While a small number of outsider musicians became notable because they have few musical skills, such as Florence Foster Jenkins, an American soprano who sang ear-splitting renditions of compositions far outside her range, the majority of outsider artists are appreciated for their unique, uncompromising, and creative music. In some cases, outsider musicians have characteristics such as mental illness or a reclusive lifestyle that may influence their musical style, such as Daniel Johnston (a singer-songwriter with bipolar disorder), Wesley Willis (a singer with schizophrenia), and Syd Barrett(1946–2006), psychedelic folk pioneer, and former member of Pink Floyd who left the group in the late 1960s and went into self-imposed seclusion for more than thirty years.
Some outsider musicians have few musical skills, such as Florence Foster Jenkins and Eilert Pilarm, a Swedish Elvis impersonator with little singing ability and a shaky command of the English language. A majority of outsider artists are appreciated for their unique and uncompromising styles of music.
There are some links between outsider music and anti-folk: the emotional starkness, the lack of formal training and the humour. Jeffrey Lewis names Daniel Johnston as a major influence, Syd Barrett influenced antifolk's British strain, and there are similarities between the tuneless singing styles of Wesley Willis and Paul Hawkins. However, one major difference is that while many outsider musicians are famous recluses, musicians regarded as 'antifolk' are usually grouped in a collective. Hip-hop outsider musicians include the Australian Space G who uses raw recording techniques and space-related lyrics.
A comprehensive guide to outsider music is Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music (2000) by music journalist and radio personality Irwin Chusid. The book profiles several relatively well known outsider musicians and gives a definition to the term. The book inspired two companion compilation CDs, sold separately. The guide claims that fans of outsider music are "fairly unusual", "inquisitive" types who have an "adventurous taste in music". While the guide does not "contend that Outsiders are "better" than their commercial.counterparts", it does suggest that they may be more genuine, depending on how cynical a person is "about packaging and marketing as practiced by the music business", given that a "gangsta rapper...is considered an authentic 'voice of the street'" even though they sell millions of albums.
The guide argues that music that is "exploited through conventional music channels" has "been revised, remodeled, and re-coifed; touched-up and tweaked; Photoshopped and focus-grouped" by the time it reaches the listener, to the point that it is "Music by Committee" that is "second-guessed" by a large team of record company staff. On the other hand, since outsider music has little target audience, so they are autonomous, and able to go through an "intensely solipsistic" process and create a singular artistic vision. Outsider artists have much "greater individual control over the final creative contour", either because of a low budget or because of their "inability or unwillingness to cooperate with or trust anyone but themselves." The guide notes that "our inability to fully comprehend the internal calculus of Outsider art....partly explains its charisma.
Outsider musicians range from unskilled performers whose recordings are praised for their honesty, to the complex compositions of avant-garde groups. Harry Partch (1901–1974) was a composer who built his own instruments according to his own system of musical scales. The Shaggs were a 1960s rock band of sisters with only rudimentary musical skill, whose ineptitude became semi-legendary. The band was formed on the insistence of their father, Austin Wiggin, who believed that his mother foresaw the band's rise to stardom. As the obscure LP achieved recognition among collectors, the band was praised for their raw, intuitive composition style and lyrical honesty. Syd Barrett (1946–2006), psychedelic folk pioneer, was a founding member of Pink Floyd. He left the group in 1968 amidst speculations of mental illness exacerbated by heavy drug use. After he left the group, he went into self-imposed seclusion for more than thirty years.
The Residents are a US dadaist, avant-garde music and visual arts collective who have maintained complete anonymity throughout their career. They released over sixty albums, created numerous musical short films, designed three CD-ROM projects and ten DVDs, and undertook six world tours.
Captain Beefheart (1941- ) is the stage name of Don Van Vliet, who performed a noisy, untrained free jazz-influenced saxophone and keyboards in the 1960s and 1970s. His music, which used shifting time signatures and surreal lyrics, had a major influence on the Punk rock and New Wave genres.
Daniel Johnston (1961- ) is a Texas singer-songwriter with bipolar disorder known for recording music on his radio boom box. His songs are often called "painfully direct," and tend to display a blend of childlike naïveté with darker, "spooky" themes. His performances often seem faltering or uncertain; one critic writes that Johnston's recordings range from "spotty to brilliant." He also has a documentary centered around his life and music.
For a longer list, see the List of outsider musicians.