Play to your strengths

Experts have long encouraged people to “play to their strengths.”  But as a consultant to new artists, I have learned it is easier said than done. Not because it’s hard to identify what people are good at, but because most artists undervalue what they inherently do well.

I am talking about the things they do effortlessly, almost reflexively, like breathing. The problem is most artists have a tendency to not value their innate talents as much as they do the skills that have been “hard-won.”  The skills that are encouraged by friends and relatives, skills that are safe and fit into the concept of  other people’s ideas of security and success. Unfortunately these well meaning people (I have no doubt most of them are sincere) are dream killers.  It is just the nature of the beast.

When we’re inherently good at something, we tend to downplay it.  Maybe it seems like nothing to us, but it might mean something to another person, maybe a lot of people. How many artists start out with a vision of who they are only to change directions completely. They often create a market for their talent that is way outside the box. But unless one takes the leap, he will never know real success or real failure.

Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt

As frontman of Hootie and The Blowfish, Darius Rucker brought middle-of-the-road pop back during the age of alterna-rock. Such counter-programming made their debut sell in the multimillions. But when that novelty wore off, Rucker reinvented himself brilliantly, as a country singer. He might have faced considerable prejudice, as one of the few African American artists in a genre which has promoted few such artists, he beat those odds as well.

Very few musicians get the chance to radically alter their sound just one album into their career – especially following a release that went platinum. Pink pulled off that coup by following her smash R&B debut, Can’t Take Me Home, with a rock star chaser, Missundaztood.

The full-scale metamorphosis Genesis went through had as much to do with changing market forces as a potentially ruinous defection. In 1975, after singer Peter Gabriel “walked out of the machinery” (in his words), the band turned to their drummer to take the mic. Who knew Phil Collins had such commercial savvy? Collins began leading them into an increasingly pop direction, mirroring the growing success of his solo albums. By 1981, on the album Abacab, every trace of Genesis’s art-rock roots had been pulled up and replaced by slick pop.

Pop’s great changeling has probably pulled more fast turns than most anyone in pop history. David Bowie’s earliest albums drew on hippie-folk and psychedelia. Next, he patented glam-rock and “plastic soul”. Later, he made a Kraut-rock album (Low), an electronica drum-n-bass salute (1997’s Earthling) and finally a meditation on avant-jazz (2016’s Blackstar).

With his Donald Trump-like ego, Kayne believes he can do anything – and do it better. That led him to sing, rather than rap, on his fourth album, 2008’s 808s and Heartbreak. More, the album featured a newly unified, synth-drenched sound. Kanye’s album signaled a major shift in hip-hop, making it increasingly inward, vulnerable and avant garde.

When they formed from the ashes of the early Santana band, Journey leaned towards fusion. Their first three albums stressed musicianship, a focus that shifted forever with the hiring of singer Steve Perry. He rebranded the band as corporate rock shills, with the string of stadium hits to prove it.

Fans first knew Latifah as one of the most powerful female rappers around. But the woman born Dana Owens grew up crooning jazz. She finally got to show it in 2004 with the aptly named Dana Owens Album, which featured takes on jazz songs from Lush Life to Barbara Lewis’s Hello Stranger. It outsold every album Latifah ever released in the US, while moving more than 2m copies worldwide.

It’s a big leap to go from an LA gangsta rap icon to a reggae star (operating under the name Snoop Lion). But the former Mr Dogg already had a proven connection to Jamaica via his love of ganja. Of course, Snoop hasn’t sold nearly as well as a reggae singer, but that hasn’t harmed his image of “cool.”

The success the Bee Gees experienced with the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack in 1977 nearly obliterated the sound that defined their first era of success. Nearly a decade before Stayin’ Alive, the brothers Gibb enjoyed a rich run of hits that mixed formal 60s psych-pop with genuine soul. The Robin Gibb fronted hits like I Started A Joke or Massachusetts, while sibling Barry took the prime vocal on hits like To Love Somebody, which inspired covers by stars from Janis Joplin to Nina Simone. After running out of steam in the early 70s, the Bee Gees moved to Miami and started working with producer Arif Mardin. He steered them into dance music, first with 1975’s Main Course. That set the scene for Fever, creating one of the greatest second acts in pop history.

The first hit by the Moody Blues had a far different sound than the one that made them millions. In 1965, they rose on R&B, generating the soulful hit Go Now, sung by Denny Laine. Two years later, Laine was out of the band, which solidified around a new lineup with a fresh style, offering a sentimental take on then emerging prog rock. The result was the orchestral Nights In White Satin.

Few singers have suffered as much for their evolution as Joni. When she took her sharpest turn towards jazz, on 1979’s Mingus, the move nearly killed her career. Most fans didn’t want to let the image of the literary hippie go, though Mitchell had begun moving on from that sound, and presentation, years before. While Joni’s bank account never recovered, the daring of her decision has only deepened the world’s view of her as one of music’s most revered artists.

I started out as a teenager counting on the dream that I was going to be a great guitar player in a great rock ‘n’ roll band. Well things changed a hundred times and I ended up being a tour manager. I always thought that it was some type of Karma and God was paying me back for all the times I was a difficult artist, putting our tour managers through the paces. But ending up as a tour manager was the best thing that could have happened to me. I have toured in over a hundred countries and had the privilege of working with some of the finest bands in the world. Yea, life can throw some curves, but it is great being in the batter’s box.

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