“Made it, Ma! Top of the World!”

You probably don’t recognize that quote. It’s from an old movie called White Heat with badass gangster James Cagney yelling it as he goes out in a literal blaze of glory. Why is that relevant to this post?  I’ll get to that in a minute.

It’s so hard to pursue this life with its ups and downs. We’ve all had issues with friends and family about “settling down,” “getting a real job,” and the like. My dad came up in an era in which there came a time for all men to lay down the foolish dreams of youth and support their families.  It’s what he did, and it’s what he expected me to do.  We had a huge blowout one year about it when my wife was pregnant. Not just a little pregnant either.  BIG pregnant.  Dad sat me down and started in about how the time had come for me to take on the responsibilities of manhood, yada yada yada.  Lucky for me I wasn’t getting it on both sides from him AND the wife.  Because I very politely told him that I had it covered, it wasn’t his business, and if he still felt he needed to butt in, to kiss my ass.  Okay, maybe not so politely.

The thing is, unless you have the most touchy-feely ultra supportive super-wonderful parents and family who never worry about how you are going to support yourself (or unless you are rich), you are probably going to have to deal with these kinds of pressures.  If you want to get married, your potential in-laws are going to put pressure on you regarding your lack of reliable income and your unconventional, unpredictable professional lifestyle.  How will you (help) support your partner (their child) and build a life together? How will you raise a family and save for the future? You’ll even get it from your own mother: “Look at your sister.  She went to law school and now she’s making a good living, settled down in her own condo.  Why can’t you do something more like that?”  You may not have satisfactory answers to those questions, other than being able to share your goals and plans for the future.  You should have some concrete goals and plans for the next two, five, and ten years, something I talk about in the book and in this blog.  Beyond that, though, you will just need to be confident that with a lot of hard work, a lot of talent, and some luck, you will persevere and achieve some of the success you desire.

So, where I’m going with this is that sometimes, quite often actually, you just can’t claim victory over the doubters. I have a friend who is in audio post for TV, has a double handful of Emmy nominations, has won four or five, lives in a million dollar house in L.A., and every time his mother sees him, she asks him why he can’t go into something like accounting.  This guy is married, has four kids, and is in his 40’s.  In my late 30’s, I had a lovely home, several hit records under my belt, regularly scored shows and commercials that were on network television, made a very nice living (albeit with all of the issues every freelancer goes through), and my mother would send me local newspaper clippings from Florida about things like this guy who would write a song about your dog for twenty five bucks with a note saying “Maybe you could do something like this?”

And people don’t really understand what we do anyway.  For the last ten years, I’ve been a professor of Music Industry at Drexel University, and my mom just couldn’t get that into her head.  Granted, she’s now in her 80’s, but no matter how many times I explained it, she somehow thought I did something with “industrial music,” and not the Nine Inch Nails variety.  I think in her head it had something to do with factories.  She thinks I teach people how to write music that inspires other people to screw in mop handles faster on assembly lines or something.  I can deal with that. So unless you get to perform on TV where your family can see you or read about you in People magazine, or win a Grammy, Emmy, or Oscar, your family may never really “get it.”  You may not ever get validated.  There may not be a big shining moment where you get to stick your finger in their faces and say “SEE?  I DID IT, SO SCREW YOU!!” For some people, those conventional careers like doctor, lawyer, banker, accountant are the pinnacle of success, and nothing you achieve in your “wake up at noon, wearing a tee shirt behind a console” life will ever measure up to that. You are going to have to be satisfied with the knowledge that you set your own goals, walked your own path, and did what YOU wanted to do with your life.

And that, my friends, is the definition of success, in my book.  Your family is just going to have to deal with that.  Top of the world, Ma.

Indifference…..get used to it.

Forget what they told you in school.  Forget what your family and friends tell you.  The truth is, nobody cares about you.  Okay, let me qualify that.  Other than your immediate family and close friends, nobody cares. Certainly in the business world, nobody cares.  When I say that, I mean that nobody has any particular interest in you or your personal life as opposed to anyone else. Do you have a perfectly good reason for submitting late or inferior work?  Nobody cares that your grandmother died or that you had to stay up all night with a distraught boyfriend or that you lost power in a storm. The only important thing in a freelance business relationship is the work.  It’s different when you are a full time employee. Full timers see their co-workers and bosses every day, and often form close personal relationships with them. Business owners sometimes think of their employees as an extended family. If a full timer has some kind of family tragedy or extenuating circumstance and can’t come in to work, it’s not unusual for everyone to pitch in and shoulder his or her load until things blow over.

Freelancers have a much different experience.  They generally work on a “per job” basis, and often don’t see their employers before or after a particular job (and in the internet age, sometimes not even during). Freelancers are hired to deliver job “X” under conditions “Y” by deadline “Z.”  That is the total basis of the relationship.  Unless there is a longstanding prior relationship, the client is probably completely indifferent to anything more than the parameters of the job.

Now here is the important thing: TOTAL INDIFFERENCE TO YOUR PERSONAL SITUATION DOES NOT MAKE THE CLIENT A BAD PERSON. Set aside all that juvenile bullcrap you were taught about caring and sharing and being special.  None of that really applies in your professional world.  Now, that’s not to say that this client might not be an incredibly nice, sensitive, caring person who, over the course of your working relationship, might not end up becoming one of your closest personal friends.  I’m just saying that caring about your personal situation, being more than professionally courteous, or giving a rat’s ass about any reasons you might have for not delivering completely amazing work is simply not the client’s job. You are a cog in a machine. They have plenty of other things to deal with, and your personal issues are not on their radar.  They are indifferent to you, other than what you can contribute to their workflow.  Again, this does not make them mean or uncaring. That’s the job.  Your job is to deliver work.  Period.  Theirs is to give you whatever guidance you need to do the job, and then pay you.  Period. Hopefully, you both do what you’re supposed to do, and over the years, you continue to work together, forming that solid professional relationship that helps build careers for both of you.  And if you become friends, great.  And if not, that’s okay too.

The Book Is Out!!

Welcome To The Jungle is now in print. It may take a week or two for copies to be available through Amazon or brick and mortar stores like Barnes & Noble, Sam Ash, and Guitar Center, but I am now selling signed copies through my website for $19.99 with free shipping, which amounts to about the same price as Amazon or Barnes & Noble anyway.  So I hope that if you’ve been enjoying the blog, you’ll order the book.  Leave me a note if you want something special in the inscription.

There Will Be Blood

Freelancing is an uncertain thing. The very nature of it is about not knowing where your next job is going to come from, how long it’s going to last, how much it’s going to pay, and when the job after THAT one is going to appear. Freelancing is scary.  Not having next month’s rent in the bank is scary and depressing.  Watching all of your friends moving up the food chain in their straight jobs as salespeople, lawyers, bankers, whatever, is depressing. And sitting at the kitchen table at three in the morning with a pile of bills, making lists of everything that you can sell and everyone who owes you a few bucks is something that every freelancer has gone through, probably more than a few times.

Times like these test character.  They test relationships.  Not every spouse or significant other can stand this kind of financial uncertainty.  A lot of people just don’t sign up for a marriage or relationship in which significant money issues are going to be part of the picture for at least a decade, probably more. Most freelancers are going to be scrambling to a large extent from their early 20’s to at least their early 30’s.  If you are with someone who doesn’t get that, it’s going to be tough sledding on the relationship front.  My wife has basically been a complete and total saint regarding our finances pretty much the whole time we’ve been together.  The only time she has ever said any crazy stuff was when pregnancy came into the picture, and I choose to believe that it was the hormones talking, not my lovely wife, when she suggested that I sell all of my recording equipment so that we could afford better digs for the coming baby. Other than that one statement, she has been unbelievably patient and a total supporter of my career, and we’ve always considered ourselves a partnership. I’m not just blowing smoke when I say I couldn’t have done it without her.

I think I’ve been very lucky, in that for me, there never was any kind of alternative that seemed even remotely palatable other than being a creative person in the music business. I really had blinders on from the moment I was two or three years old and got my first toy musical instruments for Christmas.  After that, I simply couldn’t imagine any other career except music. I was open-minded about the shape of what that career might look like, to be sure.  Musician, producer, engineer, songwriter, composer.  I definitely bounced around over the years, but even through all of those scary periods, when my future seemed bleakest, switching to something else was, for me, simply unthinkable. For most other people, it’s just not that simple. They get pressure from spouses or parents to grow up and get a “real job.” There is always something that seems more stable, with better pay, benefits, regular hours. It’s not for lack of talent that people leave this way of life.  It’s because it’s so freaking HARD. People just get tired of how hard it is and quit.
So realize that no matter what you do, there are going to be the bad times. You just have to prepare for them, put your head down, believe in yourself and what you are doing, and get through them. THAT, more than anything else, is the real challenge.  To stick it out.

The amazing guitar of Andy McKee

I’ve been listening to the guy ever since his first album came out, but this impressed me simply because it sounds so good and it’s recorded in one pass in a workshop with one mic. I love how he weaves the different lines in and out. With a band saw in the background. Awesome.

Big wheel keep on turnin’

In my Drexel class Music and Audio Freelancing, the students start out each term by setting two, five, and ten year goals.  Most of the time, the ten year goals are not particularly realistic, and for the purposes of the class, they don’t really have to be.  They just need to be a spot on the horizon.  Something to shoot at.  In both the class and the book, I make a clear differentiation between GOALS and PLANS.  Anyone can have the goal of being in the Olympics, the President of the United States, or a successful record producer, but figuring out a plan to get you there is a whole other deal, and requires some knowledge of what it takes to do the job and how people actually come to have that sort of job.

When we first moved to Pennsylvania in 1990, I had a record deal with Atlantic and a few hit singles under my belt, a publishing deal with Famous/Paramount, fairly well regarded management, and was in the middle of finishing up the second Pajama Party album.  We had just bought a house in the Pocono mountains on three acres, and I had equipped it with a pretty nice studio capable of doing almost anything I needed to do, short of finishing a full-on analog record.  I had a beautiful wife and a two year old son. On paper, at 34, I had probably achieved everything the 24 year old me would have put on his list of ten year goals. The 24 year old me would have thought that the 34 year old me had it made.  What else could I possibly want?  What further need could there be for goals or plans?

However, human nature is a funny thing.  How things look from the outside are definitely not how they look on the inside.  How “success” looks from one vantage point is different from another, especially if you’ve reached some of the goals you set for yourself a few years back.  Basically, what I’m trying to say is that at 34, I found that I had new goals.  I was a different person than the one who had set those ten year goals at age 24.  I had a family.  I had learned a lot about the music business, about what I wanted out of life, and about which parts of being a producer, engineer, and songwriter that I liked, and which parts not so much.  It was time to set new goals and make new plans.

What I’ve learned since then is that setting goals and making plans is actually a continuous process that is constantly under revision.  Everyone needs to set aside time to do some “big thinking” about where they are headed, what they want, and how they intend to get there.  Honest thinking.  Tough thinking.  It’s hard to be honest with yourself, but it has to be done.  This is a process that never stops.  I’m still trying to figure out where I’m headed and what I want to be doing in two years, five years, ten years.

And just as it is necessary to set goals and make plans, it is just as critical to know when to say “I don’t want to do that any more,” or “that’s probably not a realistic option for me any more.”  That’s the tough part.  While it’s admirable to keep plugging away at your original goal, there is no shame at deciding that, for whatever reason, you no longer want to pursue that direction.  For myself, I originally wanted to front a band.  I was a talented guitarist and songwriter.  It was difficult to hear that I didn’t have the voice or the looks, but I eventually took that information to heart and revised my goals and plans, and used my talent to further my career the best way I could.  It ended up working out for me, but it could have been a disaster if I hadn’t had the ability to do the hard thinking and planning necessary to keep moving forward.

So keep the wheels turning in your head.  Spend some time each week thinking about what you’ve been doing, and where you’re headed, and whether it’s still all working for you. If everything’s chugging along, that’s great.  But remember, you can always change direction and make a new plan. It’s all good, just as long as you’re setting goals, making plans, and still in the game.

Keeping It Real

Well, the cleanup from Hurricane Sandy is ongoing, the power is back on, the house is warm again, and the Internet is humming away, so now is the time to get back on track.  Last time, we talked about networking, so this time let’s talk a little bit about how to go about representing yourself while you’re in the process of getting your name out there.  Whether it’s at a formal industry event or just hanging out among like-minded individuals, in my opinion it’s always best to be yourself. It’s really hard to know exactly how to act when you’re trying to put your best foot forward in these situations.  Should you act like you are more established than you really are?  Maybe B.S. a little bit? Drop a few names of people you may or may not actually have associations with?

Believe me, there are more than enough blowholes in the industry already. Nobody is all that eager to work with another one if they can avoid it. If you have a bad personality and are an insecure, meglomaniacal jerkweed deep inside, the best solution would be to stop being one rather than to ACT like a nice person while you network and then revert to being a jerk when nobody is watching. If you have these types of deep character defects, you will slip up and reveal yourself sooner or later, and eventually your true character will become known.  It’s so much better to just be a nice, incredibly talented yet unassuming, friendly, good looking, funny, generous, kind, incredibly talented (did I say that one?) person with perfect taste in clothing and really fresh breath.  People like that sort of stuff.  While that list might sound a little daunting, it’s not all that. Really.  Think about it.  It might take a little practice, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to smile, listen to people when they talk, wear nice, reasonably trendy clothes that don’t scream “LOOK AT ME!!”, make the occasional humorous comment, treat people nicely, be generous when appropriate without seeming to pander or be overly obsequious (look it up, non English majors), brush your teeth regularly, and in general treat people how you would like to be treated, only MORE SO.  Eventually, people will say “She is a monster engineer, she looks awesome, and she’s really nice to hang out with, too!”  All three of those will get you regular work.  Even one of those might get you a shot at work. But if you are a blowhole, a loudmouth, an unpleasant person, all three won’t get you the time of day.

You MUST develop your people skills.  Nobody likes a jerk. Nobody likes a loudmouth, a “one-upper.”  You know, the guy that says “You think YOU know where to get a good burger?  Well let me tell you…….”  EVERYBODY hates that guy.  Don’t be that guy.  And don’t be the person that sits quietly in the corner, either.  Nobody remembers that person, so that’s no better than being the bigmouth jerk, career-wise.  If you’re shy, you are going to have to work on that.  As I said last time, networking is a process.  Having people remember your name is a process.  First, they have to meet you.  They have to have a reason to remember you.  So, you have to work on all of that. It’s like they say about political candidates.  Who would you most want to have a beer with?  Unlike political candidates, we actually spend a lot of time with the people we work with, so part of the metric isn’t just how talented they are.  It’s also what it would be like to spend three weeks on a bus with them, or two weeks of 12 hour days in a recording studio.  So not only is it a talent contest, it’s also a popularity contest.  And it’s not unfair for likeability to be one of the criteria when people are choosing colleagues.  So be someone who people would want to work with.  But do it honestly.  Do it by really BEING that person.  Because you can’t sustain a career fooling people into thinking you’re genuine and likeable when you’re phony, mean, and creepy.  Eventually, you’ll become known as the phony mean creep that you are.  And who wants that?