Becoming what they already are

I could give you a list, right now, of a dozen students who will make their living in the music industry, and 120 who won’t.

There is a guy who got frustrated trying to explain to people what MP3 compression does to audio files. He took a few hours one evening to record a live string trio, then built an audio file for them to listen to that switches to lower and lower MP3 quality every 2 bars. Everyone who has heard it immediately says “Ah … I get it.” He’s going to be an engineer.

There’s a girl who has spent the last 2 years booking her own gigs as a singer-songwriter, begging and borrowing to record an album, and steadily building a following of fans who will regularly drive an hour to hear her play live. She reached out and got connected with indie promoters, has songs being placed on TV shows, and did a club tour of Singapore. She’s going to be an artist.

There’s a bass player ditching his final exams, in his last semester here, because he’s going to be on tour. He’s kills on electric bass, but for the last 9 months he’s been busting his chops on a series of Bach pieces for acoustic bass. I know because he insists on practicing in the hallway outside my office. He’s going to be a bass player.

There’s the kid who bugged his way into an internship with Lee Rintenour. Lee wasn’t quite sure what to do with an intern, so, as a joke, he gave the kid a recording of himself jamming over a loop for 45 minutes, and told him to transcribe it. Well, the kid transcribed it, the whole thing, then he learned to play it, and brought it back to Lee. He told him he wasn’t an intern anymore, and hired him to do session prep for his next record, charting the songs for the players. He’s going to be a session player.

Most of the music majors at our school, and I would guess that this is true of all music programs everywhere, believe that something magical will happen the moment they walk out the door with a diploma in hand. They will suddenly become self-motivated, practicing 3 hours a day. They’ll take the time to listen to all of those recordings that their teachers keep recommending, and they’ll magically know how to self-promote. In short, they’ll become musicians.

The difference is in how they see themselves. The engineer is already an engineer. The artist is already an artist. They aren’t on their way to becoming anything that they aren’t already.

I hear a lot of students talking about getting “their break”, and it’s the talk of a person who expects somebody else to step into their life, and rescue them from the responsibility of their own decisions. Truthfully, it’s the voice of the prolonged adolescence, wanting the patina of adulthood with none of the attendant obligations.

The students who will make their living as musicians don’t ever talk about getting “their break”. Really. Not ever. They talk about music, about what they’re listening to and learning to play, they get excited when they talk about their craft, and about other people who excel at it. They talk like musicians, not like people who are waiting for someone to turn them into musicians. They’re not waiting for anyone’s permission to become the thing they want to be. To pull a fantastic quote from The Departed, they are not content to be the product of their circumstances – they want their circumstances to be a product of who they are.

Do you want to be a songwriter? Songwriters write songs, and perform them for anyone, anywhere. Do you want to be a painter? Put brush to canvas. Do you want to be a writer? Put ink on the page. If you aren’t already doing those things you say you want to, then my guess is you don’t really want to do them.

Those who are waiting for the right circumstances to transform them are, I think, doomed to lead lives of quiet desperation, and will go to the grave with their songs still in them.

43 thoughts on “Becoming what they already are

  1. Kenn Rodriguez

    I absolutely agree with everything you have said. Many people think because one is at school and get a degree everything will be easier, when in fact the Music Industry does not really care about such things. This has been one of the hardest thing I have realized in the last year. My career gets in the way of my school work and vise versa.

    Hopefully, someday you can listen to a few things I have mixed/recorded/ mastered and give me you personal opinion on them.

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  3. Daniel

    great post. Word…
    Something I’ve found true is that real musicians don’t have to bad-mouth other people in order to try and look like they know what they’re talking about. People that are REALLY trying to be a musician do that. They can tell you how bad that person is doing in order to prove to you they can hang…
    Real musicians just rock, and when somebody else IS butchering for the third time in a row, there is a silent code that speaks for them. It says “that person sucks, but we all know it, so let’s not dwell on it ’cause that’s just downright petty”.

    Hm. I would like to hear that compression example though. That sounds pretty interesting. So…192K bps great for mp3s? Or is 128 enough?

  4. Chad

    Another quote from The Departed, albeit quoting John Lennon…

    “I’m an artist… gimme a tuba and I’ll do somethin’ cool with it.”

    I’ve straddled this line for far too long. On one hand, I was writing and becoming who I was in college. On the other hand, I spent a lot of time frustrated that “The Break” wasn’t coming.

    Thank god for Tom. He really shook my s**t up.

  5. JC

    Michael: What great insight. I love it when I read something that really makes me stop and think: “Oh, could he be talking about me?” Usually the answer is a resounding “YES!”. I like the fact that you didn’t say…”he will become a famous/successful artist/engineer/bassist/session player”, because that isn’t really the point. The point is that they have a focussed passion and they will pursue it with a dedication that will most certainly result in “success” for them. I can’t tell you the number of times I have seen less “talented” people achieve success because they simply had more desire and focus than those with more talent. It’s one of the “habits” of successful people to envision themselves achieving their goals and ultimately, they find themselves actually doing it…instead of talking about it.

  6. michael lee Post author

    Phil, not unless you get yourself off that music-writing computer and start jumping up as high as you can on the roof. Don’t let anyone stop you! Start lifting off!

  7. Morphea

    Michael, [swallows pride, looks around furtively] I wish to god I’d known you ten years ago. I was a talented, egotistic, lazy and frightened musician who skated along on latent ability, learned a few things, and waited (and is still waiting) for The Day when something would come along to skyrocket me to…if not fame, at least a semi-regular income as a professional.

    You will help so many if you can figure out how to impart this to the likes of me that are now within the realm of your influence. I fervently hope they listen.


  8. Scott

    How is it that you can take a mishmash of half-thoughts that have floated about in my head for 6 years and just nail them to the wall so clearly? You are the Martin Luther to my 95 nebulous theses.

    Can you please give this speech in P. Forum at least once a year, as well as a “brief reminder” version at the beginning of every Music Tech class meeting? Shake those people out of their idealistic reveries.

    As for the mp3 guy, I’ve never seen anyone go through APU with such passion for (and knowledge of) one particular field. Now that he’s here and I see what can be, I wonder why more aren’t like that and what I’ve been missing this whole time being surrounded by mediocre, uninspired musician-wannabes. We need a jumpstart. Henceforth you shall be known as the musical defibrillator.

  9. Stick

    [quote comment="59761"]
    Hm. I would like to hear that compression example though. That sounds pretty interesting. So…192K bps great for mp3s? Or is 128 enough?[/quote]

    192K is ok for mp3, I wouldn’t call it “good”. Apple’s mp4 or AAC is better than mp3 at 192K. I can’t stand the sound of 128K mp3.

    Nice post, Mike.

  10. corey

    nahh. I totally agree with everyone else. This is really well written and resonates with some incomplete thoughts that have been festering in my head for years now. But I thought it would get old for Mike if everyone kept telling him how brilliant he is. I was performing the service that any good friend would. The rest of you should be ashamed of yourselves.

    er… maybe I’m in a mood today. I’m going to hang up now.

  11. Monkey

    We need more people with the guts to tell it as it is – with love, of course. This fatal flaw in college planning isn’t limited to music majors – every major has the distant dream that depends on a magical paper they receive after a four (or more) year stint. Who could imagine that building a social network would have anything to do with performing? Certainly not a number of performance majors that think a piece of paper equals gigs. So where’s the guidance going to come from? Who has the voice to tell someone that maybe they should reconsider where their strengths lie, or how their talents/gifts would apply in the “real?”
    Lastly, I can’t believe you quoted a transcendentalist! lol! But kudos, the quote does stand true in this situation. All of us might need some Walden Pond meditation to truly understand how to complete college without relying on the magical diploma.

  12. Jeremy

    As a graduate of Film school and one of the few from my class that actually works in the industry, the question I’ve always had is…”So why bother going to school.”

    For film, or music or any career where the degree doesn’t ultimately matter, whats the point? The people that are going to succeed probably would with or without a degree. The only legitimate answer I’ve come up with is networking. Any others?

  13. Melody

    So Michael, why didn’t you toddle in and say this when I was getting my degree? Okay, maybe you weren’t even born yet. I was the studio singer/songwriter wannabe who found out early on that I was and still am a good, though not great, musician. I think the 3 hours per day of practicing one’s craft might just have something to do with it. After doing nothing musically for several years I discovered the joy of teaching others (public high school kids) to make music. It’s amazing to teach people who are better musicians than me. But the best part is hanging with other musicians who are better than me and have them say nice things about me anyway.

  14. michael lee Post author

    [quote comment="59821"]So why bother going to school.[/quote]

    That’s a fantastic question, and one that I don’t know if I have a good answer to. I know that will bring a lot of joy to my students who are reading this. That’s right kids, Prof Lee has no idea why you’re spending 30k a year to be here!

    The analogy I use is that going to school is like running through a hardware store. There’s no benefit to running through it, and no prize for reaching the other side. The only thing that matters are the tools that you grab along the way.

    The great advantage of a good school, one with a well-developed program, is that it puts you in contact with tools you would never have thought to grab otherwise. If I had emerged from High School and went straight into trying to play keyboards professionally, I would never have learned about music technology, how to orchestrate for strings, anything about choral music. All of those things that my music degree forced me to do have ended up being invaluable in my professional career.

    I might still have been able to make a career at it, but there’s no way I could do the dozen things other than playing keyboards that now go into making my living as a musician.

    Networking isn’t a small thing, either. When I got out into the industry, I was jealous of those friends of mine who went to places like Berklee, or USC. They got into town, and had a list of people to call who already knew them, and knew what they could do. It seems like they hit ground running a lot faster than I did. At the time I graduated from APU, there had been maybe a dozen people, total, who went from APU out into the industry, and made a living at it. Most of them I didn’t know. Compare that with someone who goes to USC, and graduates with 50 other people who will all be out making a living. That’s a pretty significant advantage.

    So, stay in school kids. Don’t do drugs. Don’t hang out with degenerates like Chad and Jeremy.

  15. Bobby

    Well said, Mike. Of course that could be said about all your posts, but I choose to attach it to this one. I was worried that final link would be to my myspace or something…

    I had an epiphany about my junior year – I was not going to be a professional horn player, or a soundtrack composer, as I had intended when starting at APU. It wasn’t that those weren’t great things to be, or that I wasn’t good at them… my soul just knew I wasn’t willing to put in the time to be great instead of good. God knows it would have been A LOT of time! I backed out of some of my music schooling (although I still somehow finished with a Theory/Comp degree) and ended up taking some business classes and putting more into the guitar and recording, because that was where my heart was.

    It’s worked out ok so far, the business training gets me through the musically slow times (like the last year). Interestingly my hobby of building web sites has been paying the bills for almost 5 years now.

    My single is being played on two more stations than the Apologetix latest… I feel my life is complete. Didn’t have a good place to put that but I had to say it.

  16. michael lee Post author

    Hey bobby, wanna give me a quote on doing an addison road site redesign? I can probably swing $20, $30 on something hip and fresh.

  17. Cliff

    This is a scary and bewildering truth you’re putting out. I wonder if you see it that way?

    I am not a musician and I have to say that the people that I know who are pretty well fit your description – full-on passionate about their craft. I just wonder…is there time for the late-bloomers to grow up?

  18. leoskeo

    I am not a musician and I don’t play one on TV but I do think the point is well made. I am a pastor who did not graduate from college, never went to seminary and has spent the last 26 years in ministry. Sort of like it is who I am, not something I was going to do someday.

    One of the cool things is the church is so much more open to musicians than a few years ago. Younger musicians are pushing the church to get better, Michael, put that passion in your student so pastors like me will not be able to overlook the amazing artists in the church.

  19. Scott

    Funny, I just had a long conversation with a jazz player at APU about the value of getting a degree versus not, in the context of “all this classical training is keeping me from what I want to do”. Any response to that?

  20. Bobby

    Taglines push the project over budget. Please attend a Budget Planning Committee Selection meeting, followed by the Budget Planning Committee Team meeting, where we will schedule a meeting to talk about raising the budget. I sent you an appointment.

  21. Josiah Mory

    Ah, another great post. I agree with what both Monkey and Scott say, as well. I think that every semester a performance forum should be dedicated to reminding students of this issue.

  22. Chad

    [quote comment="59962"]
    Only that there’s no such thing as classical training and jazz training, really. It’s all just notes. You should hear Chick Corea sit down and rip through a Mozart sonata.[/quote]


    I might disagree, professor Lee. It’s taken me a long time to undo some of the rules I learned at APU. Of course, I never would have been here had I not been there… so it’s kind of a moot point.

    I think classical music (especially if you’re a singer) can make your pop tone pretty silly sounding. Classical singers can be retrained, but I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t compromise one to better the other.

    Piano may be a different animal, and as I am a competent hack on that instrument, I will not weigh in.

  23. michael lee Post author

    [quote comment="59925"]Funny, I just had a long conversation with a jazz player at APU about the value of getting a degree versus not, in the context of “all this classical training is keeping me from what I want to do”. Any response to that?[/quote]

    Only that there’s no such thing as classical training and jazz training, really. It’s all just notes. You should hear Chick Corea sit down and rip through a Mozart sonata.

  24. Josiah Mory

    I would agree with you Mike if all that was meant by “classical” training had to do with notes. I see it as also being required to be in a classical performing group, being required to play an instrument in a classical manner and having to play an instrument that is considered classical to get a scholarship. If one’s main focus is non-classical performance, or even playing or arranging/writing for styles other than classical then it is almost impossible to fit in to structure that is at a school that holds to classical elitism.

  25. Chad

    Lemme clarify,

    I’m not ripping on classical music, I think everyone should be educated as to how we got where we are. I love classical music. I wish I could do what Morphea does and sing in a legit chorale.

    I just think that, speaking totally as a singer here, there are habits and characteristics of classical singing that make it impossible to turn around and sing a pop vocal with any integrity, or vice versa. Same 12 tones, yes, but different worlds entirely. Nothing worse then a classical singer trying to sing pop. Nothing.

  26. Morphea

    Morphea quit the chorale. But she still takes classical voice lessons. The Chad, let’s get personal. You heard my karaoke skillz. You saying I sucked? I sucked. I know. I’m a sucky pop singer.


    I totally and utterly disagree that classical training and pop singing can’t be accomplished together, at the same time in your life, with integrity. I love you, The Chad, even though you’re saying that my cover of Rod Stewart’s ‘Forever Young’ wasn’t the pop masterpiece that it is. (What??) But I disagree that 1. the agility/history/strength/range that classical music imbues can’t be used in a great way for a pop/rock/jazz singer, and 2. you can’t do both. Huh-uh. It takes more work, yes, but I think musicians (not all of them, perhaps) can benefit from both and DO both to the utmost of their potential. I do. For honesty’s sake, my classical teacher disagrees with me, too. But she’s amazing, so…I smile and nod. Arrogant harpy that I am.

    I mean, come on. Are you all forgetting that awesome Ralph Macchio movie “Crossroads”? The only reason Eugene could out-play the devil on electric guitar was because of all that Bach he had to sweat through. We all know that movies are the truth – ergo, I have you in the crushing grip of reason on this one.

    I realize that the fact that I’ve already admitted to being one of the useless musicians (i.e., not ‘doing’ anything, waiting for Sting to knock on my door, etc.) kind of renders my opinion null. But I got a good classical/pop/rock/jazz musical education. I’m not ‘doing’ anything and that grieves me – Michael’s given me some clarity in that respect. All of this doesn’t mean that I suck, though.


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  27. aly hawkins

    I agree with Cerise. I resisted developing my classical tone for years and years because I was petrified that I’d no longer be able to chest a C if I started singing “right.” Nothing could have been further from the truth. Sure, I’ve known plenty of classical OR pop OR jazz singers who have focused on one genre and subsequently forgotten how to sing the others (muscle memory matters)…but I don’t think that has to be the norm. I became a better pop/jazz singer the minute I finally starting taking classical seriously.

    [My caveat here is that I sing about as much now as I run for president. But on the occasions I do, I'm better for every run-in with Sam Barber.]

  28. michael lee Post author

    Josiah, I can’t get with you on this one. You know how I learned to play funk? By playing Bach. Whenever I tried to play funk, or motown, or even just a good beefy blues, I got tangled up in trying to make it a deep emotional experience, raw and powerful. I never bothered to realize that none of that mattered until my time mattered. Playing a year of Bach two and three part inventions under the watchful eye Terry Trotter (no slouch on the jazz keys, himself) busted my chops on time, which made me a better player in everything else.

    It’s true on any instrument. The fundamentals of music just don’t change all that much, from genre to genre. Good execution is still good execution. Learning to control pitch, time, tone, breath, phrasing, all of those things matter in every genre.

    I’m holistic when it comes to music – I’m a “use the whole buffalo” kind of guy. I firmly believe that no time invested in music, earnestly invested, is ever wasted. It will pay dividends in the most unlikely of places.

  29. Morphea

    Michael: this is why you’re the man.

    The Chad: you are the sweetest man alive. It totally looked like I was fishing, but I swear I wasn’t. Does this blog make my butt look big?

    Aly: right you are. And your ‘chest a C’ remark, while terribly pertinent, did make me immediately imagine myself balancing a class of Tang on my jublies. Here’s to you for my biggest laugh today.


  30. michael lee Post author

    [quote comment="60041"]And your ‘chest a C’ remark, while terribly pertinent, did make me immediately imagine myself balancing a class of Tang on my jublies.

    I’m pretty sure there’s a website devoted to nothing but that. Hang on, I’ll email bobby to get the link.

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  32. Scott

    Here’s a question, getting back to what the post was originally about (what was that again?):

    What of those people who are good at many things, but not “monster players” or “sick engineers” or whatever other hip ways of saying they’re better than I am at their one thing? What about the people who are exceedingly well-rounded? Are they wasting their time? What should they pursue? Random small-time gigs where their contractors don’t know the difference? Are they left to fight over the scraps from the aforementioned prodigies’ and go-getters’ table? Please note that these are still people with great talent and even initiative, but are perhaps lost in the sea of options and unclear vision.

    Jacques of all trades

  33. Chad


    I understand your perspective, I really do. Here is a list of things that I could do (or I am pretty sure I could do) if I applied myself:

    1. Screenwriter
    2. Worship Pastor / Senior Pastor (yikes)
    3. Film & TV Composer
    4. Singer / Songwriter (my chosen focus)
    5. Session Singer (my new day gig)
    6. Choral Conductor
    7. Video Editor
    8. Audio Editor / Mixer
    9. Record Producer
    10. Talent Scout / Developer

    I have aptitude (and have proven myself in varying degrees) in all of these areas that has been lauded and encouraged by smart people. I think that if I do not choose one of these, I will simply not ever break through. The idea of Jack of all Trades is, I’m afraid, a rabbit trail. Madonna (or pick your successful person who wears many hats) did not become Madonna The Multitalented Diva by focusing on many things. She became who she is because she first made a name for herself in one area, and then crossed over using her fame and clout.

    It’s my opinion, and this opinion is based on watching some EXTREMELY gifted, connected, and (most importantly) well funded people flounder around well into their 30s never catching a break because they refuse to focus on one area.

    I have a friend who is one of the most talented people I have ever met. He has performed for Oprah, Maya Angelou, Will.I.Am, Morgan Freeman, Norman Lear, Salma Hayek, etc… I have never seen someone command a stage with just a microphone and the contents of his mind. He won the national slam poetry champoinships, and was featured by Russell Simmons on HBO. I’d ask him, “Are you going to break through as a poet, rapper, actor, director, or writer?” He’d answer, “yes.”

    He lives with his parents.

  34. Scott

    Fair enough. Guess it’s good that I moved out 5 months ago.

    And since you mentioned it, how does one get into the session singing world? Sight singing belongs with Scott like Phil Shackleton belongs with Logic Audio.

  35. Chad


    I’m gonna post about this topic instead of responding here, it’s a great question, and I don’t have a good answer, but rather a series of disconnected thoughts. So… it’ll be like every other post I write.

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