Humility and Music Production
Brethren of music, I have something I would like to offer up for discussion.
Humility is a difficult topic to write about, but here goes. I feel the need to bring awareness to the fact that ego and insecurity are two of the biggest problems I’ve encountered in the professional music business. Why?
I have seen many different examples of this. I’ve seen assistant engineers shame the non-paid interns for their innocent ignorance, I’ve seen producers and mixers in an all out pissing contest, I’ve seen engineers belittle and condescend to musicians with little studio experience. Why?
I know of where I speak, because I made every mistake in the book: I have intentionally focused attention away from the music to what I was doing as an engineer (“Hey, what do you guys think about this delay I put on the guitar? Pretty cool, huh??”), talked about my own music during recording sessions (“Well, when I record my OWN stuff, I like to do it this way for these reasons, blah blah blah), PLAYED my own music for clients and colleagues on a recording session (a SIN!), inflated my own ego by shaming my assistants into believing that MY way was ALWAYS the best way, and anyone that says otherwise is a moron. Why?
The recording studio is itself, as Brian Eno said, a musical instrument. The rooms, the gear, the sound waves still reverberating off the walls from all the previous music made in that particular space. There is something sacred about it, because it is the temple in which we tap into the power of music, and bring it from the spiritual world into the physical world. What we call a “miracle" is the manifestation of something in the 1% physical world from that 99% spiritual world. That’s what music is…a miracle.
A successful recording or mixing session, in my opinion, should be grounded in this thought. Recording studios are not the place for ego, needless competition, negative energy, and humiliation, but rather joy, surprise, exhilaration, collaboration, experimentation, enthusiasm, and wonder. It’s play time. So…why is ego such a big issue in the recording world?
I think it’s because we as engineers feel the need to be recognized and validated as artists. We ARE artists, but not everyone knows that. The impact an engineer (tracking OR mixing) on the music can be profound, but it can easily go unnoticed, especially if we are doing our job well. We tend to only get noticed when things go wrong or don’t sound right. We get to watch all of the musicians do their thing, receive accolades for their tone and performance, all while silently contributing our own vital artistry to the music. This can be hard for the ego, and therefore we ourselves try to step into the spotlight…even if just for a moment. This is a dangerous game.
I also think this negative ego-driven energy stems from insecurity. I’m learning now that as hard as I have worked at mastering my craft, I still know nothing. I’ve put in my ten thousand hours, and I can talk a lot about technique and craft with authority, but there are an infinite number of creative avenues to make something beautiful, and every single person has a unique approach which always finds its way into the sound. Keith Richards playing guitar sounds like Keith Richards playing the piano sounds like Keith Richards playing the bass. Anything he touches will sound like him, because the music is always blowing in through the same window. Engineers and producers can have the same effect…just because they have their hands on the music, it will sound a certain way. It is a humbling and awesome experience, and the result is a miracle. Sounds pulled out of the ether, run through the souls of those daring enough to chase it, converted into electrons traveling down a wire, and captured for us to experience over and over again. It inspires people. It brings people together. It firmly cements memories and experiences in our minds. It touches our most inner places. It’s magic.
So, for me, the goal is to remain humble, open, and rooted in the spirit of collaborative camaraderie when I’m in the studio (and also when I’m not).
What do you all think?