Who would you say are the best rock and roll lead singers of all time? I'm guessing that a bunch of names come to mind for you. In fact, we could probably have a spirited debate over who is the best, even if you aren't a big music fan. Now, name the best back-up singers of all time? You know, those people on nearly every album who provide the harmonies and the depth to the songs. Nothing? The list of the best backup singers is a lot harder to come by.
So, what is it that makes the difference between a lead singer and a backup singer? The easy answer is that the lead singer has more musical talent, but I'm not sure that's quite right. It may be true that a lead singer is just a better singer in some cases, but I suspect that there are a lot of wildly talented back-up singers who, based on singing talent and musical ability, are just as talented as lead singers.
I think the difference has a lot to do with mindset. Somewhere along the line, if you are a singer with some talent, you have to make a decision. Are you a lead or will you provide the backgrounds? I suppose that everyone initially wants to be a lead, but the real decision plays out in the actions the individual takes.
At its foundation, being a lead singer is about standing out, being different from the crowd. I've become a fan of the reality show, The Voice on NBC. It's one of the many singing competitions on television. The thing that makes this one unique is that the contestants are selected and coached by a current successful singer (Adam Levine, Chistina Aguilera, Blake Shelton and Ceelo Green are the coaches). The show begins with the signers auditioning for these coaches. The coaches have to choose a singer to be on their team based on their voice alone. During this selection process this season, the single criteria that was mentioned the most by these successful singer coaches was "uniqueness". They each at some point said they were looking for someone who had uniqueness in their voice--something that made them sound different from the crowd. Being different is apparently really important if you want to be a lead singer.
Contrast that with what makes a great back-up singer. Singing background is the opposite of being the lead. It's about making your voice blend with others, to fit into the harmonies. Even when back-up singers are on stage, their job is to visually blend into the background. Fundamentally, being a backup singer is about complimenting the lead singer without every upstaging them.
Professional background singers are in the big leagues of music. They are tremendously talented singers. They are among the best of the best in the world when it comes to singing. But, they have chosen professionally to blend in, to not stand out. The result is that no one remembers who you are or even really notices your work, even if you are the best in the world at what you do. Despite the fact that backup singers make the lead better, the backup rarely gets recognized while the lead collects the attention and the rewards.
I think that we all make this same decision in our lives and in our professions. At some point, we commit ourselves to either being a lead or being a back-up. When you decide to be a lead in your life or profession, you decide to be different -- to emphasize your uniqueness. This means standing out, taking risks, investing in developing what makes you unique.
In contrast, being a back-up means you've decided to fit in, go with the flow, not rock the boat. Being a backup feels safe. Back-up singers are rarely blamed for the success or failure of the band. They get to be a part of the band and they get a steady paycheck, particularly if they happen to be lucky enough to land in a successful band. But, back-up singers are also easily replaced.
Being a lead singer requires some guts. You have to being willing to flaunt what makes you different, to throw yourself out in front of the crowd on occasion. That's what makes lead singers memorable. They stand out. They aren't going to be liked by everyone, but they will be remembered by everyone. And leads are difficult to replace, just ask Van Halen.
Are you a lead? Do you want to be a lead? If so, then that means spending less time fitting in and playing it safe. What is it that makes you unique and memorable? To be a lead, you have to make it your job to put those things on display to the world. Being a lead means that you won't always be liked, but you will win loyal and crazed fans. Being a lead means that you will make great music (do great work), but you will do it in your own way with your style all over it.
Being a lead means that people will remember your performance.