There is a distinction to be made between an ‘artist’ (in the musical sense) and a ‘singer’, which is rarely acknowledged when discussing vocals.
To be clear, both are an art and both possess a clear skillset. This skillset may vary from artist to artist or singer to singer, but can be strikingly different between an artist and a singer. So what is the difference?
In the broad sense an artist is most often someone who writes or produces their own music, as well as playing and performing it. They may of course sing – their voice could even be their most defining feature as an artist (Adele springs to mind, despite her songwriting prowess), but it will seldom be the sole focus of their art. The genre of music they create, or their own individual style and distinguishing musical features, may remain fairly consistent throughout their career.
A singer is someone whose primary talent is their voice, which they may have trained through years of study and practise. For professional singers, their voice – and possibly this alone – is their stock and trade. Their accompanying skillset may be based around vocal technique, range and ability, reading music proficiently enough to sight-sing, harmonising and vocal arrangement, microphone technique, genre-versatility, plus knowledge and maintenance of their vocal health. They do not necessarily write music or lyrics.
It goes without saying you can be both an artist and a singer, and there will certainly be crossover of the varying different skills both employ. However, how a vocalist identifies them self – artist or singer – can make for huge differentiation in how they approach their vocation and the transactions between themselves and those they collaborate with. If you are a producer, this is of importance when deciding which type of vocal you are seeking for a project.
In artistic terms, you have to ask what it is you need your collaborator to bring to the table creatively. Do you need music and lyrics written as well as vocals delivered? Is there a specific voice, tone or vocal range you require? Are you hoping that your collaborator’s profile will add credence to your project? What type of parameters are you working within?
Is the role you now have in mind better suited to the skill set and assets of an artist or a singer? In practical terms, this differentiation also extends to how each is remunerated for their art. An artist may be seeking (or already engaged in) recording and publishing deals; potential ‘passive’ income from royalties being how they monetise their art over the long term. To this extent, their own songwriting and recordings are of most value to them. The business transaction between a professional singer and anyone employing them may be far more straightforward – their time and vocal efforts will be exchanged for a fee. They are a session singer and will expect payment for each session or performance they do.
Securing the right type of vocalist for your project, and the subsequent smooth running of your collaboration, depends upon understanding this differentiation. Once this has been defined, identifying the right person for your project – whether artist or singer – should be clearer. Furthermore, ensuring that in turn the vocalist identifies themselves the same way and mutually agrees the expectations under which they are working is key.
As always, there may not be a definitive ‘category’ for each vocalist you work with and, like you, their careers and sense of self professionally can and will evolve. But an understanding that there can be a difference between artist and singer should be kept in mind when seeking vocals for your respective projects. Likewise, some food for thought for vocalists and the career paths they choose to follow…