Is Your ‘Producer’ Ruining Your Band’s Potential?

“The scene sucks.”

“We need to fix the scene.”

“What’s wrong with the scene?”

If you are involved in a local music community in some way, regardless of your particular city or area, you have probably heard the above phrases and other similar sentiments.  Spoken by your friends in bands, their fans, the people that work in bars and music venues — and perhaps yourself — people are very eager to express their concern and love for “the scene”.

Based on my experiences, the burning question that keeps the people who are truly passionate about their musical craft or their support for independent musicians up at night is: Why?  Why does “the scene suck”?  Why does it need fixing?  What is the cause of the problem?

[NOTE: I personally don’t think anyone’s scene “sucks”.  I’m sure that there are some “suck-y” scenes out there, but more often than not I find that “the scene” is just fine, and it’s actually the lack of true community that really sucks.]

Can anyone, myself included, confidently pinpoint exactly why “the scene sucks”?  Not likely.  Many will claim that they have the answer.  Personally, I think the truth about why “the scene sucks” is more complicated than a one-answer summation, and those who claim to have one are drinking Drano®.

I’m going to attempt to illustrate my belief that a major contributor to why “the scene” suffers — and new/young/up-and-coming bands ultimately fail — is the audio engineer’s decision to manipulate a mediocre or less-than-mediocre band’s recorded performance into a near-perfect production.  In this situation, the band is given a false representation of their actual abilities, and because of this, a distorted perception of the band is created both in the audience’s mind and in the minds of the band members themselves.  When the band is unable to reproduce the performance quality and sound of the final recorded production — sometimes, not even coming close — the audience, other bands and even venues disconnect from the band.

The argument: when a band is recorded and represented accurately, their strengths and weaknesses will be exposed, causing them to either work harder at practicing and do better next time when they go into the studio, or receive negative feedback and quit; either outcome helps “the scene”, because both outcomes tell the truth about that band, their abilities and their true passion for their craft.

With all of this being said, consider the following…

“Let’s make a record!”

Imagine your typical local rock band, consisting of a vocalist, two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer.  They’ve written six songs, and performed at a few shows in and around their home town, mostly for a handful of their friends and family, who support them almost unconditionally.  Based on the feedback from their audience, they decide they want to pay to record their six songs in a professional recording studio.  They go online and look in their city’s weekly magazines for advertisements for a local recording studio.  They call one of the studios listed, and are immediately able to schedule as many days as they think they’ll need with one of the in-house studio engineers.

The band shows up to the studio to record their songs.  While recording, a few realities become immediately apparent:

– The band’s equipment is at the consumer- or “pro-sumer” level.
– The drummer has never learned how to tune drums, and tunes them poorly.
– The drummer has difficulty playing in time and/or to a click track.
– The drummer hits inconsistently during their performance.
– The bassist and drummer do not perform as a proper rhythm section.
– The bassist and guitarists do not know how to properly tune and intonate their guitars.
– The bassist and guitarists have a poor sense of timing.
– The vocalist is unable to perform consistently in time and on pitch.

Let’s say that the engineer continues to record the band, just as they were hired to do.  The engineer endures the poor tuning, lackluster performances, wrong notes, off-timing and pitch issues, and records everything the band needs to complete their six songs, just so long as the band understands they’re paying for it.  Once the band leaves, the engineer begins working on something we affectionately refer to in the audio industry as “polishing a turd”.

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“Fix it in the mix!”

Starting with drums, the engineer aligns the drummer’s performance to a grid, making it appear as though the drummer performed perfectly in time, almost like a machine.  Since the drummer’s kit sounded poor, the drums are replaced with pre-recorded drums from different studios around the world, making it appear as though the drummer has a professional, well-tuned drum set.

Moving onto bass and guitars, since they were poorly tuned and intonated — and poorly performed — the engineer uses his studio’s collection of guitars and amplifiers and personally re-records the parts for the band, generally without their advance permission and/or knowledge.  (Believe it or not, this absolutely happens, and occurs commonly.)

When it comes to the vocals, the engineer corrects the timing and pitch of the vocalist where necessary — and at many times, where unnecessary — making it appear as though the vocalist sang “in the pocket” and with near-perfect command of their pitch.

Once the above operations are completed and the mixes of the songs are to the engineer’s liking, the band is invited into the studio to hear their recordings mixed for the first time.

“It’s studio magic!”

Upon hearing playback of the first song, the band can’t believe their ears.

“Wow!  It sounds amazing!!” one of the band members says.  “My drums sound incredible!”  “Man, what did you do to get our guitars to sound so good?”

“Studio magic,” the engineer replies.

The band leaves with their CD in hand, incredibly excited.  They listen to the CD for the whole drive home, as loud as their car — perhaps their parents’ car — will allow before the speakers rupture.  They text their friends and family and tell them how awesome their CD is, and that they can’t wait for everyone to hear it.  They start talking about booking their CD release show, and how much merchandise they’re going to sell.  They talk about touring.

They believe they are going to realize their dreams.

When they get home, they invite their best friends over to listen to the CD, and they are blown away at how great the band sounds.  The band shows other friends and family the CD, and everyone exclaims at how good the CD sounds and what a great job the band did.  Everyone that hears the CD is extremely proud of the band, and champions their new recording to anyone that will listen.

“I can’t wait to play this stuff LIVE!”

The band books their CD release show on a Saturday night at a well-known local venue with other local bands, and engage in promoting the show aggressively.  They sell tickets.  They make events on their social media sites and get several people to click “Attending”.  Local radio stations play their music in the weeks prior to the show based on the strength of the recording.  The buzz for the show grows and grows, and the band is more excited than ever.

The day of the show arrives and the venue is packed.  It’s obvious that the band put in a lot of work to ensure the success of the show.  They bought a banner with their name on it to hang behind the drummer.  They spent money on new t-shirts to have for sale.  They ordered 1,000 CDs, which — unbeknownst to the audience — arrived the morning of the show, just in time.   This is obviously a very important night for them, and they worked as hard as they could to make it successful.

Out of the 200 people in attendance, 100 people showed up to see the band releasing their CD that night.  They heard the CD, and listened to it several times in anticipation of the live performance, even on the way to the show.  The band takes the stage to a roar from the crowd, and begins to perform all of the material from their brand new CD.

Halfway through the first song, it is immediately apparent that something isn’t right…but only to the audience.

– The drummer has difficulty performing in time, speeding up and slowing down.
– The drums themselves sound thin and/or dead.
– The bassist and guitarists have a hard time playing in sync with the drummer.
– The guitarists are out of tune with each other, and possibly their instrument itself.
– The vocalist has timing issues, and the singing sounds “out of key”.

“Dude, that was our best show yet!”


Meanwhile, the band on stage is having the time of their lives.  They were able to get free drinks from the venue before playing, since they had so many people show up to see them, and they’re feeling pretty good as they perform.  Their significant others and friends and family are in the front of the audience, singing every word that they know back to them at the top of their lungs.  The band itself has an amazing energy and excitement level that they’ve never displayed on stage before.  They sell almost 50 CDs.  They believe it is their best show yet.

After the CD release show, they book a string of shows a few weeks apart in order to play out more and sell more CDs.  At the next show they play, they have close to 50 people there to see them.  They don’t mind the drop in attendance because “it’s not as big of an event as a CD release, and anyway, it’s twice as many people as we normally get to come out to a show.”

At the next show, around 30 people attend.  “But it was a weekday, not a Friday or Saturday, so lower attendance is to be expected,” the band believes.  Just under 25 people attend the next show, so the band decides they need another new t-shirt to entice fans to come back out to see them…and they deplete their band fund.  At the next show, on a Saturday night at a venue close to where they and their friends and family live, less than 15 people attend.  The band performs…angrily.

“This scene sucks, man!  It SUCKS!”

The band doesn’t understand what’s happening.  They don’t understand why people aren’t coming out to their shows.  They don’t understand why other bands they’ve played shows with don’t come out to see them or encourage others to check them out and support them.  When they text their friends and family asking if they’ll be at upcoming shows, many of the texts aren’t responded to.  People aren’t “liking” or commenting on their social media posts, and those that do are the ones that were doing so long before the band entered the studio.

The band decides to put a call out to their music community and tells them to “support the scene”.  They talk about venues and how people don’t go out to shows as much because they aren’t allowed to smoke indoors, or because the drinks are too expensive.  They talk about how shows that require bands to sell tickets are a scam, even though they’ve done a ticket show before.  They have band meetings and talk about potentially changing their band’s name, or their logo, and any other things they can think of.

They play some more shows to small audiences, mostly consisting of the same people that supported them before the recording process for their CD began. They still have over 900 CDs in their inventory.  They feel disheartened.  They feel like they wasted their time.  They blame “the scene” and everyone in it who doesn’t come to their shows, buy their merchandise or post about them online.

Ultimately, the band breaks up, and a couple of the members decide to continue on and form a new band.  They write six songs, and perform at a few shows locally, mostly for a handful of their friends and family, who support them almost unconditionally.  Based on the feedback from their audience, they decide they want to pay to record their six songs in a professional recording studio.  Since the last engineer they recorded with made them sound so amazing, they go back to work with them again…

The band shows up to the studio to record their songs.  While recording, a few realities become immediately apparent

Rinse…repeat.

“I can’t believe it!”

Most bands and musicians I have the pleasure to know and work with are incredibly passionate.  They sacrifice money, jobs, relationships, possessions, their credit rating and more in order to pursue a dream of a successful, lasting career in the music industry.  In my opinion — and the opinion of comedian, Eddie Izzard — the biggest thing that keeps a band or artist working and sacrificing in order to realize their dream of “making it” is…

Belief.

Belief is the fire inside the artist’s belly that keeps them focused on the prize, keeps them from giving up, keeps them from listening to the naysayers and forging on toward the greatness they know they will ultimately achieve.

Many musicians acquire their belief in their musical abilities from their parents.  Some get it from other family members or their friends.  Some gravitated toward music naturally on their own, and developed the belief in their abilities over time.  Some have been influenced by all of the above.

I truly feel that at the moment an audio engineer discovers the true nature of the band they will be recording, it is their duty to capture that band’s performance as accurately and professionally as possible, and showcase the band in the best possible light, based on the band’s current skill set; or encourage the band to rehearse more, and offer advice and tips to help them become better musicians and a tighter band.  Either way, the band wins, because they are being told the truth about themselves.

When the audio engineer decides to record a mediocre band knowing that later on everything will be replaced with professionally pre-recorded instruments, re-recorded or “fixed in the mix,” the engineer is doing the band — and the local music community — a huge disservice.

They are creating false beliefs for the band, the band’s audience and anyone else who hears the recording.

“Help!  I’ve been robbed!”

Most people learn how to get better at something from two sources: mistakes and mentors.  For the most part, when people make mistakes they become embarrassed, and they do their best to not repeat the same mistake again.  Mentors help us by pointing out our mistakes constructively — or telling us of the mistakes they have made — in an effort to get us to become better at whatever it is we’re doing.

Q: How did the audio engineer in the story above mentor the band during the recording process?

A: They didn’t; they just took what the band gave them without counsel.

Q: What mistakes were left on the recordings for the band to hear over and over again, embarrassing them into practicing harder at their craft and rehearsing more as a band?

A: None; the mistakes were erased and replaced with the use of technology and the engineer’s knowhow.

Because of this, the band believes that what they recorded is what is on the record, and can’t believe that the reason they are floundering and unable to get people to come to their shows is because of their personal and collective musical and performance abilities, when in fact that is the case in many, many circumstances.

Studies have shown that in order to become a “master” at a particular craft it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice.  To break that down, if a musician practiced their instrument for an hour every single day without fail it would take them over 27 years to become a “master”.

When a mediocre recording is manipulated to near-perfection through the use of the readily available technology, the musicians in the band are being robbed of their 10,000 hours of practice, and consequently being robbed of their ability to become a “master”.

“The truth will set you free, but at first…it may piss you off.”

Audio engineers can do almost anything to perfect and enhance otherwise mediocre performances, thanks to the technological advancements in digital recording and their immediate availability in retail stores and online.  It is up to professional audio engineers with quality standards not to coddle or deceive their clients, but to expose them to the harsh truths about their abilities and their skill set.  Whether that toughens their skin or sends them scurrying away isn’t the engineer’s problem.

While we are able to understand and appreciate that many engineers have bills and expenses related to their studio and their career, and need to generate steady income, does the need for money excuse them from accepting the great responsibility they have to their clients and musical community?  Should a professional audio engineer with extensive knowledge in recording, songwriting, arrangement, mixing and production simply stay silent while recording a poor performance and manipulate it near to perfection while the band is away, ultimately giving them an inaccurate representation of their work, simply because the studio bills have to be paid?

My belief is when audio engineers decide to placate their clients instead of telling them the truth, they impede the  short- and long-term improvement of the skill set of the musicians, and the fallout from that impediment is something that really, truly hurts “the scene”.

I’m trying to assert that the recording engineer is the first/last line of defense in accurately representing a band to the public, and when they just take the band’s money and “polish the turd”, the band (and scene) ultimately suffers.

Thanks for reading.

:-J

John Kay is a professional musician, producer, mixer, and engineer currently operating in metro Detroit.  He plays guitar around the world with Koffin Kats, mixes at his personal recording studio — Stu Stu Studio — and is in the final stages of production on his first full-length solo album.

Email for recording and mixing booking inquiries: johnbof@gmail.com.
Follow John on Twitter: @TheRealJohnKay
Or, follow him on InstaGram: @TheRealJohnKay

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Act Like An Ant: How to Get Big Projects Done

There is excitement in the air, and it has been following me for at least two weeks now…

I said I was going to be posting here demos of songs that I have been considering for placement on my debut solo record, and I had full intention of doing so.  However, that plan has changed.

A couple of weeks ago, a good friend of mine stopped by the recording studio to share some of his first batch of home-brewed beer and get my opinion and feedback on it.  (It was delicious!)  We spent the time chatting about his brewing process and life in general, and then cued up some of the songs I had planned on posting here.  I didn’t know the order in which to play them, so I sequenced them in the order I felt may work as a 10-song album.

For those who don’t know me, or have a preconceived notion as to how I perceive my own music, I’m my own worst critic.  I absolutely hate playing my music for other people to listen to while I’m in the same room.  I’d prefer to give them a CD or send them a file to listen to at their convenience and get back to me.  Personally, when an artist is playing their music for me, I feel a pressure — likely self-imposed — to not say anything negative about their work, regardless of its merit.  I mean, when you get down to it, music and all forms of art are generally very personal, and songs are a musician’s creative babies — only the cruel would tell someone they have an ugly baby.

Sometimes it’s even hard for me to listen to the music that I produce myself!  Knowing exactly how it was performed, recorded and captured; how it was edited and mixed; where all of the “mistakes” are, all of these things are in my mind as I listen to a song I’ve created, and I can’t listen past them and appreciate the song.  I always know where I could have done better.  So, I’ll put on a song with the intent to listen to it and discover what needs to be done, get about 30-45 seconds into the tune and turn it off because I feel as though there are so many things that need to be done, and I’ve done so much already.  (“Maybe I should just start over…”)

OR, I’ll be listening to a song and doubt my skills on instruments that aren’t necessarily my forte such as bass, guitar or vocals.  I’ll question my arrangements.  I’ll question my performances, and the way they were captured.  (“Should I re-record this or that part..??”)  I’ll question the advice and wisdom of my musical colleagues.  I’ll question everything, because…there is no excuse to not make whatever you are passionate about as great as it can possibly become.

In light of this, I told my friend “Now, I need you to be perfectly frank about these songs, please.  If you think a song sucks, or something is out of whack, I need you to let me know so I can make it better.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” he replied, “We’re friends.  I know I can tell you the truth, no matter how painful.”

I pressed play, and held my breath.

45 minutes later, my buddy and I sat in silence and looked at each other.  He was just sitting there smiling at me.  I asked what he thought, and he said, “Other than the one thing I mentioned in the last song, and the ones you said still need to be mixed, I wouldn’t change anything!  It’s got a good flow, and I love how your songs just get bigger and bigger!

“The first side starts out chill and relaxed, and still has good, positive energy.  Then the album gets a little darker, but at that point in the album you’re ready for it.  Then you start side two with a cool love song, then that one big, epic track — I love that song!  Then you bring it back down a little bit before the big climax at the end of the album, which is awesome, by the way!  I think the whole thing is great, man!”

Out of some sort of sense of shame, I hadn’t listened to any of the songs the whole way through since I first gave them each a rough mix weeks or even months ago.

I knew the tunes I’d roughed out on my own needed work, and was fearful that upon listening to them that I would want to scrap and rework most of them.  I was lost in sea of songs and lyrics and melodies and choruses and arrangements and ideas.  I had everything there in front of me, and no clue which way to go next.

I needed someone else to sit in the room with me and listen to what I thought would work in order to see if my intuitions were correct.  Best-selling author and management expert Ken Blanchard has famously said, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.”  Without honest, constructive feedback, you don’t know where your growth opportunities are, and if you’re not growing, you’re dying.  Based on the feedback I’ve received so far, following my intuition seems to be working positively.

But I don’t just go on the word of one person before I move forward with my endeavors.

I have a sort of guideline I follow regarding when to believe the opinion or conjecture of others: if one person says it, they may be full of shit; if two persons who don’t know each other say it, it may be hearsay; if three or more persons say it, it’s the Bible, and I run with it until it’s challenged later, if at all.

So, I had a client and singer-songwriter buddy of mine come over and have the same listening experience as my brewmeister friend, whose guitars we used to record my client’s previous album with his band.  Other than that, these two dudes do not know each other, and have varying musical tastes.

To my surprise, I received the near exact same feedback from each of them!

My fear was that the songs would sound disjointed from one another, due to having different genres represented throughout the catalog of tunes I’ve written in the past 6 months.  Once I was forced to sit through a listen of these 10 songs without stopping, without adjusting something in the mix in the middle of a song and starting again, without “fixing” the “mistakes” and hearing an objective first impression from two people whom I consider qualified to criticize music, I found what I had hoped would happen from the outset.

I have found that my album has essentially finished itself.  Yes, even before it’s mixed.

Think of an ant farm: when you first buy an ant farm, you essentially have a transparent box of sand.  Then, you add the ants, and they immediately get to work.  Each ant grabs a single grain of sand and marches it from one area of the farm to another.  One by one, grain by grain, the ants slowly build the foundation of their new home.  A few weeks later, after paying little attention to the progress of the ants, you look up to find an entire network of tunnels and caves; the ants have built a city in just a few short weeks, grain by grain, little by little, one day at a time.

alex-wild-leaf-cutting-ant-carrying-a-sand-grain-atta-saltensis

Can you see how this principle can be applied to your life??  If you have a goal or task in your personal or professional life that seems daunting or otherwise impossible, start working on it just a little bit…today!

Act like an ant, and work at your task just a little bit every day, and before you know it, you’ll accomplish what you set out to do!

SO!  The final overdub sessions will be completed within the next couple of weeks; a photo shoot will take place on May 4, followed by a meeting with a music video producer to discuss locations and treatments for the video for the first single; a Kickstarter or IndieGogo campaign will be launched to raise the funds necessary for having the album mastered professionally and reproduced on vinyl, and rehearsals will begin for the debut show with a full band.

Over the next month or so, the wheels will begin churning…

There is excitement in the air!!

Thanks so much for reading.

:-J

I Am. You Are. We Are…All Connected

Yesterday was tragic, and we can make it worse if we’re not smart.

The Boston Marathon is special, in that it’s a local event into which the community invites the entire world to take part. Those whom attend usually do so for very personal reasons; the lifetime runner who competes for a place in history, the man who finally conquered his struggle with weight loss, the person who started running as a distraction from an abusive relationship, the woman running to raise funds for her relative’s medical expenses, the father pushing his disabled child in their wheelchair so they can share in the spirit of the event…they’re all there.

English: Richard Whitehead (to the left) at th...
English: Richard Whitehead (to the left) at the Boston marathon 2009. Heartbreak hill, boston marathon 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Boston Marathon, mile 25, Beacon St., 2005
Boston Marathon, mile 25, Beacon St., 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These persons likely woke up yesterday with a positive outlook on the day that would unfold. They went through their particular morning preparations as they have done many times before. Maybe they reflected on the journey that led them to this day, going over all the difficult things that have taken place in their life and how they successfully overcame them. For some, just a few years ago the thought of running the Boston Marathon was just a dream, and now they’ll be able to realize that dream.

Culturally, the Boston Marathon is incredibly important. It fosters and enhances our sense of global community, encourages a healthy lifestyle and is one of the few sporting events we have in the world which is all about one thing…cheering. There are no boos at the Boston Marathon. People come together to cheer on strangers in the street, and show them that while they are running alone, we’re all in this together.

And then suddenly, two bombs go off. Three people die; hundreds injured; lives altered forever in less than two seconds.

Now what??

After seeing and hearing so much speculation and rhetoric, it’s obvious that the country is very confused. We are just as confused now as we were last December with Newtown, last July with Denver, with 9/11, OKC, Waco…the list goes on and on. Most of us can agree that we want the person or persons who orchestrated these events to be apprehended and brought to justice. However, the way many of us are communicating those feelings is very upsetting.

Yes, we are angry; we are VERY angry. But so was the person who caused this tragedy; and long before the bombs were planted, before the decision to get the materials to make them, before they started down a path of destruction — something happened. We don’t understand how another human being gets to the point where they decide that ending human lives is appropriate or justified, and when we take to social media to post our feelings on that subject, we expose our ignorance for everyone to see.

Let me say that again: we expose our ignorance for EVERYONE to see.

In your personal life, “everyone” includes your parents, siblings, grandma and grandpa, aunts, uncles and cousins, your boss and everyone at work, your friends from high school, your boyfriend or girlfriend, wife or husband, your fans, your clients and prospective clients, and so on.

In your digital life, “everyone” means every corporation’s page you’ve “liked”; they gather everyone’s posts and look for commonalities so they can focus their advertising campaigns around your lifestyle. It means the government and the politicians and the lobbyists who mine data to create successful political campaigns based on the current culture and sentiment across the country. “Everyone” also means anyone else in the world…including those who want to hurt and harm us.

When we display and defend our ignorance as a virtue of patriotism to our country, we send a message to the corporations, our government and the rest of the world that America is an ignorant country. Would you help a country mired in ignorance, or just take advantage of it as best you can while it is still possible??

Bottom line, the perpetrators need to be found and they need to lose freedoms — their freedom ends where ours begins. Let’s just try to love everybody in the process, and not let hate blind us to the truth…

I am. You are. We are…all connected.

Thanks for reading. Much love.

:-J

Karma: Gifts From the Universe

I love putting on a brand new pair of socks.

I can’t be alone in this, right??  Don’t you agree that there’s just something great about putting on a brand new pair of socks?  The feel of the fresh cotton; the pure white material that will soon enough be stained; the texture of the little fibers that will be gone after their first rodeo in the washing machine.  New socks are one of life’s joys, plain and simple, and I am always excited when I purchase them.

I was out running errands today, doing the quarterly routine of replenishing toiletries and whatnot, and I fancied a trip to the mall to browse the clearance racks at the brand-name stores. (NOTE: Guys, shop like a girl — shop the clearance racks, and occasionally splurge on something nicer or expensive for an important event.  Both your closet and your next date will thank you.)  I found the socks I wear for $12 per pack with 3 pairs in each pack.  I grabbed 2 packs of socks and a $5 shirt for my buddy on a whim since it was his style and he’s a very good friend to me.  I handed the items to the cashier, and as she scans the first pack of socks…

Cashier: “Wow! Three bucks!”

Me: “…Really??”

Cashier: “Yep!  Three bucks!  That’s a pretty good deal, huh??”

My first thought was, “This can’t be right.  This must be a mistake on their end; I shouldn’t take advantage of their mistake.”  Then, I recalled an incident from my teenage years that put my mind and heart at ease…

Me: “Yes it IS! Ring me up for two more packs, please!”

Walk with me down memory lane for a moment.  When DVD players were first available in the late 1990s, you’d spend upwards of $300 to take home a quality unit.  My dad is a technology guru, and is always researching to discover the best possible bang for the buck; think of him as a walking Consumers Report on new gadgets.  Of course, he bought a great DVD player for a good price, and I wanted to follow suit for my purchase.  I went to Target and they had the floor model available.  I used to work in retail computer sales, and always sold our floor models with confidence, so I don’t mind not having a box…as long as I get the requisite discount!  The DVD player was already marked down to $250, so I was pretty happy.  I took the unit to the cashier (easy there, perverts!) and she scanned the bar code…

Cashier: “Wow! Ninety-nine ninety-nine! That’s a pretty good deal, huh??”

I froze.  I didn’t know what to do.  Obviously this was a mistake.  An inner voice spoke to me: “Target is a big, successful company,” the voice whispered as fast as it could, “They don’t make mistakes like this.  You could cost this woman her job, and you can tell by interacting with her that this is probably a second or even third job.  Get her to look into the situation and pay the marked price.  You can’t live with this on your conscience.”  But then, as quickly as the first voice came and went, a second voice appeared…

“John, you’re making way too big of a deal of this.  She probably won’t lose her job, and Target is a big enough company that they can absorb the loss.  Plus, you’re a good person, and you weren’t trying to deceive or switch tags or something.  This is an error in your favor; take it!”  So, after the few seconds it took to process those thoughts, I looked up at the cashier…

Me: “Yes it IS!”

I paid the $100 and walked out feeling absolutely…

Guilty.

I have a very guilty conscience.  I am ever concerned about making sure others are — and remain — happy, and if I have contributed even in a minor way to the unhappiness of another, I beat myself up over it.  I replay situations over and over in my mind, and analyze the events that took place; what was said, what wasn’t said, body language, eye contact, physical contact, etc.  Like a detective, I search for every opportunity to discover where I messed up or said something upsetting or offensive; I want to be a better person, always (and you should, too!).

So, even though I convinced myself to take advantage of the situation, I still left feeling remorse for potentially costing someone their job, or at the very least getting them in hot water with their superiors.  Every time I used that DVD player, I would feel a tinge of regret.  Of course, it passed over time, but still, I felt a little empathy every time I’d press “play”, and I’d momentarily wonder if that cashier is happy and good in life.

I continue to shop at Target for my toiletries (read: pretzel M&Ms), and I still shop at the same location at which I bought the DVD player.  Sometime within the last year, I was doing my routine toiletry shop and was astonished to look up at my cashier and see the lady that rang me up for the DVD player.  Not only did she not lose her job, she had remained with the company for over a decade!!  I laughed to myself at how silly I was for feeling the way I had.  I recognized the moment as a lesson in life:  don’t feel guilty when you know in your heart that you’ve done nothing wrong.

That lesson resurfaced in my mind instantly when I was buying my new socks today; I used an interaction from when I was a naïve teenager to live a better life today in my thirties.  I considered the savings at the register to be a reward from the universe for working so hard on my album, being a good friend to my friends, helping my parents when they need help, helping my clients make their music better for them, and just trying to make the world a better place.  Call it karma…right??

Give of your gifts, and you will get some gifts from the universe in return.  Just keep giving, even when you feel like you’ve already given everything you can, give a little bit more.

I hope you enjoy your gifts.  Thanks for reading.

:-J

Pray eyes shut

Dreams & Nightmares: Ignore At Your Peril

Someone’s dream is going to come true tonight — and so is someone’s nightmare.

There’s a Gatorade® commercial on TV featuring Kevin Durant, a small forward on the Oklahoma City Thunder and one of the top players in the NBA.  The commercial opens showing the last moments of a game in which Miami Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade blocks a dunk from Durant, and Durant immediately rises from his bed as if waking up from a nightmare.  It then goes on to show Durant running at dawn, exercising and jumping rope in the gym, riding a stationary bike and doing clapping push-ups, lifting a 45-pound weight up and down and up and down, and then dunking emphatically in the Thunder’s arena; he does all of this alone and unsupervised.

The next scene recalls the game from his dreams.  The announcer says “…two minutes left in the fourth, Miami leads by two…”, and Durant is bringing the ball up the court, just like before.  He drives to the hoop and goes for the slam, all the same.  This time, Wade can’t block the dunk.  The commercial then ends with Wade immediately rising from his bed…as if waking from a nightmare.

Durant saw his blocked-dunk nightmare as a warning of what could happen in life, and altered his behaviors to make sure that when the situation arose in a game, he’d be completely ready.

Have you heard the phrase “we become what we think about”?  Kevin Durant likely thought about becoming a professional basketball player since he was a child.  According to bestselling author Robert Greene in his recent book Mastery, you possess a kind of inner force that seeks to guide you toward your “Life’s Task” — what you are meant to accomplish in the time you have to live.  Once discovered and born to fruition, the instructions for fulfilling your Life’s Task are planted in your dreams.  Those of the Christian faith may now be reminded of Job 33:15-16 — “In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls upon men, in slumbering upon the bed, then He opens the ears of men, and seals their instruction.”

This may sound weird, but I pretty much have the same dream every night.  The setting itself changes, but the pattern is always the same.  The dream ultimately ends with me having to do a show on drums, and for some reason I’m unable to do so.  I’m there, ready to go, but  maybe one of my drums is missing, or I’m using a shared drum kit and it doesn’t do what I need it to, or my stands keep falling down, or I’m late for the gig, etc.  Bottom line, something goes wrong and I can’t fix it.  I sometimes wake up like Durant or Wade, terrified that I was the reason that the show couldn’t go on.  In an effort to make sure that never happens, I take very seriously my preparation and rehearsal for everything I do professionally.  When show day arrives and the audience is waiting, I know I’m ready even though I’m nervous.

The NCAA National Championship game takes place tonight between Louisiana and Michigan, and for some of the players on the winning team (GO BLUE!!), winning this game will stand as the pinnacle of their achievements as a human being.  These athletes likely began pursuing their basketball careers at a very early age: getting up earlier than their classmates to run or attend morning practice; saying “no” to distractions from basketball; staying later at evening practices to work on personal performance; watching their diet and exercising regularly; years of game experience and lessons on and off the court; the list goes on.  They’ve dedicated 3/4 of their life to doing one thing incredibly well, and they are going to put it on display for the world.

Each winning team member is going to take the court tonight and be able to experience the night they’ve been dreaming of for as long as they can remember.  They are going to realize that all of their hard work did pay off, just like their parents and coaches said it would.  They will etch their names into history as the best in their sport for the year of 2013.  Tonight, one team is going to have the game of their dreams (and the other is going to live out their worst nightmare *coughCardscough.)  But the only way that will become a reality is if they respected their dreams enough to pay attention to the lessons therein, and altered their behaviors accordingly.

So, what do you dream about..?

Thanks for reading.

:-J

What Dreams May Come
What Dreams May Come (Photo credit: eric_malette)

John. Whaaat’s Happening..?: On Being My Own Boss

I’m my own boss.  And if you believe as I believe, you are your own boss too — even if you are working for someone else.

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Since I manage myself, I’m afforded many cool luxuries like being able to work from home; creating my own work schedule based around how I want to live my life; coordinating my own rates for my services; planning each day for the highest productivity, etc.  When I reflect on my previous jobs outside of producing and creating music for a living, I sometimes wonder how I was able to “punch the clock” day in and day out, working for a company in which I didn’t believe and a manager who motivated his team with backhanded sarcasm and phony baloney pep talks in the morning.  Needless to say, I am much happier now!

At the same time, there are downsides to being my own boss.  Unfortunately, many of them are the same as the upsides.  Being able to work from home means that I can be easily distracted from my work.  Creating my own schedule is one thing, but sticking to that schedule is another; it’s very easy to procrastinate when you ultimately decide when you’ll work.  Deciding on rates means placing a dollar amount on my professional value related to my industry and the current market for my individual services, which requires calculation, research and constant reevaluation.  And trust me, you can plan out your days meticulously and be as thorough in your preparation as possible, and things still won’t always go according to plan.

Occasionally, after a period of long, hard work on a project, the boss lets me take a vacation.  Maybe I go to Chicago for the weekend, or just take some time off and read that new book I’ve been itching to start.  Sometimes, he lets me reschedule my entire upcoming work week to the following week, just because “the vibe isn’t right” or “it’s pointless to work on [something important] now because of [some reason]”.  He lets me go to the gym whenever I want, and knows that my health is most important to me.  He’s very accommodating and understanding.

During my vacation, at some point — usually the day after I’ve had the most fun — the boss calls me up…

Boss: “John.  Whaaat’s happening..?”

Me: “Uh, hey boss!  Just enjoying life!  What’s up with you??”

Boss: “I’m glad to hear that you’re enjoying yourself, John.  I was just wondering when you were going to [start/finish] [something important].”

Me: “Damn it.  Yeah, I need to do that, don’t I?  Okay.  I’ll do that tomorrow.”

Boss: “Yeah, if you could take care of that tomorrow that would be great…”

…and then I don’t hear from him again until I need to start/finish the next important thing.

Right now the important thing is finishing pre-production on my full-length solo album and deciding which songs are ultimately going to be included.  I have over 20 songs from which to choose, and am having a very challenging time deciding.  Filmmaker M. Night Shamalamadingdong (sp?) said “as a director, you have to be prepared to cut your favorite scene”.  I don’t have any favorite songs, but there are some that I truly believe need to be released and heard now, both from a personal standpoint and because of their potential impact on current culture.

The thing is, I could be wrong.  Only a handful of people have heard the tunes, and most of them are good friends, family and fellow musicians.  While I trust their opinions and criticisms — I wouldn’t have asked them to listen to the songs otherwise — I want to be sure that the songs included are the songs that you want.  I’m proud of all of my creative babies, so I don’t have a problem outsourcing some of the decision-making process to the people who actually want the album!

In the book Zen and the Art of Mixing, producer Eric Sarafin (Ben Harper, Amy Grant, Foreigner) writes, “Frankly, a song that can’t be sung effectively by one person with one instrument can’t possibly be considered a great song.”  In light of that statement, every few days I’ll be posting stripped-down versions — just acoustic guitar and vocals — of the songs currently in pre-production.  I humbly request that you please set aside 5 minutes of your day to listen to a song when it has been posted, and let me know what you honestly think of it, with no reservations.  I’m not quite ready to perform these songs live yet, and have no way of knowing which songs affect people most positively, so your feedback is crucial.

Don’t like the melody in the bridge??  Say so!  Do you think adding a trumpet section in the chorus would liven it up??  Okay then!  It’s the best thing you’ve heard all day??  Well, thanks!  You absolutely hate the song??  Tell me why!  I’m not trying to put kindergarten drawings on the fridge anymore.  I’m trying to create lasting greatness in life through music, and you can be a part of it with me if you’d like.

Thanks for reading.  Now…get back to work.

:-J

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Today is Important

Today is important, and not just in the existential or spiritual sense…

…which it is.

When a potential client approaches me to record or produce their music, the first thing we do is schedule a face-to-face meeting to discuss the scope of the project and its particulars.  The conversation allows me to clearly understand the client’s vision for their work and define the expectations of both parties, plus just hang out and talk about random stuff.  The meeting usually ends within an hour or so, completed by the scheduling of a pre-production rehearsal.  I’m attending one of those rehearsals this evening.

The purpose of tonight’s rehearsal is to ensure that the band is fully prepared to record their songs, and if not, suggest techniques and offer advice on how to perform the parts as best as possible.  I have no idea what to expect, only that it’s a four-piece band with a drummer, bassist, guitarist and vocalist with 4 songs they want to record.  This will be my first time hearing these songs — it will also be my first time meeting the drummer and the bassist of the band.  Upon hearing them, I am tasked to immediately analyze and criticize what they believe is their best work, and tell them unequivocally how to make it even better.  Moreover, I haven’t even been hired yet, so there’s no guarantee that I work with the group, even if I really want to.  No pressure, right??

As a freelance producer and mixing engineer, my credo is “I want to help you make your music better…for you.”  Therefore, I only work with clients whom I believe will truly benefit from working with me, not just record anyone with some money.  When I agree to work with a client, I essentially become a midwife to their creative “babies”.  In order for any important relationship to exist there has to be a solid foundation of trust.  That trust can be established — or damaged! — on day one.

That’s why, for me, today is very important.

It’s important that I communicate to the band that I have their best interests in mind and at heart.  I appreciate the responsibility I have in my “midwife” role, and they need to know that the integrity of their art is of crucial importance to me.  It’s also important that the band members themselves are open to constructive criticism and guidance, and have a teachable mindset.  I can’t help make others’ music better if they won’t allow it.

But really, the most important thing tonight is that everyone is present in the moment and being honest.  Come to think of it, that’s what I ask of my clients with whom I work and most everyone else without saying it directly…

Be present.  Focus!…on your personal performance, what you are thinking, doing and feeling, and modify your actions and behaviors in order to achieve the best results possible.  Clear out the clutter and the worry and the external pressures, and concentrate fully on what you’re doing at the present moment.  Delve into the details and do your due diligence like our ancestors did.  The more knowledge in your arsenal, the more you’ll grow as a professional, as a person and as a human being.

Be honest.  In his 2001 book Good To Great, Jim Collins shares a couple of musings from one of his favorite professors who once said, “The best students are those who never quite believe their professors.”  True enough.  But he also said, “One ought not to reject the data merely because one does not like what the data implies.”  It’s important in the early development of emerging artists to give them the feedback necessary for them to improve, even if it’s contrary to their perception.  Sometimes hearing constructive criticism can be uncomfortable, but it isn’t what happens to us or what we hear that hurts us, it’s how we choose to respond to it that affects us most.  Thankfully, I can say that my clients all choose to get better.

So, today is pretty important to me.  I want to help these guys make their music better…for them.

Thanks for reading.

:-J

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