MacNally Smith College of Music asked me to give the commencement address to their graduating class this year, which I agreed to without really knowing what I was getting into. It was a very interesting thing to try but way outside my comfort zone.
Here's the text of the speech, not including a few digressions and on-the-fly amendments.
Get in the Pool
Good morning, everyone, and congratulations, McNally Smith College of Music graduates! I hope you had fun, I hope you learned a lot, and I hope you're proud of what you've learned and accomplished.
I'm here to talk to you about what happens next.
I am what you’d call a professional musician and that’s why McNally Smith has asked me to speak to you today. I’m not a professional speaker and I don’t claim to have the last word on the subject of the music business.
I never went to music school, but after enough times around the block a person starts to get an education in the music business anyway.
I spent about 15 years on the road with my bands Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic. During our heaviest touring, I think both of those bands did a hundred and fifty, or two hundred shows a year.
So I’ve played well more than a thousand gigs in my life.
And I still travel for my work: in the past few months I’ve written songs with KT Tunstall in London, Rivers Cuomo in Los Angeles, and Nicole Atkins in Minneapolis.
I’ve performed in Chicago, LA and Minneapolis in the past month.
Here’s something about me that I don’t publicize much: I’ve been signed to or put out records with at least twelve different record labels:
Warner Bros. Records
I might be forgetting one or two.
This is not counting a half dozen other companies that have put out my songs when I was “between labels”, whatever that means.
And it’s not counting the various EP’s and albums that I’ve put out independently without a label at all.
Bottom line is, I haven’t had a day job for a long time, so my experiences are probably pretty relevant to your future plans.
Here’s my main message to you for the morning:
Get in the pool.
Get in the pool.
Join the conversation.
Go straight to the audience.
Start a camp, a crew, a scene, a community. If you can't start one, then join a camp, a crew, a community.
Hit the road if that’s what you need to do to find your community.
Better yet, hit the road with your community! See the fifty states and show them your music.
Keep no secrets.
Don’t save your art, spend it.
Get your ideas out into the world, into your camp, your crew, your scene.
Learn how to say, "How can I help?” and mean it.
Get in the pool.
I'm assuming that all of you either plan to be professional musicians,
or to work in the music business,
or at least to keep music as an important part of your lives.
Well, you're all at the threshold of a new phase.
Maybe you're wondering what to do next.
Maybe you have a plan you've been dead sure about for years.
Maybe you have a strange and excited feeling that you could become anybody at all, and you’re just waiting to find out who.
Or maybe you have the anxious suspicion that nobody could possibly make a living doing the things you've just learned how to do.
Whichever way, it’ pretty sure that the "training" phase is closing, and the "doing" phase is about to begin.
Some of you feel that the only thing you lack is a magical phone number or e-mail address; all you need to succeed is access; access to some higher-up, some powerbroker, some gatekeeper who, when they hear and see your work, will lift you up into the clouds and make you a star.
Maybe you have decided that your main focus in life is going to be making demo recordings to play for this gatekeeper, when you someday finally meet him or her.
Some of you feel that your music is not ready to show to anyone. As the Talking Heads sang in the song "Artists Only", "I’m painting, I’m painting again… You can't see it til it's finished!"
But the search for perfection can be endless. You might find yourself still feeling this way in five years, or maybe ten. "It's not quite ready yet," you might be saying in ten years, "You can't hear it til it's finished!"
Some of you will worry that if you share your work without the proper legal protections, then somebody will steal your ideas and make millions from music that rightfully belongs to you.
You might end up spending a lot of time and energy keeping your ideas secret until you can unveil them to the world.
Let’s talk about access.
Ever since people started noticing my music I've had a steady stream of beginning songwriters approach me for advice.
Their first question is usually, "Can you show my songs to Rick Rubin?”
They feel that their music is great; the only thing they really lack is access.
Well, try this: think about your musical friends, the people you've studied with and played with.
Think about the people you’re going to jam with and hang out with and record with over the next five years, whether it’s here in the Twin Cities, or somewhere else.
Most of these friends of yours are probably wondering just like you are about whether they will ever "make it."
You might in fact listen to their music at times and wonder the same thing. But at other times you listen to their music and you hear their potential for greatness.
Okay. Picture these friends in your mind.
I'm here to tell you the astonishing fact that these people, the peers you’re going to meet, and jam with and record with over the next five years, the people whose couches you are going to sleep on, whose vans you will ride in, whose equipment you are going to borrow, whose music is sometimes brilliant and sometimes not-so-much, these people are more important to your musical future than any executive in Hollywood or New York.
Why? Because when you start or join an interesting, inspiring and super-creative community of music, access will come to you.
Access will come to you and give you its phone number and its e-mail address. Access will want to be part of the community you’ve created, it will want a piece of the creativity that you are fostering. Access will see money in what you’ve put together, and access will find you.
Get in the pool. Have a camp, a crew, a community.
If you really, really can’t find this community in the town where you live, then move somewhere else. But I believe there are brilliant artists in many unlikely places.
Or, if you can’t find a super-creative music community, then start one yourself.
Songwriters and producers these days are not satisfied to sit in their studios alone and write or record new songs. Everywhere I go, the top writer/producers are trying to gather a scene around themselves. They’re trying to recreate the Brill Building, that office building in New York City which, during the Great Depression, became the birthplace of scores of hit songs.
The writer/producers I’m talking about, people like Tricky Stewart or Martin Terefe, are adding small rooms to their studios, finding undiscovered young writers, and setting them up in the small rooms.
Some call it setting up a writers’ camp.
Get three or four rooms like this going, each with a singer and a producer/engineer, and things start to multiply.
The doors open at lunch time, everyone hangs out in the courtyard, and suddenly people are pairing off with each other and writing extra songs during lunch. Camaraderie, competition, chemistry, all mixed together. So if you can’t find a community, start one yourself.
Don’t Hide Your Ideas. Spend Your Ideas.
“You can’t see it till it’s finished!”
I’ve always loved that song. I started out as a visual artist – after college I went to San Francisco to learn how to be a painter, and ended up getting pretty good at it.
But during those first couple of years, I hardly ever showed anyone my art.
And I met a lot of artists who were the same way – they’d paint their evenings and weekends away on work that no one else ever saw.
Well, at some point you have to come out of hiding. When I started showing my work to journalists, other artists, and collectors, it was as though my growth curve as a painter got super-charged. During the period when I kept my work secret and hidden, I had only one source of feedback: me. But when I started sharing my ideas, I got great feedback from every direction, and I loved it. It got so much easier to tell which works were great and which were okay; and the unexpected part was that sometimes the art I was most attached to and proud of left everybody else cold; and on the other hand sometimes the pieces that I was embarrassed or uncomfortable about were the ones that blew everybody’s mind.
So when I did come out of hiding, I was glad I had – I started to show and sell my paintings right away. I returned to Minneapolis, I found gallery representation, sold a lot of big pictures, and it looked like I was going to be able to make a decent living as a visual artist.
Things were going great, but I realized one important thing about being a painter: it’s lonely.
A visual artist is alone in the studio for 8 or 10 hours a day. Occasionally you’ll be visited by other artists in the warehouse where you rent space. And if you smoke you can chit chat with the other smokers out in the cold near the fire door. I didn’t even smoke so it was really lonely for me.
I think that’s why I eventually chose music. I love hanging out with other musicians. I love collaborating with them. I love the weird way they think. Maybe that’s because it’s the way I think, too.
Which reminds me of something I want to say to the engineers in the room. Engineers: if you don’t already love musicians and the weird way they think and behave, you might want to try to learn.
First reason to learn to love musicians: if this engineering thing goes well for you, you’re about to be locked in a dark room with these people for many years to come. So why fight it? I know too many engineers who find musicians and their non-linear thinking to be exasperating, too many engineers who think of musicians as obstacles getting in the way of making great music.
Second reason to learn to love musicians: as recording engineer, you are a vital element of the creative process, and you must understand the mind and character and needs of your artist just as well as you understand the needs of the machines you use to capture the artist’s performance. You’ve got to see the whole picture.
Third reason to love musicians: if you love them, they will love you back, and you’ll get more work.
Okay, back to my point.
Don’t hide your ideas; spend your ideas.
Get your ideas into circulation. Show people your songs. Teach other engineers or producers your tricks. Trade up! They will show you their techniques in return.
In 2001 I decided I needed to learn how to make my digital recordings sound great. I had figured out that most people in the music business can’t hear the greatness in a song unless the demo sounds like a hit record. Everybody in the music business will tell you that they can hear whether a song is great by listening to a simple guitar and vocal demo. Well, most of them are lying. Unfortunately, the truth is the demo needs to sound like a hit.
So I traveled in Europe and America co-writing with the best producer/engineers I could find. I wrote a lot of songs and asked a lot of questions. During the sessions, I was amazed how willing these people were to share their methods.
Back when I started making records, the analog engineers were ultra-secretive – they’d hide gear under the mixing desk, create secret patches off the patchbay so no one could guess what instrument was going through which compressor. But the digital producer/engineers I was working with just answered my questions. So I kept asking. I learned so much during that year, it was like going to school again. Now I do the same thing that they did. If anyone asks me, “How did you get that sound,” I am really happy to tell them. It’s like an indirect way of paying back the people who taught me.
Don’t save your ideas; spend your ideas. Get them into circulation.
When a young songwriter or recording artist approaches me with questions, another question she often asks is this: “How can I copyright my songs to make sure that no one steals my ideas?” This young songwriter feels that she has written an amazing new song, and she wants to send a demo to a manager, she wants to show it to a publishing company or a singer, but she’s terrified that when she does show it to someone, they will copy it or bite the best part and claim it for their own.
Now there are established ways to copyright your work. These ways are pretty basic and they depend on a certain amount of good faith on your part – when I was coming up the method was either to send songs to the Library of Congress (which I never did), or you could mail your songs to yourself, leaving the envelope unopened when it arrived. If you did this, the idea was that the postmark on the sealed envelope would be your proof of when you wrote the brilliant song, and you could use it in court to establish your authorship.
Well, the dirty secret about copyright law is that legal cases are expensive and people usually settle them based on how expensive they’re going to be rather than who is right, who wrote the song, or who has the sealed, postmarked envelope. Proving you’re right is often just too expensive.
And even if you have all the proof in the world, there’s just no preventing someone from biting your song if they really want to. The only way to guarantee the safety of your copyright is to hide it in your room and never show it to anyone.
So what’s the solution?
If you’re scared to share your idea because it’s too amazing, try this: Always bet that you will have another great idea. That’s what I do. I have come to realize that my job is not to store and protect my existing ideas; my job is to come up with new ones. The reason people come to me is not for my current idea but for the next one I’m going to think of.
And at some point, you just have to take the risk. You have to get in the pool, join the conversation, spend your ideas. Don’t save them. Everybody gets ripped off at one point or another, it’s part of paying your dues. Show people your songs, your recordings, your techniques. The only way to 100% protect your ideas is to never share them with anyone.
I run into musicians who tell me that they’re making an album but they’re not putting their best song on it. “Why in the world would you do that?” I ask. They tell me they’re saving the great song for when they have massive corporate backing so that the great song has a better chance of being a hit.
That’s pretty gutsy, betting that your second best song will launch you to a place where you can use your best one. I always just prefer to use up my best idea today. If I have a writing session with someone, and I have a great new idea, I always show it to them and ask if they want to work on it. It’s a way of betting that I’ll have another better idea tomorrow or next year.
When you make the bet that you will always have another great idea, it gets a lot easier to risk the current one, get it out into the world, put it into circulation.
And when you put that current idea into circulation, it multiplies.
Your idea will get better when other people handle it and give it back to you.
And your community will start to think of you as somebody with great ideas, and they’ll start to ask you for more ideas.
Ideas are like the opposite of money, the more you spend them, the more they increase.
Some final thoughts.
One of the best ways to get in the pool and join the conversation is this:
Go straight to the audience.
Are you half-ready to play live? Then get out and play live.
Don’t wait until you’re completely ready, because you’ll never be completely ready.
Are you micro-refining your sound for a market niche and looking for a corporate partner?
Forget that stuff!
Get your gear down to the bar, or the coffeeshop, or the open mic night, or your church, and play for live souls in a real space.
They will refine your work in the most ruthless and efficient way.
Are you waiting to show your demo recording to a management company?
Get out and play a gig! Take whatever crappy gig you can get.
I promise they’ll get better if you stick with it.
Playing for an audience will improve your music a hundred times more than sitting in your studio and asking yourself for your own opinion.
One time-tested way of going straight to the audience is this: make them dance. Don’t laugh: a lot of the greatest composers throughout history have worked extremely hard to make people dance.
Think of Mozart’s minuets, Strauss’s Waltzes, Ellington and Count Basie and Glenn Miller’s swing, The Clash, Prince, Michael Jackson, The Beastie Boys, Kanye West, nearly everything on pop radio today.
Almost every style of music can be traced back to a traditional dance music.
Finally, the question that’s foremost in a lot of your minds: how can I make a living doing the stuff I learned how to do at McNally Smith College of Music?
Making a living in music is not easy, that’s pretty obvious, but we musicians have advantages.
We’re cheap dates.
Musicians are accustomed to living on ramen noodles and sleeping on couches if necessary.
We have a sense of mission: we know what we want to do with ourselves and so we’re willing to sacrifice to make it happen.
We find meaning and joy in our work, so it doesn’t necessarily have to pay us like kings and queens to make us happy.
But since food must be bought and rent must be paid, here are five small but good tricks for making a living in music.
1. No cocaine. No heroin. Cocaine and heroin will eat your lunch money, then your rent money, then it will eat your dream too.
2. Learn how to say, “How can I help?” and mean it. Fill in for bands missing a member and do it for free or for cheap. Mix shows for nothing or for a meal. You’ll get really good. Become indispensable and people will hire you.
3. Find a flexible day job.
I know that’s not quite making a living in music, but a flexible day job that pays okay is way better for a musician than a time- and energy-draining day job that pays more.
You can phase out the flexible day job when you don’t need it anymore.
My personal opinion is that the day job is better if it uses different muscles that the dream uses.
So, for example if you dream of being a recording artist, I’d say don’t produce jingles for an ad agency.
Those music muscles will be so tired by the time you get home that rocking out will be the last thing you want to do.
4. Marry someone who believes in your music enough to share your dream for the long haul.
The minute your girlfriend or boyfriend wants to have a talk about a realistic timetable for either succeeding in music or getting a real job, you are in trouble. There’s somebody out there who will believe in your dream and set no time limits on your pursuit of it.
5: Whatever people tell you about the economy, don’t let them freak you out.
Now is a great time to be a creative person, especially one who is just starting out.
We’re in an economic downturn, and downturns are the time to be in research and development, creating new ideas that will change the future.
So work on your music and your techniques and your community now, and by the time the economy is back on its feet you’ll be ready to participate in the upturn with the great stuff you’ve created during the downturn.
And the best part about this is that during the hard times, you’ll have made a lot of people more happy, more inspired, and more hopeful with your music.
Thanks for your time, good luck in all you choose to do and again: congratulations, graduates.