Jimmy Bralower is the founder of Jimmy Bralower Productions, a company that specializes in all aspects of music production, songwriting, mixing, editing, mastering artist development and A&R consulting. With 40 years in the music business, Jimmy got his start in the industry as a drummer and was signed to Columbia Records with his first band, The Young Ones, when he was just 14. He went on to become a well-known session musician and programmer, eventually finding his way to A&R at Atlantic in the ‘90s and early 2000s. Throughout his career, he has been involved in all aspects of the industry and has found great success as an arranger, producer, writer and remixer. He has worked with renowned artists across many genres, including Peter Gabriel, Madonna, Billy Joel, James Taylor and Steve Winwood and has been a pioneer in the use of digital rhythm technology. He has contributed to the success of more than 70 Gold and Platinum recordings that sold over 250 million records. Currently, Jimmy serves on the Board of Trustees of The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, home of the Grammy Awards. He also recently started a new recording company – Dynotone Records – whose initial releases are from R&B singer Ryan Shaw and the Philadelphia band Soul Survivors.
I had the opportunity to talk to Jimmy about his experience in the music business and how he believes the evolution of the recording industry has affected artists, both in the studio and on stage. He also shared the importance of collaboration and the other essential skills and qualities musicians need to develop in order to build successful careers.
Thanks so much for taking some time to talk to me, Jimmy. First of all, how did you get into music?
I started out as a musician. Then I became an arranger, producer, writer and remixer. And I’ve had success doing all of it. Most people know me from my session work when I was doing drums and programming. I’ve run the gamut. And I even ended up at Atlantic doing A&R. I’ve been on both sides of the glass in the studio and both sides of the desk in the office. I’ve seen it from every angle, so my observation point is pretty broad.
When I was 14, a couple friends and I started a band. We learned how to play pretty quickly, because we learned how to play while in the band.
As opposed to how some people today play, because they’re playing into Pro Tools or playing separately from other band members?
I think one of the biggest problems as I see it – and it’s not an ageist thing, it’s a collaborative thing – is that really being able to be a good musician means being able to play with other people. And with the technology, we have the ability to eliminate the collaboration. And in doing that, you lose some of the magical aspects of performance.
I think one of the advantages I have working with the electronics and in Pro Tools is that I have an understanding of the organic process as well as the technical one. The technical part is only as good as the information you get into your computer. I’m very conscious of what I’m recording. It’s not just a bunch of notes or a bunch of words. They actually work for you better on a performance level if you get a singer to sing all the way through a song or get a player to play all the way through, rather than thinking you’re just going to be flying everything around. You lose the spirit and the “X Factor” that really reaches the listener and makes an emotional connection.
I feel like because I learned how to play first by going out and doing it, I had a real advantage.
What would you say your first big break was?
Well, to go back to the question about how I got started, I had a band in high school. We got a record deal when I was 14. We were an instrumental band. It was surf music, and we were actually pretty good. We got heard by an A&R guy at Columbia and got signed when I was a sophomore in high school. That was the beginning, when I got bitten by the bug. We went into their big studio, and I used to hang out up at their offices.
In those days, part of the tie-in to my future was that all the guys who were in A&R at that time at Columbia were producers. The guy we were working with had produced Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Miles Davis, Blood, Sweat & Tears, etc. The people at the record company were actually hands-on music guys. It always stuck with me that it might be a nice thing to do when I grew up. And it didn’t happen until may years later, but I did wind up doing that job. Funnily enough, I spent the next many years trying to get back to where I was when I was 14. I thought, “You start a band, you make a record. That’s how it happens.” Then I realized that I was just very fortunate, and it doesn’t happen that way.
I had a similar experience. The first record I made was one I made after Ahmet Ertegun had helped me close a band. And I thought my life was going to just go on that way.
Luck plays such a role in it. But then, there’s persistence. And it’s about how badly you want it. In those days, there was no college curriculum to teach you how to do all these different things. So, I would have to quit school periodically to play in my band. My music business BA was having to leave school, not be in it.
I played in a lot of bands throughout the ‘70s, and it was a battle zone. It got really difficult to commit to specific projects. Everybody was getting a little older, and it was harder to get everyone on board at the same time. So, that’s when I started aiming to become a studio musician. And in those days, there was actually a “minor leagues” for being a session guy: making publishing demos. There wasn’t Pro Tools. You couldn’t do it yourself. If you had a song and wanted to record it, you had to hire people. So, we would go into little 8-track studios. It was like a miniature version of a real session. But we all learned how to make records by doing that. The process was usually, if you got lucky, and one of those demos you played on got some attention, you might get some work. And in the case of a bunch of my friends and me, it ultimately stepped us up to the next level. We started getting legitimate calls for making records. That process is kind of gone now.
But wouldn’t you still advise someone trying to be a studio musician that pure volume and working as often as you can on projects that are worthwhile is the way to go?
I guess what perplexes me is that the way the business is today, there are so few opportunities for independent guys to get a call to go do a session. There is no breeding ground for it. I think the main thing is, you have to get out there and play. What I used to do is find as many singer/songwriters as I could and try to A&R for myself. I would say, “This one seems really cool,” or, “This one plays a style of music that might be good for me to learn how to play.” Because one thing about being a studio musician is that you have to be a jack of all trades, which is not necessarily the case if you’re in a band. When you’re in a band, as long as you can do what that band does, you’re cool. In a session, you never know what they’re going to call on you to do, so you have to be prepared.
The biggest advice I would give any musician, which is advice they don’t teach you in school, is to develop style and personality in your playing. There are what I call “seat fillers,” which is when they say, “Get me a bass player.” Then there are times when they say, “Get me Will Lee,” or, “Get me a specific guitar player.” The difference is that today, everything is branded. It’s really important for musicians to take their technique and turn it into style. My belief with technique is that you learn how to do everything so that whatever is in your head, you can execute. Some people just end with being able to play anything, yet are stylistically bland.
The most important thing to have if you want to be more than just another guy is an identifiable skill you do better than everyone else. It’s really important in production, writing, singing – on any level. I want to know who you are, and why I should hire you over the other guy. What are you bringing that differentiates you from everyone else? Otherwise, you’re always just in the pack.
I know when you were coming up, there was a little bit more of a straight path in the music industry, but it wasn’t really less difficult than it is today. What is it you think you developed, stylistically and with your technique, that allowed your career to flourish?
I think it is a series of convergences that allows any musician to do well. One of them is being a good listener. The second is knowing what’s going on around you; don’t learn how to do something on someone else’s time. Actually woodshed, practice and be good at what you’re trying to sell.
In my case as a drummer, I was very much a song guy. I was more a drummer who liked playing songs than I was a drummer who liked playing drums. Stylistically, I was very conscious of the singer and the melody. I brought a certain mindset.
As a musician, you’re a support system for your artist. It’s very important to understand why you’re there. I think demeanor has a lot to do with it. I’ve known great musicians who never get hired because they blow the vibe of a session with their personalities. It happens on every level. Having a good social demeanor has a lot to do with keeping the vibe in the studio on a good level. When you’re talking about playing, you’re talking about performance. And when you’re talking about performance, you’re talking about capturing a moment. And part of a producer’s job is to keep the vibe in the room so that everybody is going to give you the best shot you could possibly get. If somebody has an attitude, it affects the playing and everyone there.
I learned pretty early on how to act in those situations. I was there to be a support. You’re hired to do a job. One of the things I learned is that if you’re going to get hired, be prepared to give everything you have. Don’t hold back. If somebody hires you to do a job, and you accept it, that means you’re bringing everything you’ve got with you. I think there are a lot of people who don’t.
When you say all that out loud, it’s funny. I’ve been in situations, even recently, where I was frustrated. And mind you, I’m mostly just a hobbyist. But I’ve found it very hard to not bring resentment to a session when other people hadn’t done their homework. I probably didn’t help out, because I couldn’t hide my frustration with that.
And that’s the kind of stuff that sneaks into the air.
I totally believe it. I know I was not helping the situation.
One of the biggest problems I know with people who have this type of attitude is, they really want to be doing something for themselves, but they’re having to do these other jobs to make money. And sometimes these people bring that extra baggage with them to the sessions. I know musicians who would really like to be in bands, but they’re not. So, when they get hired to do a session, they come in with all their baggage – the frustration of not having an outlet to do their own thing. So, they come in and superimpose that on someone else’s project instead of being there to support the other artist. It’s really important how you compartmentalize. Any one of those little aspects could potentially screw up everything.
My partner has a saying: “Wrong is strong.” The wronger they are, the stronger they are. You could have ten guys in a room playing great, but the one guy who has the attitude overshadows everything. And that can blow a whole day instantaneously. Also, if you’re that guy, you’re not getting called again.
If you had a bad day, it’s very easy to bring it with you. And you can’t do that. I learned from working with producers who would get calls in the middle of a session from lawyers or managers, and these contentious calls would totally take them out of the mode. They’d have to get off the phone and come back into the studio like nothing happened. Because, you can’t bring that attitude to the table.
So much of this has to do, not with music, but with demeanor, personality, control over your emotions and learning how to get into the zone on a dime. When someone says, “Okay, go,” you have to get into that place where you can excel.
Let’s talk a little bit about your role as a producer. You’ve had the luxury of working with a lot of the stuff you’ve wanted to work with, and therefore, you’ve probably been able to eliminate a lot of problems. But I think people just starting out have to produce what comes their way and what pays their bread.
I still do. We all do. Getting those perfect gigs only comes from doing enough things where the odds are with you that something good will come along. I think you have to aim for what you want even when you’re not doing what you want. You always have to know where you want to go.
You can learn something from everything and everybody. I’m really not that judgmental. If somebody hires me to do something, I won’t give less to that person just because that person is less talented than somebody else. The only problem is when you feel like they’re leaning on you to do more than what they’re hiring you for. And even then, that becomes a trap of becoming resentful. And then it snowballs.
I think getting to do what you want is based on knowing what you would like to be doing and aiming yourself there no matter what. Nothing is perfect. We don’t get called every day to do the session of a lifetime. And sometimes, frankly, you’ll get called to do a gig you think is going to be something great and “the” connection, and the guy turns out to be an asshole, or something is not what you thought it was going to be. You really never know. That’s why you have to be prepared for anything.
Most folks reading this are not in the producer chair; they’re showing up in front of a guy like you to make sure their projects get chauffeured in, developed or laid down in the most efficient way. What are some of the qualities you’re looking for when you’re deciding which bands or artists to work with? What should artists have figured out before they show up on your doorstep?
I think it mainly has to do with material. It has to do with spending the time getting the music as good as it can be before you rush into record. I think a lot of people think they’re finished writing a song when they get to the last note. They start at the beginning, wind up at the end and are done. A great song really requires attention. And the ones that come in 15 minutes only come as a reward for working hard all the time. Once in a while you get that gift where it just comes through you.
In my experience, there’s most frequently a weakness in the music that people want to record. Their aspirations are for it to sound like other music they allude to that’s great. But they don’t have the tools. And without the great song, it doesn’t matter how good you are as a producer; it’s only going to be so good. I don’t need to practice cutting a track. I know how to put a track together. It’s always about what I am putting a track together of.
The old adage in the business is true: “It’s about a singer and a song.” Or it might be about a rapper and a track. But, above all, it’s about an artist and their material. That is at the core of everything. A lot of times people don’t explore the depth of who they are. Once again, it all comes down to personality and style. If people are bringing vanilla to the table and want something more, it becomes the producer’s job to have to figure something out that’s not there. A producer is ideally a facilitator. If the artist is not bringing enough to the table for them, it’s hard to do the job on the highest level. A great producer will capture what somebody is bringing. And if that artist is not bringing anything, you have to manufacture it. That’s the hardest part.
It’s very subjective. I think a lot of people are too anxious to go record before they’re ready. One of the luxuries as a band is that you should be able to go out and play those songs live before you ever visit a studio with them. That was built into the system years ago, when you didn’t even think about making a recording until you were making enough noise as a live performer. Today we’re inverted. We start by recording and then think about performing.
If somebody has really woodshed their material, they might find out by playing in front of people that it isn’t as good as they thought it was or that something could still evolve. There’s nothing better than that interaction with an audience to tell you the truth. So, I prefer it as a producer when people have taken their material and tested the waters a little bit, especially new artists. It helps, because they end up being that much further along, and I don’t have to pull rabbits out of the hat as often.
As an artist, it’s about doing your homework and not just saying, “Here I am. Make me a record,” or, “I love this thing you did with X, Y or Z. Make me sound like that.”
I think people who have only made a handful of demos are often unaware of what that homework is: shedding; playing live; etc.
Well, and I think it comes back to the climate we’re in, which starts with people in a recording environment, rather than starting in the environment of, “I have a guitar and I want to play music. I have to find myself a drummer.” Now it’s, “I have these loops that came with my computer.” So, you can skip what I consider to be a really crucial step in the evolution of becoming a professional, which is knowing how to work with others.
If you’re a one-man gang, like the Owl City guy, who came up with the technology and evolved the sound on his own in his own environment, that’s a very specific type of artist. And there’s a certain art to that. I used to work with guys like Steve Winwood, who could do that in a more analog way. He could play the drums, the bass, the guitar, the keyboards and sing. But that was very different. Today you can pluck out a bunch of wrong notes and fix them, but it doesn’t give you that connectivity.
Music is an emotion. And if there’s no emotion in your music, it won’t move people. That’s a really key thing to me: Catch that space in your center. A lot of people are so busy saying, “I want to make a record” that they just put together anything. And of course, with the tools you have today, if you don’t know how to play drums, it’s ok; you can have a loop of a guy who does recorded by an engineer who knows how to record. The technology gives you that false sense that you’re further along than you really are. And whoever can do that same thing better can still have a hit.
But none of what I’ve just mentioned makes you a good collaborator. And my experience is that it’s the same concept as it is with a sponge: You can squeeze yourself until there’s no water left. But if somebody else is there, you’re getting replenished. You hear an idea you wouldn’t have come up with yourself, and it opens up a whole new layer of your own creativity. I always feel like it’s a gift to get something from someone else, because you can only do so much on your own.
To learn more about Jimmy Bralower’s work and his history, visit the Jimmy Bralower Productions website.