Knowledge. Fear. Balance.
About a week ago I was sitting in a restaurant here in downtown Nashville. My dad had come to town because it was my birthday, I was turning 34, and we were just sitting, talking about work and how things were going in both of our lives. As we were talking I realized that I had officially been working professionally in music for 15 years..
That blew my mind for a second…
It got me thinking about how much my life, the music industry / music in general, and most importantly how I approach / experience creating music had changed over those 15 years. Since this is my first time (of many) sharing on the Full Circle Music blog I thought I would just give a quick back story of the things I’ve seen and most importantly the things I’ve learned to help me reach the point that Im at now. Some of this will be geared more towards the engineer and studio life, some of this will be more in the producer realm, but I think most all of this can apply to any aspect of the music world and to life in general.
You don’t know everything, but you never stop learning.
I was 19. Fresh out of school. I had decided to move to Nashville after Seattle hadn’t worked out. My entry into the studio/engineering/production side of the industry was pretty typical of the early 2000’s, you start with an unpaid internship at a studio and you work your way up. I was interning at a pretty large studio facility here in Nashville and I quickly realized that even though I went to school for engineering, I KNEW NOTHING… All of the interns always stood near the front desk area of the studio waiting to be given the chance to do something. We all jumped at tasks that were easy to do, cleaning, getting food for people stuff like that, but there were a few interns that had been there a lot longer and they knew more about how to do more technical things and they were always the first ones asked to do more complex jobs that actually involved music (the jobs the rest of us WANTED to do but weren’t sure how yet and we definitely didn’t want to mess it up some how). I had become pretty friendly with a lot of the producers and engineers working in the different rooms as well as their assistants, we would eat together after I did the lunch runs and stuff like that so I was getting to know some great people and hoped that one day I would get to sit in on their sessions. Well that time had come.. It was a day it had snowed really bad and only a few of us had made it in to the studio, one of the assistants came out of the room they were working in looking for one of the interns who had a lot of experience with hooking up protools rigs to the patch bay of this giant SSL console and getting timecode ran so it could drive the console for automation. As luck would have it, none of the people that knew how to do that had made it in, so the assistant asked the few of us that were up there.. Unfortunately for us, none of us knew how to do this, we had never ever had to, we all told the assistant no, and he turned around frustrated and stomped off now knowing that he would have to do all the work himself with no help. I felt horrible after saying no to him, I LOVE helping people and the fact that I couldn’t help him irritated me, so I went down the hall to the tech closet to test mic cables and at least do something productive. Thats when the Engineer whom that assistant was working for bumped into me. He told me something that has made a huge difference in how I approach a lot of things in life. He walked up to me and said, “hey, why don’t you want to help us, my assistant said everyone turned him down.. You guys should be dying to do this, this is a chance to work on music, not test cables..”. I told him what I had told his assistant, I didn’t know how. He thanked me for at least being man enough to not lie about knowing how and messing everything up, but then he imparted some serious words of wisdom to me. If someone asks you to do something you don’t know how to do, DON’T SAY NO, say I CAN LEARN or CAN YOU SHOW ME HOW? I walked into the studio with him, his assistant showed me real quick how to do what they needed done and I did it.. Even better, everything I had put together actually WORKED! I got to hang out and watch them mix all day and see how it all worked, and from then on, I was asked to do all kinds of things and I learned more in the coming weeks than I did in 14 months of school. Fast-forward to just over a year ago I have ALWAYS been a ProTools man, but for the sake of productivity and to make it easier to share files and keep the work flow smooth, I was asked if it would be possible for me to work some in logic.. I simply said, absolutely.. I downloaded it, and just started figuring it out. YouTube became a close friend of mine as I tried to absorb as much as I could to make working in it easier.. I could have probably said no, and we could have gone on wasting time exporting files back and forth between ProTools and Logic.. But we work faster and easier now, and I have a new skill in my skill set! In everything you do, there is the chance to learn, take the opportunity to do so, learn from other writers / producers / engineers, not only what are some good things to do, but what are some things NOT to do. You don’t know everything, you never will, but you never ever have to stop learning.
Do not live in fear, thicken your skin, music is subjective.
I soon continued up the path at the studio, I became a staff engineer within a few moths of starting there, finally making some money and working on some fun music. Soon that led me to my first full time job as the personal engineer for a producer. Until this point I had felt like I had worked on music, I had recorded music, I had mixed music, I had been in the room with lots of big artists, I had big album credits to my name, I thought I knew what working in music was, and to an extent I did, but to a larger extent I did not. As I started working with this producer, my idea of how music is made changed, I wasn’t breezing in and out of artists lives nearly as much, it wasn’t 20 different projects a week like when I worked at the studio, it was 2 or 3 projects at a time for months, and not just doing the tracking or just the overdubs, we were doing ALL of it. This is when it became clear that there was a much deeper part of music, something that you have to love and something you have to WANT to give your all to or its just not going to turn into something special. This is when I knew I eventually wanted to get into production. I was an ok engineer at the time, and I knew nothing about editing, but this was my time to learn, I never said no, I just asked to be shown and I took it from there.. I learned a lot, and one of the biggest things I learned was that I needed to thicken my skin a bit. Coming from a world where you would work with one artist one day and then maybe never see them again to a place where we were literally consumed by creating one artists work and not stopping until it was perfect made for a very steep learning curve. If something wasn’t PERFECT it DID matter, not that it hadn’t before, but now it seemed to matter even more. I LOVED THAT. I wanted what we did to matter, but I also was just learning and I was making mistakes and criticism hurt.. I realized though, the criticism of what I was doing wasn’t directed at me to bring me down, it was directed at me to fuel me towards getting it done right, because we needed to settle for NOTHING less than perfection for the people that we working for. As I learned this, I started taking the criticisms in stride, and started learning and figuring things out more on my own because I was realizing that I WANTED it to be perfect, not for me, but for the artist, for the song, for the music, I learned to welcome people telling me I did something wrong or the edits weren’t right or they could hear the tuning and it needed redone, I was barely a year into being a professional, you NEED to hear those kinds of things, you NEED to learn. My skin was getting thick and I wasn’t taking any of those things personally any more and we were making amazing records, growing and learning with each and everyone of them.
Fast-forward a few years, I’m on my own now doing my own productions. I had gotten way into local and indie rock and I was working with or trying to work with the best artists that I could find. This was a tough period in life, I was working harder than I had ever worked before making music that really mattered to me and only investing my time into artists that I really, really believed in. Most of these acts were not on labels, they were paying for it themselves and they were looking for someone who would do anything for them to make them as great as possible. I was that person. I had plenty of confidence, but I wasn’t over confident and I thought I had a thick enough skin to get me through anything. We were making music that was blowing through the expectations of the artists, the artists and I were taking their visions to places they didn’t even know they wanted to go, it was an amazing feeling. I started to realize that I hadn’t done much developing of artists before and I didn’t realize that when an artist grows, the possibilities grow, not just for you, but for them too. Suddenly these artists that I had been working with, pouring literally my heart and soul into were talking to OTHER producers, BIG NAME producers, guys that had done HUGE things in the music industry.. I will admit I was crushed, I felt betrayed, I had given up so much and put so much into these artists and they were just gonna leave me for something bigger and better. I thought I had a thick skin, I was absolutely wrong. It rattled me to my core. When I was engineering for the producer earlier in my career, artists always came back, so now that I’m on my own, why are these bands / artists jumping ship on me now? I took it extremely personal. It became almost a fixation, I was literally living in fear that I was going to lose all of these artists that I had poured my entire being into. I wasn’t afraid of losing the money, these were indie records, there was next to no money in it anyway, I was afraid of losing the opportunity, I knew there was so much that we could still do, myself and these artists, we weren’t finished yet. But I feared that we would never get the chance to explore further because they would just run off to the bigger-named producer waiting for them. I started thinking to myself “Who am I? Why should I even be considered if this other person is interested?”. This fixation to not lose artists was driving me wild, I would work 30 hours straight, sleep for 4 hours on the couch at the studio, dreaming / having nightmares about songs I was working on, till the knock on the door from the artists arriving would wake me up and I would keep going, over and over, trying to make things that no one expected. But in the end it didn’t matter, they were still taking the meetings and starting tracks with other people. I was crushed. One night a band had asked me to run sound for them at a local show, and I said I would, I always wanted my bands to sound amazing so I would do front of house whenever I could to try and help. The band played, and they rocked, it was a phenomenal show. I was walking up to the green room to talk to them and I saw a big name producer already in there talking to them, my heart absolutely sank, I could feel myself shaking a little. He was starting to walk away as I was approaching and he was walking right towards me.. I desperately wanted to dodge him.. There was no where to go though, he came right up to me and asked “Are you X?” I told him I was and he shook my hand rapidly, told me it was a pleasure to meet me and he was a FAN of my work I had done with this band.. I almost fainted.. I kinda thought he was making fun of me at first, but he wasn’t, he said it again. We ended up meeting for dinner a few nights later and talking. What I took away from that night was simple, I had been driving myself mad for no reason. He told me there was literally nothing he could have done better, it would have just been different. I realized then, fully, I’m not competing here, I’m growing. They aren’t looking to upgrade, they are looking to add to the vision. A band ended up doing two EP’s that they released simultaneously, I did one of them, he did the other, and they were perfect compliments of each other, both great, in my opinion, and both the same band, but just a little different. I had finally grown up, I wasn’t afraid of not being good enough any more, I wasn’t afraid of losing bands to other people because of a name. I now realized that we are all equals, we all want the same things, and we are all working that much harder to make them happen.
Fast-Forward a few more years and here I am now. Ive been working with Seth for about five or so years, and have been blessed to be in on the ground floor of the creation of Full Circle Music. Every day we are working on a number of songs by all kinds of different artists in different genres. At the end of the day, when I’m sending out mixes of whatever we’ve been working on, I’m not afraid. I’m excited. Im excited to hear back, I want to know what people think, I want to know how the song strikes them, if there is a change in direction or just small tweaks we should make. I’ve grown and I’ve realized over the years that music is subjective and that I won’t always understand some music, and there will be music that I make that people won’t understand, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t make it, it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t take that risk. Be open to hearing criticism, develop that thick skin, if someone is giving you their opinion on it, its typically not to try and insult you, its because they actually care and maybe they are hearing it in a way that you didn’t. Maybe their opinion doesn’t matter, but maybe, their little idea could be the difference between the song or the track you are working on being ok and being GREAT. Don’t be afraid to hear criticism, embrace it, and realize if one person doesn’t like it, that doesn’t mean no one will like it, its all a matter of taste. Don’t think you can’t do something because you’re working in your bedroom or you don’t have millions of dollars of gear. Great music can be made anywhere with anything. Be open to input, but also be strong in who you are and don’t let anything drive you away from being yourself.
Especially in the past few years, I have learned that having balance in your life is absolutely essential. When you work a ton of hours you can absolutely get a lot done! But over the years I have definitely found that the more I allow other aspects of my life to balance, the more focused, driven, and inspired I get to make killer music. In my 15 years I have worked insane hours, I’ve done the 20+ hour days for years on end, the weeks with no sleep, all of it, you name it, I’ve probably been through it. In the beginning its part of learning and growing. As the years went on though, I found that I was getting distracted by the things that I was missing out on.. I could feel my focus shifting more throughout the day, no matter what it was I was doing, It was getting harder to stay focused.
I loved to cook when I was younger, so at one point I was exhausted from a crazy work day and I decided I was going to cook some food for the guys I was sharing a house with at the time and myself. It was going to be a surprise for them, we all worked in music and we NEVER saw each other.. That night they came home and I had a huge pasta dinner waiting. We sat down at the table and we talked, not about anything special, we just chatted, joked about how we live in the same house but haven’t seen each other in weeks. We ended up staying up most of the night getting into talking about music and the next day I found myself energized like I hadn’t felt in a long time, I was more focused than I had been in months. I was tracking a band that day and we ended up revamping this song into something completely different and it worked brilliantly.. I started trying to make this a habit. I started to try to find time to go to the movies, cook dinner (since I’m very passionate about cooking as I’m sure you’ll come to learn), go on dates, stuff that I had just not been doing, I realized it was time to start counter-balancing all the music. The result was a more inspired, more driven feeling every time I walked into the studio. I found I was getting inspired now not just by my passion for music, but by the people and the different elements I was bringing into my life. It was a freeing feeling, I felt like I had an infinite amount of energy. Making time for other things was giving me a different perspective on things and was allowing me to approach the way I looked at music and how I went about creating. I started to collaborate more, I started focusing more, trying to improve with every day, and I found it was easier to do when I had an outlet to refill me with energy.
Music is all consuming. It has consumed me. And I love that. Its the passion of my life, thats why I wake up every day and do it, its why I never stop trying to learn and why I stride to be better at it and grow in making it every single day. What Ive had to learn over the past 15 years though is that music can be a driving force IN my life, but it can’t be the force that actually DRIVES my life. You have to let what you experience in life, not just on your own but with other as well inspire you, whether thats something as simple as watching a movie or cooking, or maybe its more grand like traveling the world and meeting all kinds of crazy people. Inspiration comes from all over, it comes from experiencing all sorts of things that life has to offer. Give yourself the freedom to have a little balance in your life, you never know what might inspire you, and who knows what that inspiration could drive you to create.
Making music isn’t a science, there is no guarantee of anything. Be true to yourself, be passionate, work hard, don’t be afraid of criticism. And never stop trying to better yourself. Everyday is new, treat it that way. Push yourself harder than the day before. Learn. Live. Create.
Thanks for reading!
Michael X O’Connor is a producer for Full Circle Music and has Grammy, Dove, and Billboard Awards among his credits.
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