When we purchase things or align ourselves with people and causes, our decisions are usually influenced by the stories we tell ourselves for the reason behind our choices.
Here’s an example: I was out of town doing a residency with the UW-River Falls Music Department. On my way back to New York, I was walking through the MSP Airport looking for a souvenir for my wife. I came across this chocolate specialty store that looked like it could have been a local business. So I asked the lady working there if these were local chocolates. She told me that the store was based in Colorado and that the chocolates were not local. At that point, I became disinterested since chocolates from Colorado did not fit my story. Nor the story my wife would tell every time she ate them—which is that “my husband went to Wisconsin and brought me back some Wisconsin chocolates.” Mind you, the chocolates from Colorado could have been far superior to anything found in Wisconsin. But it did not matter. It did not fit my narrative.
How does this apply to how we sell our music?
Well, it’s the same principle. People purchase music typically because of the story they tell themselves—meaning why they chose one artist over the other.
A few examples:
Story 1: “This musician plays classic jazz, and I am the kind of person who rejects popular culture and trends. “
Sotry 2: “I heard this piano player on Oprah, and I’ve been watching Oprah since I was I college. She provides a voice for women like me.”
Wynton Marsalis was able to create a tribe during the eighties and nineties because he represented a new counter-culture for black conservatives and white liberal conservatives. And I mean conservative not in political affiliations, but in cultural and musical values.
Remember that this was during the height of smooth jazz, hip-hop, and MTV culture. It was all about flash and getting paid. He was the first charismatic figure to come along and say, “Fuck money. Fuck fame. It’s about excellence.” His mantra was: “Don’t worry about getting paid. First, learn how to play, and the money will come.” This message was compelling. It resonated with whites losing out to MTV culture and blacks having to play second fiddle to the glorification of thuggery and the misogynistic treatment of women found in hip-hop.
Not to mention that he always publicly exclaimed that he would never abandon real jazz for the watered down, more lucrative strains of jazz. He was not like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Chic Corea, and all the others who followed.
So to align yourself with Wynton was to reject the cultural ills of mainstream society. You were part of that select group who bore the truth. Oh yeah, and he was a badass trumpet player. Again, this was very powerful.
So if you were a trumpet player at that time and all that you were bringing to the table was excellent playing and well-written tunes, you did not stand a chance in hell next to someone who could play, compose and lead a tribe ushering in a different value system. You offered good music. He was offering a fantastic story.
Now, what is YOUR story? If you don’t have an answer, you are not alone. But I guarantee you have one.
We are taught to ignore it in our effort to fit in. Most people are fascinating and have equally fascinating stories. Whether you are a surgeon or hospital orderly; a pilot or bag handler; the owner of the restaurant or the dishwasher. You probably have a great story to tell.
And your story is usually stuffed down somewhere next to your passion and your value system. Another thing to remember about stories is that they have to be authentic. This is the only way it can stand up to criticism and the test of time.
Your story can also change—or least be revised. Things happen to us and take us to unexpected places. This too is a part of one's story. And in no way do I want you to think that I’m suggesting that you attach something jive to what you do. In fact, I’m suggesting the opposite. I want you to be more honest. I’ve known so many who hide fascinating aspects about their lives to appear normal. Which to me is more jive, because they’re hiding an essential part of who they are.
So do tell your story, because chances are it’s the story of others too. This will enable you and your music to connect with audiences on a more human level. And there is no shortage of people craving humanity. People don’t gravitate towards things because it’s about the person offering it, but because it’s about them.