My name is Derek and I am a solo acoustic singer-songwriter. That is the story and I’m sticking to it… oh, also I perform with a ukulele.
People have written SO extensively about the problematic image the ukulele has with musicians that I won’t dwell on it However I find it interesting that even the primary and obvious use of ukulele in hits by Vance Joy, Twenty One Pilots, Train, Young The Giant and Bruno Mars haven’t really helped the public perception of the little 4-stringer. There is not a uke to be found in either of the official videos for Vance Joy’s big hits Saturday Sun or Riptide, which are both played on the uke. So we can assume that Vance’s management definitely understands the issue. Even though I applaud Vance Joy’s YouTube videos where he seems to usually be on one of his ukuleles, thank you James Gabriel Keogh! And YES, Eddie Vedder came out of the closet and released the Ukulele Songs album. Hooray! But not so much, here is what Rolling Stone said: “The ukulele doesn’t allow for the widest range of expression, which makes it a challenging foil for Eddie Vedder, who never met a feeling he couldn’t drive through a wall. But this uke-suffused album stands up because he adapts the instrument to his idiosyncratic needs.” When have you EVER read an album review that blamed the instrument for the shortcomings of the music? As a person who HAS released a solo acoustic ukulele album, much Like Eddie’s, I can attest that he did not even scratch the surface of what the instrument can do. Can we admit our lovely ukulele has a PR problem? Absolutely yes. Is it fixable? or does it really NEED to be fixed?, that is a bigger question that plays back to being a musician in the first place.
I don’t say I play the ukulele and the “U” word does not appear prominently on my website. But that is just so people don’t turn away before hearing my music. Once people hear your music it shouldn’t matter what you are playing ON if they find a connection with what you’re playing. If the songs matter the medium becomes a non-issue. And I think that is what a lot of online performers are missing. Learn your instrument, develop songs (original or covers), make them musical, dynamic and interesting. Then go play your music live and see what gets a response. Put yourself emotionally into your songs, be honest, be yourself and make the audience part of your music then you will find the people that “get” what you’re doing. A lot won’t get it but the ones that do are your fanbase, at that point, it becomes a numbers game. And there is no faking it when you are playing a three hour set of 40 songs because it is exhausting.
I play a fair amount of Farmers Markets which sell locally sourced produce, meat, furniture, pottery paintings, etc… The “Local Grown” movement is big in these parts and as far as I’m concerned music is part of that. Just because you can post a video to thousands of people all over the world with social media tools you are not really building fans. Start local, the real fans come from an emotional connection with your art so get out and play for them. That is the work that goes into being a performing musician and it is and SHOULD be hard and occasionally frustrating. That’s how you learn. I think it’s a concept that seems to be losing ground because it is SO easy to just cut a 55-second video and post it. But there is no real connection to your audience in that format, no shared vulnerability of a live show. So if you get lots of online attention for your music try posting a lyrics-only video of a song and see how that affects your numbers. It’s a good litmus test to see if you have followers or fans.
So get out there and show people that your ukulele is more than just a gimmick or a social strum-along toy. It was born of an old Portuguese instrument and proudly honed for 100 years by Hawaiian artists and luthiers all over the world. It has a long and proud tradition so make real music with it, write songs on it, go play shows for people who really aren’t expecting what you are about to do, be brave. Get off the web attention-fix and make your OWN music. It’s not easy but it is definitely worth it and the whole ukulele community will thank you for it.