Jante’s Law And What It Means For Your Music Career

This crab don't give a sh*t (be like this crab!)

This crab don’t give a sh*t (be like this crab!)

Jante’s Law is defined as a pattern of group behavior that discourages any person’s individual success and achievement within a community. The law can be broken down into ten rules:

  1.  Don’t think you’re anything special
  2. Don’t think you’re as good as us
  3. Don’t think you’re smarter than us
  4. Don’t convince yourself that you’re better than us
  5. Don’t think you know more than us
  6. Don’t think you are more important than us
  7. Don’t think you are good at anything
  8. Don’t laugh at us
  9. Don’t think anyone cares about you
  10. Don’t think you can teach us anything

Oh and there’s also this cheery unwritten one:

11. Don’t think there aren’t a few things we know about you

I definitely know some people who follow these rules to a T. Do you?

Whether or not they even realize it, many folks subscribe to this philosophy in usually one of two ways: They have either developed a fear of rising above their peers and consequently being cut down or they are just a jealous prick.

If you haven’t already noticed, this fear-based mentality crops up a lot in local music scenes everywhere. A jaded old-timer rambles off why the music industry is a trap to an enthusiastic newcomer who didn’t ask for his opinion. “It’s all about the money,” he wheezes. Hmmm…

Tell me one industry that isn’t about the money or one industry that isn’t corrupt. If you’re looking for a place you can do work that every single person will love and want to pay you for out of total fairness, you’re on the wrong planet.

These “well-meaning” characters also seem to be the ones complaining about the down economy, job security, music these days, kids these days and well, you get the point. They are emotional vampires and will suck every last bit of life out of anyone who sticks around long enough to hear about their crappy life. If you get only one thing from this post, let it be this: you need to sweep that garbage to the curb.

What a lot of folks don’t realize is that there are many ways to make a living in the music biz, no matter how big or small. You can find a whole community of professional musicians especially in popular US music industry cities like Los Angeles, New York, or Nashville. They wear many “hats” when it comes to making a living as a guitarist, bassist, drummer, etc. Since they are actually the ones in the industry, wouldn’t it make sense to ask them for advice?

We’ve all heard the stories of bands and artists getting ripped off by their record company or dropped three weeks after they’re signed. These are the stories that permeate our culture and scare us into thinking we should stick with a “safe” or respectable career and do music on the side. Hey, don’t get me wrong—some folks have different aspirations outside of music and that’s cool. What isn’t cool is people’s propensity for giving me advice on why a career in music is unrealistic.

But hey, that’s people. If anything, their efforts to discourage or criticize me are boring and predictable. Actually, it seems like the only way to achieve success anywhere involves others getting in their shot at you while you continue to put out new music, play shows or even write a blog entry.

It’s like a bucket of crabs: if one crab tries to escape, the other crabs pull it back down. That’s called crab mentality but it’s not just reserved for crabs as you can witness almost every other day. When you encounter Jante’s Law, or Janteloven (its Scandinavian translation), realize that the only reason others are trying to bring you down is because you are already above them.

Janteloven is simply a set of rules that others expect you to follow. And screw that. It’s time to create your own “Musicloven,” a set of rules that you subscribe to in your musical journey. Try these:

  1. I am special
  2. I am as good as anybody else
  3. I am smarter than others think I am
  4. I am going to do better than expected of me
  5. I know more than others think I do
  6. I am the only person who can do exactly what I do
  7. I am good at what I do
  8. I can laugh at my own mistakes
  9. Others do want me to succeed
  10. Others can learn something from me (and I from them)
  11. I will surprise others

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So where do you stand in all this? Are you proactive in building a foundation for a career in music and have your own Musicloven rule to add below?

Or are you pulling everyone back down with you?

Destroy Your Heroes

One problem, or perhaps excuse, I have often heard from many a musician who profess the desire to write songs is that their efforts always ends up sounding like their favorite bands or artists. I chalk this up to creative growing pains because as derivative as you think you are, you’ll never play, write or peel a potato like your idols. And that’s a good thing. Here’s why:

Every single person on the planet is constantly influenced by everything around him or her whether or not they know it, or admit it. The same applies to music. I owe a lot of the musical preferences (that I’m aware of) to radio and that’s something many people can relate to.

As a guitar player, I wouldn’t have made much progress if it weren’t for the work of others who came long before I did. But whether you’re a modest fan or you like to wear your influences on your sleeve (literally), don’t act like you have none. That’s just being a douche. Douches have no friends because nobody likes douches except pussies…

I remember once in the studio, my friend asked the band’s guitarist what his influences were and the guy actually said he had none but that he listened to a lot of classical music. I’d like to include that this guitarist’s music had to have been the freaking encyclopedia of lead guitar licks featuring a veritable crap-ton of sweep-picked arpeggios.

Now regardless of what this guitarist might have thought in his head, he was not the first guy to do these things. But that’s okay! We’re all products of our time. What makes you a douche and sets off everyone’s BS meter is if you deny that simple reality. So get that straight first and instantly feel the self-imposed burden of hyper-originality evaporate.

You only get better at things you spend most of your time on. If you only write music when you get inspired,” you will probably not get any better anytime soon. If the song you’re writing sounds like a bad Tool cover then you are merely experiencing some “growing pains” in your writing journey that you will eventually outgrow (sooner than you think). Finish the song and move on to the next one.

While I do think it is good exercise for your songwriting muscles and creativity, constantly trying to avoid sounding like an influence can seriously derail the progress of a song, especially for a beginner. You are what you eat musically. Recognize it. Embrace it. If you can’t respect your own musical personality, who will?

Some songwriters just starting out are scared of plagiarizing a known artist but unless that is your goal, it actually becomes very hard to do (especially for an entire song) once you’ve been writing for a while (and a “while” could mean weeks, months or years depending on how often you write). Obviously you don’t want to just rip off someone else’s work but after the first few times you get stuck with a similar sounding riff (it’s gonna happen) you’ll start to develop your own rules for dealing with this.

Let’s say you write a new riff on the guitar but it reminds you of your favorite Aerosmith, Danzig or Huey Lewis (I couldn’t resist) riff. You want to be original so you alter your riff so much that you only succeed in ruining it. Follow my personal protocol for overcoming this common quandary:

1. Tweak your riff for 1 hour (2 if yer green) to see if you can find a more unique version that you actually like better than your original riff AND the famous riff you’re trying to avoid copying. You might be surprised at what you come up with. But if you can’t find anything better…

2. Replace your original riff with the famous riff and if the famous riff just feels the best for that section of the song then just go with it and look for ways to disguise it. But I’m not talking about the riff itself. Just the addition of adjacent sections and vocal rhythms/melodies can effectively disguise a famous-sounding riff in your song. Recording yourself (which I strongly recommend anyways) will instantly make this apparent.

If you want to get better (and more unique) in your songwriting, you’ve got to write. You’ll start many songs and probably finish less but it is important that you do finish as many songs as you can. This takes discipline but it will teach you form and presentation as well as help you develop a style. Otherwise all you’ll have are riffs and ideas. You need to complete whole songs to grow as an artist.

Songwriting gives you the chance to perfectly express how you feel in ways only music can convey. Even if you fear sounding like your influences, as long as you consistently write music from your gut, you’ll increasingly notice how much you sound like, well, yourself.

Remember, it’s not just musical influences that appear in your songs. It’s every place you’ve been, every person you’ve met, every dream or fear you’ve ever had. There’s simply nobody else who can make music like you.

And that’s fucking beautiful.

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Have any songwriting tips to share? Tell me in the comments!

Modes: Easy as Pizza

Slice of PizzaRemember back in elementary school when your cafeteria, auditorium and gymnasium were all in the same room? Yeah…the all-purpose room. Depending on the time of day that room got used for everything from pizza to dodgeball to latchkey to the sock hop. You could say the room had a few modes…

In music, the major scale is like an all-purpose room. We use that freakin’ thing to make many different sounds and emotions. It is the basis for everything ever created in western music. Yer good ol’ fashioned C major scale has seven notes and thus, seven chords. This is what those chords look like in order:

C maj

D min

E min

F maj

G maj

A min

B dim

I

ii

iii

IV

V

vi

vii˚

…and if you wrote a progression with these chords that went…

C maj/A min/D min/G maj (I/vi/ii/V)

…you would have yourself a tidy little progression in the key of C major. Play through this progression and your ears will easily hear the C major chord as “home.”

That’s just chord chemistry—it’s been working the same way for centuries. Don’t question it. Don’t ask why. Just accept it and internalize it. Finished internalizing yet? Ok good. Moving on…

Now, let’s say you want to put a wonderfully self-gratuitous solo over this progression. You already know that the key is C major so what better scale to use than a C major scale? This scale will work perfectly over all four chords. Why? It works because all these chords are related in the key of C major (also said to be diatonic to C major).

So remember how we said the major scale is an all-purpose room for different uses? Well when you play a C major scale over the C major chord in your progression, that scale is functioning in the C Ionian mode because Ionian is the traditional pure major mode. But over the A minor chord, that very same scale will then function in the A Aeolian mode. Over the D minor chord it will be in the mode of D Dorian and over the G major chord it will be in G Mixolydian.

If your brain is starting to overheat at this point, take a moment to cool down. You also might be asking yourself “Ok but why complicate life with these ricockulous Greek words?”

Think about it this way: If you could get away with playing one scale over four chords instead of four scales over four chords, life would be a heck of a lot easier, right? Hell yes. Not only does it require excessive thinking, changing scales every time there is a diatonic chord change will actually obscure the key center “home base” (in this case C major). An experienced improviser will recognize that all the chords in the progression are diatonic to C major. Therefore, he or she will use the C major scale to play over all four chords (knowing that as each chord changes, the scale will be functioning in a different mode).

In this progression, the C major scale (like an all-purpose room) changes its function constantly. The modes it functions in can even be compared to the different uses of a real all-purpose room; we’ll call Ionian pizza, Aeolian dodgeball, Dorian latchkey and Mixolydian sock hop.

Now before you go off improvising in the ancient and glorious mode of C Pizza, realize that the real power of modes is in knowing how to make your scale choices and ensuing improvisation most efficient. Learn to analyze chord progressions so that you can spot chords diatonic or native to the same key. For many songs, most of the chords will be in the same key. For these chords you would use the same scale for soloing.

Here’s the complete order of modes over their corresponding chord in any given major key:

Ionian

Dorian

Phrygian

Lydian

Mixolydian

Aeolian

Locrian

I

ii

iii

IV

V

vi

vii˚

Using the chords from our nifty progression above:

C maj is the I chord and so the C major scale functions in C Ionian mode when played over it.

A min is the vi chord and so the C major scale functions in A Aeolian mode when played over it.

D min is the ii chord and so the C major scale functions in D Dorian mode when played over it.

G maj is the V chord and so the C major scale functions in G Mixolydian mode when played over it.

Here’s a different progression:

C maj/E min/F maj/G maj (I/iii/IV/V)

Our ears and knowledge of key centers and modes tells us that this progression is in C major and all the chords are diatonic to C major. This means we can use a C major scale to blaze over this one too (it’s a very straight-laced ditty so blaze gently).

The C major scale you play will change modes with every chord change starting in C Ionian and going into E Phrygian then F Lydian and finally G Mixolydian…or G sock hop if you prefer.

So the next time you see a progression, analyze the chords to determine:

1)    The key and I chord of the progression

2)    For all the chords diatonic to this key, use the scale based on that key/I chord (like the C major scale for a C major progression).

That’s how you use modes. If you are utterly perplexed by this information, reach out and ask for help in the comments section. If you got this stuff down, don’t worry; this is only the beginning. So until next time, grab your favorite instrument and make some beautiful music.

The world is waiting.