A blog for musicians and music industry people. It is a free educational resource and it is also the way I advertise my music consulting services. I am an entertainment professional with deep roots in the music industry. Throughout my music career I have been a major label A&R representative, a music supervisor, an artist manager, a reality show producer, a bass player and the head of a digital record label.
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Jonas Goldstein is a certified public accountant (CPA) and a business manager with over 20 years of experience in the music industry. A lifelong music fan, he got his start in the music business when he was a student at Syracuse University and was controller of the schools entertainment organization. When he graduated, he accepted a position with the entertainment-focused accounting firm Prager and Fenton as an assistant, eventually working his way up to tour accountant, then band and artist business manager. After 13 years with the company, he branched out on his own and launched JLG Business Management. During his career as a business manager, he has handled tours for bands and artists in all different genres, including The Bee Gees, Clint Black, Ben Folds, KISS and ACDC in North America, Japan, Australia and all over the world.
I had the opportunity to talk to Jonas about his experience in the music industry and the many important roles of a business manager. He also shared some tips on how bands just starting out can handle the fine points of their own business management prior to having the budget to hire a professional.
Thanks so much for taking some time to talk to me, Jonas. How did you get into the music business?
I’m a CPA and a business manager in the music industry, and I have over 20 years of experience. I got the music bug when I was in college at Syracuse University. I was in charge of the finances for the entertainment organization there.
When I graduated, I was pretty much looking for firms that specialized in entertainment. This company Prager and Fenton originally hired me, and I ended up being there for 13 years. I started out with them as an assistant, then worked my way up as a tour accountant and then a business manager with them. While I was there, I did five tours for ACDC and worked with KISS, Clint Black and The Bee Gees. As a business manager, I worked with Ben Folds and Kid Rock for a while. I managed people in rock, jazz and all different genres.
I’m very diverse in my musical taste, and I enjoy it when my clientele is all across the board. It makes everything more fun.
I remember meeting you probably 15 or 16 years ago. And you were introduced to me as a business manager, but I really didn’t know the difference between a regular manager and a business manager. I would imagine that’s a pretty common mistake. What exactly us the role of a business manager?
The business manager is an accountant and then some. I’m a CPA. There are a lot of business managers out there who are not licensed, but I really feel that a business manager should be. I started out with ACDC. In addition to filing tax returns and all the other basic things an accountant might do for a band, they also set up things related to tours. We evaluate the tours, make up budgets for them, set up insurance programs, cut deals with buses, trucks and sound and light companies. We also often do projections on touring budgets for record companies.
And these are all the nuts and bolts elements that are so important, without which the whole machine would break down. Yet a lot of bands wouldn’t even think about all this.
Yes. It’s a very all-encompassing job. It’s not just being an accountant; we’re the liaison for almost everything. We also have to manage costs between management and the business management, because the business manager actually works for the band exclusively. And, of course, the different tasks for which I am responsible can also vary significantly band to band.
And, you told me that you usually work for percentages or a monthly retainer, meaning you’re not likely to work with artists just starting out that have a very small budget, because they’re not bringing in a lot of income yet. What is your criteria for working with a band?
From my perspective, a lot of it is about passion. There are some bands I just love personally and want to see them succeed, even if they are baby bands. Sometimes they’ll experience restructuring or will be in political turmoil, and they will find themselves structuring. I need to feel passionate and really gung ho about all the bands I work with, so I’ll have the energy and will be able to fight for them as long as I can. I don’t cut deals with record companies personally, but I will often look at the contracts and give advice as they grow.
Obviously, your ideal client is someone you are passionate about. But what advice would you give these types of bands about how to make sure their books are in order and everything is in place from a business perspective before they are able to hire someone like you?
The start of it is to set up an LLC or a Sub S Corporation, depending on the situation of the band. Say the band lives in Atlanta. Then, we can set up the LLC in Georgia. If everyone lives there, all the income can flow through that point, and taxes can be filed in the same state. If you have a band that is scattered all over the place with someone in Nashville or Austin and another person in Seattle, they might want to look at other options. But the first thing they need to look at is where they are all located.
However, with bands that are located overseas, there’s another option for setting up an LLC or a Sub S Corporation: Delaware. Younger bands outside the U.S. can set up a U.S. entity as a Delaware Corporation. In general, however, as a business manager I always examine which type of company would best suit the band right from the get-go.
And why is Delaware such a go-to state for LLCs, etc.?
With Delaware, there are no personal taxes. What you do is pay a monthly fee rather than setting up a very complicated tax system. It comes out to about $250 per year as opposed to dealing with another state, where it could cost you much more.
And I’ve had some disagreements about this next point. But if you’re a multi-state band, you have a band that tours all over. Some states are more aggressive than others about getting your taxes. When you tour around, a lot of the places you play have very strict regulations. So, you need to closely follow budgets and file them to reduce your taxes. For example, in Wisconsin, they’re going to take six percent out of your wage. In Massachusetts, they take $450-$600. In California, they take seven percent. In Minnesota, they take two percent. Of course, the list of tax laws goes on and on.
I’ve definitely had discussions with other business managers who don’t believe you necessarily have to file in every state. For example, states like New York and New Jersey don’t take any money out for taxes on tours at all. Connecticut does. But you can file a budget to these people, and your rates will come down. I usually take the stance that as an artist or band, you should file whenever you appear in a certain state, just for your own protection.
Based on what you know about accounting, what kind of bookkeeping practices do you suggest bands just starting out follow to ensure they stay organized?
For example, I advise young bands to avoid filing an LLC in New York, because that state has very strict policies. It costs $2,000 – $2,500 up front to set up the LLC, and and then you have to advertise your LLC formation in a law journal for six weeks.
For New York-based young bands, what I usually do is file a Sub S election, which is a lot cheaper. When you’re running your own band and just starting out, $2,000 is a lot of money.
In terms of bookkeeping, I like to keep things really simple. You get a bank account, and then you manage everything on QuickBooks. It’s effective, user friendly and gives you a lot of tools like balance and budget sheets and ways to manage your daily transactions – which are all things you should be doing. You also need to bank reconcile every month to make sure your cash is where it should be.
There’s another package that other business managers use that is very intricate and shall remain nameless. They say the statements look better, but I think it’s too much work and aggravation without training. You can do pretty much anything you need to do as a young band on QuickBooks.
Given that most bands and startups are operating at a loss, is there advice you could give about tax write offs to minimize the impact?
If there’s a loss from your tour, you record a loss, and you don’t pay taxes. For example, let’s say you had a $2,000 loss on your tour that you did in 2011. In 2012, you might have a profit of $5,000. You can take your $2,000 loss and carry it forward, and you’ll end up with $3,000 and won’t have to pay money out the year after either.
Let’s say you have a day job. Can your career as an aspiring musician be a way to pay less taxes overall?
Recording the day job is just a quick W-2. Just be aware of what’s going on and make sure you’re using your business sense. In my experience, in most bands, there’s typically one guy who is a lot savvier when it comes to the business end of things and taxes. That’s the guy you want to put in charge of recording and managing finances. But, musicians beware: the IRS requires you to take a competency test to handle all this on your own if you’re not a CPA or an attorney.
But, some general advice: In the beginning, you want to save as much money as you can. And you want to consult with a business manager as a lawyer. Then, start to build your support team as you start to make more money and see what you can do. But as a musician, you don’t want to get into a situation where you suddenly realize you owe $2,000 in taxes and everything is a disaster.
I’m sure that you agree with me on this next point, Rick. The way to get your band signed and to flourish is to get out there, tour extensively, get a mailing list and then write a record. If you sell 50,000 or 60,000 units, the labels will find you. It’s like when I was working with both moe and Umprhey’s McGee. They were bands that didn’t sell a lot of records, but they toured and played all over. Both had started while they were in college and just expanded.
Of course, every band is different. A commercial success like Katy Perry or someone of that level is going to present a completely different business situation. You don’t really need to tour out, but you have to have somebody to stand by you and help market yourself.
I’m actually really surprised that labels aren’t literally opening up bands’ financial books and deciding whether to sign them or not based on the amount of income coming in and how solvent their company is. It’s definitely a changing eco system in terms of how people are getting acquired by labels, management and publishers.
Out of curiosity, in the work you do with marketing, in the last five years, have you seen a greater understanding by the labels of how technology has changed the music landscape?
Some get it more than others. It’s a different game. And this really goes back to what I was just saying about being surprised that more people at the top aren’t looking at bands’ financial records. In the past, people often complained about the lack of artist development at labels. And it seems like that same challenge still exists today, possibly to an even greater degree. Labels seem to still be looking at the number of albums a band is selling and whether or not the band has a manager, then project the risk they are willing to take, then sign the band. I can’t think of the last time I heard of someone just getting picked based purely on the music alone.
I think labels definitely have a lot more analytics for artists at their disposal now and are starting to actually analyze them. They don’t necessarily move quickly, but that’s typically because they are working within the machine of a much larger company.
And I’ve noticed that what they’re trying to do now – and I think all types of management want to get away from this – is do a 360 deal. They want to take a greater percentage of an artist’s record contract, touring, publishing, merchandising, etc.; they want everything.
And I’ve heard of them going back and trying to put 360 deals in place on existing contracts too.
I know labels are taking initiatives to transition, but I’m unsure as to how effective their efforts have been thus far. And I think ultimately in this technological climate, management is in many cases becoming a lot more powerful and beneficial to artists than labels.
My feeling is that what you should do as an artist if you want to attach yourself to a label is pretty simple: go out there and build a fan base. If it takes you two years, fine. They’ll find you if you start selling a lot of units of your music and sell out at bigger venues either regionally or across the company. It’s a lot of work, commitment and focus, but if bands keep showing they can build a lucrative business for themselves, they can hopefully stop labels from trying to push some of these deals that will ultimately be detrimental to the artist.
To learn more about Jonas Goldstein and the work he does within the music industry, you can visit JLG Business Management on Linkedin. You can also reach out to him directly at jgoldstein311(at)gmail.com.
On my 20-year journey in the music business, I have learned a lot of interesting things. One huge realization I had about the current music industry came to me as I was building this website (and continued as I started to get contacted by musicians that were visiting it). I couldn’t figure out why many people were glossing over all of the foundational work that is usually required to find great help. Why would people be so divorced from all the work that they have to do on their own, all the time they needed to devote to developing their sound and playing shows? Why would they not accept the real character-building shows, the “don’t forget to tip your bartenders and wai…oh you are the bartenders and waitresses” shows? And why would musicians think that an executive was likely to jump in and partner with them when what they had, at least on paper, was a hobby and not a real business?
For some, a light bulb turns on when they come to a realization. I experienced something a bit more substantial.
I was watching something on the Science channel about the planets, and an astronomer was talking about an asteroid hitting the earth. He said, “There has been more money spent on movies about asteroids hitting the earth than money spent on preventing asteroids from hitting the earth.”
Since then I have never looked at media – the field I’ve been in my whole life – in the same way.
Some of the effects the media has on us are well documented, but studies usually focus on questions like “Does violence in media have an impact on violent behavior in real life?” or “Does the media portrayal of rail-thin models and celebrities impact our feelings about our own body image and confidence?” The latter in particular is interesting and more applicable, because almost all studies on the subject point to the reality that people feel bad about themselves when comparing themselves to media ideals and have unrealistic expectations about what a “normal” person should look like. Essentially, people believe that they are supposed to resemble what they see in mass media.
When I thought about this concept, I wondered, could there also be a message in mass media about musicians and their success and does that affect us? It kept occurring to me that the media was minimizing the work that goes in to most musicians’ stories. I decided it was time to do some research myself.
To me, the definitive chronicle of a musician’s story is VH1’s Behind the Music. I decided since that was such a well known representation of how musicians became successful that it was a good idea to look at what was kind of info was being presented there.
I purchased several stop-watches and began to time out the percentages of the show that were devoted to different parts of an artist’s story (removing the commercials, etc). I watched a dozen episodes. It wasn’t hard to get the timing down because Behind the Music falls into a very familiar pattern:
1) Family background. The format is always, “Mom says her musician/superstar was different from other kids or recounts how hard it was growing up in the ‘hood, or how someone in the family was abused, and how these circumstances influenced their drive to be an artist, etc.”
2) Professional Struggle. This segment of the show highlights artists’ first taste of the business, the “struggle,” how they lived on $50 / week, how their choice to do something so unreasonable for a living upset family and friends alike. This phase covers making demos and meeting other musicians and executives. I even counted getting signed as getting part of the struggle, even though the momentum of the show clearly indicates that the record deal is a clear sign that success is around the corner.
3) Success. There is always a moment in Behind the Music where the album comes out, and the artist becomes a huge celebrity by creating a genre changing piece of work or a huge commercial success. And the documentary never looks back after that point. The term “big break” is also used a great deal. Sure, there are some issues, like drug habits, divorces, stress and inner turmoil, but the coverage from this point on is always the artist as a total success, even if there were hills and valleys in their popularity.
Would hearing partial truths affect our expectations and perception of what is fact? Simply put: Yes. Markus Appel and Tobias Richter’s study “Persuasive Effects of Fictional Narratives increase over time” even demonstrated that people believe many of the ancillary details presented in pure fiction, totally devoid of any fact.
For example, when you are watching the show Friends, you don’t believe that Rachel is a real person. You are aware that it’s Jennifer Aniston playing a role on TV, and that her character is named Rachel. But you might come to believe that peripheral information is true. For example, you might believe a waitress in Manhattan can afford a two-bedroom apartment near Central Park. Knowing that, if you are constantly reminded of the overnight success of musicians and never told about the work involved in their process, isn’t there a message here as well?
So, what does reality look like? My favorite example of someone who built their own business in music is the story of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, the band’s label Daptone Records and the founder of the band and the label, a guy named Gabe Roth.
Until her 40s, Sharon Jones was a guard at a correctional facility. And I played with Gabe in a band for a few years at NYU. Many years later, he agreed to be interviewed on this site. The words, “So, how does it feel to be this overnight success” started to come out of my mouth, but I caught myself midway through, and we laughed about it. Gabe hadn’t done anything different for 15 years; he just got better at what he did and surrounded himself with better people. And it was a breakthrough moment for me when I realized just how long he had been at it. He had worked at the same thing with a narrow focus for 15 years non-stop and was finally at a point where he was making a good living doing what he loved. Persistence and consistency had won out.
Why aren’t we exposed to stories like this? Simply put, because they aren’t popular news stories. “Man Works for 15 Years and Gets Great Business” is not as compelling as “Justin Bieber puts Video on Internet, Becomes Multi-Millionaire.”
A psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania named Angela Duckworth determined that “stick-to-it-ness” is called “grit,” which she defines as “the perseverance and passion for a long-term goal.” And she discovered that this grit is more important than intelligence or talent as a predictor of outstanding achievement. Individuals high in grit are able to maintain their determination and motivation over long periods of time, despite experiences with failure and adversity.
In his interview with me, “The Self Made Musician,” Gabe (a person I believe has real grit) said something that really stuck with me: “Instead of looking inward and local and trying to create something small that they can build from and concentrating on their craft, [musicians] are shooting for stars. It’s like playing the lottery. It’s fun, and if you win it’s amazing, but it’s not a business plan. You don’t say, ‘Okay, we want to start a business and want $500,000. The first thing we’re going to do is buy $4,000 worth of scratcher tickets.’”
A good business plan for your music is, first and foremost, specific. People always talk about the “next level,” and it drives me absolutely insane. I don’t begrudge people for wanting to advance their careers, but my frustration is when I hear the term “next level,” I know that 95% of the time the person saying it hasn’t clearly defined what they need let alone what they want. It sounds like they’re looking for a Nintendo cheat code.
Vague goals tend not to manifest. If you want to achieve your goals as a musician, you need to get really specific and write out a business plan. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to write a business plan or if you believe that it’s only for raising money or that it requires fancy number-crunching graphs. Truthfully, a business plan can start off as simply just visualizing where you want your music to take you in the next six months. Most people never do it. And 90% of the people reading this will probably not do it.
Do you really know what you want and what you need? Try this: Write down a six-month or one-year goal and then work backwards to the present moment. Be mindful that you will need longer-term goals as well, but they need not be as detailed.
Don’t do this because I say so. Do this because several studies, including a study conducted by Palo Alto Software in 2010 that was verified by the University of Oregon Department of Economics states that you are twice as likely to succeed if you finish a business plan.
I can’t write down a plan that will work for every artist, but I can offer a few guidelines if you are devoted to music for life (and not just looking at it as a fun hobby):
- Build a solid business foundation. Figure out how money is made in this industry and how publishing works. Register with ASCAP, BMI or SESAC and SoundExchange. Make sure you have a business entity established and trademark your name.
- Get your marketing materials in order. You’re going to need at least a 4-song recording (and one that requires no apologies), a well-written bio, a logo, a professional photo and a video of you performing live (for an actual crowd). You’ll also need vanity URLs on social networks, a website and to make sure all your digital real estate is interconnected.
- Set yourself up for the long haul. You need to engage in long-term planning if you want to work as a musician. Most “normal” businesses are not in the black for three, to five years, so why should a music business be any different? If you are truly in this for life, you should be investing in your business in a way that ensures you are set up to play and record music and get it to people at a moment’s notice over an extended period of time. This could mean building a home studio and getting a P.A. and a van. The point is, you’re going to have to plan multiple releases over a number of years and be prepared to play countless gigs. And you’re going to need to know how to accomplish this as cheaply and easily as possible. Don’t blow all your money on your first release, expecting it will propel you instantly to financial stability. Plan on truly playing and recording music on an on-going basis.
- Build a community and diversify. The music, the money and “the hang” (who you seek out as collaborators and the other musicians with whom you surround yourself on a regular basis) determines which gigs you should take, even if they divert you from your original work – sideman work, apprenticeships, etc. Remember, even Hendrix was a sideman.
- Think about B2C and B2B. It is also important to consider that everyone is talking about direct-to-fan in the digital age – an obvious, unfiltered Business to Consumer strategy (B2C). As they are building their communities, I’m of the opinion that many fledgling artists should also pursue Business to Business (B2B) relationships with like-minded artists. If you convince one band with a 50-person mailing list in another town that you are worth a damn, you can get your music in front of those people and start to break a new market if you’re willing to do the same promotion for them on a gig trade.
In summary, the confusion and frustration you may be feeling about your music career is just part of the process. It just so happens it’s not part of the process that people really talk about. The media is feeding you a steady stream of crap about who, what and where you should be in your career. Try to tune that out along with the hundreds of burnt-out naysayers you will meet along your journey who tried, failed and now want to talk you out of trying, too. Amputate the people in your life with this cancerous attitude, consume less celebrity media, or at least remember to take it with a grain of salt.
And remember grit and what I hear more than anything else about marketing strategies: “I tried that, and it didn’t work.” No musician succeeds without trying and failing. Try again.
CeCe Sammy is a renowned singer, vocal coach and the co-Founder of the artist management company CCA Entertainment. She got her start in the music business as a pianist and went on to study at the London College of Music, where she received both vocal and piano training. When she was 17, she toured as a backing vocalist with Diana Ross, eventually becoming a member of the United Colours of Sound with vocal coach partner John Modi and celebrity vocal coaches Joshua Alamu, David and Carrie Grant. After learning from a variety of expert mentors, she transitioned naturally into her role as a vocal coach. She has worked with major acts from the United Kingdom, including Charlotte Church, S Club, Will Young and Leona Lewis. She has also recorded several theme tunes for ITV, Channel 4 and Sky Sports in the UK and has appeared on television shows such as Pop Idol as a vocal coach and judge. In 2010, she relocated to Los Angeles and founded CCA Entertainment with legendary artist manager Frank DiLeo.
I spoke with CeCe recently about her career as a singer, vocal coach and music entrepreneur and what she has learned from her many experiences in the industry. She also shared some tips for singers that want to protect and improve their voices and find professional success.
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat, CeCe. How did you get into the music business, and what drove you to become a manager and vocal coach?
I trained as a classical pianist. Funnily enough, I loved and adored Liberace because of his wonderful showmanship. I also sang a lot. When I was 17, I was asked to be a backing vocalist for Dina Ross, which was an absolutely amazing experience. It was what really pushed me into the industry. Then I was trained how to be a vocal coach and moved into that thanks to great mentors.
I ended up working with a lot of big artists, record labels and music companies: Will Young; Simon Fuller; Simon Cowell; Pop Idol (as a vocal coach) and a bunch of other television shows as a judge and vocal coach. Vocal coaching is really important. And as a coach, I teach both vocal techniques and performance techniques. Most vocal coaches choose one of those things. But I bring together technique and actual performance.
How did you manage to transition from working with Diana Ross into being a vocal coach?
I moved very naturally from singing to vocal coaching. The people who got me into the job with Diana Ross were vocal coaches and just started teaching me all the aspects involved with being a vocal coach. I really studied and learned, then went into being a coach myself. And a lot of the people who came to see me wanted to work with me constantly, which was very exciting.
I know that you’re also an excellent self-promoter. What do you think you did right as a musician and as a music business person that brought you all these exciting opportunities in television and working with great artists?
First of all, I listened to everyone, instead of just always pushing my own opinions. I listened to what other people had to say constantly. I would also record myself when I would sing and even when I would teach, then look back at what I recorded to see how I was really coming across to people.
Basically, I studied diligently, learned everything I could about my craft and then finally, had the confidence to dream and achieve.
A lot of people are out there who can’t necessarily afford a vocal coach. Can you give some simple tips and best practices that people should be following in order to maintain their voice?
There are a lot of basic things most people already know to do, like practice regularly, or breathe properly. For example, when you speak, as I am now, you’re using absolutely everything. You’re naturally breathing in, naturally exhaling and the air is naturally flowing out. When you’re singing, it should be the same thing. It’s not a case of, “I’m about to sing, so I’m going to change how I naturally breathe.”
I think something else really critical and not necessarily obvious is that you need to audition yourself for every genre. You might want to sing rock music, but maybe rock does not fit with your voice. You should try every style you can and not get too pigeonholed. Put your eggs in different baskets, as you never know where you’re going to end up. Look at me – I went from Liberace, to Diana Ross, to Pop Idol/X Factor! As part of this, you should be asking people around you for feedback. You could ask your parents, the neighbors or people at your church or at school. Just try everything and be bold enough to ask people for their opinions.
As someone who has worked on American Idol-type shows overseas, what did you find, performance wise, that separated those that made it through to the end from those you let go early in the competition?
In my opinion, being good is just really just about artists not trying hard to do what has not been tried before. For instance, singers need to listen to the lyrics to a song and convey what those lyrics mean to them personally through their performance, so the audience can feel that. I always tell people it’s about studying, learning and dreaming. You need to take a look at what others have done before, learn from that and then find your way.
And can you give an example of a singer who has done that very well?
One example I can give is Leona Lewis. I have worked with her and knew her before she became famous. She got in touch with me and did not have a lot of money. She and her dad approached me, because they knew me from TV. They were asking questions about what she should do and what she should focus on. I gave her very honest feedback, and she studied, learned and kept dreaming, “I want to be a singer.” She then auditioned to get onto X-Factor and got on the show and won. And she became known throughout the world.
How did that happen? I believe it was because she moved her career forward in small steps, trying one thing, then the next, then the next. However, for everyone out there, it really is about practicing constantly. 90 percent of it is studying, and 10 percent of it is putting it out there. But everything is hard work. And it’s putting in the hard work that is important.
And can you share anything about the best methods for maintaining and preserving your voice?
Singing is like being an athlete. An athlete has people who are constantly working with them – in football, tennis, etc. Singing is the same. Having a vocal teacher is very important. And of course, I can only talk about it from the perspective of how I work with my clients, but you constantly have to look at the technique and the performance. Because, when you get up to perform and add the singing on top of the performance, sometimes everything can go out the window.
For example, there are different singing techniques you have to use whether you’re going into the studio or going out on tour, or whether you’re singing in front of 20 people or 20,000 people. There is troubleshooting involved with navigating all of these different things.
And what are some of the most common technical mistakes you run into when you work with people?
There are a few common mistakes I see.
- People will be singing a song and they’ve never actually stopped to listen to what the lyrics are really saying.
- Some people forget they need to not only sing, but also conserve breath. You need to take a breath at the right point, so you’re not pushing your voice.
- People will sing so loudly – and you can’t sing too quietly either, of course – that they can’t take the dynamics any higher.
You really must have control over dynamics and proper breathing. But you also have to be able to express real feeling and an understanding of the lyrics, because you need to really tell a story through your singing.
I’ve studied a little bit with New York City-based vocal coaches, like Melissa Cross and Don Lawrence. Both of them described the sound coming from above your mouth, or from the mask of your face. Do you advise a direction people should sing towards?
In your face, you have different places you want the sound to bounce off of, so singing towards a specific direction is definitely important. But there are also other subtle elements. For instance, you want to feel like your feet are planted firmly on the ground, whether you’re sitting or standing. And you want the music to be moving inside everything, and your singing to be as natural as if you are speaking. Singing well is about tying many different ideas together.
As a vocal coach, I know that just playing a piano for someone and having them stand there and sing “la la la” is not teaching them to sing. That’s the old-fashioned way. I’m also not into teaching people to sing karaoke or to imitate someone’s voice. It’s about identifying a sound for you.
What is the biggest obstacle people come up against when they come to you and their pitch is slightly off. Is this about practice, or are there techniques they can use?
A lot of that is about really listening and practicing to get a feel for where the music needs to sit in your voice. But again, you have to record what you’re doing when you’re practicing and then go back and listen to find out where something went wrong if you want to understand where the pitch is off.
And are there any other tips you’d like to share with singers?
Well, here are 5 tips I think are probably the most important of all for singers:
- Audition Your Singing Teacher. Just because someone can sing, doesn’t mean they know how to teach you how to sing. Find out whether what they have to offer is what you need – for example, if you want to do musical theatre, you need someone who truly understands what that type of voice needs.
- Do Your Research. Great singers are always inspired by other great singers. Find out who the singers you like favored and then who they liked and so on. For example, Christina Aguilera loved Aretha Franklin. Aretha Franklin loved gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. You gain so much as a singer by listening.
- Treat Your Voice Well. Warming up is so crucial. Your vocal cords are like muscles that need to be treated with care. A runner would never just get out onto the field and start running.
- Learn Good Technique. The technique I teach and emphasize is all about encouraging you to sing in the same place that you speak, so it’s not forcing you to do something that’s unnatural for your voice.
- Do everything in moderation. It’s not that you can’t ever have a glass of wine, but drink alcohol in moderation. With smoking, again, I think you have to know your own voice. For some singers, it’s a definite no-no; others can have a cigarette here and there, and their voice is fine. One thing to do a lot of, however, is drink water!
To learn more about CeCe and the work she does with artists, please visit the CCA Entertainment website.
Danny Barnes is a banjo player and a songwriter who has been a working musician for over 30 years. Widely known as one of the world’s most innovative and versatile artists, he mixes non-traditional music like rock fusion and jazz with electronic percussion instruments, still rooted in the traditional bluegrass, country and folk music for which his instrument is known. A lifelong music “fanatic” in every sense of the word, he decided he would make a career in music at 10, when, deeply inspired by the many records his parents played at home, he began to diligently study his craft. Known for his positive and refreshingly-honest attitude towards being an artist in the modern music industry, he continues to dedicate himself to growth and further innovating his instrument by learning from and collaborating world-renowned master musicians, including Bela Fleck, Lyle Lovett, Nickel Creek, John Popper, Chuck Leavell and Dave Matthews. He puts out music through ATO Records.
I had the pleasure of talking to Danny about his long career in the music business and his views on the modern music climate. He also shared some advice for artists that want to successfully build their lives around music and become truly great at their craft.
Thanks for taking some time to chat, Danny. How did you get started in the music business?
When I was about 10 or 11, it just became clear to me that music was what I wanted to do. I’ve been pretty focused on it ever since then, and I just turned 50. I’m still working on it, still taking lessons, researching and developing as an artist. But it all got started officially when I was a little kid.
My parents were music fans and played a lot of records around the house. And my brothers were really into music, too. Somehow I got it into my head that music was what was most important. And that’s what I’ve continued to believe for about 40 years.
Was there a particular point where you discovered you would be able to do it for a living vs. just as a hobby?
I think I pretty much knew it from the beginning. It was just a matter of figuring out how to do it. At first, it was definitely just that dream of wanting to be a musician. But I was wired to be a real music person. I really enjoyed records and going to shows, so one of the things that has always driven my attention and interest in music is wanting to make things that I would like to hear. I’ve been doing that since I was a kid, and that’s still the force that drives me: I like records and buy records, and want to make things that would interest me as a music fan. I haven’t put the focus on the economic part of it. I’ve been spending most of my time learning how to be great, which involves studying the work of the masters.
I grew up in a really small town. And in this small town, there was a guy who fixed hot rods. He had a little garage and would just work on hot rods to get really good at it. He decided that was what he wanted to do and just adjusted his life so he could do it. Guys like that became role models for me. They could be motorcycle racers, bass fisherman or guys who fixed hot rods. But they were all guys who were into something and figured out a way to do it at any cost.
What I think is fundamentally important for me and my own expression is just being a music fan and starting from that premise. I am just really driven by music and believe in the power of music and continue to be curious to learn about all its aspects.
Well and “fan” is derived from “fanatic,” so I think you’re on the right track there.
It’s interesting that you describe deciding to do music full time as an evolutionary process. I think a lot of people have this idea that you just up and decide to be a musician, then stop everything, quit your day job and spend a lot of time, energy and money on becoming a musician. I’m always trying to preach to people that it’s about baby steps – slowing migrating the different areas of your life towards music.
You’re a guy who has been playing music for a living for decades. What do you think you’ve done right that has allowed you to make a career out of playing music?
I made a lot of mistakes, because I didn’t know about things like contract law and how other people in the industry think. And I continue to make mistakes.
What keeps me going is, I pretty much knew what I wanted to do when I was a kid. I’ve gone through small periods of time when I’ve questioned what I’m doing, when I’ve thought about doing something like computer programming, being a merchant marine or starting a small business. But basically, I’ve known for a long time what I wanted to do. I think having that conviction solves a lot of problems. The French have that term “raison d’etre:” “reason to be.” I think if you know what that “raison d’etre” is for you, everything becomes a lot easier. If something crops up, you can ask yourself if it is contributing to you career and helping you get stronger, or if it’s dragging you down.
Living a really simple lifestyle and not being in a lot of debt has also been really good. When I was in college, I was really broke. And I learned how to do things without spending a lot of money and being able to entertain myself and find happiness without a lot of dough. Because I had that skill, when things got rough, something didn’t come through or I’ve had to take some time to learn something in order to go on, I wasn’t stressed out of my brain trying work three or four different jobs to get me through, then feeling resentful towards my passion for music for not providing me with the opportunity to make money. I can’t necessarily recommend keeping your life simple, even though that’s what has worked for me, because a lot of people aren’t really interested in that as an answer; it involves giving things up.
As an example, my pickup truck is worth about 300 dollars. But I have some really nice instruments. I’m more interested in buying the nice preamp I want than I am in buying a nice car. And I travel a lot in my work, so I’m not really interested in going to the Bahamas on a vacation. I just really want to work. Not getting worked up about money has allowed me to stay creative, because I don’t have a lot of economic baggage. I’m not even aware of this in my own life, but I do see other people struggle as they move through their story arc. Sometimes they seem to get bogged down in money, and it diverts attention from creating art.
So, there are really two things that have helped me continue to stick around and play music: being really clear about what I wanted to do; not being in a lot of debt.
You’re a guy who has put out records through ATO, and of course, you’ve worked closely with a lot of great artists like Dave Matthews. How did you fall in with musicians of this caliber?
I just practiced my ass off. I’ve worked so hard. My thinking was that you have to strive to be absolutely great at something. I think a lot of times, it’s possible to get fixated on getting your promo shots together, putting together a website, getting all your materials together on going through the motions of the mechanics of creating the illusion that you’re making music. But then when you sit down to play, there isn’t anything that good coming out. Granted, there are a lot of people on TV that do that and are huge celebrities. But there isn’t that much happening with their music. That confuses people.
Well, and I want to ask you about that. You strike me as a very grounded man, which leads me to believe that mass media does not have a big effect on your life. What I’ve found as I get older and work with younger people is that when people are coming up with goals and asking me what I can do for them, they will think something along the lines of, “How can you make me the next Justin Bieber?” And TMZ or VH1’s Behind the Music devote three minutes to the struggle of becoming a musician and 20 minutes or the rest of the hour to the problems of fame. Do you think the slanted view mass media presents of what it means to be a musician is a problem?
Yes. I think so. It’s kind of like camping: There are people who live in the woods and people who camp. Camping is cool, but if you are trying to live in the woods and there are campers basically coming into your yard, it’s kind of a hassle.
What I figured out when I was a little kid in the early ‘70s and late ‘60s was the concept of greatness. I realized that the goal is to try to be great at something, whether that be mixing, playing the trombone, writing songs or anything. You need to be great at it. I don’t think I’m there yet. I’m still working on it and trying to get there.
It’s possible to mimic things closely. We can find someone down at the bus stop, get them a makeover, auto-tune them and make them look and sound a lot like a guy on TV. I think that’s distracting. The response that creative people should have to stimuli is to make something. Imitating somebody is not making something. I’m not saying you shouldn’t gather inspiration from people. But our response to being inspired should be to create something ourselves.
It’s so easy to get confused and distracted by the mechanizations of this mass group of people – musicians – and get lost in what they’re doing.
I am inspired by the fact that you’ve made a pretty amazing name for yourself and are also putting out the kind of records you want.
I know you’ve been really focused on becoming a great player. But what role has networking played in your career?
I’m just horrible at networking, to be honest. I’ve never been able to make it work. That’s just not in my repertoire. And I don’t respond to it very well either. I have my friends that are my friends. And some of my friends are very powerful guys in the music business. And some are janitors at nightclubs or bus drivers.
My fans reflect that, too. I’m pretty esoteric. You have to already know about my music to be aware of it. My fans know about a lot of different kinds of music and are part of a small group of people that tend to be pretty diverse, interested and interesting. I look at my fans as just more people I know and an extension of my friends.
I think people put too much emphasis on networking. And people who are really successful at networking can be confusing to other musicians. They might think, “Here’s a guy that had a million downloads and has a ton of followers on Twitter.” And while it’s true that anything can happen to anybody, a different person might not get the same results.
I really appreciate you being honest and really speaking from your experience. What advice would you have given yourself when you were just starting out?
I would say, “Keep practicing; keep working.” Because, working on your craft is the thing that’s so easy to get distracted from doing. But if you keep working, developing, growing, learning, researching, editing, writing and making, you will become a real musician. The way I look at it, making $1 million off singing someone else’s song doesn’t make me a musician. What makes me a musician is continuing to grow and to have a creative response to things, coming up with new contexts and configurations and structures. That’s definitely what I’ve done from the beginning. I don’t even know why I knew to do that. It’s just what I was interested in. I was always interested in learning, so I learned. I was interested in developing combinations of sounds that were not on other people’s records, because it interested me. In a way, it’s the same theory behind Immanuel Kant’s philosophy: How could the universe be any other way than the way that it is now? It has to be this way. There was just no other way for it to be for me.
I would also tell myself to hang in there and keep at it, even when I come across distractions. It’s easy for someone to say, “If only I get this boob job, I will get noticed and it will help my career,” or “I need to move to this city,” or “I really need to get my EPK together.” And in the meantime, that person can’t even read music. And it’s not that reading music is always necessary, but it’s easy to get distracted from actually getting better at playing music with all that’s going on out there.
I’ve always considered myself to be the postman and not the mail. I’m just freaked out about music, because it is so amazing. I’m not saying, “Look at me!” I’m saying, “Hey! Music is really awesome. Look at all the things you can do with it! I’m going to try to do something different here.” And I may fall on my ass. In fact, I probably will. But at least I am trying to make something that’s my own and trying to give something back.
I’m also not a good imitator. I’ve tried to play like other people, but I’m just not very good at it. I am good at thinking up ideas, though and at coming up with songs, developing a concept. I can put an idea together, do a four-album story arc and put it all together with motifs that relate across the narrative.
Another thing I’ve realized is, for me music is how I learn about the world. I put together these records and work on them really hard, and then I get to learn things through that process. For example, music is why I’m talking to you and getting to know you. Without it, I wouldn’t be having this experience. And when I go on the road, I may get on an airplane and fly to LaGuardia, then rent a car or get on the subway and head down the Village to play a show. I wouldn’t have done any of that if not for music. Music is why I get to do everything I do and how I experience my entire life. It’s the way I relate to the world.
You’re obviously a big proponent of shedding – practice, practice, practice. What about learning through collaboration?
Absolutely. I’ve learned so much from not being afraid to be the worst guy in the band, finding masters close to where I live to study, observe and learn what they do. I’ve learned a lot from my teachers and those I’ve played music with. I feel very blessed in that regard.
I remember one time I was taking a lesson from an orchestration teacher. I was trying to learn how to write things for orchestra and creating arrangements. I was talking to him about counterpoint and about creating melody and harmony. He was using a No. 1 Pencil. And I never thought to use it before. But it set me free. A No. 1 Pencil writes darker, so in clubs where the lighting isn’t so great, you can see what you’ve written down better. And it also erases better. It was a silly thing, but it ended up being so important.
I’ve learned so much just from even observing how people tune or take their guitar out of the case, how they sit. There’s a lot to it. You learn a lot from hanging around other people and observing them. Language is often limited. There is all kinds of stuff going on with music that cannot be communicated verbally. You can learn so much about vibe, posture and attitude just from watching really great players play. And if you can take lessons from people, you should do it. I still take lessons from people, because it’s so great to learn.
Everything is a learning experience. I think about the concept of a stand light: So many times, I’ve gone out and played a gig without one, and I realize halfway through I can’t see anything. Or even just something like using clothespins to prevent music from blowing away can totally change your experience.
You posted a blog entry on your website about your experiences that people really responded to. What made you decide to write the article about being a musician? Were you getting asked about it a lot?
I really didn’t think anyone would ever look at it, because I feel like not many people know about my work.
The media goes through cycles where a politician will be part of a scandal. And all of a sudden, everyone is talking about it, even though it has nothing to do with them. And then there will be an ABC Afterschool Special-type thing about the topic, even though it has no real bearing on anyone’s life. For example, what Brad Pitt said to Angelina Jolie last week really has no meaning to me personally. But it will become a huge topic that is everywhere. Next week, it will be something else or someone else.
When you wrote it, were you feeling that the DIY music business had become like Brangelina?
There were just a lot of people complaining about things. People were loving and reposting the articles on Facebook about how awful it is to be a musician, how difficult and screwed up everything is. But I wanted to write something that was encouraging. I just wanted to give a positive response. I wanted to acknowledge the reality, but then encourage people to build something. It doesn’t matter what we think about it or how we got here. The horse is going that way, so let’s turn around in the saddle and go that way.
I just saw this bumper sticker the other day that said, “Driver carries no cash. He’s a musician.” I’m not really impressed by that. There’s this whole idea going around about how it’s so difficult to be a musician. But the richest people I know are musicians. They are much richer than the stockbrokers, brain surgeons and lobbyists I know. That may be my own skewed perspective, because I’m in music. But so many times, reality is not in the metanarrative. When I wrote that piece, I wanted to present my own experience in a humble way. I didn’t really expect it to be received very well. A lot of times, if you have something to say that is not a sound bite, people label you as a kook. No one really cares if it’s not in the sound bite.
The sound bite is, “It’s horrible being a musician. Digital this, sales are down that, it all sucks.” You read that over and over again. And you have to ask yourself if it’s real. My friends are in music and making awesome records, putting their kids through college. I don’t get it. I just wanted to make a positive statement and give struggling musicians some suggestions based on my own experience and the experiences of people around me about things they can try that will stop them from getting bogged down. I’m so far down that the underground seems commercial to me, so I really didn’t think anyone would pay attention. I was trying to be honest and uplifting and provide information, and it felt great that a lot of artists – and not even just those in music – read what I wrote and got some benefit out of it.
Mike Jackson is an independent music supervisor. He got his start in the music industry in high school as a guitarist and was soon encouraged to attend Full Sail University, where he studied to become a recording engineer. After working at many small studios throughout New York City and New Jersey in order to hone his craft, he was hired at the renowned Real Platinum studio, where he had the opportunity to work on records with a variety of artists, including The Misfits and Black Flag, while also working as an on-the-road sound engineer and tour manager and running his own Pro Tools rental company. In the early 2000s, he moved to L.A., where he worked as the head engineer at EMI Publishing. After many years as an in-demand engineer, he segued into his current role as independent music supervisor, specializing on Internet projects, commercials and video games . Throughout his career, he has worked on major releases with artists such as Christina Aguilera, Nothingface, Butch Walker and Jewel.
I recently had a chance to chat with Mike about his long career in the music business. He also shared some advice for independent artists looking to build successful partnerships with engineers and producers and get their music heard by music supervisors who can place it, especially on the Internet and in commercials.
Thanks for taking some time to talk, Mike. How did you get into the music business?
I got started in the music business through a very good friend of mine named Steven Shaw when I was about 16. He was a guitar teacher and mentor of mine, and he basically guided me into becoming an audio engineer. He suggested that instead of going to Berklee College of Music – which I got into – that I go to Full Sail and become a recording engineer.
I worked at a bunch of small studios in New Jersey and New York to start. I did records for friends’ bands and other projects of that nature until things started to pick up.
You wound up working with artists like Nothingface and Christina Aguilera. So, how did you end up getting to that point?
The members of Nothingface were more friends of mine than they were clients. I worked with them once or twice as an audio engineer.
How things started to pick up was, I was really desperate for a gig. And I had been working at different studios in New York doing my own projects. But I needed to expand my knowledge base beyond what I was doing. So, I found this studio very close to my house in Lodi, New Jersey called Real Platinum. The reason I wanted to work there was because Samhain had recorded there, The Misfits had recorded there, and it was primarily a punk rock/metal studio.
The first project I got to work on when I went there as an assistant was The Misfits’ box set. That was a really cool experience for me, because I got to sit there with Jerry Only and Robo, the original Black Flag drummer. They were telling all these punk rock stories about being on the road. It was just great for me. And it led to me working with a lot of other artists there.
I worked at Real Platinum for a while, then eventually got a call from Christina Aguilera’s management. They asked me if I knew producers and writers that would be suitable for her, because they weren’t really happy with the demos they had. So, I recommended a friend of mine – Rob Hoffman. He had just finished working with Michael Jackson and Bruce Swedien on “Blood on the Dance Floor” and was also helping put together his HBO special. I gave Christina over to him and asked if he would work with her. It took me a good three, to four weeks, calling him and telling him, “You really need to work with this girl” to get him to say yes. I got them on a conference call and introduced the songs we’d picked for her. The only one from the bunch that made it was a song called “Obvious,” which is the last track on the Genie in a Bottle album.
That was what started to put me on the map. While all this was happening, I was also touring as an engineer and tour manager with a bunch of different bands like Save Ferris and some others. Eventually, I came back to New York and New Jersey to rest for a bit, worked on some albums and realized I really needed to do some other things to get off the ground. I opened my own studio and started producing bands. At the same time, I opened up a Pro Tools rental company, where I was renting the guys from Naughty By Nature, etc. And I always had a head for business, so I continued to pick artists’ and managers’ brains to determine what they were looking for when putting together albums and working with people. I wanted to see what the temperature of the market was at the time and where it was going. That part of it always fascinated me.
When I was young, my parents somehow met Bob Jamieson, who was the president of BMG Records at the time. And they said, “Our son Mike is young and just getting into the business. He needs some guidance.” And Bob said, “The first thing I can say is, don’t become an engineer.” He was very right about that in the end. I always took that advice to heart, realizing that eventually I wouldn’t be engineering. I held onto that gig for as long as I could.
I had started my Pro Tools company in 1999, and after the towers fell in New York in 2001, it was obvious that no one wanted to come to that city to make records anymore. Right Track closed and Hit Factory eventually called it a day. The events in New York really affected how the music business was going to be there from then on; it felt like it was no longer a music town.
For a long time, a lot of people had been begging me to come to L.A. And I was losing clients on the rental side of things and could no longer support that business. I ended up going to L.A. in June, 2003. For the first six months, it was rough. But I ended up falling into the head engineering job at EMI Publishing. That opened me up to a whole new world as far as gigging around. That was an awesome learning experience. I would demo and do songwriter sessions for pretty much any artist that was on the EMI Publishing label. My clients ranged from Slipknot, to the Bullet Boys. That’s also where I got to work with Butch Walker, who I think is one of the greatest songwriters and producers in the world. He was writing with another writer, and we got to work on a demo that was being proposed for Whitney Houston. You don’t get those opportunities too often.
You did a lot of engineering, then eventually segued into music supervision and thus have worked with a lot of bands and artists. Tell me what advice you would give musicians who are looking for engineers and producers.
First off, if you’re looking for an engineer or producer, you have to accept the fact that technology has made it very easy to do everything at home. And I think a lot of those records sound great, but you really need to find someone who is experienced. I’ve gone through the process of hunting for producers with bands I’ve managed in the past. You look for a producer, and the way the market is now is that there are a lot of guys who you think are unattainable but are not. If you have a little bit of money, many of them will record or mix your record for a certain price. Guys who are known as huge producers are doing records for pennies on the dollar now.
I think when you’re picking a producer, it’s a matter of figuring out who is going to fit your style the best. For example, you’re not going to get Bob Rock to do a White Stripes record. You need to find someone who really sees your vision clearly and is within your price range. And bands are more often responsible for investing in their own albums these days.
I was listening to an interview not too long ago on Sirius Radio, and they were talking to Anthrax right after their new record Worship Music had come out. Charlie Benante made a good point: “We love making albums, but they cost money. And we’re not making a lot of money on albums anymore.” I think the investment is a lot about the commitment of the artist to making an album. You have to go in with the mindset that there will be a certain amount of loss involved. Because, not everyone can license their songs for $300,000 like certain artists do.
I’ve found that the album has become a resume for the live show more than anything else.
Most definitely. I’ve heard artists complain, “Why do you want to sound exactly like the live record? When people listen to your record at home, you want it to be perfect.” But it’s really coming down to the live show again; people need to actually play live in order to be successful. There are definitely still bands that have studio magic that doesn’t translate well live, but for the most part, playing live is really important.
I think also when you’re looking for an engineer or producer, you want to find someone who is going to bring out the best in your band. That should be their main focus. Obviously you can’t do it yourself. Going back to the point about a producer’s track record, you need to look for the right vibe. Artists are so rigid about what their vision is that sometimes they can’t see the forest for the trees. I think a producer is a football coach and a musician all wrapped into one. He’s doing the things he needs to get done to make the songs great so the artist can succeed. That is really the best way to describe what a great producer is.
You made a living as an engineer for a long time. What advice would you have given yourself as an engineer when you were just starting out, knowing what you know now?
First off, I would’ve invested more time in learning about the business side. I came from the generation of “Build it and They Will Come.” A lot of engineers made their way up by working with major studios, and eventually these studios went away with the introduction of Pro Tools. If you want to be an engineer these days, you have to treat it like a business. It’s not just about making records; it’s about being business savvy and creating “you” as a band and letting that brand be the business. That’s so paramount to what you do and how you succeed.
You also need to be constantly meeting people and kicking down doors.
It’s always hard to be pleasantly pushy.
Yes, and that’s exactly what it is: “pleasantly pushy.”
And now you’re a music supervisor. How did you get involved with that?
As a music supervisor, I have a very narrow focus: I don’t work with film or TV shows. I music supervise for Internet, video games and commercials – projects with a quick turnaround. I am the type of person who needs to work on things that can be completed relatively quickly.
That being said, I got into it via my EMI connections. Also, a friend of mine knew I was in the music business and came to me and said, “I need to get a music license for this commercial I’m directing. Can you do it?” And I said, “Sure.”
I had all the experience and the people involved in licensing around me when I was at EMI, so I was always very interested in asking questions about publishing so I could learn how it all worked. I had seen contracts and had written them a bunch of times myself for all the artists I’d managed. So, I executed a license for my friend and thought there might be a business in it for me. I was doing personal management of bands at the time, and it just wasn’t going the way I wanted it to. This opened up a whole new career for me.
I am personally a very friendly guy. I just really like people. And I would say that the licensing stream of revenue for artists is really important. Especially in commercials and Internet-based projects, I see a whole lot of opportunities for smaller artists to get paid – to add on an additional stream of revenue. They have access to a lot of commercial tools.
And if you are a musician without many contacts, how can you approach guys like you? What makes music connect to a project?
Something people don’t understand about music supervisors is, first of all, we get a lot of requests for very specific types of music. And secondly, we also get a lot of requests for music we can submit for specific projects. Getting the attention of music supervisors is definitely not the easiest thing in the world for artists. For example, if you’re a small band in Idaho with no Facebook fans or Twitter followers and send your work to the music supervisor for Grey’s Anatomy, forget it.
As an artist, you need to have a real presence. The one thing I look for more than anything else now is a band’s Facebook presence and the number of YouTube hits they have.
And I would imagine you look not only at pure numbers, but also at the quality of their interactions.
If you’re an artist, I want to see that you’re interacting with your fans, playing shows and doing everything you need to be doing. It’s hard for me to push a smaller band unless it’s such a low-dollar license that they will take anything. Because, of course, sometimes the song just fits. If I can get a song to fit a project, they will usually take it. And then I’ll negotiate the deal from there.
I always find it difficult advising independent artists about how to get music placed, because they’re likely to be up against bigger companies that have huge catalogs.
Yes. And that’s the point I was trying to touch on. More often than not, I will go to a company like BMG or Warner/Chappell and get music from them, because that’s what has been requested. A lot of times, people will request certain pieces of music. And when this happens, there is no way for music supervisors to think outside the box unless they really believe in the band.
I’ve been in situations where I’ve had chances to submit music, and I’ve submitted unsigned bands. And it has either worked or it hasn’t. Most of the time, it doesn’t work. But I do always try my best to get the little guy out there, because everyone needs a shot and everyone has to start somewhere.
I agree, although that’s not the approach of most music supervisors.
Definitely not. But I’m trying to grow my business into one of the biggest music supervision companies in the world. And in order to do that, you have to start by taking care of the little people.
To learn more about Mike Jackson and the work he does with music, you can reach out to him at email@example.com.
Erik Jacobsen is the Founder and President of Syncfree Music Library, a library that provides original digital music files for television broadcast productions. Erik got his start in the music business as a saxophone player and went to music school at the University of Miami, where he studied jazz and began to develop a passion for writing jazz and pop jazz tunes for other artists. After college, he moved to New York City, where he and his brother, a fellow musician started a production team called White Pelican Productions. Eventually, Erik met a producer who helped him get a job writing production music for soap operas including As the World Turns, Guiding Light and Another World. After years of working as a writer for various music libraries and feeling frustrated by some of the unfavorable deals that artists were having to cut with music libraries, Erik decided to start Syncfree Music Library, which offers a 50/50 ownership deal to songwriters, charges no sync fees and currently houses over 5,000 tracks. Syncfree has provided music for over 300 shows, including Jersey Shore, NYC Ink, Burn Notice and The Big Bang Theory on 50 stations and has over 200 contributors.
I recently talked to Erik about his own career as a production music writer, what led him to start Syncfree Music Library and what artists need to do in order to successfully partner up with music libraries.
Thanks for much for taking the time to chat, Erik. How did you get into the music business?
I am a saxophone player by trade, and I went to music school at the University of Miami and started studying jazz. But I always loved to write. At while I was in school, I was also writing jazz and pop jazz tunes for other people. I just loved the whole idea of creating songs.
When I moved up to New York in the early ‘80s, I started to write for soap operas, which was a lot of fun. I loved writing tracks in all different styles, because of my background in jazz.
And how did you get hooked up with those gigs?
My brother and I had a production team, which we called White Pelican Productions. We just started writing for other people, and our company name and our names got out there as producers. It wasn’t the most lucrative thing, because we did everything on spec. But we got the opportunity to work with a lot of great musicians in the New York City area. They were a lot of people who were up and coming that no one had heard of, and we just did production deals – everything we could to get our name out there. We advertised for studio time, and people would come in, which was how we would pay for our addiction. And then we would write we really wanted and submit it to every record company and then go to BMI and ASCAP artist showcases and connect with other artists there.
So, you hustled and networked.
We really, really hustled. We were constantly sending things out. Plus, we were holding down regular jobs at the same time, so we would have to write at night. I was landscaping at the time, so I would sit in the truck and write on the way to the next lawn. I would take days off from work just to come home, write and listen to the type of music I loved that I aspired to write.
Then, I started to get my hands on industry lead sheets to see who needed music. Now, being on the other side, I see better how things work. Back then, we would send out music to people who needed songs. But by the time it got to them, either they’d found songs or they had moved on to another project. Nothing ever panned out with that except for one time, when we actually got a call from a producer who was legitimately working with an artist named George Lamond, a big dance artist in the late ‘80s. We did some production tracks for him, and they loved it, but it just never went anywhere.
I remained friends with those producers, and that’s how I got into doing soap operas. My brother ended up getting a real job. He still does music, but he just got worn out by the process, after ten years of trying to make things happen. I don’t have to tell you that it’s a tough gig, and everyone struggles.
I’ve worked with a lot of people that just haven’t been able to handle it anymore and have just stopped after a couple years. But I was determined to do it, so I stuck with it and started writing for soap operas, which is really a job that suited me, because I was really attuned to popping out good-quality tracks. I knew what sounded good and about how to achieve the right balance, so I was able to knock out five or six tracks a day.
I would imagine that requires a very different skill set than someone who is a solo artist constantly working on their own original material.
It does. The way I look at it is, if you’re a good musician, you know what sounds good and what doesn’t sound good, because this is music you’re hearing every day. Whatever type of music you listen to, you can usually determine what it needs to really sound great. You know certain types of music need a specific keyboard or bass sound, or that the drums need to sound a particular way. My brother and I were very good at doing sound alikes. People would come to us and say, “We need something that sounds like Bobby Brown.” And we could whip out Bobby Brown tracks very quickly. My brother was a phenomenal drum programmer. He is a great drummer, and that really translated onto the machine. He knew how to get the right sound.
Because we were great at doing sound alikes, when it came time to work on a music library, we could mimic whatever we needed to mimic. And I find that even today, people who are good at mimicking what’s popular get played so much more than those who write original songs. I think when people start writing original tunes, they get into a really narrow niche. And the odds of them finding that perfect meld between their song and a scene are going to be a lot lower than for someone who writes generic pop tracks that sound like someone like Lady Gaga, etc. … at least with the shows and the supervisors I deal with. There have been times where I’ll have a very specialized tune in the library for five years, and it will get used one time.
How did you make the transition from writing soap operas into starting Syncfree Music Library?
I was very successful at writing for soap operas. As always, it was a case of “It’s all about who you know.” The person I was working with just happened to know someone who was a music supervisor supervising several shows. We were doing four or five of the soap operas, because the songs would just make their way around to the different shows, like As the World Turns, Guiding Light, Another World.
It’s amazing how that one relationship can just change everything.
Absolutely. And it’s that one relationship that can save you years and years and years of pounding the pavement; one person can turn everything around in one shot.
After a couple years of doing soap operas, this connection was lost, because this person didn’t work at the network anymore. And it’s pretty common that supervisors come and go regularly. After that person left, everything collapsed. Overnight, there was just no more work. I was used to writing every day, and suddenly there was nothing going on. So, I had all these tunes and thought, “What can I do with these?” I had a lot of friends and connections who were great singers and musicians, and I started to wonder what I could do to continue.
The first thing I did was call a bunch of libraries to see if they’d be interested in my music. I was calling all the big libraries and sending them my work, but I wasn’t hearing anything. I’d call at all different times and try to figure out what times they’d be there. I wasn’t being a pain in the ass, but I was definitely persistent: “Pleasantly pushy” is a great way to put it. I was always nice, never defensive or offensive, no matter what they said to me. I would listen to everything they told me and try to learn from it. But, I knew I wanted to do something in music and that I loved to write and hear my work on television.
I was getting a lot of negative feedback throughout this process. Everyone was saying, “It’s a terrible time to start a library, and you really shouldn’t start one.” In spite of this, I went ahead and started my own library. And I knew almost nothing about how to compete – what my edge would be and how I was going to get into the market. Some of the other big libraries had something like 20,000 CDs, and I had no idea how I was going to compete with that, even though I knew my music was just as good as theirs. Who would listen to me, when I owned about 150 tracks? When I would call people and try to sell them on my small catalog, they just wouldn’t want to talk to me. And the people I would meet with thought what I was doing was great and commercially viable. But there was never any follow-up and no one would sign me on.
I finally signed onto a small publishing company. I gave them 60 tunes, and nothing happened for years. I finally decided I’d had enough and said to myself, “I think I can go out and do a better job than these people.” So, I wrote them a letter to get out of the contract, like my contract stated I could. The problem was, I didn’t send it certified mail, so they said they never got it, even though they were just a couple towns over. And the deadline had passed for me to get out of the contract, so they told me they owned the tunes forever. The smart thing I was able to do with these people was retain 50% of my publishing. So, because I still owned 50% of my masters, I could still exploit the tracks at the same time this company was exploiting them.
But while I was in their studio just talking to them one time, I started talking to them about other libraries, because I realized I didn’t know a lot about what was out there. My contact rattled off five or six of them, and I wrote down their names. When I got home, I started calling those libraries and learned a lot just from talking to these other owners. It made me decide I was really going to start my own library.
This was about 1998, and I had no money to get a website going, so I programmed my own. It took a while to make it happen. And then I found this guy Paul Schmidt in St. Louis, who still runs my site. He charged me by the hour, took my files and was able to create a website. Then, I needed to find people to visit it.
So, I pounded the pavement for another few years while I was collecting tunes. I actually went onto ASCAP’s website and advertised for what I needed in their “Collaborator Corner.” People actually started sending me songs. I took great pride and care in handling their music. The deal I cut with them was 50/50. I didn’t want to have any hidden fees, any exclusivity in the shopping or any other stipulations. For one thing, if I were going to pay for exclusivity I wouldn’t have been able to afford it. And I was a writer too, so I was coming from the pain of my own experience. I didn’t think it was right for me to own someone else’s songs, and I wanted to make it a really writer-friendly contract and experience. And I still have the same policies to this day.
I figured out a whole scenario where I wouldn’t have to cut checks personally. Everything would be cut from BMI, ASCAP or SESAC. Because I have never charged any, I’ve never had to do much paperwork. There are no checks coming into my mailbox.
And from what I understand, that’s about re-titling. A lot of artists I talk to are really upset about that idea. What does re-titling really look like? And does it get confusing when somebody goes to look up a certain copyright?
Re-titling can get confusing, but the artists I work with don’t have a problem with it. What I tell artists is, there are a couple ways you can look at your music. You can look at it as your babies – and all of our songs are our babies. But it is so difficult to write a song and actually make money on it. There are so many people that write songs that never make a dime on their music, let alone make a living off it. So, if you’re going to make it a policy to hold onto all your tunes – which was one of my mistakes in the early days – you’re never going to make any money.
The library business is totally different from the record business. It’s a game of numbers, and it’s not for everybody. So, the more great songs you can pump out and get placed, the more money you make. In my case, I have to re-title, because I’m not a big library. I can’t afford to buy everyone’s tunes out, and if I did buy them out and they didn’t get placed and just sat in my library, that would become a liability for me.
I’m sure you sometimes get some push back in initial conversations with writers.
I actually get more push back from libraries that charge sync fees, saying I’m giving away music. I see their point; however, it’s a way that, as a smaller library, I can compete with some of the bigger ones. It gives us an edge when we make less money on the front end, but pick it up on the back end. And that model actually fits into the niche of unscripted television, which is what we’ve ended up getting into. When I started the library, Flavor Flav’s and Paris Hilton’s shows were on the cutting edge of unscripted television, which was just starting up. We happened to get in on the ground floor of reality TV. And MTV wouldn’t have looked at me if I charged sync fees. So because I didn’t charge those fees and I also had great music, everything clicked.
And what does Syncfree Music Library look like now? How does it work?
Right now, I have over 5,000 tracks. I have 1,000 in the queue. We’ve provided music for over 300 shows and 50 stations and I have over 200 contributors. We provide original music to networks and supervisors without charging sync fees.
I think a lot of people feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of libraries and don’t know how to approach them about their music. I know not every library will be right for every writer. But in general, how do you recommend writers and artists source library partners?
You have to feel comfortable with the library. I answer every single email as fast as I can, even those that come from new writers. I think you have to feel comfortable with the people you’re working with. I’m small potatoes compared to a lot of other libraries. I still get results for my writers. I do have writers in the library that don’t get any plays, but I still believe in their music and always push it. It wouldn’t be in my library if I didn’t fully believe it had a niche somewhere. I listen to every track that comes through here a bunch of times to make sure it will fit my goals and my clients.
I also think if a writer is good and their music has popular appeal in any way, within any genre, they could go to any library and be successful. Again, there are only a few of my writers – about ten out of 200 I represent – that can make a living off it. And they can probably write for anybody. But you see their music consistently coming up in the detections – 10 or 15 times a day. And it’s the same people over and over, because they have the ear for writing . They know exactly how to create a specific sound that will draw in music supervisors. If you want to write for a production music library, you have to be as commercial as you can be. If you write folk music, you have to be as commercially-viable as you can. It’s great if you write original tunes, but it may not be the best thing for a library.
Watch the reality shows (and I tell everyone to do this). If you watch the shows, you’ll see the kind of music the libraries are taking and will be able to see what they might need. When I give people that approach me this advice, I end up getting a flood of music. Some of it’s good and some of it’s awful. But if your stuff is good, you’ll get heard. It’s the same thing with talent when you’re talking about original artists. If you’re talented, you won’t go undiscovered.
Russell Pollard is a songwriter and the founder of the band Everest, in which he sings and plays drums and guitar. A lifelong musician, he started playing in bands as a teenager, embarking on his first tour when he was 17. In 1997, he was asked to join Sebadoh as their drummer to help put together their final album The Sebadoh after members of the band saw him play a show in Louisville, KY. He went on to become front man Lou Barlow’s main songwriting partner and to play in bands including The Folk Implosion and Alaska!. During his time with Sebadoh, he also developed the passion for engineering, producing and studio work that would eventually drive him to put together Everest in 2007 with Eli Thomson, Jason Soda and Joel Graves. Everest will release its third full-length album, Ownerless, June 26 on ATO Records.
I recently spoke to Russ about his career path, his experience with labels and how, as an artist, he has navigated and adapted to the ever-changing music industry. He also shared some thoughts about why musicians have to take control of their own careers and continuously seek out new and creative opportunities in order to make a living at their craft.
Thanks for taking some time to talk, Russ. How did you get involved in the music business?
It was really a fateful accident. I’d always played instruments since I was a little kid, and I knew from that time that I wanted music to be a part of my life in some way, shape or form. I pursued business as my degree in college and never dreamt of putting the two words together as “music business” until I got a little older and realized that I had to think about things that way in order to survive.
I think when I really got serious about it was when I started Everest. I had played in bands throughout my early 20s. And I even did my first tour when I was 17, but I didn’t have a clue. I just had the drive and desire to do it no matter what. And I was willing to do whatever it took, which included getting kicked out of my parents’ life for a while, losing my apartment and struggling with maintaining any income or stability in my life. I bounced around until I got into Sebadoh.
And how did you get involved with them?
I joined later on, in 1997. I had just gotten out of college, and I was playing drums in a few bands out of Louisville, KY. I was really involved in the music scene there, which was very creative and insular, but not really about going out and making money from it. One of the guys in Sebadoh came out and saw me playing late one night. I had rushed to get to the show from my late-night pizza delivery job. My only ambition that night was to get the show to play for my friends and have a great time.
One of the guys from Sebadoh liked the way I played drums. At that time, they were going through conversations about finding a new drummer. I was 21, and they courted me and asked me if I wanted to come over one afternoon and play some songs with them. We ended up going through some Sebadoh songs, and they liked my playing. They invited me to come make their last full record with them, The Sebadoh. We wrote that record together and spent months working on it. It was my first time in a real studio. We went to Los Angeles and recorded, and it was all a really overwhelming, big deal for me.
I asked a lot of questions along the way. Those guys were older than me. And the engineers, studio owners and producers were all people I quizzed a lot and watched. I ghosted them, because I wanted to know how they were getting sounds. I realized I wanted to control that all myself someday. So, I got to tour the world for two years. I met a lot of lifelong friends and really good musicians, and I learned a lot.
Back then, I was still looking for something different. I moved to San Francisco, started my own band there and lived off what I had saved up off touring for a while. Then, I was drawn to Los Angeles to play with Lou Barlow again in the Folk Implosion. He was developing new songs and needed a partner and a drummer.
Now, was this Folk Implosion …or Deluxe Folk Implosion?
He called it “Deluxe” for a couple releases that involved ex members of Sebadoh and friends around Northhampton, MA or Boston. But it’s always been Folk Implosion. And John Davis was a part of a couple of the records. And when John decided he wanted to try something new in life, Lou brought me in, which was how I ended up in L.A., where I learned a bunch more and met Rob Schnapf, who produced Everest’s latest record. He’s a really skilled guy and has a way with people. He draws the best out of musicians.
I spent the last 11 years in L.A., and figured out in 2006 that I was ready to be fully committed to my own project with the people closest to me at that time. And these musicians – Eli Thomson, Jason Soda and Joel Graves – were of a caliber that I’d never played with before. These guys were all on the same trajectory as I was at the same time. And we just happened to all have the time to put this together. I think all of us were full of questions about how to do things right and how to not get screwed – how to protect ourselves and be smart about what we were doing. Because, there was a lot more at stake when we were starting Everest. It wasn’t so easy to just pick up and leave.
That’s the bitch about leaving your 20s behind. Somehow, things get a little bit more real.
Yeah. We knew realistically what it meant to go beyond just playing some fun shows and parties and saying we were in a band together, putting a record out by ourselves and calling it a day.
You guys wound up doing some impressive things. Clearly you had a track record at this point, and by the sound of it, so did your other band members. For a band that is still developing and growing, you’ve really pulled together some amazing partners, and that’s something a lot of musicians desire. What was the process of getting involved with a label like ATO like in the current climate? And how did you get hooked up with Girlie Action PR?
When we started, we were really immaculate in how we recorded. We took our time and were fortunate enough to catch the ears of music manager Elliot Roberts (Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan) through a friend that thought he would like what we were doing. I had wanted to release a record on Vapor Records a few years prior but had been turned down. He came to the studio when we were finishing up recording our first record, Ghost Notes. He listened to it, and about 15 seconds after the last song, he turned to me and said – with the tape still rolling, “So, do you want to release it in February?” That was that. That was his way of saying he was going to put our record out. And that turned into a performance on Conan O’Brien when he was still in New York doing his show. That really helped. And then Neil Young invited us to come play some songs in Europe. He was impressed with our live show, so he invited us out for what ended up being three legs of his 2008/2009 tour with Wilco and Death Cab for Cutie.
And then we did some shows with My Morning Jacket, who was on ATO and got in front of their crowd. I think ATO was already aware of us and knew that we were a hard-working band. They knew we were on the road a lot and that we were older guys who had established something cool with Neil Young and his label. They saw us as a good partner.
It’s interesting you put it that way, because I run into this misconception that I shared as a kid that people are purely investing in love of music. And you describing having built something, toured and been on an indie is less of an A&R – artists and repertoire – and more of an “M&A” – “mergers and acquisitions” experience. This was somebody who loved your music but also wanted to partner with a business, which people often forget.
Yes. And today, we all have to face it: The old model is over, and that dream is gone. Big, fat advances and your name in lights is probably not going to happen unless you’re someone big that is going to sell multitudes of records right in the beginning of when their record comes out. It’s all suits that are looking at numbers. All the A&R people are scared to take a risk, because they want to keep their jobs, and those jobs are going away rapidly.
When you talk to record label as an artist that doesn’t have a bit history or a big catalog, you’re going to them and saying, “How are you going to market our record?” Because, they’re not going to give you a bunch of money up front. And they’re not going to take a big hit on a band that doesn’t have a history of selling a lot of records and a lot of tickets.
ATO is one of those labels that’s excited to develop bands they believe in and acts they think are truly good. But there are still numbers involved. The day of a studio executive coming to a young band and saying, “Here’s $250,000 to make your record, and here is some living money and a tour van and a big, fat checking account for tour support” are gone. Now, bands have to become clever on their own about how they want to market themselves and how they can afford to tour, get out on the road and pay gas and shortfall prices when tours are not making the kind of money they need to cover expenses. We’ve had to find ways to grow our own business, whether that is through finding a sponsor to underwrite some of our touring and get us out in front of people, or taking on our own ecommerce and making money off that on the road.
Fans of music can’t look at bands taking corporate sponsorships or partnering with brands as a negative thing anymore. They’re bringing the bands to the fans. It used to be that they were the ones footing the bill. True fans of music and bands need to understand that when they see Portugal. The Man with a Jagermeister logo on their tour poster, that’s the reason that they’re in that club that night. They couldn’t afford to get there otherwise. It doesn’t matter if you like Jagermeister as a drink or think as a company. I think it’s ultimately the choice of the band. If they’re aligning with a brand, it’s a means to an end. It’s a way for them to get out to fans and support the cause.
That’s been a huge part of the learning curve in the industry in the past few years. And even labels used to do it. They would skim all the profit off that. Now, I think, more than ever, the artists are holding the cards. As long as they don’t get into those 360 deals and start losing future profits before they even make a dime, they can find ways to make money, whether it’s through publishing, licensing songs. That’s been happening for years and is obvious. But now I see a lot of sponsorship happening. I think that’s just the way things are going.
Clearly you came into this process with some business savvy. Do you still handle your own social media? What have you found is the most effective when communicating that way?
We do still handle our own social media. People are more engaged when we’re out doing stuff. But, the posts have to be meaningful and about something that people want to hear. You don’t want to drive people crazy with your posts. When we’re doing something cool that is important to us, we post it. For example, this month we’re out in D.C. doing a residency. And we repost other people’s tweets and Facebook status messages about us, which seem to pick up when we’re out and busy. Twitter has also been really effective for us. And anytime we put anything cool on YouTube, it points arrows to our records and iTunes for people to pick up our records.
You spent so much time on the road. Are there things you would’ve done differently looking back? Is there something you would want to tell yourself as a kid in Louisville just trying to figure things out?
I’ve always enjoyed it. And it’s always been hard at the same time. But that’s a tough question. I think, “Don’t take it too seriously” is one thing. When you show up on time and even early and are ready to go, most of the clubs you play when you’re just starting out have staff people who will show up an hour late and don’t care about you. So, I think advancing is important and making sure you have a club head person who knows you are coming and is prepared.
Promotion is another thing. When you’re out there driving and driving, thinking about the show, if somebody doesn’t promote it correctly, that can be totally frustrating. Try as much as you can to promote the shows yourself, because most promoters on a club level do the least possible for the budget they get. And sometimes that means no one comes to the show. And that’s regrettable.
You can learn more about Russell Pollard and his music on the official Everest website and also follow him on Twitter. The band’s new album, Ownerless comes out on June 26 but is currently available for pre-order on iTunes and through ATO Records.
Shele Sondheim is an accomplished producer, songwriter and guitarist and the president/CEO of CSM Words and Music, a Los Angeles-based music production and publishing company focused on the development of competitive materials and artists in pop, R&B, rock and dance music, worldwide. Shele got his start in the music business as a guitarist playing in bands throughout junior high and high school. He eventually found his way to Berklee School of Music, where he co-founded Berklee’s flagship jazz fusion band Catharsis. After graduating with honors with a degree in guitar performance and jazz composition, he moved to Las Vegas where he became an in-demand guitarist working with cabaret superstars like Lola Falana, Wayne Newton, Paul Anka and Flip Wilson. Soon, he began producing corporate music events with the Las Vegas Convention Trade Bureau while performing nightly in mainroom orchestras and producing TV and radio music spots. He also appeared on HBO and Showtime concert specials with major artists and in arena concerts with Catharsis alongside Spyro Gyra. Shele toured worldwide juggling multiple roles of music director, guitarist, writer/producer and arranger. As a session musician in L.A., he worked with artists like Natalie Cole and Little Richard on commercial jingles, TV and film dates. He trained at competitive studios on both coasts to fine-tune his skills as a lyricist, songwriter, vocal arranger and music producer working in the digital landscape and is the originator of the electronic dance music (edm) remix brand westcoasteuro. He recently wrote the hit song “Donne Le Moi” for the record of the EMI-affiliated project started by Phil Collins called The Little Dreams Band. Through CSM Words and Music, he is also collaborating with Collins, Brian Ferry and Lara Fabian on the upcoming single, which he wrote and produced, from emerging artist Lica de Guzman and working with brothers 2 Kuel from Belize of Georgia, who have been building a name for themselves across Eastern Europe.
I had the opportunity to talk to Shele about his incredibly diverse experiences during his more than 30 years in the industry and how they have helped him evolve. He also shared some valuable tips for aspiring artists, producers and music industry professionals hoping to build successful and personally-rewarding careers in music.
Thanks so much for taking some time to talk to me, Shele. Tell me a bit about how you got started in the music industry.
It all started on guitar. I was playing guitar and had a band throughout junior high school and high school. I liked to emulate my heroes: Carlos Santana; George Benson; John McLaughlin; Jimi Hendrix – all the great guitar players. I enjoyed playing guitar and the camaraderie of a band. In those days, it was very peaceful for me. We’d be in the garage or at somebody’s party on a Friday night playing.
Guitar came into my life in that way. And I was very lucky because I gained some early teachers and mentors that really helped to shape my views about music. One was Jorge Strunz of Strunz & Farah. Another was Les McCann, a famous jazz musician. One was John Handy at San Francisco State. I had the fortune to have a lesson with Mike Bloomfield of the original Electric Flag.
There were a lot of other fantastic guitarists/teachers that came into my life. And those experiences really got me quite connected to the guitar. I didn’t really aspire to be the Van Halen or the ultimate shredder guy. I just loved guitar. I particularly loved funk music, like Herbie Hancock and that Bay Area sound.
Well, and Sly and the Family Stone is my absolute favorite.
And, I grew up on that music. I lived a lot of places and moved a lot because of my family’s dynamic. My father was in the television business, so we had a chance to move a lot. I lived on the East Coast, West Coast, in the Bay Area and in the Pacific Northwest. And I also had a lot of musical influences. My brother was a huge influence on me. He turned me onto the whole CTI Jazz and George Benson and Herbie Hancock. I got into that stuff very early.
Eventually, I went to San Francisco State, which was fantastic for me. I got to have John Handy as my teacher and mentor. I played in a lot of funk bands and knew the Tower of Power guys. Cold Blood played at my high school. I traveled in that circle. But the problem was that I really didn’t know music theory. And I was very apparent and evident to anybody who did – other musicians or teachers. I could jam, but I had no idea what I was doing.
It was John Handy who suggested I go to Berklee College of Music. He talked to my parents. I was failing miserably at San Francisco State University and just wasn’t happy there. We’d go study classical music, and then I’d go back to my dorm room and put on Weather Report. There was a real disconnect.
The summer of ’76 changed it all. I went to Boston as a California kid. And I went to my first couple classes. It was James Taylor analyzing his lyrics, and Tower of Power analyzing their horn chart. And then, we got to work with Chicago. And I knew I had found home. I got into that school and locked myself up for five years.
Wow. So, how did you wind up making a living after Berklee, and at what point did you get into production?
Berklee was really transformational for me. I’ve always done things a little bit differently. “Success in my own way” has been my mantra, which is a more mature way of saying what I was back then, which was a “rebel with a cause.”
So, at Berklee I had a jazz fusion band that incorporated vocals called Catharsis, which had a Gino Fanelli or Santana kind of vibe. It became Berklee’s flagship band. We played at the Village Gate in New York and Patrick Rains who was then handling Al Jarreau was our manager. We represented Berklee on television and at all the city events and on radio. We became the “big thing” at Berklee and were the first band that ever played on the Berklee Performance Center stage. We sold it out at 1226 seats, which is kind of a proud memory of mine.
I was really deeply into jazz fusion. And come graduation time, I thought, “Where do I go?” I didn’t know about having a jazz fusion career so to speak. So, my mom lived in Vegas, where it was warm. And I had a constant cold/flu from September, to May for five years living in Boston and freezing. I would go see my mom sometimes on the break, it was always warm, and there were showgirls and casinos. I thought, “I’m moving to Vegas.”
The day I graduated, I got into a one-way truck that the lead singer of my band and I rented, and we drove out to Vegas. I started my career in music. Part of that career was about unlearning a lot of the things I’d learned at Berklee. Because, Las Vegas was not a sophisticated jazz fusion place. It was a cabaret show place, where you play the same five songs over and over again. It depends on which star you’re playing with or which lounge gig you get. Work started for me as a guitar guy for hire in Las Vegas.
I really struggled for the first year or year and a half I was in Vegas, but then I got a break, which means I created a break through all the work, sitting in and hustling, making friendships, networking and doing what I’d known I needed to do in the music business since junior high school.
A friend helped me, and I got in with a wonderful performer named Lola Falana. She worked with people like Sammy Davis, Jr. and Wayne Newton and was named First Lady of Las Vegas. I toured all around the world with Lola, first as her guitar player. Then I worked my way up to being her music director. That door opened up a tremendous amount of doors working with people like Roy Clark, Flip Wilson and Paul Anka. And I was doing all kinds of corporate gigs and what we called showcase gigs. I had things like “A Night at the Dunes” and “A Night at the Maxim.” I became the constant on-call guitar guy and got to travel around the world, which was really an incredible period of my life.
Sounds like it. Obviously, you knew theory, because you went to Berklee and studied it and you had a love for your instrument, so you spent quality time with it and honed your craft. But from a business standpoint, what were some of the things you did as a guitar player, that other people weren’t doing, that got you a gig with Lola Falana?
I think we can call it inspiration/desperation. I think I did more than most, because I really wanted a job. It was a very confusing time for me in my life, because I was so well trained, had my equipment constantly by the door and a tuxedo rented; I was ready to go, but I had no fortune in my life. I couldn’t even get a bad graveyard shift country/western duo gig. So, I did everything. I sat in at the Musicians’ Union. I started at the top of the Strip, and worked my way all the way down. I went into every club, lounge and got to know the musicians. I made really good friends (who are still some of my best friends today). I constantly stayed on it. I called, worked, sat in and did whatever I possible could to put myself out there and never gave up.
For me, those were the specific strategies. It was basically the “never give up” approach. Philosophically at that time, I also needed some extra spiritual power. So, I got into Buddhism and started chanting. And I linked that spiritual program with my professional goals. I decided I would chant and take action, based on those solid prayers to actually show proof in my life, which was at the time sorely lacking, much to my parents’ discontent. They said, “Hey, I just paid all this for Berklee, and you can’t even get a job.” It was a tough one. So, when I finally broke through, I felt a rainfall of benefit and victory.
But, you know the career. It’s the music business, and once you get into it, the rollercoaster starts. Sometimes, you’re really working and making money, and you’re booked back to back. Other times, you have nothing.
That’s very true.
The real crossroads came when, as I was succeeding at this, I wasn’t happy. I had conquered the call of being one of the top-three guitar guys in Vegas, was making money, and everything was amazing in that way. But I wasn’t happy, because I was always a writer. I wrote all the music in Catharsis, even though it was jazz fusion/instrumental. The whole explosion of U2, Police, Echo and the Bunnymen and Berlin all happened, and here I was playing “I Love the Nightlife” and “New York, New York” in another lounge band or with a celebrity. And I came to a big fork in the road and decided I just couldn’t do it anymore.
I decided to go back to Los Angeles, where I was raised and become a songwriter. That was a really big turning point in my life, to have that kind of courage to leave it all behind and go to a place to find another area that I could excel in.
And what was that reinvention like? It must’ve been about taking a few steps back, and a few steps forward.
Absolutely. And when I came into L.A., my natural default was “guitar guy.” I got fortunate and started doing sessions around L.A., casuals, Bar Mitzvahs and club gigs. And I managed to start working with Natalie Cole, Little Richard and Billy Preston. I became a guitar guy again, but it was far more competitive than it had been in Vegas. There were great guys here, and I knew I wasn’t going to be the guy that had the cart with 30 AXes and all that. I could read, I could play, but I was not going to be someone like Tommy Tedesco or Joe DiBlasi – people who were really controlling the session work.
Also, the truth in my heart was that I didn’t want to be that guy. I wanted to be on the other side of the glass – the producer and the writer side – not sitting there as a session musician. If I was going to do that, I might as well just go back to Las Vegas where it’s an easier community, I was kind of famous and made really good money. So, I knew at that time I had to stop thinking about doing things like going on the road with people like The Pointer Sisters or Diana Ross. I just didn’t want to do that work anymore.
My tradeoff was that I knew I had to get a job to fund my demo habit and fund the development of my songwriting classes. I joined every group in Los Angeles, like the Songwriters’ Guild, etc. And I went to all the classes and networking events, doing my demos. And I got a job driving a limousine and started to build a business in the transportation industry. And this was a real left turn for me, because I was working outside of music to make money to fund my music career, which really consisted of just doing demos. I did that for almost a decade.
Wow. I didn’t know that about you.
I appreciate being able to share that side of it, because there’s a message in there. It’s one that I was reminded of by Johnny K, a Grammy® Award-winning producer who came into Columbia College in Chicago last year when I did my residency there. As I interviewed Johnny, we talked about this part of your career as a musician – when you work outside of music. And he talked about his job at restaurants, and how he got some of his first gigs through working in those restaurants.
The point is, I knew a lot of musicians and a lot of studios. So, it was very normal for me to be able to call all the cool musicians to do my demos. And my songs got better, though it took a while. My first songs were seven-minute, lava-lamp/Jethro Tull jams on a minor, and I’d say, “That’s perfect for Whitney Houston.”
I got better when I started to really study the songwriters, like Diane Warren, Glen Ballard and Babyface. I just really dug into learn about writing songs.
It’s a funny thing: A lot of musicians are of the opinion that songwriting is not something you practice or can learn. A lot of people have this notion that it’s an inborn thing, which clearly by your story proves that is not the case, at least for you.
And that’s a good point. I practice yoga now. And as the yoga teachers will say, “It’s your practice on your mat … not what someone is doing next to you. It’s not a ‘one size fits all’ practice.” And that’s so true, because you’re all at different levels of being able to stretch and do the moves. Everybody has their way of doing this.
When I had Les McCann as a close friend and teacher, I knew that he was not of the “schooled” approach. Whereas John Handy as a teacher was a hard bop, reading saxophone man. That was why he really pushed me into a music college – to learn the craft of music.
Everybody in the songwriting world has their own way. But I had no other way to learn it except the way that I handled my guitar work at Berklee, which was, “Dig in and study.” And I started to discover that all the clues were on the table. I studied all these great writers and listened to a lot of cool songs throughout the ‘90s, like Teddy Riley writing New Jack Swing, and Rodney Jerkins before he was so massive. I listened to the material produced by all these teams, and the more I studied, the more I realized what a “Three Minute Picasso” means, with the hooks and the verses and the keys and the lyrics. I really took it seriously.
Could you distill some of the pieces of advice that you think were the most valuable to you that you learned from all the classes and seminars you attended and all the studying you did? What moments changed you the most?
One of my major “a-ha” moments was MIDI. When that came along, the whole concept of music changed. My orientation around doing music had been five or six guys in a room: a bassist; guitar player; drummer; keyboard player; sax player. That’s how you did music. Then came the whole idea of electronic music production and the ability to have things like Band in a Box.
Because that was one of the biggest moments for me, and I ended up going back to school at the Grove School of Music here in L.A., which doesn’t exist anymore. I took a four-year class in one year: electronic music production. I met guys who were brilliant at sequencing. Back then, it was Q-Bass on the Atari and some of the very early programs before what is now Pro Tools HD where you can make a barking dog sound like Whitney Houston. You can basically make anything sound like anything these days. And I like that freedom. But it wasn’t that when it first started.
When I went back to school, I started to try to understand how to harness the power of electronic music production. I tried to understand Band in the Box and having two guys in front of a computer be the whole band. That really changed my concept of writing songs as well, because the teams and pros I got to see out there doing it and getting serious cuts were just two guys doing this incredible music with a singer. I knew that was going to be the future of how I would travel as a songwriter. And I knew my skills as a guitar player and my developing skills as a lyricist and vocal producer would be valuable in this electronic music world.
My route was to find collaborators – people who were really good at the technical side, at mixing, mastering, computer, MIDI, programming. I buddied up with them as writer/producer friends, and that’s when it started for me.
I think of you as a producer. Was that the point at which you became more of a producer than just a songwriter?
Absolutely. For me, at that point, the production and the writing were seamless and the same thing. We could produce the same song with different vibes, different beats and in different genres. Because of the technology that was available to us, we could do it in so many different ways. That’s when I truly began to believe that production and songwriting were the same animal.
Again, I was faced with the difficulty of wanting to turn this into a career and monetize these skills. Nobody was buying my songs. I wasn’t becoming a famous songwriter or getting cuts on big records or any records at all. No publishers were investing in me. I wondered, “What do I do?”
So, I reinvented what my own game was. How many times can you hear, “No” on Sunset Boulevard? I started to look at the entire world as my playing field. I thought, “There has to be a Christina Aguilera, a Nickelback and a Leeann Rimes in The Netherlands, Belgium, Korea and Sweden. I’m going to go find them and convince them to hire me to write and produce songs for them.” That was when I first started traveling internationally – in 2000. And I got a client, which changed everything for me. And, one became three, three became six, six became 12.
I can now state that in the last 12 years, I’ve established my reputation and name with a substantial international clientele of artists, companies, investors and people who come to me to write and produce songs for them and help them build their career identity through the production of my original music. It’s a very proud thing to be able to share.
Now with American Idol, The Voice and the plethora of obvious talent around the world, we see that in every country there are artists that are seeking professional development opportunities. Not everyone gets to be the American Idol winner, because they only choose one. But what about the 400,000 who tried out? Certainly within that group, there is a pool of serious artists that want to have careers and great material. And they need someone like me. I’ve made it my business to go out into the world and find them.
For those wanting to be successful musicians, producers or songwriters, what very practical, simple advice would you give, if you had to give a bullet-point list of five things to do?
I think there are one or two or three things to do and not to do that I can put simply. When I worked at Columbia College as their master producer and artist in residence, I got in front of several thousands of young people. I did this last year, the year before, and I was hired again this upcoming year. It’s been this really wonderful and prestigious opportunity. Aside from me, it’s been people like Mike Stern, Benny Goldman, Paula Cole, Kevin Eubanks. It’s really a neat thing. My particular programming is very unique. I’m combining four different areas: recording; the music department; the music business management people and their record label. So, we’re doing the master classes, sessions, songwriting and performance. It’s a really comprehensive 10-day program that everyone’s been thrilled with.
When I’m in front of those young people talking about my experience, and this same question will be asked, I will say that the three things on the to-do list are, #1, “It’s a lifelong campaign.” It’s a never-give-up campaign. You constantly have to be at this. The people who are serious and are winning at whatever they are doing are at it full on. If music is to be a hobby, or something to enjoy in the church or in your family or in the community, that’s a great place to leave your music. Be a veterinarian or a brain surgeon – something else. But if the goal is to have a professional career in the music industry, it requires that you must be 100% full on.
Now, for #2: What 100% full on means is, “Create success in your own lane.” That means not everybody will be famous. Not everybody will be a celebrity or win a Grammy®. That’s not the point, truthfully. The point is that for you to have a career in music means that you have to be great at what you do and create your own niche and your own sound. For a musician, that means create your own sound and network that sound where that sound fits. If you’re a monster funk guitar player, you should know all the Princes and the R. Kellys in the world. There’s no need to take that funk sound to Toby Keith or Vince Gill, because that’s not their thing. If you’re a singer, are you going to be an artist, a session singer, a voice over, a touring singer? You have to create success in your own lane and then really pursue that lane.
I think #3, if anything, is, “Be very, very flexible and moldable enough to enjoy life’s process.” As I told you, I had jobs outside of the music industry, and they were very rewarding. I made money, I made a new set of contacts and developed a new set of business skills that translate into my core career as a music entrepreneur.
And what should people who want to find success in the music industry not do?
As we are all artists and aspiring entrepreneurs, #1 is, “Don’t compare yourself to other people.” It’s degrading and ridiculous to compare what you’re doing to what somebody else has or hasn’t. So, put no energy whatsoever into comparing your worth to the worth of somebody bigger, or the worth of someone who is struggling. Base your worth on yourself each day, in front of the mirror, God, whoever. Account for yourself to yourself each day.
And #2 is, “Don’t underestimate the importance of building relationships.” You hear this, and it sounds very over used. But what I am specifically talking about is networking and building a reputation, a name, a brand and credentials that come to people’s minds when your name is mentioned. I’m hoping – and I’m very determined and dedicated – that at this time in my life, when my name is being mentioned, it is being mentioned with a certain level of competitive product, a level of communication, availability and accessibility, and a certain responsibility to other people. The gap for slander and negativity has been closed through my own hard efforts to build my brand.
That goes with #3, which is, “Don’t be that miserable, negative, slanderous person.” Because, it attracts nothing except more misery. This is a punching-bag business, like many are. If you have two Quiznos sandwich shops on opposite corners, they’re punching each other out. Business can be about that, but there is a way to do it so you’re always choosing the high road. That doesn’t mean not being tough and strict, or not negotiating hard and getting things done. But there’s a way to do it and still foster the humanism and the heart in it. I think everybody responds to that in every country. Everybody understands sincerity.
To learn more about Shele Sondheim and the work he does globally, visit the CSM Words and Music website.