This article was originally published in May 2013.
I genuinely love helping artists find and tell their stories. And as I have expressed many times through articles I have written about the bio-writing process, I am delighted to have the privilege of watching musicians and songwriters discover the most remarkable milestones on their creative journeys, reconnect meaningfully with the real reasons they make music and share their passion with the world.
But I am going to be brutally honest: There are a lot of terribly-written artist bios out there – bios that are so ridiculous that I can’t hear the music over the sound of my own laughter (or uncontrollable sobbing). And your band bio might fit into this category. You may even know your bio is embarrassingly bad, but feel either totally overwhelmed by the prospect of writing about yourself, or simply too lazy to make changes. Maybe you are just unaware that a well-written bio is the most crucial piece of your written marketing materials and that it will be seen (and in most cases, harshly judged) by event promoters, magazine, newspaper and blog editors, venue owners, industry professionals and potential fans. Regardless of the reason you are not investing any energy into your bio, what the f&*k are you thinking?
Our rapidly-evolving technological world has made both computers and the Internet accessible to almost everyone. And, in my opinion as a professional writer deeply in love with the wonderful nuances of words, that accessibility has led to one of the most nightmarish consequences of the Digital Age, a consequence that has profoundly affected the way people write about themselves: The Internet has evolved into an untended wilderness, where everyone is encouraged to vomit unedited thoughts no one cares about, all over a global audience. Thanks to fully-accessible blogging platforms, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, text messaging and a variety of other tools that give all of us permission to speak like 13-year-old girls and casually throw the beauty of proper language and grammar under the bus (and then run over it several times to make sure it is truly dead), there is a very blurry line between “some notes and unfinished thoughts to get me started on writing my bio along with some stuff I like about myself, which occurred to me in the shower this morning” and “my polished, professional bio, which I will proudly use to present myself as a serious person and artist.”
If you have writer’s block, or are not sure your bio is working in its current form, here are some of the bio f&*k-ups that I see regularly lead to the most abysmally-written bios. If you can avoid these, you’re on the right track.
1. “And when I was five, I invented the piano.”
Were you kicking along to the beat of music while you were in the womb? Did you start playing the violin at age three? And were you also making up sophisticated songs about your oatmeal in 13/8 time at the breakfast table and singing them into your spoon to the delight of your parents and jealous dismay of your talentless siblings? If you can answer these questions with a confident “Yes” (and you are not currently a child), then allow me to hand deliver a message to you: No one cares.
If you are an adult, your child prodigy years are of no real interest to anyone that will be reading your bio. Mentioning how amazing you were as a child will also encourage someone to gauge how far you’ve come since then, look at the state of your current career (or lack of career) and perhaps even think, “Wow, that’s too bad … what happened?” Plus, a childhood ability to easily pick up instruments and comprehend elements of harmony and melody is not a unique selling point for your story as an artist, because it is something that is shared by a majority of your contemporaries. Briefly celebrating the earliest environment that nurtured your talent can offer an introduction to you. But you need to connect with that moment you decided to pursue your art seriously and made the grown-up decision to turn it into your life’s work and illustrate the thrill of that decision as part of your bio. That is likely where your real adventure began.
2. “Since the beginning of time, there has never been a better singer writing more wonderful lyrics than [insert name of the best singer in the world here].”
Are you the “best” bass player that ever lived? Do you love to write “beautiful” songs more than any other “unique” songwriter? Are your varied influences as a guitarist pretty damn “eclectic” – more “eclectic” than anyone who has ever written songs that might be compared to yours? Well, who the hell do you think you are … (and while I’m asking, what exactly are you trying to say, anyway?)
During one of my bio-writing workshops at an art school, I shared my pet peeve of bios that make grandiose, assertive, clichéd statements that are not supported by any hard evidence (or by any truly descriptive adjectives or cliché-free phrases). One of the students said, “Yeah. You can only do that if you are Prince.” While I would argue that even Prince should not have made obnoxious, grandiose statements about himself during his lifetime, he probably did. And he can only get away with it because of his lengthy track record of proving his competency as a musician and performer and his “unique”ness as an artist, the unquestionably-loyal fan base he has built and the countless reviews he has received from reputable industry experts saying he was a pioneer in his field (that clearly explain why).
Look at your own bio. Does it humbly describe the sound and feel of your music using tangible adjectives that conjure up a taste, a texture or even a smell (though hopefully not an unpleasant one) that someone that neither plays nor composes music can understand? Does it capture how your music makes your fans feel? And if the tone is a little cocky, do you have some real press quotes from legitimate online or print publications (and not My Mom magazine) to back up that attitude? Yes? Great … now prove it! (Also, might I remind you that there are only 12 notes; get over yourself.)
As a real-world example to illustrate the point of this particular f&*k-up, here is a bio an artist friend of mine asked me to critique. His name and location have been changed for his and your protection (and yes, he fixed it!):
“Flibberty Giblet is a walking contradiction. He is a singer-songwriter, but he has very little in common with most singer-songwriters of today. His tableau of jagged sound stands out like a sore thumb against the airier tones of the Atlantis folk scene in which he thrives. But as dark as his jumbled and oft-disturbing lyrics can be, his melodies are every bit as gorgeous.”
3. “Thanks for describing the water while I’m drowning.”
This may sound unbending, maybe even impossible, but your bio has to get to the point before the first word. (And this f&*k-up is actually an outgrowth of f&*k-up #2.) If the first few words of your bio do not immediately start setting the stage for your narrative, and if your name does not appear in the first sentence, you have already failed. I hold pretty solidly to the guideline that the longest a bio should ever be is somewhere around 750 words (1,000 if you have had a very long career or have a creative purpose that necessitates more words and moves the narrative along compellingly). And ideally, this 750-word masterpiece should be an “opt-in” after you have presented a short-form, 250-word bio first and that short introduction piqued further interest. People reading about you have thousands of other artists to read about and even more music to hear, so you have no room to go on long-winded tangents or define the words you are using to talk about yourself.
Sometimes when an artist is particularly blocked about the details that make his/her story worth following, I ask for some examples of music bios that the person enjoys reading, just to get a feel for style and give that person some inspiration. A very young R&B artist I worked with a couple years ago on a bio went through this exercise and sent me a few bios of fairly big hip hop and R&B artists. I was shocked to find that each one of them was worse than the one before it (and even more shocked to find that these bios had come from professional writers). The common problem amongst all of them was the amount of words that were wasted on “posturing” and desperately trying to convince me that the artist was “the best of all time.” Sometimes, the bios spent several sentences or even a paragraph defining a word used, like in the case of this bio, which started with a dictionary-style definition before it even identified the artist it was talking about:
“Natural can be described as innate or instinctive in essence, disposition or temperament. Quite simply, natural can be summed up as God-given or God-inspired because it comes so easily.” (Wow, that is quite simply put! I always wondered what “natural” meant. Thanks so much! Now, what if I don’t believe in God? And, wait … wasn’t I reading an artist bio?)
Present yourself and your music with as much objectivity as possible, then respectfully let readers draw their own conclusions. You won’t make lifelong friends (aka, build a fan base that will support you for life) by strong-arming someone into liking you.
4. “We’re all with the band.”
It is human nature to wonder about the names, birthdays, hometowns and sexual orientations of all the members of your favorite band. It is also human nature not to know the name of the bass player (and not to care enough to even consider asking).
The tendency for a lot of bands when crafting their bios is to ask each member to put together a resume which includes details like education, past bands and other accomplishments, likes and dislikes and then throw all these resumes together to create a total frenzy of information that is ultimately irrelevant to the current band’s mission and music.
While you certainly want to give your fans and others some personal details about you and your band mates, so you can get them invested in your success, the bio needs to have a focused story and purpose. Start your band’s tale with why and how you came together as a group. How are you connected to each other, and why do you make melodic, ugly, dark, dirty, gritty or [insert a description of your sound and sensibilities here] music together? Save your pet peeves, favorite colors and favorite place to eat cheese for a blog post.
5. “My name is Sybil … no, wait! It’s Gertrude.”
If I ever butt heads with an artist while writing a bio, this fifth f&*k-up is the one we most often disagree about: Having multiple professional bios that serve different purposes. Succeeding in the music industry involves a lot of diversifying, and while possible, it is still a rare privilege to make a sustainable living playing your own music. To make ends meet and support a still-growing career, many artists must take up jobs as session players, songwriters for other artists, etc. I sometimes work with artists who are either afraid their persona as a solo artist (or a band leader) is not “professional” enough to get them work in other areas of the industry or just think their roles are so all over the place that they are not connected enough to put together; thus, they want to create several different bios in order to present each of the different “hats” they wear.
I understand the feeling of needing to pay respect to each of your different personae as well as the fear of publicly embracing all the different aspects of your very-diversified artist career. But multiple personality disorder is no fun for anybody. When you cannot find one way to celebrate your many different dimensions, you are communicating exactly the opposite of what you want to communicate to potential employers or collaborators. Instead of saying, “I am 100-percent committed to working hard at making music in all its forms, and I have a deep skill set that reaches into many different areas of the music business,” when you have many different bios, you are basically saying, “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, so I’m just doing a bunch of stuff to see what sticks.” Or even worse than that, you are saying, “I will be whoever you want me to be,” which will invite some pretty unsavory and counter-productive characters into your world.
As satisfied and refreshed I feel after reading a beautifully-written bio that invites me into an artist’s rich, inner world, I feel that much more physically and spiritually ill when I find one that misses the mark. Hopefully the above can help you find a direction for your own writing process. If you are still struggling, reach out to your friends (or even your fans!) for feedback. And remember, there is no shame in hiring a professional bio writer! Your job, after all, is making all the music people will want to listen to, write about and share with others.