The Problem With Imitation

I’m gonna rant.

Now, this isn’t one of those pointless grumpy old man rants. This is going to be a helpful rant, a rant that will assist both you and me in our journey to make great music.

How It All Started

You might have noticed, I tend to read a lot of business books. Being an entrepreneur and an idea guy, I love feeding my brain new ideas. Or at least, I did.

I would read roughly one business book per week (and by “read” I mean “listen” to audiobooks on the Audible app). Reading business books introduced me to many business experts, some legit and some not. I also followed a lot of online business personalities, bloggers and such.

Between these books and websites and online courses and print newsletters and conferences and mastermind groups, I dove DEEP into this world, learning tons about things like direct response marketing, writing sales copy, lead generation, promotion techniques, etc. The list goes on and on.

Undoubtedly you’ve seen me try various different things here on Home Studio Corner over the years. I’ve created tutorial products, released tons of free videos and articles, launched a few free podcasts and paid videos. Some things work well. Some don’t.

So here’s the thing. Last year I paid to be in a business mastermind group with a bunch of high-level entrepreneurs. I paid a LOT of money to be in this group, in hopes that it would help me grow my business. I learned a lot of interesting things and met some incredible people, but…

As I dove deeper into the belly of the beast, hearing how these information marketers were running and growing their businesses, I became disillusioned.

Bitter is probably more accurate.

I would sit through these two-day mastermind meetings, and the conversation was all about making money, maximizing profit and customer retention, generating leads, turning those leads into customers, and charging more for your products and services. Those are all great things, but I discovered that when I enter that world, I become a worse version of myself. I become focused on numbers, dollars, percentages, and statistics. I begin to focus on STUFF instead of people.

During those long, fascinating conversations in that mastermind group, could you guess what topic never came up? You.

I don’t think we ever talked about the people our businesses were trying to serve. Sure, we talked about target markets and niches. We talked about demographics and repeat customers. We talked about creating something the market would pay for, but the topic of serving that market never really came up. It was assumed, but kind of ignored.

Am I saying these people are evil, greedy people? No, not at all. They were some of the smartest, kindest, driven people I’ve ever met.

But I didn’t fit in.

Like I said before, I become a worse version of myself when I’m focused on STUFF instead of people.

And here’s the interesting part. You would think if I turned away from that numbers-heavy focus my business would tank, right? Surely my business couldn’t run on warm, fuzzy feelings and rainbows, right? Of course not, but here’s what happened. When I stopped looking at myself, and I started looking at my customer, at my subscriber, at YOU, things began to change.

Did my business double in 90 days?

No, nothing dramatic happened business-wise. In fact, things stayed surprisingly the same. When I stopped trying to sell so much, I still sold stuff. When I focused more on what I can GIVE to both my customers and subscribers, the numbers took care of themselves.

It felt so liberating. I felt like I could be myself. Joe the musician. Joe the audio guy. Joe the goofball. And also Joe the entrepreneur.

Any time you have the option to be yourself, choose that.

Is everything perfect now? Far from it. I’ve actually dealt with a lot more anxiety in the last year than I ever have. But I think it’s part of the process. I’m transitioning from trying to be someone “they” tell me to be into being who I am, warts and all.

That means you probably won’t see a lot of hyped-up sales copy from me. I probably won’t send you an email with the subject line “5 Ways to Use Compression Like a Pro.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m still gonna try to sell you stuff from time to time, but only in the context of being me, the dorky, nerdy, sometimes funny guy from Nashville who loves to make music and help others make better music.

And I’ll be honest, I think it’ll end up being better for my business in the long run anyway.

So…What’s the Point?

Why am I telling you this?

Because there’s a problem in the world of music, a problem that affects all of us, a problem that needs to be addressed.

Now more than ever it’s incredibly easy to become obsessed with how other people are doing things. With powerhouses like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter churning out content 24/7, we can drink from the proverbial firehose as much as we want.

What if I want to know exactly what guitar pedals and amps Joe Bonamassa plays through? I can find that. What if I want to know what thickness pick he uses? Yep, there’s a video of that.

What if I want to know if Angus Young ever plays the neck pickup on his SG? Found an article about that.

What if I want to know every pro guitarist who plays a Fender Bassman amp? I can search for days and never get a full list.

These are all really, really good things. I’ve spent several afternoons working on email while listening to concerts in the background, artists like AC/DC, John Mayer, Rush, Raconteurs, Jack White, Coldplay, Foo Fighters, Joe Bonamassa, Eric Clapton, The Black Keys, Muse, Led Zeppelin.

I’ll say it again, there’s nothing wrong with these things. I’ve been so incredibly inspired by watching others perform that’s it’s gotten me more and more excited about playing my own music. I’m inspired to book shows and write new songs. Inspiration is an incredible thing.

But inspiration can quickly turn into obsession. That’s the part we need to be careful about.

I can go from enjoying AC/DC’s live show to losing two hours of an afternoon reading every article I can on everything about Angus Young’s guitar playing.

It sounds innocent enough, right? But I know when I’ve crossed the line into obsession. I start to feel a bit icky about what I’m doing. Because I know that there’s literally no point in me knowing everything there is to know about Angus. Why? Because I’m not in an AC/DC cover band. My music doesn’t even sound like AC/DC. Not even close. At some point an innocent curiosity turned into a raging excuse to do research instead of make music.

That’s the real problem.

Being unique and authentic, creating something that’s uniquely you, that’s a horrifying proposition for a lot of people. So we hide. We watch videos of other people doing what we want to do. We get inspired, sure. We might even come up with a few cool ideas for our music, but ultimately we’re hiding. And we know it.

Inspiration vs Imitation

There’s a big difference between inspiration and imitation.

If I’m watching a Foo Fighters concert because I want to be inspired by their raw energy, great. But if I’m watching a Foo Fighters concert because I want to copy exactly what they’re doing, I’ve lost touch with what matters.

Music isn’t about copying, it’s about creating. Your favorite musicians are unique. Sure they pull inspiration and ideas from their favorite musicians, but ultimately what makes you like Dave Grohl isn’t that he can play that riff exactly like Jimmy Page or Eddie Van Halen, but because he’s combined all those influences into something that is uniquely DAVE.

They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but I disagree. In music, the name of the game is CREATION. Go make something new. Don’t copy someone else. Stop asking questions that begin with “Should I…”

It doesn’t matter what amp Eric Clapton played through on “Layla.” What matters is he wrote a great song and cranked out some killer guitar solos.

Go write a great song and crank out some great parts to go with it. Be an inspiration to the rest of us.

48 Responses to “The Problem With Imitation”

  1. Tony Stewart

    (I know this comment is really late.) I have been missing your daily emails, and thought that gmail forwarding services just weren’t syncing my multiple accounts. Glad to find out the reason why you cut back on emails and I have been in a similar situation. Although, I never felt that you were ever pushy or overly aggressive with your marketing. Glad to hear you are doing well, and working to spend more time on your own music. Best wishes in the new year Joe.

    • Joe Gilder

      Thanks Tony! The daily emails were a lot of fun, but I think I let my other content suffer when I was doing the daily emails. Still doing 2-3 per week, though. 🙂

  2. Chris Ammann

    I know I’m late to the comment party, but I wanted to add something.

    It’s funny to me that your frustration with the expensive entrepreneur mastermind group is pretty similar to how I felt attending the Audio Bloggers Live conference this March.

    I spent hundreds of dollars on plane tickets, a hotel, and car rental–solely because I respect you, Graham and Ian so much. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I hoped it was more of what you already provide: down to earth, practical conversation on getting it right at the source, serving the song/music, possibly philosophical debate about art and creativity, etc.

    Instead, what I mainly observed (excluding yours and Graham’s fantastic presentations, of course) was a slew of “industry” folk talking up expensive gear. And marketing schemes. And, worst of all, how to best serve and cater to the established LA elite who’ve long since stopped feeling anything when they listen to a new track. During your panel with the music supervisors and TAXI dude, I literally wrote “THESE ARE THE ENEMIES OF MUSIC” in my notebook and almost left the theater. It was all about money, exposure, and chasing the next big thing. There is no room for artistry in that mindset.

    Sorry for the ranting comment on your ranting post–and I sincerely mean no criticism to you specifically. To tie in with your point… What I think I learned most from attending the conference was not what gear to use, or how to record a great performance, or even how to better promote my music.

    I learned that I did not want to be like these people. I wanted to retain my love and enjoyment of music so that I might continue to create unhindered and feel fulfilled in what I do. It was quite an expensive lesson, but I’m glad I learned it.

    • Joe Gilder

      Chris, I’m really sorry it was disappointing for you. I really am.

      And I can understand where you’re coming from with the music marketing stuff, but I think you’d benefit from a more open-minded approach. Think of your favorite musicians, your favorite bands, albums, etc. If they had not sought commercial success with their music, you would have NEVER heard of them. If they had remained purely “artistic” and only wanted to create good music without an eye for making some money from it, the world would have missed out on something amazing.
      Yes, money complicates things, and there are plenty of people trying to game the system and write music just to make money from it, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater and condemn all attempts to make money from music.

      • Chris Ammann

        Well yeah, man, I wasn’t saying every “true” artist has to reject all fame and fortune 🙂 Just that it’s depressing and even damaging to take the focus off the music itself and (like you said) try to game the system by pandering. If the ultimate goal is to be heard on Grey’s Anatomy or whatever, you’re doing something wrong. That’s all.

        P.S. you’re super awesome, and I could likely stand to be a little more positive like you. We’ll see how that goes.

  3. Duane Brocious

    I don;t write music. I do ‘covers’ of others work. In my own style and own personality. I don;t feel ashamed, I am not a song writer, neither are most of the people in bands… even the pros. Even those vocalists who make songs famous are often doing songs written by others. I don;t try to imitate anyone, I take a song and make it my own.

  4. Tom Frampton

    This is awesome, nice one Joe! It’s super easy to lose touch with whats important…

  5. Josh Lewis

    Wow. I was looking for good home studio bloggers with good information. What you touched upon here resonated a lot more than anything “home studio” might. The true challenge in life for me is to be content with what I have, and where I am at right now. When I focus on other “outside things” I feel emptier. My journey is similar to yours and so many others. Working to be more “authentic” (for lack of a better term) and service oriented, letting the chips fall where they may. I think that working towards getting your message / information out there in the most impactful, helpful way, should be the goal. Much of that might indeed include advertising, and a bunch of the other themes discussed in the seminar you attended. However, the point that I get from your article is to keep things service oriented, and not get the cart before the horse!

  6. Randy L

    Well spoken. In short – glad you’ve seen the light and made the turn around. Among the many reasons I have bought into your courses, are: your advice on “Ask Joe” has always been reliable, honest and admitting what works for YOU, and it may not be relevant to others. The amount of time you’ve given to us for ‘free’ has been amazing. I want you to succeed personally and financially.
    I’m in a position in my life now where I have the $ to spend at my discretion. I choose who I want to pay for a service or support with my $. There are a few other sites/clubs/services I belong to and pay for. All money well spent in my opinion, and each one of those are because the person is a GIVER. Of course they want to make money, but they realize not everyone is at a point where they can pay, and they are more about service and sharing with us, the ones who are genuinely want to learn. I’ve been happy to send you my hard earned dollars because I believe in what your doing and I’m getting a great value for the learning experience. I’m slowly easing my way into this ‘audio engineering’ profession as I get closer to retirement or part time work in my present field. This gives me 2 – 3 years to work on my ‘internship’ as it would be. I’ve been around to know that nothing is ‘free.’ If you want to play, somehow, in some way, you’ve got to pay.
    The biggest advance in my skills and putting knowledge into practice was by joining Dueling Mixes. The kicker in getting me to sign was offering the $200 of plugins chance, just for completing the monthly assignment. I may never win that one, but knowing I have a chance if: I just finish the mix. It don’t have to be perfect (though that’s the eventual goal), it just has to be finished. What a great deal! Even if I never win the plugins, I win by completing a mix and adding to my portfolio of work.
    The one thing I do miss from you is the weekly podcasts. They are great for me when I’m running, driving or mowing the lawn. Last summer I did a 250 mile relay race through Oregon. On one of my stretches, I ran 6 miles over a dirt mountain road at night, climbing most of the run. Our team just happened to be the leaders at the time. There were no other runners or vehicles around, I was completely alone. It was pitch black except for the little aura of light around my headlamp. I had saved a number of your podcasts and they took me into another world as I ran. Now, I’m not really a regular runner – I got talked into this by my wife whose teams was suddenly short a member due to a last minute injury. I was just recovering from my own injury and asked to step in to just get someone on the team. Rather than thinking about my legs and breathing and how I wasn’t used to this and what did I let myself get talked into this time, I was concentrating on learning what you were laying down. The miles melted by and before I knew it, that portion of my run was done and behind me.
    Youtube videos are great when you’re demonstrating something, but they require me to be in front of a unit connected to the internet. Hard to do while on the road or lawnmower. If you need to cut back on podcasting because you need to spend more time shooting for the Ryman – I do believe your loyal audience understands and are supporting you. Sure, give us the updates and reports on your progress. Keep working on your own music- you’re a talented writer, producer and player. I would hope that all those years playing at your church would give you the confidence to get up on that stage with your band and kick some musical ass!
    Much of your inspiration to us is in your ‘taking leaps of faith.’ You come up with an ambitious goal and then go for it. The lesson you give us is; What have you got to lose? What have you got to gain? Is the juice worth the squeeze and are the spoils worth the hunt? Too much ambition chasing the dollar and forgetting to enjoy is the ‘take home,’ here. ‘Nough said. Carry on.

  7. Passionlizard

    It’s such a shame that Duckburg is so far from Nashville. I’d sure love to sit on your deck & chat, Joe Gilder. You’re not Bob Ezrin, Mutt Lange, or Bob Rock, and you don’t claim to be; you’re better: You are an inspiration for the rest of us.

  8. ssobiech

    Joe, excellent “rant”. I’m very impressed with your process, your path, your way of thinking. Thank you!

  9. AsatSpecial

    Yup, guilty as charged. Creating music is what it should be about, not the tools. I spent way too much time last year trying to find the perfect overdrive pedal … and there are a gazillion guitar pedals to choose from. I spent $200 on boutique pedal and then realized when A/B’d it against my existing gear, my existing pedal was way better. Doh! All that time being a ‘gear snob’ and getting sucked into the music industry marketing machinery could have been spent writing new songs, perfecting lyrics, working on song arrangements, rehearsing parts before recording, taking an online guitar lesson, experimenting with my existing gear, etc.

  10. Larz2112

    Truthfully Joe, I have never disagreed with any piece of advice you have ever offered. You are always 100% on point, without fail. This post is no exception. It’s one thing to copy or mimic someone’s musical style, tone, etc., another to use it as a starting point or inspirational springboard to launch into your own unique sonic landscape.

  11. steve wills

    This absolutely needed to be addressed . Thanks so much for putting this out there Joe.
    And stay “yourself” . I think that is why we all are a part of HSC. We kinda like that
    guy on those tutorial videos! 🙂

  12. John Judge

    “…..innocent curiosity turned into a raging excuse to do research instead of make music. ”

    This WAS me in a nut shell about 14 months ago…….

    Today, I write some of the best sucky music no one will ever hear, and am loving it! LOL

  13. ShalMusicFX

    Good point. Don’t obsess over research, don’t obsess over imitating someone else. Be you, because it’s way easier to be yourself than it is to be someone else.

    Also, I find it funny that you cited marketing as your example. See, by trade, I’m a user experience designer. And in my work, I’ve learned that UX and marketing have very different goals. Marketing’s goal is ultimately to make money (via gaining customers, creating material to engage people, and other important things for the business). However, UX’s goal is to make a useful, helpful, enjoyable product for the user. You need both in your business, but at the end of the day, it’s my job to have the user’s best interests at heart, because marketing doesn’t. What’s good for the business isn’t always what’s good for the user.

    The fact that you’re focusing on being yourself, and trying to be genuine and authentic, means that you’re audience-centered. People are WAY more likely to engage with you if your personality, your message, is true to your heart. No one likes being sold to, and having a brand that is so focused on selling to people will feel fake and contrived. You care more about helping people succeed than you do about selling to them. Now, that doesn’t mean that selling things to people is bad (or that making money is evil). It just means that when you do sell things, people will trust you, because they see the real you, rather than the salesman that some people wanted you to be. =)

  14. Dennis DelGado

    Great article! And very timely for me. Hit me right between the eyes. Not because I’m trying to copy anyone, but because I’m one of those people who has this OCD thing about knowing as much as possible before I take a plunge and actually DO something. I’ve been amassing all these tutorials on everything from guitar playing, bass playing, keyboard playing etc. to micing, recording, mixing and mastering and back again. From numerous sources (including you). But, I’ve spent so much time GATHERING all this information that I haven’t actually started following any of it.

    Thanks for the wake-up call, Joe! I’ve been playing myself for a fool. Time to roll up my sleeves and get into it head first.

    God bless, bro’.

    • Joe Gilder

      Glad this was useful, Dennis. I’ve met some incredible engineers and producers here in Nashville who only have a “bare minimum” understanding of Pro Tools and other technical stuff. They just do what sounds good. 🙂

  15. Linzmeister

    I have received great value from your products and listen to your podcast every week.
    There was a period not that long ago that I was considering un-subscribing from your emails because they became very much a SELL!! SELL!! SELL!! kind of deal with discounts in every second email – it started to sound like a money grab and I ain’t buying that. I am glad I didn’t though. I understand that this is how you feed your family, but I can only buy your products after having fed my family. I am liking the new/old Joe.

    Between this post and your recent Simply Recording Podcast (EP#46) I have realised that I need to adjust my own marketing strategies and audience targeting and communication style, so thank you for all that you do. I would love to give you more money, but there isn’t any left over at the moment.. 🙁

  16. Lars

    If you want a kick in the pants, go check out Inside Quest on YT. Great interviews with people who have made it in business, mostly startups and they all focus on what they can give as opposed to what they can get. Also there is a difference between being inspired by a band and ripping them off 🙂

    • Joe Gilder

      Hey Lars! Yeah, I think the difference is that ripping them off is copying more than it is creating from inspiration.

  17. Rick Roth

    You are absolutely right!!! I’ve been looking into some of the same type of income/motivational programs you are/did and what I found out is….it just creates more stress and steers one away from what’s REAL and what REALLY matters and actually complicates life.It alters how one thinks/acts.

    It’s not ALL about lots of money,it’s about being creative and entertaining others….THE LOVE OF MUSIC

    Thanks for a MOST XLNT “RANT”

      • Rick Roth

        You,of course,are right,it’s all about priorities.I have made a LOT of money in the past,when I was younger,in the performance end of the music industry,but I was doing what I LOVED.Now it,s about having a balanced view of things and having enough cash flow to do produce music and possibly perform again

        Having bunches of money doesn,t hurt 😉

  18. James Hedden

    Great Post!!!
    Guilty and recovering from the practice of “gathering knowledge instead of applying knowledge.”
    Thanks for all you do Joe!!!!

  19. Johnny Fuller

    This goes back to that book, The Go Giver’, doesn’t it?
    You and I have disagreed before about all the Ra Ra’s out in the business world. Motivational BS artists. I gave all that a listen when I was younger and it may have changed 1 or 2 % of my sales. Yuck.
    I, personally, really like the nerdy, musician Joe. It’s why I’ve stuck around all these years. Last Wednesday when you were rehearsing, and at the end of the night you came back to the phone and said, There’s one guy left. I don’t know who you are, but thanks for listening.” That was me. I was reading while listening.
    That’s the guy I like, the real honest, simple, salt of the friggin’ earth Joe!

    • Joe Gilder

      HAHAHAHA. That makes total sense. He he he. I’m thinking about setting up a headphone mix just for the Periscope stream and plugging it into my phone next time. Stay tuned. 🙂
      (And thanks Johnny for all your awesomeness over the years. We gotta meet in person one of these days.)

      • Johnny Fuller

        Yes we do!
        I’ve ALWAYS thought that, if we lived in the same town, we would be best friends! Well, maybe this summer at the Dueling Mixes meet-up. Nail down a date for that, will ya? 🙂

  20. stefanheller

    Good post Inspiration is the key. So many times when I have been trapped in a 3 chord cycle that will not leave my brain, I write the damn thing and then doodle around a fave song that I have heard recently. Those chord progressions then inspire me to create something new….something that is more me..

    Inspiration, wherever it comes from (a phrase overheard in the bar / on a train / in the airport) and however it lodges in your head can form the building blocks of a great song. the key is never to turn inspiration down, to think it has all been done before (most things have!), but to embrace it and follow it through to its’ end.

    I have always found if you try and fight against it, it turns to crap …but if you let it flow, wherever it goes, it is more of and about “you” and that can only be a good thing. It may not be the biggest commercial success, (or it might), but either way you have left a part of your emotions for all to hear.

  21. Barkyhill

    You’re right on target. The ‘real’ root of music is about creation, not about selling. Nothing wrong with making $, but, if you follow reasonable business practices and stay focused on your customers and your craft, success will come. Be smart, but not obsessed, as you said.

  22. Rob

    I can think of a few music store salesmen, gear manufacturers, and musicians who need the latter half of this rant stapled to the insides of their eyelids.

    I enjoy figuring out how some sounds are made, and I think it’s fine as a starting point. But some people never leave that starting point, and others expect to deal with me only by using those starting points–two vectors of the same problem you’re describing. Salespeople are notorious for this; and quite frankly, it comes from condescension, so that when they finally realize they can’t sell me gear to sound like this or that player, they get either dismissive or nasty.

    It’s the same with some other musicians. I could post something looking for players in a certain genre, and I’ll get people asking me to do something completely different. They’ll list off all these other bands, saying, “We’re going for THAT sound,” but I know they didn’t look at my list, and I can tell they’re working through how to imitate all the bands they listed, either all at once or once per song.

    Oh, well!

  23. John Chowning

    This is one of your most useful posts in a long time. I tell myself I’m reading all of these web sites, watching videos, and listening to podcasts to get song ideas, but I never set aside time for writing songs. Thanks for confirming what I have been confronting myself.

  24. Jonny Lipsham

    My wife and I were just talking about this very thing last night. We were discussing the final things to do for my EP, and she said, “I think this EP is the best of you”. I asked her what she meant, and she admitted, “your last three albums were great but……they weren’t really you. They were you trying hard to sound like someone else”.

    She was right! The real secret IS drawing inspiration from sources and using them as bricks in the house that is being built on the foundation that is YOU, rather than trying to relay the foundation with them. They’re only bricks.The foundation and the mortar is YOU.

  25. Pat Fleck

    I agree Joe. I think I’m at the other end of the spectrum and I don’t listen enough to other artists…

  26. Alan Collins

    Joe, I couldn’t agree with you more…I’ve been chained to that ball and chain for years until I realised I could only ever be as good as ‘myself’ at any particular stage…that I only needed just to become ‘better’ as myself – not as good as, or better than anyone or everyone else, if that make sense?

  27. Dave Komel

    Yep. I tended to focus too much on people to the point where they’d take advantage of that. The balance is a little precarious. Thanks for sharing. Best always…..

  28. Aaron Howard

    Joe. I’ve been following you for years, and this is one of my favorite posts on HSC. It reminds me of Seth Godin’s work (the supreme compliment from this Godin fan.) “We’re hiding and we know it.” Absolutely. Thanks for this one.


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