Panelist (l to r) Erin Jacobson, Bob Mair, Pedro Costa, and Michael Eames (on Michael Laskow's laptop) enjoy a light moment during their panel at the TAXI Road Rally.
Panelists: Successful TAXI members Matt Vander Boegh, Sherry-Lynn Lee, and Bob Mete
Moderator: Michael Laskow
Sherry, what’s your next tip?
My next tip is collaborate. In the sync world—at least that I have been told—it is a numbers game, so you want to have as much music out there as possible. It’s great if you want to do stuff on your own, but you’ll be a lot faster if you collaborate with a bunch of people on different projects all at once. And one of the great places I find collaborators is on the TAXI Forum. One of my collaborators is sitting right there in the audience: John.
Yeah, collaborate with people; find people whose skills you complement, and their skills complement you. John put out a listing that said, “I’m looking for a cool writer who can sing, because I can’t. I’ll produce.” And I thought, “Great, because I’m not that great at producing yet, but I would love to write with you.” And we did a bunch of songs together and we got a lot of forwards from TAXI.
So collaborate with people. There are a lot of advantages. Not only that you can put out more stuff, but because you focus on the things that you’re good at. But also, if you feel like your material is dated, write with somebody who is young and who is already naturally up-to-date, and then you’ll get cool ideas that you would never have come up with.
So the TAXI Forum, the Facebook groups are great for that. And if you produce… I produce—still new at it—so what I do is I outsource what I’m not great at. So if I feel like I’m comfortable producing it, but I don’t know if I can pull off the mix, then I’ll send it to somebody else to mix, or I’ll send it to somebody else to master it. So you shouldn’t feel limited, but try to outsource what you need so you are not hindered by what you don’t know.
And when you do outsource, it’s worth mentioning that you should sign a work-for-hire agreement. I mean, you want to be clear. If somebody is collaborating in a writing capacity, figure out what the splits are upfront. Don’t wait until you get something placed in a film and go, “No, no, uh-uh. Sorry, I felt like I did 70% of the heaving lifting on that, and you only did 30.” Usually it’s just an equal split. It’s kind of understood, I think. But don’t let it just be “understood.” Maybe, yeah. If two or three of these guys have worked together five, 10, 15 times, maybe they can get a little sloppier because there is a level of trust and professionalism there. But, man, oh, man, it’s really important that you get that. And get a work-for-hire if you outsource a bass part or outsource production. You don’t want those people coming back to bite you on the butt when that piece of music makes some money.
Sherry: Yeah. I have co-writing agreements and master-recording-ownership agreements with all my co-writers. And if I do hire somebody like a producer, work-for-hire, I would have them sign an agreement, or any musicians, I would have them sign an agreement.
Bob, how about your next tip?
I’m going to jump on the bandwagon on the co-writers. Choose well. It is in many respects a marriage, and the song is the child. And we all know about messy divorces, custody battles, and all that. But choose your co-writers very well, as you would a partner, because this is a relationship. Get everything upfront. Does this co-writer like doing non-exclusive, or is he or she exclusive? I like to do non-exclusive, so if I’m co-writing with a guy who’s in libraries that are all exclusive, we need to define where this child or where this song is going once it’s finished. Where are we gonna pitch it? And we need to agree on that before we set off on the path together. So the last thing you want to do is have a really nice tune that’s finished and have the co-writers—one, two, three, or four of them on there—all disagree as to where it should go, and then the thing sits on the desk, because we can’t all agree where it’s going. So get the percentages.
I took two of my session guys… I do a lot of jazz trio work and quartet work, and I have a really great bass player. He was on the last CD with Phil Woods, a great alto player before he passed. And then I have a great drummer. I always pay them for the session work, and I get those signed releases. So I’m starting to do a lot of stuff and I’m shelling out a lot of money—which they love—and so I said, “Hey, look, how would you guys like to be writers? Now here’s the deal: I will make you writers; I’ll set you up with BMI—because I’m on BMI and I want to keep it all together. I’ll set you up with a couple of my libraries, and you won’t get paid for the session, but you’ll get a third of it.” They jumped right at it. So we took a break from one of our sessions and did all the paperwork.
What was really amazing is that it was a Halloween night, and it was three years ago. We did three tunes, and those three tunes are in four episodes of Nashville, four movies, and a whole bunch of other series. Why? Because the level went up. My level went up. And maybe they played a little better because they took some ownership, I don’t know, as opposed to just a paycheck. But choose your writers well, and don’t be afraid to bring people in, even if it costs you money. If you have a little drum kit in your office and you’re not a drummer, bring a drummer in. Experienced ears can hear who is a real drummer and who is not a real drummer on a track. You always want to be getting your levels up in terms of achievement and in terms of quality. And bringing quality session people in, even if it costs you money, is worth it.
“I knew absolutely nothing about recording or gear or anything. I had a copy of Pro Tools, but I didn’t even know what to do when you push the button at the bottom of the Mac.”–Matt Vander Boegh
Matt, I don’t know what your next suggestion is, but I want to go back to one that you and I talked about when I was in Boise and we did that episode of TAXI TV together. You told me that you didn’t know anything about engineering or production in the beginning—zippo. You were as inexperienced as they come, and you were spending money to go record your earlier stuff, your country stuff, your rock stuff maybe. Going to the studios in Boise and paying them, which obviously makes it so expensive per track that you will probably never make the money back if that stuff had been forwarded. So you learned how to engineer, and this is a big hurdle for a lot of people. They are so incredibly intimidated by the tech. And I don’t mean this the way it’s gonna sound at all, but if you could learn it, anybody could. [laughter]
Matt: Hey, I’ll be the first one to say that! Yeah, I knew absolutely nothing about recording or gear or anything. I had a copy of Pro Tools, but I didn’t even know what to do when you push the button at the bottom of the Mac. It launched up this program, but then there was nothing even there. The program’s running, but there’s nothing—I still see my desktop wallpaper. How do you even start? I was that clueless; I didn’t know how to get a blank canvas. That’s how at zero I was, and that was eight years ago. That was the zero point for me, and I’m sure you guys are a lot farther along than I was eight years ago. So, if I can be sitting on this chair eight years later, you guys could probably do it in six. It took me two years to figure out how to make anything that sounded passably good.
I was upstairs (at the Road Rally) with some friends of mine—we’re playing this little thing in a little while—and they’re talking about different gear and stuff like that. They were talking about compressors, different microphones, and I don’t know anything; I know nothing about it. I was up at Rob Chiarelli’s class, and he’s got all these pictures, “You should buy these compressors and these preamps,” I don’t have any of that. I got nothing. I’ve got a $129 Scarlett interface—that’s it! I wouldn’t know what to do with the other stuff if I had it.
And a reasonably decent iMac.
Yeah, it’s a good iMac; that’s the most expensive thing that I’ve bought.
And a couple of $200-ish microphones?
They weren’t even $200. I think one I bought here four or five years ago was a Gauge, whatever.
Right, 99 bucks.
Yeah, 75 bucks, Road Rally special. And then the other one was like 100 bucks. So I got two microphones—and really only use one—and I got some cables. There is nothing more fancy than that. Any time I actually go to a real recording studio with the stuff, it’s like I want to run away, because like I’m gonna be exposed as a hack. “How do you do these wires?” I know nothing, you guys. Nothing. But you can do it, you don’t have to know that stuff. Don’t be intimidated by it. You just have to know how to compose music, and how to dial up a synth. And the rest of it comes, it just comes with doin’ it every day.
Yeah, the sounds are so good now that are available that a lot of the time you don’t even need to know how to use a compressor; you just need to know how to pick the right sample for the right project, and it probably sounds pretty darn good as it is.
“And as you go along you will realize that you had no idea what you were doing before, but that shouldn’t stop you. You’ve got to start somewhere.”–Sherry-Lynn Lee
Sherry, give us another one, please.
Well, my next point was about working on your production chops and songwriting chops. Two years ago, I did not know how to produce at all. My husband and I worked together; we both learned together; we found videos online; we took courses; we took Robin Frederick’s lyric class, which I highly recommend; and we have just been working on learning as much as we can, getting feedback, and taking it as ways to improve, instead of feeling like, “Oh, I’m never going to get this.” Take it in a positive way; everybody is out here trying to help; and then try to get to know the common technique for the genre that you are doing. So if you’re doing jazz, you’re probably not using a lot of compression or Auto Tune or any of those, but if you’re doing pop, you probably are.
So with time you get to know what to do based on TAXI feedback. I actually got a lot of stuff returned. They were saying, “Oh, the vocal isn’t quite fitting in the mix,” and I didn’t know what that meant. Then I went to Mix Me Group and I said, “What do you think that means? How can I get it to the mix better?” And I had a bunch of people giving me ideas, and I would go and try it. So don’t be afraid to try, because as you said… Now I look back at the first song that I mixed—it actually got signed to somebody, and I think it sounds terrible, I can’t believe they signed it. And as you go along you will realize that you had no idea what you were doing before, but that shouldn’t stop you. You’ve got to start somewhere, and I am happy to help anybody who is starting out, just come talk to me, I am very open; I am very active online, on Facebook and Instagram, whatever. Come talk to me.
Bob, you look ready to give some more tips…
We are all artists, we are all creative, but we also have to consider the business side. We don’t have managers; you are you manager; you are your business manager. You need to learn the business. Besides all the stuff we are talking about—production and values and how to do the mix and all that—you need to know what to do when a contract comes to you. You need to know exclusive, non-exclusive, what is a reversion, and all this. And then, just the actual accounting-business side, keeping a composer catalog, which is great as your numbers start growing, and then if you are retitling. I just got a thing in BMI where one of my tunes was in a trailer and I didn’t even recognize the title, because it was retitled. I had to go back and do all this research to figure out what was the original song and which publisher had it, you know.
So it’s the details. The last thing you want to do is have a library contact you for a song and you’re not prepared, that you don’t have your mixes all done, your stems all done, that the underscore is all set. If they want it, they want it now. It’s kind of like the Army, hurry up and wait. But when they need it, they need it today, or they need it tomorrow.
My big placement in the Donna Karan commercial… When I got the call, I knew I was gonna get the deal, because my computer broke. I remember sitting there and it was a white screen, and I’m like, “Oh my God, I’m gonna get the call.” You know how you get this sixth sense? And I thought, “I’m gonna get the call.” So I call the computer place, and it was a mess. There was no one in town that fixes them; the guy was gonna come out like next Tuesday. And then, that Monday night at three o’clock Eastern time, I get the call, “We need the WAV files.” Then that’s when you have to step up and pull your bootstraps up and become the ultimate professional and say, “Okay, I have a small problem.”
One thing I really learned… Because I was writing with my son and we would exchange files, and because I was traveling a lot, he had all the files. But they were MP3s and they wanted the WAV file. And now I know that in the cloud I have WAV 4416; I have 192, 128, 320; I have AIFF. I have them all, and then for all the stems and all that, so it’s a lot. So if I ever get a call, I can download whatever that person needs then, right then and there.
It’s a business. And as creative as we are, and we are artists and everything, it’s still a business. And when you get to the point where you can either retire—like I’m gonna retire into being a fulltime composer—or tell this job, “Take this job and…” You know, you want to be more than just the creative. You have to have the business acumen. Like Michael said earlier, “Oh I’m not gonna submit, because they’re just gonna take advantage of me,” or “I’m gonna get screwed on this.” Well, you’re not if you know the business, and that’s the other side of it.
“Make it easy for your publisher to make you money.” –Bob Mete
I want to make that our closing thought. How many people in the room have ever worried… I get calls from TAXI members saying, “I was offered a deal.” But they are so deathly afraid that they are somehow gonna get screwed by this company. Is it your experience that these companies are look for ways to screw you guys?
Bob: Oh, absolutely not. Never, no!
It’s a small industry. People talk. There may be some incompetence. There may be a little sloppiness, but what there is not—to the best of my knowledge, and I’ve been around for a long time—people are not trying to screw you. They want to make money, and your product is what they make money with. So maybe some bad accounting, or maybe they didn’t title something right, or maybe they forgot to file something; that stuff happens. It doesn’t happen a lot.
But if you get offered a deal, respond quickly, and respond professionally. Don’t be afraid to say, “I’m new at this,” and ask for a little bit of hand-holding. But don’t go overboard and ask for too much hand-holding. The reason is because they’ve got better things to do, like making money with other people who don’t require as much hand-holding. So follow those simple rules on a business level and you’ll find the industry much easier to negotiate.
Bob: The biggest statement that you said in there, “Respond immediately.” I have probably 18 different co-writers that I have worked with over the years. And I have my favorites, and I work with some more than others. But like we just got contract renewals, and I’ve had to send out four reminders: “Please open up you account; please sign it. You know, the 90-day note, the 60-day note, please sign the damn contract so we can stay in the catalog.” Simple little things like that, that’s just business. That’s just business acumen and making it happen. Make it easy for your publisher to make you money.
You guys were nothing short of wonderful. Thank you so much, Matt Vander Boegh, Sherry-Lynn Lee, and Bob Mete. Thank you all very much. I’m sure these guys would be happy to answer your questions out in the hallway. [Applause]