In this episode of the podcast, you’re going to learn three strategies that will help you stand out as an upcoming artist. In order to show you why uniqueness is so important, I’m going to introduce what I call the “copycat trap” first.
The “copycat trap” and how to avoid it
We all have our favorite artists and labels in the electronic music scene. We look up to our heroes and heroines and their production style. And if we’re brutally honest with ourselves, we sometimes go a bit too far. Our admiration turns into something that I call the “copycat trap”.
So what is the copycat trap?
There are two versions of the copycat trap. The first one is a false assumption:
If I’m producing music in the style of artist X (or label Y), I might become just as successful.
A good example here is the label Drumcode. It’s one of the most successful electronic music labels out there with a very distinct production style across all their releases.
I can’t even tell you many artists I’ve come across who are desperately trying to mimic their sound.
The problem here is: Nobody needs a (bad) copy of the Drumcode signature sound. Even among their releases, one could argue that some of the artists are more unique than others.
The second version of the copycat trap is even more tricky because you’re subconsciously copying your favorite artists.
This is very problematic because if you’re not aware of this problem in the first place, there’s no way to change your production style and find your unique artistic voice.
Why copycats will always fail in the long run
Styles and sub-genres come and go in waves. Sometimes it feels like there’s a flood of artists who sound exactly the same because “the market” (aka listeners and other DJs) is calling for that sound right now. Interestingly, some of these copycats get extremely successful during such a wave.
This is where the fallacy begins: You think that by producing music in that very style, you have a chance to reach a certain level of success. And you might even be right here…
…but only for a couple of months maximum.
The problem here is: You’re dependent on that sound being fashionable right now. Moreover, there’s a huge portion of luck involved because there are enough other copycats out there who are desperately trying to ride the wave.
How to be unique as an artist and avoid the copycat trap
If your goal is to stand out as an upcoming artist, you should try to avoid the copycat trap and aim for your own sonic identity. “Uniqueness” is a very vague concept and often misunderstood.
I don’t think any type of music out there is truly unique.
We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants, so our originality always builds on what’s already there. Still, I believe that upcoming artists should aim to find at least a certain twist in their production style that hasn’t been done in exactly that way before.
In order to help you stand out as an upcoming artist, I’ve put together three strategies that help you become more unique.
Stand-out-strategy nr. 1: Find your signature sound and go all-in on it
Some artists definitely have their own sonic identity and you can instantly tell when one of their songs is playing. Famous examples for this are Trentemøller, Stephan Bodzin, Tale of Us, Moderat, and many more.
They’ve all found a way to write and produce music that represents their sonic identity in every single song. This doesn’t mean that all songs sound the same! Even if they’re largely different, every composition carries a certain sonic fingerprint that’s indistinguishable.
I haven’t come up with a recipe yet on how to get there. But I have a very good idea of what the key ingredients are:
- Deliberate Experimentation: You have to invest time in researching a large variety of composition and production techniques. Try them out and see what deeply resonates with you in an emotional way.
- Citation instead of copying: You have to gain a certain level of awareness about what your influences are and how you want to use them in an original way. Instead of copying, you’re citing certain sounds and styles and integrate them into your compositions.
- Consistency: Once you’ve identified key components of your signature sound, you have to go all-in on it and “own it”. Consider it your favorite spice that makes every sauce a winner.
A signature sound can be a certain synth patch combined with an interesting playing style (Stephan Bodzin). It can also be certain types of chord progressions you’re using over and over again and the blend of vintage and new production styles (Trentemøller). There are many different ways to get there but it’s usually a couple of key ingredients that make up a signature sound.
I’ve also asked around a little bit to get the opinion of respected artists in my circle. Here’s what Chris Jarman aka Kamikaze Space Porgramme came up with:
I would say, being totally honest, wearing your influences on your sleeve, that’s your unique musical DNA. Also, Limiting yourself, set some ground rules i.e only making drums from foley. or never quantizing etc. Repeating habits until it becomes habitual in your sound.
– Chris Jarman aka Kamikaze Space Programme
Stand-out-strategy nr. 2: Reinvent yourself over and over again
Some artists do the same thing over a long period of time. And that’s fine if they’re actually owning their sonic identity and go all-in on it. But there are more ways to stand out as an upcoming artist. One of them is the exact opposite of what I’ve mentioned in the first strategy.
You can become more unique as an artist by regularly reinventing yourself.
This means: You stand for creative experimentation. Your audience expects you to change every year and be the audacious character in their lives. You’re the one who dares to takes the next step first and tap into a new genre or merge two existing ones. You might be losing some of your fans with every new release (because they’ve expected something else) but at the same time, you’re clearly winning new ones. Kamikaze Space Programme has built a career on that strategy and has openly shared his path on the recent podcast episodes (check out part 01 and part 02 of his interview).
Other good examples for this strategy are artists like Aphex Twin or Siriusmo. Expect the unexpected here. One can argue that these producers still have a signature sound, but to me, the constant reinvention is what truly makes them unique.
Stand-out-strategy nr. 3: Represent something bigger than yourself
This strategy sounds abstract at first, but it’s actually quite clear: You stand for something (a cause or belief) that is fueling everything you do artistically. Even if your music isn’t especially unique, people still recognize you for something.
It’s not the most common strategy in electronic music, but I still see it from time to time. This can range from environmental activism to gender politics or fighting for autonomous creative spaces.
Sportbrigade Sparwasser, a DJ/producer duo that’s among my long-term studio clients, is deeply involved in socio-political matters and constantly supports causes that are aligned with their beliefs. This doesn’t mean that they’re blasting out their opinions all day. It means that they’re using music as a vehicle to create a safe space where race, gender, status, and other things don’t matter anymore. And their longterm fans know what they’re about. They know that this band will definitely not play at a mainstream festival that promotes itself with a sexist advertisement.
The music has to have a certain level of uniqueness, for sure, but if you want to stand out as an upcoming artist, you might want to think about what else you want to represent. Short disclaimer here: This makes only sense if you’re already quite involved in a cause or belief. Please don’t just jump on the bandwagon for the sake of growing your music career. People will notice you not being authentic anyway.
Putting it into action: How to stand out as an upcoming artist
I’ve shown you three strategies that help you avoid the copycat trap. You now have to choose what works for you and what combination of the three approaches might be a good fit. In order to help you get started, here are three action steps you can take:
1. Analyze your latest productions
- Be brutally honest with yourself. Have you fallen into the copycat trap? List your “hero”-artists and labels and doublecheck how close your music is to theirs.
- Have you been riding a specific wave that’s fashionable lately? Which one was it and how much have you stuck with the production clichées of that sub-genre?
- Which aspects of your music are actually unique and original? Ask people who are giving you their honest opinion whether they perceive that originality in your productions.
2. Discover your unique, creative potential
- Start a phase of experimentation right now where you try out new composition or production techniques, merge them with what you already know, and break free from what your heroes and heroines are doing.
- If something starts to resonate with you deeply, that’s a very good sign that you’ve found something worth digging deeper. Start going all-in on this style and technique and try to add as much personal character as possible.
- Decide for yourself if you want to consistently build on your signature sound or if you’re interested in reinventing yourself constantly. Both are hard to do, but please be extreme with this so people actually notice what’s special about you. If you’re too vague, you will be perceived just like every other mediocre artist out there.
3. Find out whether there’s something bigger that’s driving you
- Is there a cause or belief that is incredibly important to you? If so, write it down and include why this matters so much to you.
- Can you relate this aspect to your music somehow? Look for an organic connection, something that doesn’t feel forced.
- If there is a natural fit between your cause and your music, start putting it out there and include it in your artist bio, interviews, etc.
So what is unique about you? Have you ever found yourself in the copycat trap? What bigger cause is driving you? Let me know in the comments, I read everything.