dummy / puppet and will probably force you to produce some really bad stuff). There have been a number of highly successful duos like that in the past however, just think of Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers for example. Anyway, if you’re a pure singer, then you should be able to write your own lyrics and you should be able to come up with some melody. If you cannot, then you’re in deep trouble, and only chapter 5 may save you.
So for the moment let’s pretend you can sing, you know how to write lyrics, and you have some ideas for songs and melodies.
If this is the case, then it will be a huge advantage if you can either play guitar or piano / keyboards. Playing guitar is even better than piano or keyboards, as it will render you a bit more mobile. If you can handle both instruments, then you’re a complete winner already. Being able to play an instrument is a huge advantage, as it will greatly help you with your songwriting.
The problem with many of today’s singer-songwriters is that they mostly focus on their voice, while the music itself is just background noise. As seen before, vocal driven music will mostly attract a less intelligent and less educated audience of followers, and that’s not the fanbase you will want. We’ll be discussing this problem later on, for the moment just keep in mind that it will be a great advantage if you’ll be able to imagine what the instruments in your song should sound like, and if you’ll be able to use your guitar or keyboard to record things on your own. And if you want to be the primary writer of your own songs, then things will become very hard if you can’t play any instrument.
If you can’t play an instrument yet, then you should instantly buy a steel string guitar with a built-in mic (so that you will easily be able to record) and / or a keyboard. Get some books for starters, and start practicing as soon as possible. Even if you won’t become a good instrument player and even if you’ll never be able to perform live, this will still help you a lot with your songwriting. Buy or borrow an instrument right away if you’re serious about writing songs. There are no excuses, no matter how old you are. If you think you are not too old and not too busy, then your goal should be to master your guitar or your piano good enough to use it on stage. Personally I think this will be easier with a guitar, although you’ll have to find out what works best for you. All of this is also true if you’re a singer in a band by the way. Learn to play an instrument, at least basically. This will help a lot and it will also help you to better understand what the other folks in your band are doing.
If you want to become a pure Top 40 bullshit artist, then those recommendations are not true, of course. The KLF’s The Manual made it quite clear – “If you are already a musician stop playing your instrument. Even better, sell the junk.” This, of course, is not the road we want to take here, as we want you to become successful by making good music. Beware not to get tempted by the dark side.
The big advantage of being a solo artist is that you will not yet have to worry about a band at this point, and if you’re a singer-songwriter then you will have full control over the entire writing process. You will not have to fight for your ideas, and you will not have to compromise because some jerk wants to ruin your song with a 3 minute long tambourine solo. The downside, however, is that you also won’t get as much feedback. Writing your songs all on your own may render it difficult to remain critical (think of the mere-exposure effect again), and this is why many singer-songwriters either work with a co-writer, or a producer.
Having a critic or a mentor can be very, very useful. You should at least play your demos to a few people from time to time. Try to find someone you can trust, it has to be someone who knows a lot about music, about production and the business, and who will honestly express his or her opinion. Things may become more stressful as soon as you will start recording your music afterwards. If you will only record your voice and the instruments you play on your own, then everything will be easy. But as soon as you have to deal with other musicians, things may become more complicated, as you will have to tell them what to play. You probably won’t come up with complete arrangements, and you will have to find people who will be able to play things exactly as you imagined them.
If you have something like a dream team to record your music, then this may not be a problem, but in most cases it will. You will probably have to start looking for musicians before you start recording all instruments, and you will have to practice with them as a band. So in the end you will have a band, but it will be clear that you’re the band leader and the songwriter. Your band members will be more or less employees, and you may even have to pay some of them for the job. A possible way to avoid those kinds of problems is to work with software instruments in your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation, that’s the recording software on your computer) of course.
If you’re doing electronic music or if it’s okay for you that some of the instruments on your record will be pure software, then this may be a perfect solution. Many software instruments are quite good nowadays, and you wouldn’t believe how many artists are using them (even good ones). If you’re a purist (which is basically a good thing), then you may also record things using software instruments, and then replace those tracks by real instruments later on. In the end it all depends on your project philosophy. Do you want the sound and feeling of a real band, or will you be okay with the more sterile sound of virtual instruments? Maybe you will also want to head into a completely different direction, by doing a lo-fi record (think of Beck’s early works, or of the White Stripes for example). Or you will do a pure electronic work, which may even render human players obsolete.
Always remember that in the end, the quality of the music you will be making will not depend on the recording technology you will be using. Taking the analog lo-fi road will not guarantee that you will produce great art, while doing a pure electronic record does not mean it will necessarily be crap.
You should also think about your options after you will have completed your record. Will you perform live? And if you will perform live, will you do it alone, just with your guitar on stage? Will you be using a playback or even lip-sync (okay, not a good plan), or will you need a backing band?
At this point of time you will only have to start thinking about what you want to do, and how you want to achieve all of this. You should be aware of the possible obstacles you may encounter, so that you will be able to find the best solutions afterwards.