Saturday night, I went to a local bar to watch my friends’ band, Hello Emerson, play a show. I’ve been digging their sound for a couple of years now, and I was pumped to see them play for the first time in several months.
Having seen many shows at bars before, there are a couple of realities you begin to understand and accept. Almost certainly, there will be a lot of crowd noise, the vocals will take a back seat to the instruments, and addressing the crowd between songs will be a challenge.
As I watched Sam (the lead of Hello Emerson) battle these realities, I had so much respect for the undertaking. It was a busy and noisy Saturday night, but Sam was able to frequently hush the crowd with his brilliant lyrics and authentic between-songs monologue.
The show was a literal example of a metaphor that Conan O’Brien has said several times before:
“What I realized is, I’m still doing ‘The Tonight Show.’ That was my dream. When I can’t sleep and it’s 3 in the morning, I’m not thinking about Jay [Leno]. I’m thinking about all the things I want to do on the show. And I’m not thinking about how I’m going to change myself to fit a certain demographic. I just have to block that nonsense out. In entertainment, you have to stake out what you think is right, you have to put out that signal, make sure it’s pure and then do it and do it and do it and know that they will come. And if they don’t, you have to pack up your bags and say: ‘I enjoyed my time here. Sorry it didn’t work out.’ But the biggest mistake would be to alter my signal to make sure that I reach all these different people. Because then you’re lost.”
In other interviews, he’s reiterated this viewpoint saying basically that there is a lot of noise in the world – a lot of people putting out their own ‘signals.’ For a long time, we put out our signal and hope people hear it and pay attention.
But it often takes a long time of consistent signaling to get anyone to notice. Only by being consistent and sending the same signal (the unique voice and style of your work) will you break through the noise.
“What’s that I keep hearing over there?”
Derek Thompson, the author of Hit Makers (one of the best books I’ve read recently) also argues that any “overnight” success is the product of a long, consistent effort that finally took hold.
It takes a long time and a lot of work for your signal to break through the noise. All along the way, there will be those who pick up on your signal (like I did with Hello Emerson) and connect with it. Over time, those connections will build and build.
But it won’t happen overnight. Stake out your signal and do it and do it and do it.
If you’re into some folksy tunes and great lyrics, check out Hello Emerson.