Persistence, from a Producer’s Point of View

Persistence, from a Producer’s Point of View

Robert Smith is a seasoned producer, engineer and mixer who runs Defy Recordings in New York City. A musician and avid record collector since the age of 11, Robert got his start in the music industry when he moved from his home town in upstate New York to New York City in 1986 and immediately threw himself into the studio. He got his professional start at Green Street Recording studio – known in the 1980s as the home base for Def Jam Records – and had the opportunity to work frequently with Jam-Master Jay and Run DMC as well as with Public enemy and R&B legend Allison Williams. From there, he went onto work at the Hit Factory and also Power Station Studios. During that time, he made records with an array of artists across many genres, including Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, David Sandborn and Luther Vandross. Robert also helped start and grow a multi-media company where he worked on post production on film scores and major commercials with clients such as Reebok, Coca-Cola, Oil of Olay and Proctor and Gamble. Eventually, he decided to return to his love for music and focus on Defy Recordings.

 

 

Recently, I talked to Robert about his experience in the music business, some advice he has for folks that want to get involved on the production side and why he feels persistence and fearlessness are the keys to success for anyone that wants to achieve real career longevity.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me, Robert. How did you come to be an engineer and producer?

 

RS:

 

I moved to New York City from upstate New York in 1986. I’ve been a huge record collector since I was about 11-years old. I’ve never done anything else but immerse myself in music since then. I’ve been very lucky to have been at the right place at the right time. I began working at many studios around town starting in the late 1980s, and it just grew and grew, and here I am, still doing it.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Who are some of the people you’ve worked with during the course of your career?

 

RS:

 

One of the first people I worked a lot with was Jam-Master Jay of Run DMC. The first studio I worked with was Green Street Recording, and it was pretty much the unofficial home base of Def Jam Records. For the first year of my career I was working in the same studio as Run DMC and Public Enemy. Def Jam also had a lot of R&B stuff like Allison Williams, Orange Juice Jones, who were keeping us really busy. My first recording session was 24-hours long. And I thought, “How am I going to do this?” But it was amazing.

 

Then I got a job at the Hit Factory. And that meant working with artists like Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder and Mariah Carey. I worked a lot with her right before she got her record deal. At the time, everyone was at that place.

 

From there, I went to the Power Station where I worked with David Bowie, David Sandborn and Luther Vandross. The only people I didn’t get chance to work directly with who were recording there were Madonna and Bruce Springsteen, though I did talk about fish with Springsteen once when we were looking at a fish tank. That’s about as close as I got to it.

 

I went freelance from there. And I tried something a little different by starting a multi-media company with two partners. We did post production on film scores and big commercials for advertising. Our clients were Reebok, Coca Cola, Oil of Olay and Proctor and Gamble. We did a lot  of movies, like the movie Waitress with Keri Russell, which did really well. I did that for about five years and then decided to go out on my own again. We were fortunate because our multi-media company got big pretty quickly. By the time I left, we had 20 employees and two floors of a building. But I wasn’t really interested in meetings; I was still all about the music. So, I decided to re-focus on that side of it and continue what I really love to do. And I am fortunate to still be doing it in this day and age.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

It sounds like you didn’t spend much time as a performing musician. You just got right behind the board.

 

RS:

 

Yes. Before I moved to the city, I played bass for a while in a band and I was also a DJ. But I liked the tech side of it and was definitely drawn to that side of the glass pretty quickly. It’s not like I moved to the city and played with bands; I moved right into the studio, and that was pretty much it.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

And you’ve been at it from 1986, to 2011. Are you doing more production or engineering these days?

 

RS:

 

I’m probably doing more engineering and mixing. I produce on average about five albums per year. But I’m working every day on mixing, mastering and engineering.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

You’ve been around for 25 years making records. I’m sure a vast number of the people you started working alongside are no longer in the business. What did you do that other people didn’t?

 

RS:

 

Many have been long gone. It’s an insane business. I guess you could call it a business with an incredibly bad business model. What I mean by that is that if you’re looking to have a career, have a family, buy a house, go on vacation and have a 401K, this is not the way to do it.

 

I get students all the time asking me what it’s like. I remember an email I got from a high school student in Arizona with what looked like a standard-issue questionnaire in it including questions like, “How many hours do you work per week?” And I thought, “I don’t know … Zero, to 100?” Those questions are more for someone that works in a bank. This has never really been a job. It’s way more of a “life” than your standard-issue career where you look forward to your retirement. For me, it’s just been about persistence. And also, I wouldn’t know how to do anything else. I’ve been doing this for so long that it’s what I do and who I am.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Let me reverse the question. What were some of the traits of the guys that didn’t make it?

 

RS:

 

I don’t know why, but that’s a tougher question than I might have thought it would be. With those guys, a lot of it had to do with family stuff. Once you get married and have kids, it’s a little harder to justify being up until four or five in the morning every night, getting home when it’s sunny out and then having to come back again early evening. It’s an “all in” thing. If you really want to do it, you need to really immerse yourself in it. The people that didn’t hang in always treated it like a job or a part-time gig. They were around for four or five years, but then they just got out. If you want something normal and stable, this isn’t the job for you.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Let’s talk about the musician side of things. Because of your long list of credits, you must get approached often by relatively unknown bands. Other than somebody that can string together a good handful of sentences and has a high-quality recording – which is of course the X-Factor – are there things people should do to prepare before reaching out to you that will make their project more desirable?

 

RS:


Sure. The biggest thing I miss from the major label days is the filtering process. If you were signed to Columbia in 1990 and in front of me in the studio, it meant you had passed the test; you had dealt with the A&R guys, the managers and had recorded the demos. By the time you got to me, you could generally write a song and sing, because back then we couldn’t fix your performances as much as we can now. I knew you were at a certain quality level, because no one would’ve invested that kind of money in you as an artist unless they thought they could get it back. I miss that side of it, because there are so many artists I get approached by now that don’t know that process. There is an unprofessional side to it now, which means there is a lot of grooming I end up having to do that I didn’t have  to do before because a lot of it had already been taken care of:  how to sing in tune; how to really play an instrument and all those things you would do if playing music your job. When someone hasn’t had that kind of experience, I have to groom them towards that, which can be a lot of extra work.

 

Musician Coaching:


That makes it sound like your job description has shifted and now includes making up for people’s lack of shedding time and education.

 

RS:

 

Completely. It seems like part of my job now is to have a chat first and say, “Here’s what we’re going to do today.” There’s always some kind of story involved. The benefit of my experience is that I’ve seen just about everything. So, when someone comes in and we’re having a terrible time, I’m able to steer it some way; I can apply an antidote. I think that’s why I’ve been really busy too, because I’ve been fortunate to come up in the days of tape, and I’ve been around some really classic records and know how to get the right sound because I was there at the beginning. In that sense, it’s been great. I’m still young enough that I can relate to younger artists. But I’ve been around enough that I know how to edit tape and what people talk about when they are thinking about the “golden days” of analog and a certain sound.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Along those lines, for people wanting to perfect their craft behind the glass, there are a lot less opportunities like the ones both of us had coming up. There are a lot less studios in business. What advice would you give to somebody that has a pirated copy of Pro-Tools and are trying to figure this out on their own? How can they compete with an education with the guys out there that knew analog?

 

RS:

 

The advice I always give is, “Find a mentor.” I was really fortunate to have learned from all the best people on the planet. The guy who was a mentor for me for the first two years was buddies with Queen and was one of the engineers on “Bohemian Rhapsody.” He shoved me into this. It’s that whole idea of throwing people into the deep end and seeing if they can swim or not.

 

I have an example. A kid from Texas wrote me, and she wanted to come to New York and be a producer. She was 19, and I said, “You probably shouldn’t do that right now, because all you’re going to do is come here, clean toilets and try to find a job. You’ll barely be able to eat and pay your rent.” And she had never been in a studio. I said, “What you should do is stay in your town, find somebody that owns a studio and learn everything you can from them. If you don’t do that, you’re going to be up against kids that have come here from all over the world and have done that. You’re going to be behind right from the start.” So, I advised her to master it in her home town by learning from someone with a studio and learning to be better than they are. Then, she can come to New York with a leg up as opposed to with no clue at all. And no one had ever told her that.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

I’m continually surprised by how often people just don’t get any sound advice at all.

 

Getting to know musicians in the studio as you have for days at a time, what advice would you give artists about relationships with management and labels? Can you talk about any pitfalls to avoid for aspiring musicians and musicians just coming up?

 

RS:

 

It’s tricky. It seems like now everyone that used to be in the music business before is now just a consultant. Because the money is now in those types of positions, we’ve all had to figure out ways to use our experience to still get some kind of income and still do what we do. There are those guys that still call themselves managers, but maybe they haven’t really managed. You just have to be really careful and not be too anxious to sign your life away. Throughout the history of music there are stories of people signing contracts that don’t know what they’re doing. And the next thing they know, they’ve signed away everything. It’s been like that from way back in the day and continues to be that way today. An artist will actually have success and then realize they don’t actually own a song or will just get a couple thousand dollars.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Yes. Jacob Slichter of Semisonic wrote a book, So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star, and he described the traditional relationship between label and artist as “rock & roll sharecropping.” And he was right.

 

RS:

 

Yeah. There were stories back in the day where the guy would find an artist and give him a couple hundred dollars and a Cadillac. And the artist thought, “Wow, I’m a pop star now.” Little did he know he wasn’t going to see a nickel of record sales that ended up sometimes totaling millions and millions of dollars. You have to be really careful of being that make promises and say, “I can make this, this and this happen.”

 

I had a friend who actually got onto The Voice, and right before she was going to get on a plane to go to L.A. for six weeks, she got a contract – and thankfully she read the fine print – that said that whether she won or lost, this company would own everything she did for seven years.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

That’s the Viacom and American Idol model.

 

RS:

 

She actually has had some deals in the past and already had stuff going on, so she decided not to do it. I think if you have nothing going on, you should go for it. But you just have to be really careful and read contracts carefully as opposed to just signing because you’re so anxious to become a pop star. We’ve also heard the stories about someone signing an artist and then putting that person in a box for two years while they figure out what to do with the person. Then all the other interest goes away because the artist is already signed.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

It’s pretty amazing what they’ll do. Atlantic was known for this. They would sign an artist from the Southeast and do what I call the “shiny shirt treatment.” The band would get signed and celebrate. Then they would stop doing everything that made them interesting to the label in the first place, and the publicist would say, “You know, you would look better in shiny shirts.” They would give everyone a shiny shirt and take new photos, and then nothing would ever happen. It’s very sad.

 

Do you have any parting words of advice?

 

RS:

 

The people that make it in this industry don’t have any choice. It’s built into them, and they are just so talented that it can’t be denied. In the end, it really depends on how badly you want it. If you just want to come into the studio and do it for a couple years, it’s not going to work. I’ve never seen anybody just dabble and find success. The ones who have made it are “all in” from the very beginning. You don’t have a choice. It is what you’re meant to do.

 

There is one word describes all the people I’ve seen that have had success:  fearlessness. The fearless people always do well. The ones that question and pause are the ones who are still sitting and wondering what happened or asking, “Why isn’t anything happening?”

 

To learn more about Robert Smith and the work he does, please visit the Defy Recordings website.