THE LANGUAGE OF THE NATIVES
I called my blog “The Real Gig” in honor of an interview I read in Mix Magazine. It was an interview with legendary engineer/producer/equipment designer George Massenburg. I almost stood up and applauded after I read it.
A lot of you probably have never heard of him but in the recording community no one doubts George knows his shit.
He was criticizing recording schools and music programs in general. At one point he said (paraphrasing here) “We have to let kids know what the real gig is.” In other words, all these classes can teach you the technical aspects of being a musician/engineer/producer etc. But this is not a job where you come home at 6PM and forget about it. There is much more to it than that.
It is a culture, a social skill, and a lifestyle. And we are standing on the shoulders of giants here. You have to know the history of those who came before you. You have to have respect for that. And you have to develop yourself professionally AND personally so you can fit in and contribute to the various subcultures the music business has to offer.
You have to speak the language of the natives.
There are rules and rites of passage. Many other jobs are like this, of course.
To quote George: “Couple of things would help. Get a real education. Learn accounting—how to read a profit-and-loss statement and a balance sheet. Get a real career—work in a hospital emergency room between sessions. Learn graphic arts, shooting and editing video. Oh yeah, would you please learn how to write? And, at all costs, avoid thinking about getting rich. When the time is right, be ready to tell a REAL story, not just some regressive, simplistic, emo drivel about the bad hand that’s been dealt you at the hands of the powers of the universe.
Then learn to listen. It’s almost a lost art. And I mean critical listening to real musicians in a real space. But I also mean listen for subtlety, for nuance. Listen to how producers interact with musicians, how musicians interact with each other, how engineers can make a big difference capturing real performances. Maybe also learning how with a subtle placement of a microphone you won’t have to use a plug-in. Then, listen for the story in the song. That’s why we’re here.”
A lawyer friend of mine once said that the reason so few young musicians have any real success is quite simple: In order to succeed they have to become the very thing they are trying to avoid.
Accountable, hard working, disciplined, etc. It’s easy to predict.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be in a band so I could stick it to The Man. My father worked a job he hated and I wanted to break that circle at all costs.
What I didn’t know was The Man owns the music business too. That changed things for me.
So anyway, I want to talk a bit about the various cultures within this job and the intangibles you need to navigate it all. No matter what kind of music you play or what your focus is, you are going to have to mix with a melting pot of personalities. All with their own likes, dislikes, and codes of honor. Navigating all of this has nothing to do with ripping a great guitar solo or getting a nice snare sound.
All of these intangibles are part of “the real gig”.
For example, if you are working in a studio with a heavy modern rock band chances are good that this is going to happen: You are probably gonna record some drums, put them on a grid in Pro Tools, combine several takes then edit the shit out of them so they are perfectly in time. Then you’ll strap drum samples over all of that. You’ll record each guitar part over and over……. and over, get multiple stacks of guitars then edit the shit out of those. Then the singer will do a bunch of takes, you’ll comp the best parts together, then tune the shit out of that composite. Then you’ll send the whole mess to a remix engineer who will repeat the whole process again.
The band has grown up listening to groups that do this kind of thing. So they will demand the same process.
However, if you do that same process to an Americana band, you will make them all throw up in their mouths. You’ll be fired before you can replace your first rack tom. They will want an earthy, natural approach.
Likewise, the au naturale approach of the Americana group is going to make the hip hop group coming in that afternoon throw up in their collective mouths.
So you are going to have to be multilingual. You have to speak the language of the people you are working with…….. whether live or in the studio.
How many bluegrass musicians does it take to screw in a lightbulb? 5. One to screw it in and 4 to bitch about it being electric.
Keep that in mind next time you want to bring your BC Rich Warlock to a bluegrass audition.
There are a million examples of this. But you can only learn this stuff by hanging out with real players. You learn what gear they use and why. You learn what they like to hear in their monitors when they are playing and what effect that has on the music. You see how they interact with the crew and their fellow players. You learn which guys are respected and why. Which guys are considered pompous pains in the ass. Which guys know their stuff and which guys are just there.
A singer songwriter judges a good song in terms of a great lyric and a great melody. A metal guy judges things in terms of energy, volume, and oftentimes technical prowess. A punk guy listens for attitude and doesn’t give a damn about the technical. And all points in between. Everybody is different.
You can pick a lot of this up on the internet. But there is no substitute for being there.
In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes 10,000 hours to master something. Reading about it doesn’t count. Hands on.
I had four years of French in high school. I learned more about the French language after one week in Paris than I learned in all four of those years at school. It’s a whole different ball game when you are trying to order breakfast instead of just memorizing something for a test.
Any music scene is like a small town. Everybody knows everybody else. But everybody is not the same. The more people you can mix easily with the busier you will be.
This also crosses over into personal issues. There are codes of honor just like in any other business. If someone gives you a gig, return the favor every once in a while. If a buddy’s car breaks down, go get him for the show and don’t bitch. All these things add up and make you feel good too. It pays off many times over.
Now, I’m not saying be a yes man running around doing good deeds for everybody. There’s nothing more annoying than someone who is always nice. It’s needy behavior really. There is a difference.
Guys like Johnny Cash, Keith Richards, Frank Zappa, and Neil Young all have broad appeal across genres and cultures. Besides their great musical contributions, they are known for being uncompromising. They stick(stuck) to their views. They were their own men. In the process they have been admired by many musicians that probably wouldn’t have listened to their genre otherwise. The man sold the music to the non-believers.
Lastly, one more point on social skills in the music business. There are fewer sayings I hate to hear a musician say more than “It’s business. Not personal.” Now, there are lots of difficult decisions to be made in a music career but I think that saying is a complete cop out. That saying never made anyone feel better who landed on the short end of the stick.
So, as another skill that will help you have a long and lasting career with your music…..try and find a better way to make difficult decisions than saying that. Your fellow players will appreciate it, even if they don’t agree with your decision.
To quote Mark H. McCormack, author of “What They Didn’t Teach You In Harvard Business School”:
“The truth is, everything is personal. All things being equal in business, people won’t shaft you if they personally like you. In fact, they’ll go out of their way to help a friend even when all things are less than equal. Likewise, they won’t hesitate to decide against you if there is no personal connection.
This phrase is not a lie so much as a contradiction. If it’s “business” it only means that there was nothing significantly personal between you in the first place.”
Good words to keep in mind.
Well, I hope some of these ramblings have made sense. I jump around a lot! To sum up, there is no substitute for being there. Being there is the difference between knowing and understanding. And if you understand something you can find your place within it and prosper.
You can become part of the collective wisdom that keeps all this wonderfully diverse music playing and growing.