Songs have been a storytelling medium for as long as they've existed, but too often artists have restricted this to their lyrics. In this article we look at six ways artists can help to communicate a narrative to their audience outside of lyrics.
Guest post by Allison Johnelle Boron of the Reverbnation Blog
Songs have told stories from the beginning of time; whole cultures passed down their traditions via melodies taught to generation after generation. But, sometimes, it pays to be a bit more straightforward when you’re a modern-day songwriter and trying to help people understand who you are and where you come from.
Keep writing those introspective songs, but also try incorporating these six ways of using storytelling outside of your lyrics to dig a little deeper.
1. Stage banter
If you’ve seen even one episode of VH1 Storytellers from back in the day, you know that you can build entire shows around the stories behind your songs. In fact, by relating the personal, heartfelt, even humorous inspiration behind your music, you’re not only deepening the relationship your fans have with your songs, but you’re drawing in new people at your gigs who might not have been that engaged. Everyone loves a good story, after all.
I had a singer/songwriter friend a few years ago. I really liked his music, but the song that became my favorite was the one where he told its backstory before singing it. It helped that the story was completely hilarious, about this crazy old lady he worked with about 10 years ago and how she was a conspiracy theorist and always spouting off fire-and-brimstone one-liners.
His colorful retelling made the entire audience laugh, even if they were only half-listening and created that connection with everyone at his performance.
2. Press interviews
Before releasing a new single or album, make sure you and your bandmates sit around and agree on stories to go along with the songs. I guarantee any journalist who interviews you will ask about your inspiration or the background of how you created the album, and you’d better have something prepared.
“We just went into our drummer’s basement and messed around and recorded it” won’t work. Instead, develop a series of fun anecdotes that really reveal something about your music. Recycle these for each interview you give, but make sure they never sound rote. Journalists research your past interviews, and they never want to get answers other writers have already published.
3. Social media
Platforms like Instagram stories and Snapchat are designed for storytelling; even when your friend from college literally snaps every meal he’s had in a day, it’s a story. Use these outlets a little more wisely by sitting down and actually mapping out the story you want to tell before you go out to shoot it.
Want to show off your guitar collection? Tell the story of how you saved up every penny from your high school newspaper route to buy your first Tele. Take your dog for a walk and talk about how you adopted her from a shelter and advocate for others to adopt, don’t shop. The possibilities are endless.
4. Liner notes and EPK materials
If you’ve ever peeked inside a CD case, you’ll be familiar with liner notes. Usually in booklet format but sometimes in a PDF or Word doc today, liner notes give background on the songs, album, and artist whose music the listener is about to hear. These can be extremely powerful for fans and useful to journalists when included in your EPK.
Tell all of your stories; leave no stone unturned. You never know who will be reading – in fact, my obsession with liner notes when I was 11 inspired me to become a music journalist.
Along with crafting stories for your social media accounts, give vlogging a try. You’ll capture fans’ attention along with random YouTube surfers who have a voyeuristic curiosity about what musicians do all day. It’s a perfect chance to give folks watching a play-by-play full of human-interest stories.
If you’re on tour or in the studio, it’s an even better opportunity for viewers to get a first-hand look at what you’re up to. Be descriptive, chuck in some stories about your first time on the road or behind a mixing console, and give a bit of insight into your techniques and tricks.
6. Art and visual assets
Not all stories need words. Think about your favorite album covers; I guarantee those tell lots of stories and some don’t even include the band’s name within the artwork. If someone in your band is a talented visual artist in addition to being a musician, work together to create a meaningful concept for your next release that represents your band’s story.
Then, take it to another level by designing photo shoots, social media campaigns, and merch around the same concept. Not only is it telling a great story (which you can then relate onstage at your gigs), it’s creating a cohesive package, which is great for any band’s brand.
You’ll probably discover that as you find new ways to tell your stories, new stories will come to mind, which then remind you of other stories, until you’re caught in a story snowball. That’s great! Use these tales as song inspiration, carefully pack them away in your memory, or apply them to one of the six ideas above. Get creative with how you share your life – and stories – with the world.
Allison Johnelle Boron is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Goldmine magazine, Paste, and more. She is the founder of REBEAT, a “blogazine” focused on mid-century music, culture, and lifestyle.