Prepay

Go with me here for a second. Honestly think about what you really want in this life. Anything. Dream big! Take a minute and think about how awesome it would feel to achieve that big dream. Pretty good right?

Here’s the truth.

No crap, you can have it. Real life, real talk. It’s all yours - free for the taking

You just have to pre-pay.  

You have to put in the hard work and the long hours. The focused energy over a long period of time. But anything you want! You just have to prepay. 

Not Having It All Figured Out

Growing a successful music career often looks like a straight line. This straight line has milestones clearly marked out, and the journey appears direct and intentional. Or at least, that’s what I use to think. I believed that step 1, 2, 3 (etc), would all be clear and easy. Sort of like a handbook to follow. That’s insane! Growing a successful music career is messy! The only time you can clearly see steps or milestones, is when you look back. Rarely as you look forward. 

Most of us meander, wade through the mud, and stubble on success after countless failures and missteps. And the path forward is always hazy and unsure. We just learn to take the next step and try to make the best decision in the moment.


So why do successful musicians talk about their journey with such clarity and confidence? Because they’ve got to tell a story you’ll want to hear. And I don’t mean this in a negative way to pick on them. Frankly, If you ask me about the last 10 years of my life I’m going to tell you a cohesive story that evolves and is a little interesting. That’s only because you wouldn’t listen if I told you the last 10 years we’re mistake after mistake, failure after failure, and then the occasional (emphasis occasional) success or win. 


What’s the point of this post though? To rag on folks for telling good stories? Not at all. I want to encourage you, wherever you are on your journey know it’s a messy process. If you currently feel like you don’t have it all figured out — you’re not alone! That means you are right here with the rest of us, doing the best we can. Yet, we must do the best we can. We can’t figure out the right path by sitting idle - by waiting for the right answer to appear. We figure out the path forward by movement. And yes, even the missteps. 


Be encouraged today that you’re not alone. If you’re working hard, but still feel like you’re trying to figure it out - we are too. Know that those who’ve gone before you, while having a great story now, felt like clumsy toddlers taking their first steps.

Who's To Blame?

You.

Whether the result be positive or negative, the answer is the same. You are to blame.

The economy was bad, the music industry is changing, or no one came to your show.

You. You can work harder, adapt quicker, spend more time marketing. You.

The venues won’t stop calling, so many people are streaming your song, or you sold out of merch.

You. You didn’t give up after hearing no, you sent a dizzying amount of messages to curators, you pushed your products from stage. You.

When we blame others we passively choose let the responsibility fall out of our hands. Why do we do that (me too!)? I think because It’s easier to be a victim. But, we must stop blaming others and get out there and make it happen. 

In the end, if we aren’t actively making our dreams happen, we’ll passively make someone else’s happen. 

Just Lucky.

New year folks! 2019 is on! Let me start the year with some hard truth. Without your effort, good things will not happen to you this year. Sure, you’ll have a ton of help along the way, but whatever you’re wanting to accomplish this year (and more importantly, who you are wanting to become) won’t happen without your hard work. 

It often seems like some people are just “lucky”. Good things just keep happening to them year after year. I’ve had the honor to get to know some of those people through the years, and it always surprises me to see how they actually work. They work incredibly hard, focused, and smart! But, because we often don’t see their day to day grind, they just look lucky. But you and I both know, you make your own “luck”.

So what’s this year going to be about? How are you going to label 2019 when you look back from your rocking chair one day? Was 2019 a year that you made things happen, or a year where you let life happen to you? I want to see you win. I want to see you blow up. Yet, at the end of the day, that’s on you. Make 2019 happen for you. Let’s go!

Strength Is Action

No one feels strong before they take action. We only feel strong after we take action. We all feel weak, unsure, and vulnerable when we're looking at putting ourselves or our art into the world. If you are feeling weak and a little afraid as you look at the opportunities in front of you, know that’s normal. 
 
I’ve learned to expect anxiety when I’m about to put myself out there. In some ways, I’ve grown to really enjoy that feeling because it means I’m stretching myself. Pushing boundaries that I had previously set. As silly as it sounds, even if we fail, we feel strength in our actions. There have been some TERRIBLE ideas I’ve tried that have fallen flat, but I felt stronger for trying the idea.

If you’re waiting until you feel “good” or “confident” to take action, you will be waiting a while. Lean into weakness, fear, and that feeling of vulnerability. There’s strength on the other side. 

A Byproduct of Procrastination

Let’s talk about procrastination for a second.

Some of you guys are procrastinating on the wrong things.

How do I know? Because I still struggle with this too. It’s tough right?


You have a song idea. You know, you should sit down and finish that song - put chords to it - record it. At the very least you should go make a quick voice memo. But your phone is soooo far away right?

So what happens? You procrastinate and watch netflix or scroll down a social platform, and the idea disappears. 


Over time, the results of procrastinating on your good ideas is pretty detrimental. You feel the creative juices begin to dry. You lose motivation. 


You see creativity is weird like that. The more you act on creative ideas, the more you get. 

It’s a bottomless well. But the well is only deep when we’re taking action. 


So act on your good ideas today. The reason you may have “writer’s block” (<-not a thing) is because you aren’t taking action on your ideas. Let us be people who take action. Not people who are plagued by procrastination. 

Are You Dreaming About What’s Possible? Stop!

I’ve made a mistake. The last few years I’ve been dreaming about what’s possible. Simply, what I can achieve. While a dose of realism is helpful in our daily work, we need to (at least) weekly take time to dream about something big - really let our imaginations run wild.


I think there are a lot of reasons we begin to set our sites on things that are attainable. Maybe someone who cares about you said to aim for a target much lower. One you can ACTUALLY reach. Or maybe you’ve forgotten that child-like wonder of believing you can literally achieve anything you set your mind to. Dreaming realistically can also be called dreaming small. There are a lot of problems with dreaming small. Here are three of the biggest problems.


First, a small, achievable dream is not very exciting to your imagination. Because of this, you do not dream up creative tactics and strategies to get you to your big dream. Big dreams = big strategies. Little dreams = little strategies.


Secondly, a small, achievable dream has equally as many problems as a big dream. When you’re dreaming about achieving something small you will encounter numerous setbacks, struggles, and needs. Proportionately you will have setbacks, struggles, and needs when it comes to a big dream. Why not encounter and conquer the problems that come along with having a really big dream? Personally, if I’m going to have problems either way, I’d rather have the ones that accompany a big dream.


Last, a small achievable dream is going to require a lot of work, but so will a big dream. Seriously, if you’re going to have to work insanely hard, why not shoot for something amazing. 


Stop dreaming about what’s possible. Dream about something truly big. Because along the way to getting that big dream, you’ll achieve what’s possible. Rarely is the opposite true.

Future Music

I’m actually pretty stoked about the next few years in the music industry. Just like Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park, “Life always finds a way.” And musicians really are starting to find their way. Most of the artist I work with are making better money on live gigs than ever before, and they're finding other creative partnerships to get their music out into the world. There are good things happening. Yet, with all the good, we still have to acknowledge the ground eroding under our feet. But instead of throwing our hands up in defeat, we need to process these changes and capitalize on the opportunities they present.

For the longest time, music sales were the lifeblood of the indie artist (and often, the label artist too). I genuinely remember when you could make all of your recording and production costs back from selling CDs at a few gigs. While that makes me feel all wistful, the fact is that traditional hard-copy sales are a thing of the past (with a few exceptions that I’ll mention later). "Annual music album sales in the United States have plummeted from 500 million units sold in 2007 to under 170 million units sold in 2017,” according to Billboard. For folks like me who aren’t good at math, that’s a 66 percent drop in 10 years. Even Best Buy has decided as of Q1 2018 to stop carrying physical CDs in its stores.

But maybe you still have some hope, because you know deep in your heart that people are still buying music on iTunes, and the like, right? Nope. In 2012, digital album sales totaled 118 million units, but fell to 66.2 million by 2017. Once again, a more than 50 percent decrease, but this time, it only took five years. But why?

[Insert big scary monster music.] Streaming. In 2017, BuzzAngle Music reported a total of 377 billion streams, an increase of 50.3 percent from last year. Another huge shift in the industry. But check this out—in one year, this major change happened. Not over a ten-year span, not over a five-year span, but in one year, streaming doubled. We’re not talking millions anymore, but billions. [Insert funny video of Trump saying, “Billions,” over and over.] That’s fast. Alarmingly fast.

Here’s what I find interesting. This intrigues me—not because of the decline of sales by over 60 percent in a 10-year span, then another 50 percent in one year—this intrigues me because no one is reacting. It’s sort of, well, business as usual. I don’t want to be inherently negative, but I think this should shake us up and make us think. Seriously, it’s like Nike, whose major product line has been shoes, losing that product revenue over 10 years, and no one even stops to acknowledge why. But because it’s music, and creative, and art, we don’t react as abruptly. (Nike, who did actually see a sharp decline on their profit margin’s on footwear over the last 10 years, is now raising their stake on apparel, which has a big profit margin.) We have to start looking at the opportunities provided by this seismic shift. What areas can we lean into? What areas can we grow?

And it’s probably not fair to say no one is reacting. I see more and more musicians walking away from the traditional formula of making a full-length album every 3 to 5 years. But I can say that as I write this, no one on my side of the industry is having a big enough reaction. Yet.

As with most big shifts in an industry, the innovators will prosper, and those who rest on what they accomplished in the good years will slowly become irrelevant. If it’s not clear by now, we can no longer rely on our sales alone—hard copy or digital. With Spotify paying somewhere around $0.008 (notice all the zeros?) per stream, we certainly can’t count on that as our only revenue source.

Yet, live shows are booming. Artists are making more money on shows than ever before, and there are more venues than ever before. Even in Mississippi, where many of the venues are small, restaurant owners are all seeing the value of live music. It’s sort of like everywhere is a venue now, and that’s good for musicians. Over the next few years, I believe we’ll see a continued growth for those artists who have a great live show. Especially those who create an experience for listeners. According to MIDIA Research, 59 percent of artist revenue is now coming from touring (from a 2016 study). Compare this to 33 percent in 2000. We used to think of live shows as the driver of record sales, but now it’s flipped—records are only financially relevant because they drive our live shows.

Merch is playing an even bigger roll for the livelihood of a musician. Oddly enough, hard copy and vinyl sales still work at live shows. Its fascinating that someone would buy a CD at a live show, but not at a storefront. That’s because people still really like mementos and keepsakes. They want to show their friends they were part of something cool. Something tangible from a moment in time.

To push a little, we have to ask the question, is it worth the money to have a great recording? (And it is important for me, as a producer, to know the answer too—ha!) A great recording does still play a very big part in your career as a musician, but in a different way. Now, having a killer recording is about your brand, growing your fanbase, and creating residual income. It’s no longer the pinnacle of all you do.

First, having a great sounding recording makes us appear more professional. Think of it this way, you see a band live and they are great, then you listen to their music on Amazon Music and it sounds awful. You begin to think things like, “Well, maybe they weren’t that good live. Maybe I was just having a good night and I was feeling generous.” Or, “Maybe they just don’t take their music seriously.” Regardless of how this plays out, you can’t have a crappy recording.

Secondly, having a great recording helps grow your fanbase. It’s easier (and cheaper) than ever to share new music with a friend. You can send a link or take a screen shot of that new bop. For sure, those earlier statistics are scary, but in truth, more people are listening to more music than ever before. There are more ears for your music and more ways for them to listen. While they don’t pay you for listening, that mass listenership does pay you, in a roundabout way, as you book festivals and gigs through your listener base.

Lastly, (and it may seem contradictory to what I said earlier) having a great record is still a valuable form of revenue. It just can’t be your only revenue. Bear with me here. Aside from people buying hard copies and vinyl at your show, streaming is still important for revenue. I know it’s not the same as getting $10 per copy sold, but those $.008 do add up. We’ve encouraged and helped a lot of artists we work with to grow their career on Spotify, in some cases by getting on Spotify playlists. For example, we’ve seen a lot of artists get well over 100k streams on some of their songs. That’s $400-800. With a little targeting and some hard work, that’s a nice chunk of change.

It’s also worth mentioning that revenue streams like YouTube, Jamendo, and film and TV placements can also supplement your income. The three traditional means of making money in music—merch, live shows, and music sales—might have been smashed by the Hammer of Thor, but there are still viable ways to have a career in music. It just looks very different than it did a decade ago. There’s no time for us to mourn the good ole days. Let’s seize the exciting opportunities popping up because of all of the changes.

Half Way There

There’s nothing more sad to me than a bad release. You’ve a lot of time, money, and emotional energy into recording your music, and making something you’re proud of. Congrats! You are now half way there! Here’s three quick tips to help guide you through the next phase of your project. 

 

1) Put your energy toward calls to action, not hype. While building anticipation is great, don’t build too much hype on the front end. The hype factor isn’t as relevant today as it was 5 years ago because there’s so much content out in the worl. You shouldn’t have more than one of those, “coming soon” posts. Further, you want people to buy, listen, or download your music when they’re excited. You don’t want them excited with nothing to do with that excitement. Wait until they can take action, and then simply and clearly ask them to take action.

 

2) Be thankful to your fans. Being thankful to your fans has a two fold benefit. First, it’s helpful for you because it reminds you of the truth that no one owes you their attention. What a gift to be heard! Be geniunely thankful for that. Secondly, it’s a great way to promote your new project. It makes those who’ve listened, purchased, and shared feel valued, and it reminds those who haven’t, to take a listen.

 

3) Use other platforms to grow your reach. Reach out to local papers, bloggers, and podcasters to share about your new release. They reach a lot of people that have not heard about your release. We’re learning more and more that people take action from multiple touch points. Specifically, they need to see a post on social, read an article, and then have a friend tell them about your music before they take action. They need to feel you are everywhere during the release of a new project. 

 

You’ve spent a lot of energy making something great. You’re half way there! Now spend equal or more energy getting it out into the world. Great records don’t release themselves. 

Brand

Brand. It’s one of those words that has a lot of baggage and generally means different things to different people. For me, branding is about perception and rank, even. 

 

Let’s use shoes as an example. For my generation, (damn I sound old) Nike was the pinnacle brand. You were cool if you wore Nikes. Adidas were acceptable, and Reeboks were sort of dorky. Even typing this, it’s sort of remarkable that a 10-year-old in a small town in South Mississippi thought about this. 

 

Branding is everywhere. Branding is in everything. It’s why we perceive certain schools in our area as better than others, certain streets as nicer than one street, and certain restaurants as superior.

 

Most artists and bands start thinking about their brand around year three of their careers. You slowly start saying no to the offers to play your cousin’s birthday party. Then, you begin to realize that you’re playing your hometown too often. When you do this, you are consciously or unconsciously thinking about your brand. 

 

Now, before you start canceling all of your gigs over the next month, just wait a second. The call to action isn’t to cancel every gig that is “beneath you.” Ha! Not at all. You do not want to care about the brand so much that you care yourself out of business.

 

Here’s the call to action. First, simply be aware that your brand is a thing, that you are the brand. You can’t manage what you aren’t aware of. 

 

Second, take care of the brand. Let’s go back to the “cousin’s birthday party gig.” Honestly, those were some of the best events I played growing up! Don’t cancel them. Just don’t post about them. Don’t add them to your upcoming events calendar. Let the pictures that you post, the public image that you portray, be big, exciting, and the things that elevate your brand in the minds of your fans.

 

I know this sounds bad. I get it, I really do. But I’ve been on the other side of this. I've had some bigger artists work with me and not post about it because, while I was delivering, I was, for all intents and purposes, a lesser brand. I’m not mad about it. It’s just part of it. It may mean you have to un-tag yourself from a few pictures your mom posted right when you finished playing before the cake came out. 

 

Lastly, remember that branding is about the people you associate with. The reason Nike pays LeBron millions of dollars is so people associate his brand with their brand. The best way to grow your brand’s clout is by associating with bigger and better brands. When you play a dive bar, that can sometimes hurt your brand (don’t get me wrong—playing dive bars can be a blast). When you record at a certain place, that can either elevate or deteriorate your brand. When you open for a big act, that can elevate your brand. 

 

A word of caution here: Don’t be a turd. Being aware and actively building your brand does not mean that you make others feel less or write people off when you’re bigger than them.

 

Think about your brand. Take care of your brand. It’s the biggest intangible that contributes to your success.

3 Questions

As a new year starts, I hope you’re getting excited. Excited about the possibilities, the opportunities, and the newness of another exciting year. 2018 can be one of your best years yet with your music. 

 

I wanted to give you a few questions to think through as you start the new year. I heard Tim Ferriss ask these questions on a podcast the other day, and it was pretty awesome to work through them myself. After hearing them I took a notebook on the back porch, turned my phone on silent, and set a timer for 15 minutes. It was a really powerful exercise. I hope it will help you too! 

 

Let’s freaking rock 2018 guys!

 

What’s the 20% of relationships and activity that are yielding 80% of the results?

What’s the 20% of relationships and activity that are yielding 80% of frustration or fear?

What would this look like if it were easy? How could I use money instead of time?

Mark Zuckerberg and Bob Ross

I've heard a lot of musicians talk about how they want to just “make great art,” and so do I. I really enjoy kicking back in my chair after a long project and listening to what I created. But, I also like food, paying my mortgage on time and supporting my family. Ha!

 

We all feel that tension, right? You've gotta be the half business man in a suit wheeling and dealing to move your career forward. And, you have to be the artist wearing a cool hat and weirding folks out while you make stuff. But, building a successful career in today's industry requires equal parts of art and business. For most creative folks, we wind up neglecting the business part. But, why not think of the business in an artful way, too?

 

I'm not saying that opening an excel sheet to record your mileage for tax write-off is gonna compare to painting the Sistine Chapel, but there are other parts that could be more artistic. For example, the marketing can be. Donald Miller, writer of Blue Lake Jazz, runs a company called Story Brand. They clarify messaging for businesses and brands. When you hear this guy talk about marketing it becomes clear it's art. He may wear a sport coat, but he might as well have Bob Ross hair because this guy is painting a picture with every story. 

 

If we can allow our right brain to touch some of the business, not just the songwriting, we can hijack the growth of our careers. Plus, it's really good for us. The artistic side of us is in the moment, the present, creating without a care in the world. But if you've had long stretches of just creating, it gets old. That once-exciting-feeling of dreaming up ways to surprise an audience with our live show can become dull without the big picture in mind. When we approach the business side in a creative way it engages that part of us that dreams about what the future could be. It helps us bridge the gap between where we are and how we tactically get to where we want to be. 

 

To make it today, it's gotta be both art and business, day in and day out. That's the big difference too, doing both the art and the business every week. Is there something really important on the business side that you need to do that just seems boring? It doesn't have to be. Use some of those creative juices to move your career forward today.

If Only

I often think of the process of creating in the wrong way, especially when I consider my life in light of if-onlys. 

If only I could get my career to the point where I didn’t have to call so many people for work.

If only I had that certain contact, my life would be complete.

If only I had so and so’s ability. 

But that mindset does nothing for the process. Letting our work be shadowed by if-onlys leaves us feeling empty and discontent.

 

Yeah, sometimes there are accolades for something you create, but the praise is always short-lived, leaving you like a junkie waiting for the next fix. So, somewhere along the way, the work has to become the reward. This revelation has unlocked a lot of joy for me this year. I’ve realized that I’m just happy to still be creating things for a living. Happy to be in the game instead of on the bench. 

 

In his book, Perennial Seller, Ryan Holiday says it like this, “Art is the kind of marathon where you cross the finish line and instead of getting a medal placed around your neck, the volunteers roughly grab you by the shoulders and walk you over to the starting line of another marathon.” 

 

You’ve felt that, right? But, this is certainly not to say the ole pat on the back is a bad thing, or that our desire to please others with our work is inherently bad. I’m not saying that at all. But, the long-lasting prize for creating is, well, creating. Being able to run another race. 

 

The older I get, the more time I spend praying that I would be content. Or at least more content with each day. I’ve seen glimpses of contentment in my life, and those moments always come from enjoying the work. Relishing the process. The journey. 

 

Let the work be your reward today. Enjoy the act of creation without being weighed down with if-onlys. 

Find The Story

There’s not much worse than a bad movie. My optimism usually makes me watch bad movies way too long. I keep thinking; great cast, great idea, great camera work, it’s gotta get better. Not always. I watched a movie about 45 minutes too long the other night. I kept thinking the next day; what was lacking in that movie? Why did it not feel right? Then it hit me. The story wasn’t clear. I was never really sure what the writer wanted me to understand or take-away from the movie. I couldn’t relate to the story or interact with it. 

I think we all need to take a moment and ask, how can fans interact with our music? Not so much just the writing of the songs (although, for the love of all that’s good, please think about the story in your lyrics) but the narrative of the whole thing. The brand. How can our fans interact with our story?

Go here with me for a second, Lady Gaga. Besides the fact that she’s insanely talented, she’s also created and nurtured this community around her and her music. She’s become the focal point for a subset of people, her tribe, to use a term from writer Seth Godin. Here’s the basic narrative for her tribe: “Lady Gaga is courageously OK with being different. I can be different. I’ll look to her for courage.” It’s a narrative that she’s created and her fans love it and love her for it!

Or throw back a bit further to Twisted Sister and their song We’re Not Gonna Take It, that incapsulated the narrative that authority is the supervising enemy in our life. The story was easy to relate to, whether your struggle be with parents, government, or your boss. Again, they were successful because they invited fans into the narrative. 

Sturgill Simpson is a more recent example. Over the last 5 years he’s seen tremendous growth. A big part of his success is his ability to stay on narrative. To Sturgill (and his followers) modern country music is a sham and he feel’s he’s doing something authentic and real, and sometimes in adownright sarcastic manner to illustrate how ridiculous this genre is in his opinion (see: title of his first record Metamodern Sounds In Country Music). It’s worked. 

The narrative does’t have to be overly complicated though. Look at the earlier examples. There’s nothing inherently complex about the message. It’s actually quite the opposite. The more complex the message, the harder it is to understand, much less remember and tell others. I don’t think it even has to be extremely compelling to everyone, just your niche fans. However, it does have to be compelling to you. If it’s not authentic, then it’ll feel forced and people will see right through it. 

Along with figuring out the story, sticking to it is equally important. That takes discipline. There’s an old marketing term called The Rule of Seven. It says that people need to hear your message seven times before they’ll understand your message. Even though I don’t think this number is scientific (and I’m pretty sure it’s far more than seven times, considering how crowded the market place is), it proves the point that it takes time to spread the narrative about your music. Years.

I feel strongly that everyone can figure out a narrative to complement their music. A story that interacts with their fans. I encourage you to take a little time today to think about that narrative. 

Growing Up

We’ve all been there. The work you know you need to do is in front of you, and it’s the heavy lifting kind of work. The kind that will be extremely taxing and strenuous, but it’s still what you know you need to be doing. But, instead of doing what you ought to do, you have a good idea, or ten. So you spend a day chasing that good idea. That day turns into a few weeks, then a few months. At some point you look up to see that you have no idea where you are. That you are off course. Adrift. 

 

That’s what happens to us creators. When I say us, I mean me. We always want to do something new, sexy, and different. But the important work isn’t always that. Over time, the tasks that were once exciting and shinny, start to feel, not as exciting. It’s still engaging and even enjoyable, but not the same kind of fun. Yet, it’s vital. Part of maturity is realizing that our relationship with our work changes over time. A young creator chases whatever is attractive to them in a moment. The mature creator is steady in doing the important tasks, even if they’ve lost a bit of there surface level spark. As you grow, you learn to work out of this deeper devotion to your craft. A duty, but in a good way.  

 

I sort of don’t like the metaphor that I’m about to use, but it just really is the most appropriate. My wife and I have been married for 6 years. While we don’t have the crazy, euphoric fleeting feeling of meeting for the first time, we do have a deeper bond than every before. Yes, it’s duty and commitment, but it’s also a lasting joy that doesn’t flee when things get tough. That’s what committing to the work feels like. That’s what growing up feels like. Yeah, you could pursue every new idea that comes in your mind, but you’ll never feel that satisfaction of committing to your craft. Of doing the hard work. 

The Valley

At any point in our life, we are in one of two places. The mountaintop or the valley. The mountaintop is beautiful. It’s usually the satisfaction from all of your hard work to get a job, achieve a goal, or accomplish a big task. 

 

The valley, on the other hand, is the chasm we travel through from one mountain to the next. It is shadowy and sometimes bleak. The day-in-day-out of hard work. Many times we can lose sight of the big picture. We can’t get a sense of how far we’ve come, or how much more we have to go. It’s a tough place.

 

I made a decision to climb a mountain a few years back. I looked at it from a distance and it was beautiful. I just had to get up there and see it for myself, so I decided to build a world-class studio and be a world-class producer, all while not living in a big music city. I know, I know, that’s a big mountain. That leads me to one of the many things I’ve realized on this journey so far—it takes twice as long as you’d think. By this point, I thought I’d be sipping coffee on the mountaintop, watching the fog roll in. And honestly, I’m not sure I’m halfway through my climb. It’s tough out here and many times pretty grim. The light occasionally bursts through and warms your face, but it’s mostly wet socks, tiredness, and fighting off the beasts that live here. 


These beasts can be external. Your competition. People who’d just rather not see you succeed because they were too scared to try it themselves. Sometimes it can be well-meaning family and friends who want you to make good, safe decisions. But mostly, you become the toughest beast you wrestle with. 

 

You become the beast because of the questions you ask while you’re in the valley. You don’t ask the same kind of questions on the mountain top. But, you ask the big questions in the valley. Like, am I really doing the best thing I can with my short time on this earth? If I only have time to climb 3 or 4 mountains in my life, is this really the one I need to climb? Is this really gonna be worth it in 10 years? In a sense, these are great questions to ask, because they make you go back to your why. To the real reason you’re doing what you’re doing. 

 

Today, for me, that answer is still yes. Yes, it’s worth it. Yes, I’m on the right path. That’s why I woke up this morning and am sitting here typing this. It’s why I’m making a decision today to stay the course, to keep climbing. Maybe for you, it means calling five more venues who are probably not going to respond. Or playing one more tour that may cost more than it makes. When you know this is what you’re supposed to do, then you’ve got to put your head down and keep going. What else are you going to do? 


Here’s the oddest thing I’m starting to notice about the climb, or even the valley. When you go through it enough times, it becomes part of the joy. That dark place becomes something you look forward to. You wake up, pack your bag for the day, eat your breakfast and get ready for the fight. It’s part of the process of winning, and it makes the mountaintop so much sweeter when you arrive. So much more of a reward. 

 

Here’s the real interesting part though. When I summit this mountain and look at the view, I’m positive I’ll notice the next mountain, while vastly more beautiful, is a lot steeper and more treacherous. But that’s OK because I’ve had my current climb to help me build my muscles, perseverance, and determination, so I’ll be ready. As much as I want to think that the struggle I’m in now is going to get easier, I know that it’s actually a practice. A rehearsal.

 

But maybe you’ve read this far and you’re having a hard time relating to what I’m saying. This all seems foreign, or like an old memory you can relate to, but you don’t really feel what I’m writing about. It may be because you’ve built a nice little comfortable cabin on a mountaintop you climbed a few years back. Friend, wake up. Our lives aren’t meant to be lived on the mountaintop. Pack your damn bag. There’s another mountain for you to climb today. Let’s go. 

Trading What for Why

You know that terrible feeling when your friend tells you your zipper on your pants is down? That feeling of being completely caught off guard and unprepared. That’s the feeling a lot of us feel when people ask us about our music.  

When someone asks a question like this it could come in several forms. Tell me about your music? How’d you get started in music? Or what’s different about your music? Usually we then spend several minutes stumbling through words that all string together in something like a sentence, saying cliches, and catch phrases we’d never say if we were prepared. Just as problematic, if someone asked that person to tell them about your music, they certainly couldn’t relay that message or story.  

One of the biggest mistakes I see musicians make is telling a what story instead of a why story. One of the problems with telling a what story is that the language isn’t universal. Most listeners don’t know the difference between rock, garage rock, industrial rock, or college rock, so it’s best not to tell people what your music is or isn’t. It can be confusing. But even more so, what stories are usually information-oriented, and information by itself is rarely compelling. 

A why story, on the other hand, speaks to something bigger. It has characters and a backdrop. It has a buildup and a conclusion. It is compelling. When people ask about your music, they don’t want the documentary, they want the movie trailer. Give the trailer first, then if you have a long drive or coffee, you can give them the full version, once they’ve shown interest. 

Let me give you an example. If you asked me about the studio, which of the following would be more interesting:

1) I have an iMac, a few cool preamps, an 1176, a Manley Massive Passive, a Pearlman, and a bunch of other really fun microphones. Currently, I’m experimenting with a minimalist setup, and I have all my gear in a side rack, so it’s not what’s in front of me. I really like recording Country, Pop, Rock, and Folk. 

2) When I was in high school and college I had a lot of recording experiences that were bummers. I remember one project where I sat in front of the soundboard with all of the faders and knobs, dreaming of touring the world with Coldplay. But after spending a bunch of money, I put the disc in my car and wanted to cry. It sounded so bad. I don’t want anyone else to have that experience. Now, I help people make something they’re proud of. More importantly, I walk them through the process of moving the ball forward to make their dream a reality. I know that these small things will make Mississippi a better place.

Now, here’s the problem with the Description Number One. It doesn’t mean much, unless you know what recording equipment is, and even if you do, most of my gear is in the boutique realm anyway. Also, the description doesn’t say anything about people. And the studio is all about people. 

Description Number Two is compelling for a number of reasons. It has characters, conflict, and in this abbreviated version, it has an arc to the story. It has something everyone can relate to—disappointment. Most importantly, it has my why: I don’t want people to have the experience I had. I want to partner with artists, and I truly want Mississippi to be a better place

 

The truth is people want to hear a good story. While they might ask you about the what, they really do want to hear the why. So, the next time someone gives you the opportunity to tell them a story, make it compelling. If it’s compelling, it will spread.

In It For The Long Haul

You approach life differently when you’re in it for the long haul. And by in it for the long haul, I mean you are willing to endure hardship or loss because the end result is worth it. 

When I first started the studio, I thought that it’d be a year, two tops, before John Mayer and I were working on his newest album. It may come as no surprise that I was frustrated when, three years later, studio work still wasn’t enough to be a full-time job. Everything sent me into a tail spin. When someone chose to go to Nashville instead of working with me in Jackson, I’d write them off as dead. I’m ridiculous. But that all changed when I started thinking of this as a lifelong career, as something that I had the privilege of doing over the long haul. 

Now I’m much happier in slow and steady growth. It’s better this way. When you grow slow, it gives you time to adjust and implement systems and strategies to be able to handle that growth. A few years ago, if I worked on as many projects as I do now, it all would have fallen apart. I wasn’t mature enough at that point in my journey to handle successes. Success would have crippled me. 

Being in it for the long haul also allows you to dream bigger. At year one, or even year two, my agenda was all about me and what I wanted for myself. Now, it’s bigger than that. The goal is to see that Mississippians have the opportunity to make world-class recordings here in our state. I’m not saying that artists should never record in big music cities, but I want a record made here to compete on that level. That’s bigger than me. 

Oddly enough, looking at this over the long haul allows me to be much more content. I don’t feel as anxious about potential projects falling through or a bad six-month stretch. It’s just part of it. In thinking long term, I’m reminded that short-term pain is just building up my muscles and strengthening my resolve. 

But it’s hard to enjoy these benefits if you haven’t committed yourself to the long haul. That’s probably the scariest part. When you do commit, when you say, “I’m going to spend the next five or fifty years doing something,” it gets scary. What if you’re wrong? What if no one gives a crap about what you commit to seeing done? I think I could easily spend the rest of my life working on this long-haul vision. 

It’s also a discipline to look at something over the long haul. No one wants to do that today. Myself included. We want quick fixes, quick results, and quick changes, but that’s not how this works. Anything worth spending our short life on, requires our short life. Grand visions and big goals take time. I encourage you to make a commitment to be in it for the long haul. Not half way in it for a long period of time, and not all the way in for a short period of time. Yet, truly committing to making your dreams a reality. I’m in it for the long haul, are you?

Pick Your Classroom

First, can I just say, we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others. Compare and despair. The only person you should compare yourself to is you yesterday. There are probably fifty more clichés that are completely true. But, on the other hand, there are times when comparison can be helpful, like when it’s used for motivating and spurring on growth, not building up egos or looking down on others. That said, here we go.

I heard an adage a few years ago that says, “If you’re the smartest kid in the classroom, you should find another classroom.” For me, this means if I surround myself with people who are just like me, on my level, then I don’t see much growth in myself. Yet, when I am in the presence of others who are better than me, I get better. As I started trying to do this, trying to push myself, I realized something interesting. I’d never really been active at picking my classroom. It’s always been a pretty passive affair.

Let’s look at one example. Growing up, I wanted to be the most athletic person in my class. I went head to head with thirty other third graders to show them that my athleticism dominated theirs in our daily tackle football game. For those glorious 30 minutes on that dusty playground, we thought we were the toughest, roughest, dudes in the world. It was by those guys that I measured my talent level. If a friend broke out a cool new juke move, I’d adapt it and make it part of my game. 

But I didn’t pick that classroom. I didn’t pick the guys I was competing against or comparing myself too. As a third grader, I didn’t make an active decision to measure myself by my friends. I was passively measuring myself by my peers. I didn’t think about comparing my moves to Bo Jackson to get better. Or how I could learn the mechanics of throwing from looking at Joe Montana. I just considered my skills in light of those other kids, and was pretty satisfied. I didn’t pick my classroom.

As adults, the stakes are higher, but the same principles apply. Very rarely are we intentional about who we compare ourselves too. Instead, we measure our progress by proximity. The number of CDs sold by the artist we opened for, or how much tighter our band is than the other bands playing the same venues. The problem is, if you measure yourself against your peers, then expect small results from yourself. Not that your peers suck or anything. But, if you shoot for their level, the best you’ll ever be, is well, them. And maybe that’s OK with you, but it’s something you should be aware of. You’ve picked your classroom. 

So if we’re going to compare ourselves, let’s do it with those who are smarter and better at whatever we are striving to do. Let’s shoot for something above status quo. I’ve seen it time and time again—an artist will have momentum for a project, tons of press, and then they take their foot off the gas because the release was successful enough. If they would have pushed a little bit more, who knows what would have happened. 

I want you guys to be really freaking successful by the standard you choose. Not by one that you passively adapt. If we compare ourselves to others, let’s use it as a tool for betterment. Pick your classroom. 

FOCUS

I have a lot of weaknesses. A basket full. Over the last year, one has stood out more than others—my lack of focus. It comes it many forms, but the most common is having good ideas. That doesn’t sound so bad, right? In essence, having good ideas is wonderful, but following ALL good ideas isn’t. Let’s look at the cost of lack of focus.

There’s an emotional cost.

We have a surprisingly low amount of emotional energy each day. That’s why supermarkets put candy at the front, by the checkout. They’re banking on you having made so many decisions throughout your shopping experience—detergent, tortilla chips with scoops or without, which brand of frozen pizza—that you have decision fatigue and just buy the dang Snickers. 

When you’re unfocused, you have to make too many decisions about too many agendas. Because of this, you’ll experience decision fatigue. This causes you to either procrastinate on a decision that you should make, or make a hasty decision (i.e. buy the candy) because you’re tired. I’m learning more and more that emotional energy may be the most valuable thing I have, and so it deserves to be violently protected. The best way to protect it is to have fewer decisions. 

Let’s use arbitrary numbers in an example. Let’s say you have to make 3 big decisions a month for your band: 1) where to tour (east coast, west coast, etc, 2) how to get more placements in film, and 3) what manager to hire. That’s a big month. I’m sort of tired thinking about it. 

On top of that, let’s say you have a side project with some friends that requires three big decisions: 1) whether to get a different bass player because Ted can’t make a lot of the gigs, 2) what songs to choose for the up coming record, and 3) which ideas to pursue for the music video for the new single. 

That’s just a simple example, but as you can tell, it’s crazy to think you can really move the ball forward on both of those. Plug in whatever two or three things are dividing your attention. Lack of focus is why so many people don’t make decisions. In the two bands example, you’ll barely have enough emotional energy to book the tour (with all the rejections that can come with that), and get placements in film (again, extremely taxing). Then, you'll half-way do some of the other tasks, which can be really costly because you may look lazy or unprofessional to those you’re working with.

Lack of focus punishes the narrative. (You could also call this marketing.)

When’s the last time you told someone how awesome Walmart’s music section is? Nope. But you certainly can think of the last time you told a friend about T-Bone’s Record Store (Hattiesburg, MS). Because it’s focused, it’s specialized. There’s nothing to brag about at Walmart, because it’s unfocused. The same is true for your brand, for your music. People will brag on you and tell your story when you make it easy for them by being focused.

Let me drive this point home by describing Walmart’s music section to you. Hang in there.

Yeah, you can get records at Walmart. To get to the music section, you walk in, pass the deli meats on your right, and the make-up counter on your left. Keep going a little further passed the fishing section, and finally the automotive section, with the tires and such. When you arrive at the music section, it’ll be tough to find anything outside of the Top 40. If you, hypothetically, wanted to buy one of those records, you’ll have to search because everything will be unorganized and likely out of its genre. 

Why the hell would I want to tell a friend this story? I’d sound stupid and bore the crap out of them. But T-Bone’s, on the other hand, has a super cool vibe from the moment you walk in the door. You know they’re not pushing what the major labels are paying the big chains to feature. It’s just damn good music. Oh yeah, and if they don’t have something you’re looking for, just ask one of the workers behind the counter, and they can special order what you need, or advise you about something similar that you may like even better. 

So I can tell that story to my friends, and they won’t fall asleep. And it’s likely the story will be told again and again, further spreading the idea. Focused ideas are easy to spread. 

Lack of focus kills creative thinking

Most of your good ideas will come in your down time. For me, it’s when I’m taking a walk, driving, or the classic, taking a shower. It’s that relaxed state when we think our clearest. 

I just finished a 100-day goal journal that encourages you to just move one ball forward for 100 days. Each morning and night you journal about that one goal, and it has some helpful questions you answer each day that help you process what you’ve been doing. I learned so much through this process.

What stood out to me the most was what happened in the white spaces in my life. My down time was crazy powerful because I had a clear focus. Instead of thinking about the three or four things I was trying to move forward, I found powerful and deep thoughts about the one thing. When you focus on moving one thing forward you’ll have much more creative and powerful ideas. You’ll feel the creativity that pours out from focus. 

Closing thoughts.

On the flip side, we must pursue new ideas. That’s what being creative is about. That’s why we do this. For me, it’s been really helpful to create boundaries for new ideas. Usually early in the week when I’m mixing and meeting with folks, I’ll schedule some time to flesh out new ideas. Then, if the idea seems viable, I’ll talk it over with a friend or someone I trust. Lastly, I’ll do some type of small test with the idea to see if there’s something there. At that point, ninety-eight percent of the time, I kill the idea. Over the last few years, there have been 3 ideas I’ve pursued out of fifty or more that seemed genius in the moment. Give yourself permission to explore new ideas, but put them on a leash until they’re worth the precious few hours you have on this earth. 

Kill stuff that’s sucking your emotional energy. I had something that I said yes to over the last year, because it was really financially helpful (we have a kid now, it’s scary ha), but in month ten of our commitment, I realized that I was dreading the time I had to spend on that project. It was starting to affect my creativity. So at a pretty significant financial cost, I cut that off. You know what happened? I made that money back pretty quickly doing stuff I love to do. What I should have been focused on in the first place! 

Lastly, being focused is beneficial in the long term, but costly in the short term. To truly focus on something, you have to say no to a ton of other things. And that sucks. But in the long run, over years, focus pays off. Big time. 

I want to see myself focusing more over the next few years. I’ve been thinking about it this way, I have a double barrel shotgun each year. So, two shots. I really only have time to shoot at two targets each year. To move two things forward. I can do that with quality and create real impact. Two really good shots. If I start reloading, or taking a machine gun approach, the quality drops dramatically. But if I will carefully focus my attention on one thing at a time, and carefully take the shot, I’ll be much more effective. I’ll have much more impact. Focus allows us to have significance. What do you need to be focusing on more today?