Tuesday night we had the opportunity to attend an inspirational presentation from Young Guru. This was an event put on by the Pacific Northwest chapter of the Recording Academy, and their Grammy U program.
I was able to bring a guest, so I brought my wife along. Although my wife has nothing to do with the music business (she is a fashion designer now just starting her own line of clothing after many years in design and management for a major department store chain), she ended up enjoying the presentation at least as much as I did, and she found it extremely inspirational as well.
If you don’t know who Young Guru is, you should look him up. He has had major success in the music business as a recording engineer & producer, working with many top names in the hip-hop field. However, he didn’t spend his time talking about equipment or technique. Instead, he related his story about how he got into the biz and how he progressed to where he is today. He had many words of wisdom and great advice that I wished someone had told me when I got started in the biz over 20 years ago! Sure, a lot of it was geared towards the people just now learning the craft and trying to break into the biz, but I found his whole presentation very inspirational! It also got me thinking about some of what I’ve been doing for the last 10 years or so, and how easy it is to get sidetracked and lose your focus.
Sure, I’ve heard most of this before, and you may have also, but it’s worth repeating. So, here are a few things he shared that I thought could use some repeating:
1. Stay true to yourself, or, don’t chase the money — This has been said many times by many people, but it’s worth hammering the point home! First off, if your only goal is to make money, then there are MUCH easier and quicker ways to do it than the music biz, and especially the recording side of the music biz! People usually don’t get into recording music (as an engineer anyway) with dreams of making lots of money. It doesn’t take much research to figure out that it’s not an easy living by any means, and an extremely small percentage of engineers and producers ever achieve “superstar” status and make any significant amount of money. Same is true for musicians & artists, as well as most other creative fields. The percentage that “make it big” is extremely small, and there are much better ways to make good money with much less work than most creative/artistic fields.
However, if this is something you do because you have a deep passion for it, and you don’t “sell out” at the first opportunity to make a quick buck, eventually the money will come. Of course, you have to have a certain degree of talent, as well as the technical skills. Technical skills, though, are relatively easy to learn. As far as talent, there is a certain amount of natural ability that needs to be there to start with, and then you just need to work hard at it to develop your talent. But, assuming you have the technical skills and talent, then it’s just a matter of being true to yourself. Don’t try to copy or follow trends, or deliberately try to write what you think would be a “hit song” if it’s not the type of thing you usually do.
One of the key points that Young Guru mentioned is what happens if you “sell out” and do something trendy (or whatever) just to make a quick buck, and then all of a sudden it works and becomes a huge hit? Now, you are expected to create more songs/art in that style. But, if that’s not who you really are, then you are stuck, and it will be very difficult to go back to being true to yourself and creating your own art.
Young Guru said it much better than that, but hopefully you get the point. Do what you love and put your heart and soul into what you do, and be true to yourself. In the end, that’s the only way you will end up being able to connect with an audience and build a strong and loyal fan base. People may get fooled once or twice, but phonies are usually found out eventually and don’t have very long careers.
2. Make everything you put out the best it can be! Young Guru mentioned the difference between working with artists who would quickly write lyrics on the spot, versus those who continually critiqued themselves and reworked and refined their songs & lyrics until they were completely satisfied that it was the best it could be. Don’t be lazy. Don’t phone it in! If you want to make that connection with people, put everything you have into it and be your own toughest critic! One of the reasons Young Guru did so well as an engineer was that he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind to the artist and tell the artist when he thought they could do something better. Not just the performance of a take, but the lyrics and overall song structure as well. If you have a hard time critiquing your own songs, then find someone you trust to be brutally honest with you, who will give you honest criticism. This can be an engineer, a producer, or just a trusted friend who isn’t afraid to tell you the truth. Of course, they need to know about music, or whatever art you are creating, in order to have a valid opinion and provide useful criticism.
3. Work with people who inspire you to give your best! OR – Be a People Person! Young Guru mentioned that another key to his success was being able to quickly adapt to the type of people he was working with, and whatever situation he was in. He was able to quickly figure out the personality of the artists he worked with, and thus know what it would take to inspire them to deliver a great performance. Sometimes this means deliberately making somebody angry. For others, it’s knowing how to encourage them in different ways, or to just stay out of the way. This is something that I can relate to. When I was a staff recording engineer at a major recording studio, I quickly learned how to adapt to a wide range of artists and personalities; everything from mellow new age artists, to way out there death metal bands, gangsta rap, and everything in between. Many of the artists I worked with stayed with me as their engineer of choice even after I went independent.
When you are working on any kind of creative project, it’s important to surround yourself with people who inspire you to deliver your best. Don’t pick someone to work with just because they are a friend, or because they are cheaper than everyone else, or even because you like previous work they have done. There needs to be a real working chemistry there, especially if you are going to be locked in a studio for long periods of time working with this person.
On the other end of the spectrum, if your goal is to be a great recording engineer or producer, then you better be a great people person! I know from personal experience, and Young Guru reinforced that knowledge, that your people skills are probably about 90% of the job as recording engineer (or producer). If you aren’t good with fitting in and working with a wide variety of people and personalities, or you don’t know how to inspire people to give you their best, then you should seriously think about a different career!
4. Network & Learn! This is not something that Young Guru mentioned specifically, but he shared how he learned from some of the best in the biz and how he is constantly studying to not just keep up, but to try to stay ahead of the game. You need to have that hunger for knowledge about your particular art/craft, and be constantly learning. The minute you think that you’ve “made it” and you start to get lazy and not keep up with the game, everything will pass you by! The industry is changing at an ever quickening pace, so you can’t just achieve a certain level of success and then stop doing what you did to get there.
Part of learning is networking and joining great organizations like the Recording Academy. Even if you don’t have the credentials to become a voting member of the Recording Academy, or if you are just starting out, you can join their Grammy U program, which will allow to to attend great events like the Young Guru presentation! I’m a voting member myself, and have been enjoying the benefits and programs, but wish that programs like Grammy U were around when I started in the biz. Take advantage of these programs, and any other similar programs you can find. In addition to learning, you have a chance to network with others in the industry at all different levels.
5. Be an innovator, not a follower! The final point from Young Guru that I’ll mention is that you need to be looking for fresh new ways to get yourself out there. It used to be that you needed a big record label to release a record all over the world on the same release date, and get the proper amount of exposure and marketing. These days the internet has changed all that and leveled the playing field. The good news is that anyone can release a digital album on the internet and potentially reach just as many people as any successful artist. The bad news is that anybody can release a digital album on the internet, and thus there is an enormous amount of new music being put on the internet every single day. These days it’s all about figuring out how to get yourself noticed and to connect with potential fans. Young Guru basically said it’s not enough to follow what everybody else is doing these days. You need to really push yourself to come up with unique and ground breaking ways to get yourself noticed. Certainly easier said than done, but you have to have that kind of forward thinking. You need to keep ahead of the changes in technology and the music biz and try to find new opportunities and ways to get noticed that other people might not have thought of yet.
Out of all of these ideas (and there were many, many more), I think the one that hits me the hardest is staying true to yourself and doing what you love! I have so many things that I’m interested in that I sometimes gets sidetracked and head down a path that is not always the best choice for me, if I’m being true to myself. Young Guru did a great job of inspiring me and reminding me to focus on what I love doing the most, and not to worry about the money. After many private projects over the past 10 years or so, I had already decided last year that I wanted to focus more on what I’m best at, and what I love most, which for me is mixing music. I love mixing, and I’m quite good at it! That was reinforced by my second mixing contest award earlier this year when I won a Neumann U87 microphone for the winning mix of a Bo Bice song in the Sennheiser/Neumann mixing competition, which was judged by several superstar producers & engineers who I greatly respect!
Keep these ideas in mind, do what you love, and stay true to yourself!