I just finished spending two weeks in the LA area for the licensing/production retreats I co-hosted with my producer, Gary Gray. It was an amazing two weeks. It was so great to meet so many people that I’ve worked with online and on Skype, in person.
In addition to meeting all the musicians who attended the retreats, I finally got to meet one of my “star students”, Eddie Grey. Eddie has taken several of my courses and has gone on to parlay the information I teach, as well as what Gary Gray teaches about music production, into a thriving career as a TV composer. I had a chance to go to Eddie’s home studio in Sherman Oaks and see what he does in action. It was really cool to see him working behind the scenes. He’s a super hard working guy who is crushing it right now with licensing and syncs. I’ll be bringing him back on my podcast soon to share what he’s up to.
In addition to the retreats I hosted, I also managed to record three new tracks with Gary, meet up with five different people in the industry who I previously connected with via my podcast and had a chance to meet several new music supervisors and publishers. It was a jam-packed two weeks of working, recording and networking.
I left LA with a renewed sense of focus both about the business aspects of what I do related to running my website, as well as a new sense of purpose and direction related to the music I make and license. I probably learned more about the music licensing business and music business in the last two weeks than I have in the previous two years. It was really that great of a trip.
As excited as I am about my trip and as excited as I am about the future, there were some slightly discouraging conclusions I came to about the music business as well during this trip. Some of these conclusions aren’t necessarily new, but were simply reaffirmed based on different things I was told and heard during my recent trip.
One of the great things about connecting with people in person is they tend to open up and give you a more unfiltered take on things. Although I was super inspired from most of the people I met and connected with, there were some people I met in the industry that were more than happy to share some of the darker sides of the music business with myself and Gary.
Most industries have a dark side and a certain element of corruption and politics if you dig deep enough, but the music industry, due I suppose to the nature and economics of the industry, has a particularly high degree of corruption, shady people and pitfalls to watch out for.
I won’t name names, but I spoke with a well connected and respected publisher who told Gary and I numerous horror stories about behind the scenes deals between supervisors, elements of payola in the licensing industry, stories of artists buying spotify streams and youtube views to artificially boost their popularity and on and on.
Of course, none of this is really that surprising to me, but it can be a bit depressing to hear about if it catches you off guard. Here we are, in this already incredibly difficult and competitive industry and then come to find out, it’s not even a fair or level playing field. WTF?! We pour our hearts, emotions and money into our music and yet there are people out there willing to take advantage of us if we’re not careful. Life can be so cruel.
But, then again, is it really surprising? I wasn’t born yesterday. I’ve been around the block a few times. I get that life isn’t always fair and that not everyone has our best interests in mind. This isn’t really news to me and I doubt it’s news to you either.
So, what do we do about it?
Well, here I go about to get all philosophical again….
There is a yin and yang to life. There is a bright side and a dark side. But, we get to choose where we shine our light and what we focus on. We get to choose where we direct our energy. We get to choose what direction we go in. We get to choose which doors we open and which doors we close. Don’t like what’s behind door #1? Turn around, close it and open another door.
It’s incredibly easy to be cynical about the music business right now. There are plenty of things to get down about. It’s incredibly competitive, it’s not fair, there are shady people, there are elements of corruption and on and on and on. If this is all you focused on, it would be very easy to quit making music out of frustration.
Sometimes I ask myself, why I am even working in the music business. That, by the way, is a really good question to ask yourself. When I see so many obstacles in front of me, I sometimes have to step back and remind myself why I’m doing this in the first place.
For me, the reason I make music is really, really simple. I. Love. Music. That’s it. That’s why I do this. I love it and I prefer to do things I love, as opposed to things I don’t love. It’s a simple life philosophy that makes decision making extraordinarily simple.
Of course, I don’t love everything about the music business and there are plenty of things about the music business not to love. But, back to the yin and yang idea, there are plenty of things I do love about the business. That’s where I choose to focus.
There were some depressing behind the scenes stories about the music business I heard over the past couple weeks. But there were even more inspiring and encouraging things I heard and experienced. I met and connected with so many writers, publishers and producers all excited about the industry. I connected with people more than willing and eager to share what they know and who wanted to help in any way they could.
For example, I emailed six recent guests on my podcast based in LA, before I came out, asking if we could meet up. Five of the six said yes. There was a schedule conflict with the other person.
I met great, talented people working in the industry willing to share their contacts and expertise and help in anyway they could. For example, I spent almost two hours with songwriter Jimmy Dunne (Whitney Houston, Kenny Rogers, Take 6) at his beach club cabana in Pacific Palasiedes. Throughout the conversation I could feel Jimmy trying to find ways he could help me. It was as if he was searching for information he could impart that would help me. I walked away with several great ideas based on the conversation we had and what he shared.
I stayed for free for two weeks at my producer Gary’s house. Gary drove me around LA from meeting to meeting and place to place. He never even asked for gas money!
I made friendships and connections I hope will last for years to come. I met an amazing singer and vocalist named Elza who gave me one of the best vocal lessons I’ve ever had, for free!
I could go on and on with stories like this.
The conclusion I came to and the point I’m trying to make is this: There are plenty of things about the music business to get down about if you want, but there are an equal amount (if not more) of great things about the music business and the people working in the music business to get excited and inspired about. Both are true, the good and bad things, but you get to decide which you focus on and where you shine your light.
I’m not sure about you, but I choose to shine my light on the bright side.
This past weekend my producer Gary and I finished the first of two weekend long retreats we’re hosting here in Tustin, CA. It was a long, but extremely rewarding weekend. We had a small group of just six people for this first one, but the small size of the group allowed us to spend a lot of one on one time with all of the participants and really dig in deep with everyone who attended the retreat.
During part of the retreat, the participants who attended collaborated on an original track they wrote on the spot and we ended up recording the song at the end of the first day of the retreat in Master Recording Studios, a multi-million dollar recording studio here in Tustin. We’re actually going to be shopping the track to a few different supervisors in the coming weeks and if we end up licensing it, everyone will get a cut!
My favorite part of the retreat though, was listening to music supervisor and current creative director for Songtrdr, Erin Dillion, do a real time music screening session, during which she screened three tracks from each of the participants. Erin informed us that for her job at Songtrdr she listens to, on average, 2,000 tracks a day! We were all a bit shocked by this number. I have heard of supervisors being sent up to 1,000 submissions a day, but wow, 2,000 tracks is intense!
Of course, Erin said, she doesn’t have to actually listen to all 2,000 tracks in their entirety, so she has become super efficient in determining very quickly whether or not she wants to keep listening to a track. She said the song has to grab her within the first 5 or 10 seconds, or she’s on to the next one. I know that might seem harsh, but that’s the reality of the industry. There’s a ton of music out there, it’s not all ready to be licensed, and so supervisors and executives like Erin have to cut to the chase very quickly simply due to time constraints.
During the listening sessions, it was great to see Erin’s reaction to everyone’s music. She really loved a few of the tracks, a few she was pretty neutral about, and a few others she was more critical of. One of the points she stressed is that she doesn’t really even know production lingo or how to articulate when things are off, production wise. She’s not a producer and if even if she was she wouldn’t have time to articulate to everyone why she doesn’t like their tracks or why she thinks they’re not right for licensing.
Erin’s job is more intuitive. She has a sort of sixth sense about music and what songs will work right for different projects. Her job is to find great music for the projects she’s working on, not to instruct people about how to write and record those songs. Not that she didn’t have great tips for everyone about what works and what doesn’t, but she made it clear that on a day to day basis she simply doesn’t have the time to get into why songs don’t’ work.
Here's an example of a song that Erin heard during the retreated and loved immediately and thought would work great for licensing. This one is called “Who Can Mend A Broken Heart” by Travis Nilan.
Here’s another one that visibly moved Erin, that she also loved and thought would work in the context of licensing. This one is an instrumental guitar track from Paul Armendariz called “Sparkle Hour”. Erin had an immediate, positive reaction to this one!
One of my biggest takeaways from the weekend is that in order to succeed in licensing you need to do your own research. You need to attend industry events, meet people, study the market and of course write great songs. When you’re on the outside looking in, it can be frustrating if you’re not getting the success you’re seeking. But when you learn how the business works, by listening to and meeting the people working within the music business, it all starts to make sense. When you realize the sheer amount of music industry insiders are listening to and screening on a daily basis, all the rejection and frustration musicians go through is seen in the proper context. A healthy dose of perspective goes a long way.
During the retreat, Erin shared with us a great tip about how to break through the noise and reach people like her in the business. This particular tidbit of information was a huge aha moment for me. What is it? Well, I can’t tell you…. exactly. That wouldn’t really be fair to the people who paid good money to come to our retreat and took the time and effort to be there. But what I can tell you, and this is really the gist of her message, is that you need to think outside the box. The majority of writers trying to break into the business are all doing more or less the same thing; sending more or less the same un-inspired emails, writing the same homogenized songs and trying to market them more or less the same way.
Erin said at the end of the retreat that now that we know her and have made a personal connection with her that now we can email her directly and she’ll check out our music. The more face to face networking you do, the more you’ll develop connections with peole that will be open and willing to listen to music you send them. More importantly, they’ll also tend to be willing to give you valuable feedback, that you most likely wouldn’t get if there wasn’t a personal connection.
My trips to LA and experience hosting this retreat this past weekend have reaffirmed what I’ve known all along, which is that networking and making personal connections is vital in this industry. There are a ton of musicians vying for a finite amount of licensing opportunities. But, there is a much smaller pool of musicians who are going above and beyond and putting in the real work, in terms of networking, cultivating relationships and so forth.
There are two ways to approach this business: you can be half in, or all in. Which approach best describes you?
The blog of musician and thinker of deep thoughts, Aaron Davison.