August 28


Are You A Commodity, Or Something Special?

By Keith Livingston

August 28, 2016

live show, musicianship, networking, stage presence

Maybe it’s toilet paper, maybe gasoline. Maybe for you, it’s dentists, hard drives, patch cables, or toothpaste. We all have things that we think of as commodities. We don’t care much about the brand, or any special features — we just need it. And we’ll get it from wherever is cheapest, or most convenient.

It’s generic and replaceable. We’d just as soon buy another brand, or at another store, as long as it’s cheaper, or more convenient.

And then there’s the opposite end of the spectrum. . .

Maybe it’s a particular brand of shampoo that you’ll go out of your way to get. It could be a restaurant where the chef makes a dish just so, or a specific brand of guitar strings you have to use.

The opposite of a commodity is something that’s unique (or at least, harder to find), or much harder to replace.

Which Are You?

Here’s a concept, that if you get it straight in your mind, will change forever the way you view your music in terms your success with it. Are you and your music a commodity, or something special?

If you’re a proctologist, you might not have that much competition. The bar is pretty high just to be one. Most people don’t want to be one, and most people don’t do it as a hobby.

But everybody and their Aunt Zelda plays a musical instrument and/or writes songs, and is willing to do it just for fun. It’s a different competitive landscape. Unless you set yourself apart, you’ll be a commodity.

And yet. . .

Adele Can’t Be Here, But Here’s A Singer

If you went to an Adele show, and instead they replaced her, you’d probably be upset. “Hey folks, Adele couldn’t make it tonight, but we have a singer, so it’s ok.” Adele is not a commodity.

On the other hand, a promoter for a local club recently posted on Facebook, “Hey, we need some bands for Tuesday night. If you’re interested, send me a message.” He needed ‘bands’ that play ‘music’. Generic as fuck!

Your job, as a do-it-yourself musician, is to continually move from generic and replaceable, to unique and irreplaceable, and to make the world to see you that way too.

Skill-Sets For Do-It-Yourselfers

Let’s take a look at some areas where you can stand out.

  • Musicianship
  • Stage presence/show
  • Songwriting
  • Arrangement
  • Niche/subject matter
  • Attractiveness
  • Fan outreach/marketing
  • Networking
  • Your story

You don’t have to ace every single category, but you the more you can, the better.


I have a friend who’s a country music singer/songwriter. She’s a really, really good singer. When people hear her sing, they automatically realize she’s a pro. She probably a top 2 percenter in singing. In other words, much less of a commodity.

Stage Presence/Show

You don’t have to have smoke machines and flashpots, but you do need to build a connection with your audience.

Mumbling into a microphone and looking down at the ground when you play — commodity. Connecting with the audience, having emotional peaks and valleys in the show, allowing your personality to shine though — more unique and rare.

One show, I played a song I’d never played live before. I took off my electric, grabbed a stool and an acoustic guitar, and told a quick story. “I fell in love with the woman who lived next to me, in my apartment building. After we broke up, every day I had to listen to her walk by my door every morning, on the way to her new boyfriend’s house. If you’ve ever had a broken heart, you’ll feel yourself in this song. It’s called, ‘Love Walked By My Door This Morning’”.

It took just 17 seconds to say that, but I could see folks responding. I got a few comments that this song was the highlight of the show.

And since I hit ’em with a harder driving song immediately after, it increased the impact of that song (contrast increases impact).

Whether it’s flying karate kicks or heartfelt stories, you should have a show.


We all know this, right? If you’re playing original music, the quality of the songs has to be good.


Even if it’s just you and an acoustic guitar, figure out how to add dynamics to your songs through arrangement. Drop the guitar out for a verse after the break, of just strum once per chord change.  Beat on your guitar like it’s a drum for the break, use different chord voicings in the last chorus, or have a different, more dense strumming pattern.

Do whatever you can to move the songs along, and create stronger peaks and valleys.

There are a gazillion singer/songwriters who play the same way in every verse and every chorus of a song. To set yourself apart, arrange.

Niche/subject matter

I know a guy who wrote a song about Harleys. I saw a gal perform songs about atheism. There’s a guy in the Seattle area who has been making a good living for at least 20 years, doing songs for children.

What these three artists have in common is that their audience is reachable, and because they niche, many in the audience will connect with them instantly. There are Harley clubs, and atheist meetups all over the world. It’s easy to contact them, and possibly set up shows or promotions. Or, you can target Facebook ads to members of motorcycle clubs, for instance.

Having a niche market is not a key to superstardom. To be a superstar, you have to appeal to a broad swath. But as a do-it-yourself musician, you don’t need a million fans. You need a couple of thousand that will buy the 2 CDs you put out a year :-).

So, do you have a hobby, or passion you can work into some of your tunes? Do you have a political view, or a cause you can attach yourself to? Do you speak a foreign language? All of these are potential ways to niche.


This is where I fall short. I mean, I’m not ugly, but I just don’t care that much what kind of clothes I wear, or if my shirt is ironed, or if I’m clean-shaven. I think, “Let the music do the talking.” But that’s a mistake. People often judge you by factors that have nothing to do with the quality of your music. It’s best to give them a chance to like you by lining up as many factors as possible in your favor.

So, however attractive or unattractive you are, work it. Get a ‘look’, stage clothes that fit well, and don’t be a slob (unless that’s part of your shtick). Whether it’s flannel shirts, or sequined polyester, do it well.

Fan outreach/marketing

If you’re a genius at Facebook, or an Instagram queen, work it. It’s part of the job. Write a weekly newsletter and get fans to sign up for it. The name of the game is engagement. The more you draw potential fans into your world, the more committed they become, and the more likely they are to share your video, come to a show, or support your next release.

If you play 100 shows, and you haven’t collected the contact info of people who have come to see you, you’ll have a few new likes on Facebook.

If you play 100 shows and collect just 5 emails/show, you’ll have 500 people with whom you’ve had a chance to follow up. They will have heard more of your story, you’ve probably sent them a link to your YouTube videos, and linked to your Facebook page. They know you now, and many of them are invested.

And when you have a CD to sell, or a new gig to play, you’ve got a built in audience, that you can reach.


Getting gigs, finding players, learning what other folks are doing for websites — you can grease the wheels on all of that by networking.

Your story

On X-Factor, they always give you some back story about the contestants before you hear them sing. Why? Because it’s the stories that hook you, and they want you invested before the contestant starts singing (or doing whatever).

Think about that for a minute. The story comes first. Otherwise, you’re just listening to someone sing, that you don’t know. And that’s what people are thinking about you at a gig, or listening to one of your songs, unless they hear your story.

Sometimes the story is a gimmick, “He plays accordion. . . With his feet!”, but more often it’s a variation of an overcoming odds story. In nearly every case, it’s interesting.

Your Story Is Your ‘Hook’

Your story is your hook. It gets people to listen to you. And when they listen, if they relate to your story or are interested in it, they’ll listen with more attention and investment.

It’s a good idea to have your story tap into your target audience. If the people who like your music are 50-something year old women who are empty-nesters, maybe your story could be about how you always wanted to be a musician. You put your aspirations on hold until your kids went off to college. Now, you’re following your dreams!

If your audience is 17 year-old males, your story should be about. . . I have no idea. What do 17 year-old males think about? Sex? Angst? Sexual angst? Whatever it is, your story could include those elements.

Everybody’s life is interesting, if told well. And since people who like your songs and style of music relate to you, they probably will relate to your story.

The Whole Enchilada

You don’t have to be the best with all these skill-sets, but in general, you’ve got to have the basics down in all of them, and outstanding in one or more. There are exceptions, of course. Bob Dylan isn’t a great singer, but his lyrics reach many people so powerfully, that it doesn’t matter so much.

But in general, the musicianship and songwriting has to be up to snuff before you get any attention.

If you’re not the greatest pianist, you can go a long way with a great story and personality. And you can always work on the musical skills. If you’re ugly as all get-out, but you’re a great at social media, go get ’em.

My advice is to take a look at these areas, and where you’re weak, find someone to help you shore it up, or work on bettering yourself.


PS: I had one person in the biz say, when I was talking about artists whom I admired, “Yeah, but you’re not cute, you’re not 20, and you don’t have big tits.” All those things are true (well, I can be a little cute sometime). Rather than take that harshly, I took it literally. We all need to evaluate where we are, honestly. We need to accurately know where we are in order to best improve.

As for me, right now, my guitar playing is not bad, I can do what I need to do with guitar. I’m a good songwriter, and a passable vocalist. I need to improve the vocals (it’s the main thing most people focus on when they listen to music). So, I’m working on it.

I have engineering and production skills, and I’m getting pretty close to being able to produce some pro sounding songs from my apartment. That’s a big advantage for me.

But I’m a terrible networker, and basically have no live show beyond just standing up and playing my songs. But I can build websites and create email lists, so I don’t need to find someone to do that.

Now, we know where I need work. Get the idea?


Keith Livingston

About the author

Keith Livingston started recording his own music in the late '70s, on a 4-track. He worked his way into live sound and studio work as an engineer -- mixing in arenas, working on projects in many major studios as a producer/engineer, and working in conjunction with an independent label.

He taught audio engineering at the Art Institute of Seattle, from 1990-1993, and in '96, contributing to authoring several college-level courses there.

He was General Manager of Радио один (Radio 1) in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Now he spends his time recording his own songs wherever he roams, and teaching others to do the same.

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