“Get it?” “Got it.” “Good.”

Showing initiative. Sticking your neck out. Acting independently. Taking a stance. Lately, I’ve been feeling that these have become forgotten concepts. Whether I’m comparing notes with fellow educators or talking to studio owners, production coordinators or other employers, there seems to be a common thread. For the last decade or so, our educational system has been churning out students who have not been trained to take the lead, think independently, or forge their own paths.  We give them study guides, multiple federal and state mandated No Child Left Behind assessments, and ask them to spit back reams of information as though that is what is valued out there in the workplace. Well, guess what?  It’s not.

Talk to anyone who has to supervise studio interns.  There are three types of interns.  Let’s say that Rock Solid Recording has a typical pathway for the advancement of interns.  An intern shift starts at 9:00 and runs until 6:00.  Each intern is given a list of jobs to do during their shift.  The list might say “Vacuum all of the carpets in the common areas. Mop the bathroom floors.  Empty all of the wastebaskets.  Clean the bathrooms with the supplies in the cleaning closet with the yellow door.”

Intern Type 1 arrives a few minutes late for his shift.  He does a half-assed job with the vacuum, getting most of the big stuff, but not moving any furniture or getting into the corners.  He mops the bathroom floors, but doesn’t use hot water or wring out the mop all that often, because it’s a pain in the ass.  He takes frequent breaks to call his girlfriend and to take Instagram photos of himself posing in front of the studio’s gold records.  He empties the wastebaskets and does a decent job on the bathrooms, but doesn’t replace an empty toilet paper roll because there wasn’t a replacement in the supply closet. He is always ready to go at the end of his shift.

Intern Type 2 is always on time.  He follows the list to the letter.  His vacuuming job is always good, and the same can be said for the other items on the list.  He does a competent job with bathroom cleaning, floor mopping, and emptying the wastebaskets.  When confronted with the empty toilet paper roll and no replacement, he goes to the studio manager and asks what the procedure is when they are out of toilet paper. He doesn’t abuse any phone privileges and if there is down time, asks the studio manager if there is anything else that needs to be done.  He always waits until the end of his shift before leaving.

Intern Type 3 shows up early every day. She vacuums as though she is attempting to win the Nobel Prize for Vacuuming.  She vacuums the couch after going through the cushions by hand to retrieve any lost coins, cell phones, pens, or other items.  All such items are put in an envelope, labeled with the date and time they were found and left with the studio manager. She cleans the bathroom better than any of the other interns, and replaces any items that are running low such as soap, paper towels, or toilet paper. When confronted with missing supplies, she writes down a shopping list and asks the studio manager for some petty cash so she can make a run to the store.  Furthermore, she has instituted an inventory system for bathroom and cleaning supplies with a clipboard for the closet door, so that they won’t run out in the future.  In her off time, she has found a cheaper vendor for vacuum bags and asked the studio manager to order a large supply.  She organized the messy menu book and made copies of the most popular equipment manuals, putting them in a binder so that interns could study them on their down time.  She routinely stays a couple of extra hours past her shift reading manuals, observing the studio interaction, doing odd jobs, and soaking up the atmosphere.

Intern Type 1 lasts a few weeks and gets fired.  The world is full of people like this.  I don’t think anyone reading this blog is like this. Type 1 isn’t doing the job.  Type 1 isn’t really relevant to this discussion.  I just included him because he represents the 75% of the workforce who is incompetent.  Those people don’t last very long in the freelance world and wash out sooner or later.  This post is about the difference between Type 2 and Type 3, both of whom ARE competent.

So, Type 1 screws up and goes home. Intern Type 2 is a whole other matter, though.  He is following all of the rules, doing what is expected, and going to his supervisor with questions when confronted with detailed tasks that he has not performed in the past.  This is someone who probably won’t get fired, but will also not necessarily advance that much.  Why? Intern 2 is like the student who wants me to explain every last detail of an assignment.  “Clean the bathroom.”  “Do you want me to use disinfectant on the toilet or just use scrubbing bubbles?”  “Clean the bathroom.”  “Do you want me to clean behind the toilet, or can I just brush the inside and wipe the seat and the top?”  “Clean the bathroom.”  “Do you want me to put that blue stuff in the tank, or should I just brush the inside and then use scrubbing bubbles and then………”  I think you get the idea. Type 2 displays no initiative. No ability to take the bare bones of a situation and run with it.  Because his education has not valued that kind of thinking. He KNOWS what a clean bathroom is.  EVERYBODY knows what a clean bathroom is. If I pulled out a grenade and said “I will answer no questions. If this bathroom is not the cleanest bathroom in the universe, I’m pulling the pin,” I guarantee you that he would have no problem cleaning that sucker right up.

Employers will keep a Type 2 around until something better comes along.  Type 2s do the job in a minimal, competent sort of way.  But they are a pain in the ass.  They require a lot of maintenance.  If I want something done by a Type 2, I’m going to have to answer a ton of questions or write a very specific instruction manual detailing EXACTLY how I want it done.  Because Type 2s need to be told exactly how to do things.  Most businesses have to plan on hiring MOSTLY Type 2s, which is why many people make careers out of writing manuals that detail exactly how other people should do things that are fairly obvious if only the other people had the ability to think independently and with some initiative.

A Type 3 is what everyone is looking for.  Someone who is seeking the opportunity to use their intelligence, their abilities, their drive, in whatever situation they are confronted with.  Type 3s know that today’s vacuuming is tomorrow’s assistant engineering gig.  And next month’s production job.  The workplace craves excellence. It craves drive.  It craves people who say “I’ve got it covered,” rather than “Can you please explain exactly how you want me to do that.”  Passively doing what you’re told, doing what is on the job description, is not the way to make your mark.  No matter what the job is, no matter what level you’re at, there is always room for you to go the extra mile, to distinguish yourself from all the Type 2s out there. Think about it.

The Necessity of Thinking Big

I just got off the phone with an old friend of mine who lives in LA.  He’s been a freelancer for a very long time, composing for film and television, working in film as a music supervisor, playing keyboards for some pretty well known people, and more recently, producing indie records and playing shows and recording with two of his own bands.  We were talking about the huge changes the music business has undergone in the last decade, and how much harder it is to scrape together a decent living as a freelancer.

The typical fee or rate that a musician, audio engineer, or recording studio could expect to charge for a typical recording or live gig has DROPPED significantly since I came onto the scene in the early 80s. There are lots of reasons for this, and you can spend a week or two Googling them if you want the details. The main thing is that there are two ways to look at this difficult reality: glass half empty or glass half full.

In my opinion, far too many of the kids I talk to have reacted to this new reality by lowering the bar and scaling down their dreams. They react to how tough things are by giving up before they even get started. Is the music industry more difficult and competitive than it used to be?  No doubt.  Confronted with cold hard reality, it’s understandable why so many people have downsized their career aspirations.  Understandable, yes.  But I feel like it’s also a BIG mistake.

I’ve always felt that it’s important to have a “balanced portfolio” as a freelancer.  Some work, you do simply because it helps to pay the bills.  There is nothing special about it, and it’s not likely to end up on your resume’, credit list, or demo reel, but as a professional, you need to make money by working.  Maybe another gig doesn’t pay all that much, but is higher in profile or is for a potentially lucrative client.  But there should always be something you’re working on that has a high risk/high reward factor. The Impossible Dream. After all, regardless of the (insert whining voice here) crappy state of the music industry, people still win Grammys, Oscars, and Emmys.  People still have hit records. People still have successful recording studios that serve niche markets. People still get signed to big record labels and have a cuts on a major hit movie soundtracks. Why not you? Why not put in a certain amount of time working toward BIG goals and dreams that have a chance at paying off BIG, either in money or in personal satisfaction? What do you have to lose by trying?

Having those big dreams keeps you mindful of the competition and pushes you to hone your skills.  Sure, it’s hard out there.  But when I was trying to get a record deal in the 1980s, there were about 15 major labels and NO indie labels of any consequence at all.  So it was about as competitive as you could imagine.  And in the process of trying to make stuff that was good enough to pass muster at the majors, I worked and worked and got better and got to the point where my stuff was just plain good, and that got me all kinds of work that had nothing to do with my big dream.

Having the big dream gives you something to hold onto when everything else is bursting into flames. When I was trying to make it, I would cut demo after demo, pitching them to labels, publishers, and whoever else I thought could get me closer to my big dream of getting a major label record deal. Along with these demos, I was doing lots of other work that was much lower on the risk/reward scale. And sometimes even that would fail.  But no matter what, I always had my big dream that I was chipping away at, and I knew that one day it would pay off. And one day, it did.

So think about it. What is your big dream? Whatever it is, SOMEBODY is going to get there. It might as well be you.


Another brick in the wall

I’ve been hammered by some kind of flu-like thing for the last few days.  I have a headache, sniffles, a sore throat, all of the usual symptoms.  It’s pretty funny, actually.  I’ve had a couple of reasonably hefty medical issues over the last few years, including two knee surgeries and an emergency appendectomy, and I generally handle that stuff like a stud.  My wife fell and broke her arm very badly a couple of days after my appendectomy and needed surgery herself, and I was actually driving around to and from the hospital, the pharmacy, home, and my daughter’s school with staples in my gut (against doctor’s orders, of course) like some kind of suburban Rambo.  But give me a crummy cold and I sit around the house, whining for juice and complaining until my kid starts teasing me about what a little baby I am.

So what with my cold and the school term coming up, it’s been difficult to keep the ball moving on my freelance life.  Right now, there are a few things that I am working on.  I have some production music in the works, some 40 pieces in total that I am doing along with another composer.  I’m doing promotional stuff for the book, and developing a lecture/workshop event that I’d like to take to schools to help students who are studying music and audio but haven’t done much in the way of planning their entry into the professional world.  I’m working on a second book.  Generally, I try to have a few things in the works for a number of reasons which I discuss in some detail in the book.

The last few days, though, I just haven’t felt very good, and after spending what little energy I have on preparing materials for the start of classes, I haven’t really felt like doing very much.  Some days you have it, some days you don’t. I’m sure you can all relate.  However, this is something I feel strongly about, and about 30 years ago, I made a pact with myself that I’d like to share with you.  When I was 25 years old I was working in a shoe store to make ends meet and more or less sucking wind professionally as far as music went.  I would work all day in the store, and after putting in 9 or 10 hours at work and taking the train home, I would generally try to write songs or go to the studio and work on demos or something.  But at one point I went through a fairly long stretch where I was just too tired from work to do anything creative, so I would go home and watch TV or whatever, and then get depressed about not doing anything creative, and then go to bed depressed, and the next night I would feel less inspired because there was residual depression from the night before.

This went on long enough to make me realize that my entire future was in jeopardy unless I figured out a way to pull myself out of the doldrums.  What I eventually figured out is that I needed to do something every day to advance my career. It didn’t have to be huge.  It just had to be something.  A followup phone call to a client.  Four bars of a chord progression. Two lines of a lyric.  Something that hadn’t existed the day before.  Just so I could finish the day with the knowledge that I was one tiny step closer to my goals then I had been when I got up that morning. And once I started to do that, it became apparent that this type of thinking had a snowball effect, building on itself not only psychologically but in the real, substantial ways that my professional life was improving as I built a continuity to my professional activities.  Not only did I feel better each day as the fruits of my labor became more and more apparent, but the phone started to ring more, my work started to get better, and things just started to improve in general.  And by not letting a SINGLE day go by without doing something, I was also working on my own self-discipline, which up to that point, had not been one of my strong suits.

So those are my inspirational words: Do SOMETHING every day that will help you realize your goals. And while you’re up, would you get me some juice?

Happy New Year!!

This has been some year.  I wrote my first book. Made my first CD under my own name.  And started this, my first blog, which has been a real blast. I have to say that I haven’t gotten much feedback from you guys, though. While the stats say that there are a decent amount of visitors, there haven’t been too many comments. I’d like this to be a discussion about the state of freelancing, maybe some Q&A, however we can help people who don’t have the resources on tap.  Really, how is it going out there in freelance world? I know how I’m doing, but what about the rest of you?  It would be great to get a range of opinions, and some questions or suggestions for topics to discuss.

I hope that this has been entertaining, but more importantly, I hope it has been useful.  I know how lost I felt the first few years when I was starting out in New York, trying to get some traction in the music biz.  I had absolutely no clue and didn’t know a soul. If this blog is helping anyone out there feel like they are getting a little bit of a handle on things, I would be completely jazzed. I know I’ve gotten a bunch of endorsements on LinkedIn for blogging, so that means some people are reading this thing!

So, drop me a line.  Send a comment.  Become a follower. If you’re flush with holiday cash, visit my site and buy a book or CD.

And now, tonight’s rant. I’m in the process of redoing my website. Actually, Laura Jaeger, my graphic designer and web developer is doing it, but I’m helping, and earlier tonight I was trying to upload a bunch of songs to SoundCloud so they could be linked to the Music page of my site instead of using some wonky player app like we did last time.  So, I upload some stuff, a lot of which comes from records I’ve produced or written.  One of those songs is Pajama Party’s Yo No Se’, which was a pretty big hit, making the Billboard Pop and Dance charts, and which has been included on at least half a dozen compilations and lists of the “Greatest Freestyle Songs in History,” or whatever.  And since I was the producer, songwriter, engineer, and primary musician on the record and it more or less jump-started my career, I thought it would be a good thing to put on my site.

I’d also like to point out that this song has also been “shared” about a billion times in every way shape and form possible, and is even now on eBay on no less than FOUR unlicensed DJ compilations of THE GREATEST FREESTYLE BLAH BLAH whatevers. The funny part?  SOUNDCLOUD WILL NOT LET ME UPLOAD MY OWN SONG FOR MY OWN USE ON MY OWN WEBSITE because I am not the copyright holder.  Now I totally get that.  I am, in fact, NOT the copyright holder.  Atlantic Records is, along with Sony ATV (my publisher) and my ex-partner’s, whoever that is.  But the irony kills me.  For the last 20 years I’ve been getting screwed out of tons of Yo No Se’ royalties as all of the new media have been introduced, yet the one time I want to upload the stinking song for my own use, SoundCloud jumps in and prevents it. And I can’t upload ANY of the major label cuts I’ve written or produced for use on my own website.

As freelance professionals, all any of us have to show is our work.  It would be nice to be able to do so without so much difficulty, especially when so many other people are just stealing the stuff and profiting from it.  I’m not trying to sell anything.  I just want to be able to put it in my portfolio.

Oh well, I guess we’ll have to use some crappy player app after all.

Don’t drink and drive, everybody.  I’ll see you all in 2013.

I forgot to mention this part: make sure you are awesome

Recently, I was reminded of a very old Steve Martin comedy routine.  He starts out in infomercial pitch guy mode: “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to show you how to have a MILLION DOLLARS and NOT PAY ANY TAXES!!  That’s right, you heard me!!  I said I’m going to show you how to have a MILLION DOLLARS and NOT PAY ANY TAXES!! IT’S REALLY QUITE SIMPLE!!”  He lowers his voice and speaks very quickly…..  “First, get a million dollars.  THEN……..”  Of course, everyone cracks up.  Not so easy, the first part.

Here’s the deal. My book and this blog have to do with various aspects of being a successful freelancer in music and audio.  How to handle yourself in certain situations.  How to market yourself.  Dealing with the ups and downs.  All that good stuff.  Believe me, I know what I’m talking about.  It’s all good advice.  But none of it is going to make a difference if you suck at your craft.  In the book and blog, I am operating under the assumption that you have professional level skills and you don’t suck.  The reason I do that is because life and the marketplace act as a filter and naturally remove those who suck from the playing field, no matter what else they do to prevent it.  Now of course, that doesn’t happen 100% of the time, just almost 100%.  There is always a small percentage of talent-free people who become successful because they are related to the right person, are incredibly attractive, have the charisma of Jack Nicholson, or are able to buy their way into a position. By and large, however, the talentless hordes will eventually be removed from contention.  In my book and blog, I’m communicating to the talented bunch who remain, because unless they get their shit together, most of THEM will also be filtered out for a variety of reasons which I write about in WTTJ.

Now, the thing about people who suck is that most of them never figure that out.  That’s why life is so full of crappy music.  Badly written, recorded, performed, and mixed music.  Do you think any of those involved put that stuff out there because they thought it sucked? Most of them think they are awesome. And that’s the rub. In order to be successful, you need two things above all else:  you have to know in your heart that you have what it takes, and you actually have to have what it takes.  Those are two very different things, and many more people have the first than the second.

So, if at all possible, try to develop what I think is the single most important quality a creative freelancer can have: the ability to evaluate one’s own work critically, accurately, and dispassionately. On the one hand, if you automatically think everything you do is great, you’ll inevitably allow all kinds of crap to pass from your hands into the marketplace where it will be judged for the garbage that it is, and your reputation will suffer. So clearly, you need to be able to edit your own work and have some sense of where “the bar” is, and what you are striving for.  On the other hand, if you have no confidence in yourself or your work and think everything you do is crap, that’s no good either.  As a developing professional, you will be doing a lot of work that you may not want to be out there in competition, but at some point you need to decide whether or not you are in the game, and if you are, then you have to have some self confidence and put yourself and your work out there and just feel okay about it. It’s not easy, but if it was, everyone would be successful.

Intern Like A Rockstar……Really!

I teach in the Music Industry program at Drexel University in Philadelphia.  There are a number of good music industry programs around the country, and I happen to think that Drexel has one of the best.  Like a few of the other programs, we require our students to do an internship (we call it a co-op).  Actually, we require two co-ops, one the summer after sophomore year, and the other after junior year.  Doing an internship can be a great experience.  You have a chance to spend some time doing real work in the real world with people who really know what they’re doing, and that’s something that can’t be downplayed.  The more you know about how things really work out there, the more prepared you’re going to be when you graduate.

One of our graduates from a few years ago, Katie Reilly, started a great website, Intern Like A Rockstar.  It’s a great place to visit, full of articles, blog posts, links to current internship opportunities, and more.  For those of you who are still in school, I couldn’t recommend it more highly. Check it out, and tell them I said “hi.”

Songwriting Day

Just a quick note to let you know that I’ll be one of the panelist/presenters at Songwriting Day 2012, an event organized by my old friend Tony Conniff.  It’s happening this Saturday, December 15th in New York City.  Check it out, and I hope to see some of you there.