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Submitting music to the show: dos and don'ts #3

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Adam Walton Adam Walton | 11:06 UK time, Tuesday, 17 May 2011

This is part three of my series of blogs that offer advice to music-minded people who are considering sending their masterworks to my show (an act for which I am incredibly grateful). Please don't let this long list of demands - like Lady Gaga's kitten rider (one pink, one blue, one gold, all in Kittie Kat jumpsuits and trained to paw diamond-encrusted baubles in time to Bad Romance/go feral at the sight of Katy Perry) - mask that fact.Without your music, my show would be a nightmarish wilderness of drivel and bluster. Fortunately for me, Wales is uncommonly busy with incredible musical minds. This is an empirical fact. In an average week I receive 200-ish pieces of music. I play 40-ish tracks on my show. Ten-ish of those are return plays for singles/album tracks from established artists; three are picked by the regular contributors who bring wisdom to the show; five-ish are old and ace to offer us benchmarks of excellence and inspiration... which leaves us with 22-ish 'slots' for 200-ish submitted tracks.

Which gives you a one-in-10-ish chance of getting played. It's not easy. Nor should it be. This is national radio. And although it is public service broadcasting, that service is more for the audience than for the artist.

There's a reason for that, other than high-mindedness. If I played every piece of music that got submitted to the show, 1) we'd have to extend Sunday nights by approximately 11 hours every week, 2) the quality would plummet like a real-life lead zeppelin and, thus, 3) no one, other than the occasional artist seeking the buzz of hearing their painstakingly mastered material squished into an AM or FM signal, would be listening. And if no one's listening, then what's the point in playing your music in the first place?

All of this preamble should have been in the first piece, probably. Better late than never. This is an unplanned rant, which is ironic given that what I'd most like to impress on you in this piece is the need to plan, to be painstaking, to leave as little to chance as is possible. This particular piece of advice has been the mantra appended to every rejection e-mail I have ever sent out.

DO be your own worst critic(s).

I am frequently astounded by what some people deem suitable for broadcast. Listening to a dictaphone recording of someone doing a Celine Dion cover in the utility room (not a fabricated example) - with a tumble dryer in the background - fully expecting me to play it on the radio, I wonder if 'we' are getting the message across clearly enough. And I wonder what on earth that person hears when they listen back to their recording. Listening back to it critically, it would be obvious even to a lemur with a penchant for Celine Dion covers that it's not suitable for broadcast. Clearly this is an extreme example. But it does demonstrate the variation in talent and expectation.

And, just to complicate matters further, if the 'Celine Dion backed by Tumble Dryer' recording had come from one of Wales' more esoteric labels, and had revelled in its own ironic post-modernism, I may have played it. Context is pretty important too. One man's turd on a stick is another man's thrilling deconstruction of the mores of Modern Art.

I do not expect high fidelity recordings from everyone, by any means. I've played dictaphone recordings of some artists (notably Desmond Star) that are some of my favourite songs of all time. But that's a rare example of where the talent transcends the limitations of the technology, or makes a merit of it (excellently written songs, recorded with great immediacy and little over consideration).

In that kind of scenario it's clear that the lo-fi recording is part of the artist's ethic. When I get a dictaphone recording from a screamo band recorded in their front room and the accompanying emails says: "We don't have a microphone or PA so the singer had to stand by the recorder and shout..." well, I'm thinking before I've even clicked 'play' that it's not going to be broadcastable. Call it intuition or evidence of a sixth sense. In that example (not as rare as you would imagine) the recording sounded like blocks of out of tune slate being tipped into a bucket of cold vomit. Now I know that there are people who would claim to like that sort of thing, but it's not for me, sorry.

In this example, it's not the ideal sound/recording that the band are ultimately aiming for. Recording rehearsals like that can be essential for developing a song. "We need a bit more slate and a bit less cold vomit in the second verse, I think..." But honestly, swear to god and GG Allin (evoked in this instance for good reason), it's not going to be suitable for radio play. Like, ever.

That's another extreme example. So, having set our parameters, let's talk more specifically about what I mean when I say "be your own worst critic".

Try and force yourself to listen to your recording as if it had come from a complete stranger. This is very hard to do. It's like asking someone with a car on their foot to pretend the limb belongs to someone else. But it's that kind of objectivity that is essential if you want to (truly) judge the merits of your work.

When you're caught up in the dizzy rush of creating something of your own, you lose a lot of the ability to judge whether it is any good or not. I know this from personal experience. The first demo I recorded was a ham-fisted cover version of The Cult's Love Removal Machine. We'd recorded it in a day at Rick Astley's demo studio in Widnes. The drums were the best bit. The guitars were a little out of tune. The bass must have been played on an elastic band submerged in a slurry pit. My guitar solo sounded like Billy Duffy being chased out of Dodge by a crowd pelting him with bum notes. The vocal - pegged on in the last ten minutes of the session - would have earned itself a TV slot at an X Factor audition, for all the wrong reasons.

Yet, once we got home from the studio I listened to nothing else for weeks. It was me and my best mates, for crying out loud! (And crying out loud was what my mum and dad were doing the 6,000th time they'd heard Paul maul the opening line.) I couldn't hear any of the fatally obvious flaws (that it's a cover version of The Cult being the most glaring). My ears forgave them. I listened to it aspirationally, filling in all the gaps, smoothing out the awfulness.

What I should have done was listen to it and judge it dispassionately next to the original. That's what I should have done.

Being your own worst critic means acknowledging every flaw and weakness in your recording, because the dispassionate, objective listener who isn't you, your Nain, or your bestest mate, will hear them writ loud, trust me.

Good to great bands don't let anyone hear their music until it has passed their own exacting standards.

Being a perfectionist needn't ruin the immediacy of rock 'n' roll. It's all about you having high standards and pride in what you do. Make it the best you possibly can, then send it. It will improve your chances markedly... and (importantly) not just with me. I'm making all the demands here, but this advice will serve you well whoever you're sending your music to.

BE YOUR OWN WORST CRITIC. Get it tattooed somewhere convenient but unlikely to be seen by the public. (The drummer is a good place.)

Here's an incomplete list of the kind of things I hear all the time that relegate submissions to my 'Rejected' folder: unnecessarily out of tune instruments; unnecessarily out of tune vocal (even just a single phrase); timing problems; clichéd lyrics; unimaginative, preset sounds (electronic music); self indulgence (too long, yawn-inducing solos); a failure to apply the essential adage: 'don't bore us, get to the chorus!' - even if you don't have choruses; dullness (but if your music is dull, you never know it); lots of swearing (not a quality issue, I just can't play music with swearing in it); heard-it-all-before-a-million-times-and-done-better-ness; missing spark.

I'm likely to add to this list. Feel free to comment/question this blog below. This isn't all one-way traffic. I'm not a kidnapper. It's about dialogue and clarification. I may be heavy but I am not immovable.


  • Comment number 1.

    this is really useful, just wandering, what is the best format to send music to you in, and where do people send it?

  • Comment number 2.

    Hi Milkwood - I'll address (the address!) in the next instalment. But, in short, via the BBC Introducing Uploader or an .mp3 / download link to: themysterytour [AT] gmail.com

    Thanks for reading & I'm glad it's useful. Took even longer to write than it did for you to read, which is quite something.

  • Comment number 3.

    If only some of the tracks you describe sounded as creative as your descriptions of them. "Blocks of out of tune slate being dipped into a bucket of cold vomit, " indeed...

  • Comment number 4.

    GREAT post. Although we're a bit shocked by some of the stuff you get sent!
    Also- it's actually quite terrifying how hard it is to get played on the radio if you think about it. And so it should be.
    "Don't bore us, get to the chorus". ha!

  • Comment number 5.

    Thank you lkmi,

    The truly awful submissions are almost as inspiring as the amazing ones.

    Then you have no option other than to reach for the Unwieldy Metaphor Construction Kit.

  • Comment number 6.

    EmmysUnicorn - thanks. I'm thinking of doing a show where I play the tracks 'blind'... or part of a show (a producer will have vetted them beforehand to ensure that aren't any bad words that would precipitate revolution or raise the mortality level.) Because some of the music I get sent is so wooooooh (over all heads) it's impossible to encapsulate in words.

    Getting played on the radio isn't hard when you're good. Which you are!

    And the "don't bore us, get to the chorus" is a Huw Williams-ism... probably something to do with The Ramones, or the Bay City Rollers, can't remember which. (and I refuse to use Google as a synaptic crutch.)

  • Comment number 7.

    Isn't "Don't bore us, get to the chorus" something to do with Roxette?

  • Comment number 8.

    Hi SteveDave - it didn't come from them first. It was a phrase that Huw Williams (Pooh Sticks) used right back when I first knew him ('93 - '94). I don't know where he picked it up (heck, he could have made it up himself, in which case Roxette owe him a royalty.)


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