Derek Sivers

Interviews → Sam Matla / EDM Prod

Music: creative process, motivation, originality, and smart career building.

Date: 2019-11

Download: audio (mp3)

Link: https://www.edmprod.com/episode-109/


Sam:

Welcome back to the EDM Prodcast. This is Episode 109 with Derek Sivers. My name is Sam Matla, and one of the co-hosts for the EDM Prodcast. My other co-host, Conor O’Brien, handles most of the interviews.

But today you’ve gotten me, and as mentioned, this interview is with Derek Sivers. If you don’t know who Derek Sivers is, he’s best known as the founder of CD Baby. If you’re a producer, I’m sure you will be aware of CD Baby. What a lot of people don’t know is that before that, he was a full-time musician. Touring, playing shows, all that kind of stuff. He also graduated from Berklee College of Music, so he knows a thing or two.

But the reason I wanted to interview Derek Sivers is not because he founded CD Baby. He’s talked about that in other interviews and his book. I wanted to interview him because of his insights on creativity and music. I think he’s a fascinating person. I think his opinions and his thoughts on things are very insightful and kind of contrarian as well.

So that’s what we focus on in this interview. We talk about a range of topics, including why producers and artists, like yourself, find it hard to finish work and what you can do about it. We talk about the problem of having too many options. You open up your DAW and you just you’ve got all these plugins, you’ve got all these sounds, you don’t know where to stop. We talk about how to combat this. Plus, Derek’s number one book recommendation for artists and producers who struggle with this exact problem.

We also talk about motivation, and Derek kind of changes my mind on this and changes my view. We talk about what motivates you to make music might be different to what motivates someone else and that you shouldn’t feel guilty for that. We talk about the balance between theory and practice when trying to develop new skills, originality vs. imitation and why no one is truly original, and how to do what you love and make good money.

I hope you enjoy the interview. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one, so do join the discussion in our Facebook group. You can find it if you search “EDMProd Artist Community” on Facebook.

Without further ado, here is Derek Sivers.

Sam:

Derek, how’s it going?

Derek:

Thanks, Sam. Good.

Sam:

Now, a lot of people know you as the founder of CD Baby, but what they might not know is that before CD Baby, you were a full-time musician. So tell us a bit more about that and how that all happened?

Derek:

Ever since I was 14 years old, all I wanted in life was to be a successful musician. I was one of those completely head-down, blinders-on, driven, get-out-of my-way, focused kind of guys.

I ended up going to Berklee College of Music when I was 17 and stayed for three years until I graduated. Even at Berklee, even amongst the other ambitious students of Berklee, my nickname was “The Robot” because nobody ever saw me like sleep or eat or hang out. They’d be like, “Dude, come on, man, just come join us for dinner,” and I’d say, “No way!” I’d go into the cafeteria, make a peanut butter sandwich, go back to the practice room. I was just completely focused, and this lasted all the way until I was 28 or 29.

I had been touring for 11 years straight. I’d just been touring nonstop and gigging, and I started this little website just to sell my own CD. Then some of my musician friends in New York City asked if I could sell their CD through the little thing that I built for myself, and I said, yes – just as a favor to friends. Then, it grew into CD Baby by accident, but I never set out to make a business. In fact, I deliberately did some things to keep the business from growing because I still thought that this was just a stupid little hobby, and what I really wanted was my music. So I would do things to deliberately keep the business small because I wanted I didn’t want it to distract me from making my music.

The reason I mentioned that I was like touring for 11 years straight is because once CD Baby started to take off, it actually felt kind of nice that I was helping others for the first time, instead of just – you know how it is to be an artist, it’s like “me me me me, my music, my noise, my image, my everything.” It was really nice to focus on others, but it was really just helping musicians.

So it’s funny that after I sold CD Baby, I got categorized as an entrepreneur, but I never thought of myself that way. I was always just a musician helping other musicians. So that’s why when many, many other podcasts, have asked me to come talk about business I say “no,” and when Sam asks me to talk about music and I say, “Fuck yeah.”

Sam:

Yeah. Well, I was pleasantly surprised and I’m so glad to have you on and not just talk about business. So, one of the biggest struggles that people in our audience face – modern producers, and I would say musicians as well, is the ability to actually finish work. And I want to dive into this. Why do you think that finishing creative projects is difficult and what do you think should be done about it?

Derek:

We all probably know it’s the fear of being judged. If you don’t finish something, if you get 90 percent and then go, “Yeah, come back to that,” then you can never be judged for it, right? Nobody can tell you that it sucks because you don’t put it out there.

At least from my own writing, I think about the role model of echolocation, and I think this is probably the same for all artists no matter what you’re making. People have this with their visual art, too, and writers have it with their books. You know how echolocation works, right? With bats, you make noise and then you listen to the reflections of the cavern walls around you or whatever it is, and that helps you figure out where you’re at. I’m saying “you” as if you’re a bat [laughs], but you know what I mean?

So, I think of this with creativity. That our creations that we make go through a few stages. First, there’s the solitary creation where it’s just do you in your studio and nobody hears it. Then you put it out to the world and you start to get the feedback – the echolocation. For me, I always feel a difference right away. When I’m writing an article or something I put out in the world, just within minutes of putting it out there, even if I felt creatively stuck on it before, at a certain point I just say, “I don’t know... good enough.”

I put it out, I tweet it or I announce it, and almost right away, as soon as I start getting the first couple comments about it, or as soon as I just know that strangers are looking at it, I now see it from a different point of view. I see it from a stranger’s point of view, and instantly, I look with fresh eyes at it like, “Oh, now I see what needs to change,” and I started editing it immediately and I start uploading my changes right away. Sometimes it goes through another few revisions just in the first hour or two after I release it.

But the point is, I think I don’t think about finishing anymore. I’m not trying to make things perfect. I just get things to where I consider it like a rough draft or a pretty good rough draft, and then I just put the rough draft out there so I can start to get that echolocation. So I can start to see where it’s at.

I also often think of the metaphor, air it out. Let it get a little sun. Get this thing out of the studio. Put it out into the world. There’s something about whether you think of it as air, or eyes, or sun, or echolocation – there’s something about having the world see it that I think gives you that last creative boost to finish it. Because now you’re seeing it through others eyes or hearing it through their ears. Lastly, I like that in English, we say that an album is released, a song is released, a movie is released, a book is released. I think it’s a great metaphor because when you release something, you let it go.

Sam:

I love that, and I think it’s so true because as musicians, in any form or any sort of creative person, you get so involved and stuck into your own work, and that’s a good thing. But it’s very hard to step outside of yourself and take that objective look art. I’ve noticed that as well. When I put things out, you know, the next day, I’m like, “Oh, right. That needs to be changed. That’s not good. Didn’t think about that.” Even if there’s no comments about it. It’s just you start to have a different perspective.

Derek:

Yeah, and sometimes I feel bad about that. I should be able to do that round of improvements here by myself before putting it out, but I’ve just found that I can sit here for three hours and try to think of what other people might say about this, but just the act of uploading it somewhere, putting it out into the world, and just instantly I go, “Ooh, oh, OK. I can see it now.” You know, now that it’s aired out, or whatever metaphor you want to use, it seems to work.

Sam:

So do you recommend for an artist that they have maybe a circle of people that could give him feedback before they actually put the song up to the public? Or you recommend just putting it on Spotify because it’s a little bit harder to edit a song than an article, for instance.

Derek:

Right. Okay, good point. Yeah, maybe not Spotify, but maybe the SoundCloud or just something on your own site might be a better metaphor for that. I’ve thought about that inner circle thing a lot with my writing, for example. Do you play live?

Sam:

No, I haven’t played live in many years, but I have done it.

Derek:

I don’t know if this is the case for whoever is listening here. It can be much harder to perform for an audience of five than it is for 500.

Sam:

Yes.

Derek:

If you’re playing to a big group of 500 or even 5,000, it’s easier than performing for five.

Sam:

Yeah, because they just become people.

Derek:

Yes! And you’re too aware of it. It’s like, “Okay, this is awkward. This is just me and five people. Fuck.” You really feel their stares. It feels like a conversation, but you’re just hogging the conversation somehow. So maybe that’s why I’ve never done that inner circle thing. I’ve thought about it many times because logically it seems like, yeah, that’s a good middle ground. You start to air it out. Send it to your inside circle. I don’t know, maybe that’s why I’ve never done it. Because it’s like playing for five people.

Sam:

That’s a good point. I think also people tend to build an inner circle of, I don’t want to say “Yes Men,” but friends who aren’t always going to give them the objective feedback.

Derek:

Right!

Sam:

Even if I say, “Yeah, I’m gonna be critical with you.” They won’t be because they don’t want to offend. They want to hurt your feelings.

Derek:

And, it’s work! So one of the best things I did in the past as a musician was when I lived in New York City. It really helped living there because there is a huge music business community there, so they have songwriting workshops where aspiring songwriters would come in person into a group of a room of 15 other songwriters and you’d pay a couple hundred bucks to do this thing. Let’s say 15 classes for $150 or something like that.

So you’d commit to going for 15 weeks, and then every Monday night, 7:00 p.m. in Midtown, it would be led by a successful record producer who has a decades long history of listening to songs and giving constructive critique like, “Your bridge is missing the point there, you totally lost the plot in the bridge,” or, “Hey, your intro was too long. You can’t go 16 bars in an intro. You lost a spring in there.”

So it was somebody who is an expert in the song craft and able to critique other songs. Then you’ve got 15 other songwriters in the room, and the deal was, everybody gets to play their song each time they come in. But in return, you have to listen to everybody else’s song and give helpful feedback. So you’d bring in your song, you’d play it for the room, and then one by one, pretty much everybody would have some kind of bit of feedback that they would give you to be helpful. Then it was really reciprocal because in return, then you would try to be a helpful person so that it when it’s your turn to play your song, other people would be helpful back to you. It was a great environment to get real critique. But the point is – it’s work.

Sam:

Yeah…

Derek:

To listen to somebody’s song and go, “Alright. Here’s what I think you need to change. You need more variety in this instrumentation here. It’s getting monotonous here. You’re repeating this a bit too much.” Or, “You’re going through too many sections.

Your song form is ABCDEF ABCDEF.” Come on dude, ABC, ABC, then introduce the D section.

It’s work to know the craft enough to give real, constructive feedback like that.

Sam:

One hundred percent.

Derek:

First, it takes an expert to know it and then it’s work to do it. So, asking your fans or your friends, they just go, “Oh it’s cool, man. I don’t know, it’s fine… I don’t know...”

Sam:

That’s such a good point. We get a lot of requests through email to give feedback on songs. We have kind of a blanket rule that we don’t give it. First of all, because it takes so much time, and second of all because it takes so much time.

Derek:

[Laughs]

Sam:

I think people think you can just have one quick listen to a song and then give some helpful feedback. No, it usually takes a few listens, and if you really want me to help, I’m gonna give you a one page Google doc with my explanation, instead of just saying, “You cut is too loud.” So I think people underestimate the amount of work that it takes and expertise.

Going back to the finishing work thing. I think nowadays – maybe this always existed, I don’t know – but, nowadays, there are endless possibilities, especially in electronic music production. Due to software, it’s just opened up this whole creative world. You can do whatever you want. You can make any sound you want. Plugins are cheap, samples are cheap, and this is great. I think it’s democratized music production, but I think it’s also lead to a big creative issue, which is people have too many options and they fail to just decide and execute. If that makes sense? What are your thoughts on that?

Derek:

Oh, man [laughs]. I recently got the Native Instruments S88. I think it’s the Komplete Kontrol S88, and along with it, I was like, “You know what, man? I’m going all in.” I got the Complete Collection 11 or whatever it’s called. What is that like 400 gigs of sound?

Sam:

Yeah, I’ve got it. That’s a lot [laughs].

Derek:

And I’m like, “Alright! I got all these sounds!” I fired it up just and I was just like, “Ohh, fuck.” [Laughs]. It was just too much! It was daunting. I would feel myself get tired just thinking about it. It made me want to pick up clarinet or something and just have no options [laughs]. It’s like, “Well, all I can do is blow into this thing and make clarinet noises. That’s a little more appealing right now.”

So there is a book that every electronic musician should read. It’s called The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. He is a brilliant psychologist. He studied this problem of too much choice for many years and wrote the masterpiece book on the subject. So many people know this book in so many walks of life. I’ve talked to business people and programmers and regular people that have interesting brains. I’ve just run across so many strangers where you go, “You know The Paradox of Choice?” “Yeahh, The Paradox of choice.” Amazing book. Please read it.

Here’s the gist. If you had to sum up the point of the book, he says that in this modern age, we do have more choice than ever. When we have more choices, we may technically make a better decision, but we feel worse about it because we’re more aware than ever of all the choices we didn’t choose, and feelings count. How do you say it’s something is technically a better choice, but you feel worse after making it? Can you even say that that’s a good choice?

So his advice: The author spent most of the book talking about the problem, and again, I still highly, highly recommend anybody listen to this – go find the book, The Paradox of Choice. It should be everywhere. So, only at the end of the book he said: OK, so I’ve spent the whole book describing the problem. My book publisher tells me I need to recommend the solution. So here in the final chapter is my solution. Based on all the experiments we’ve done, and testing people’s levels of happiness about the decisions they’ve made, my advice is to not look for the best, but just stop at good enough and then move on.

He calls it the difference between maximizing and satisficing. So, maximizing is when you are trying to make the best possible decision. And you geek out, you you go through every possible sound that you could possibly use, and yes, you may pick one, but you just feel worse about your choice now. So people that just quickly pick something and then say, “Good enough,” and move on, make almost as good of a choice – as good, or almost as good, but more importantly, they feel better about their choice.

Two last things – he says that you should make your decisions irreversible. People who make their decisions irreversible feel better about it because something in your psychology just kind of justifies you say, “Right. Once I decide this is it, I will never go back to change this.” You just decide, “I have to move on. It’s better that I make more music than go back and edit this base forever.”

Lastly, you just have to make constraints for yourself. You can make it kind of a game. You just decide in advance that you’re going to compose this next piece using only four sounds and five notes, or whatever constraints you set. In the book, he’s talking about life. The book doesn’t mention music at all. The book is talking about life choices. But he said that people are happier when they set constraints for themselves and then work within those constraints. So, I think that’s a good tip for musicians in there.

Sam:

Yeah, I like that a lot. I actually haven’t read that book. It’s been on my list for four or five years. So, that’s the next one.

I want to just spend a little bit more time on the creativity thing. One thing that I see in this community is that artists and producers force themselves into a position where they only get satisfaction out of the end result of the creative process. That is, actually putting a song out and getting likes, plays, whatever that may be. Rather than getting satisfaction out of the process itself.

I’ve noticed that this often leads to disappointment, depression, writer’s block, sometimes quitting altogether. If someone’s in this position, and they’re sitting down and spending hours on their music and they just they feel like it’s a means to an end –they’re not really enjoying it. How do you recommend that they fix that?

Derek:

Hmmm. Even if they’re not enjoying the process, if they’re just doing it for the end? Well, I mean, it’s not like making music is the path to certain riches [laughs]. If you’re not enjoying the process, you’ve got to ask yourself, what the hell are you doing? I mean, it’s music more than anything, except maybe poetry. You’ve got to be doing it for the process. I thought you were gonna go somewhere different with that, where you were going to say, “What if somebody figured out that they’re they’re too focused on the end result and they should be more focused on the process?”

Sam:

Yeah, let’s say that’s what it was [laughs].

Derek:

Well I’ve thought about that with my own stuff that I do, whether it’s programming or writing – there’s a difference between in theory and in practice. To me, what you’re describing is one of those things that sounds really nice in theory. In theory, we should be purely intrinsically motivated. We should be happy with the process. Hey, the end result? Don’t worry about it. Just enjoy the process.

But in practice, I think that we all have different motivation. If you like praise, and you know that about yourself then don’t reject it. The hypothetical person you were describing in the question sounds like somebody that might be feeling bad that they are watching to see how many likes, and views, and thumbs up they’re getting on their stuff that they’re putting out there. But honestly, what I’ve noticed over the last few years is that motivation is delicate and you have to pay really close attention to it, to just notice what works for you. Even in small, subtle ways, if something is killing your motivation, then you’ve got to adjust accordingly and stop doing that, even if you think it’s something that you should be doing.

And if something works for you, and if you notice that you get kind of excited by a certain thing, even if it’s something you’re a little embarrassed about, but hey, if it works for you, you just have to use that without judgment. Without judging yourself or worrying what people might say. Like those people that like taking lots of selfies and like looking at pictures of themselves [laughs]. I’ve never taken a selfie in my life – no sorry, I took one selfie once in my life when I bought a new camera. I wanted to see if it worked. I held it up [laughs]. Okay that’s the only selfie I’ve ever taken in my life. I hate seeing photos of myself, some people are into it.

Instead of judging or feeling that you should be doing one thing or shouldn’t be doing another thing, you just have to pay close attention to what’s killing your motivation, what’s increasing your motivation, and then just go for it.

So, if the fear of getting bad comments is keeping you from creating, well, then just turn off the comments. You just say, “You know what? This whole thing with comments is not working for me. If I leave those comments on, I’m going to stop making music. I don’t care what anybody says. I’m turning off comments.”

Or if the fear of getting too much attention is keeping you from creating then maybe you should release things anonymously or under a pseudonym or something like that until you’re really proud of it. Or under a different name and then under your own name only once you’ve got a little distance from it.

Oh! I love this tip I got once. Sometimes it helps to make a distance between the day when you finish something and the day when you put it out into the world. So imagine this: Imagine if you only release music at least one month after you’ve finished it. You just have this cue, like what is today, November 3rd? Something you made today, even if you consider it finished, you just bash on the head and you start on a new piece of work tomorrow, and you put a date on the one that you finished today and only a month later after the 3rd of December then you’re going to put that one out. Because now there’s a little distance between the creation. You can look at it with a little separation and not get your feelings hurt if somebody critiques it because that’s last month’s stuff. Those little subtle things – we can make fun of them or think that they’re small or silly, but they make a big difference.

Sam:

Yeah. I think that makes sense. To expand on that though, and I one hundred percent agree with you, but I do think in this community, specifically with the explosion of electronic dance music over the past decade, there are a lot of people, especially young people, who get into making music because they see the rock stars and there’s nothing wrong with that. But then it’s almost like all the energy and creativity goes towards this what I call extrinsic idea of fame or money or touring the world, and they haven’t even looked inside themselves and thought, “Would I actually enjoy that?” The pressure that they put on themselves causes this sort of creative paralysis, because they compare their music to the stars and they think, “It’s nowhere near as good. I’m never going to make it there. What do I do?”

Derek:

OK. There’s an interesting word that’s the opposite of distress. So we think of stress as a bad thing, but usually when we think of the word stress, we’re thinking of distress. The flipside of distress is an obscure but legitimate word called eustress, and that means positive stress. So it sounds to me like what you’re describing, even though it’s unpleasant, sounds like it could actually be eustress.

Paul McCartney once in an interview said, “A lot of a lot of people look back at the Beatles and think that we were these are sweet, innocent, purely musical fountains. No, John and I, we weren’t trying to write masterpieces. We wanted money. We’d say, let’s write ourselves a swimming pool. Let’s write a song that’s so good that this is gonna earn us a swimming pool. I want a swimming pool. Let’s write a swimming pool. Yeah, we were completely materialistic. We just wanted money.”

And yeah, there are some people that wake up everyday and just think like, “Fuck fuck fuck fuck. I suck. I suck. I suck. I need to be good. Oh my god, everybody is better than me. Ahhh I suck!”

And you know what? If that makes you practice harder or if that makes you try harder to write a better song, then I don’t know – I think that’s healthy. It’s not the most pleasant thing, but I think greatness comes from that dissatisfaction of self.

Sam:

That’s a really good point, actually, because I’ve I picked up on that a few years back where I was in a conversation with someone, and he said, “You know, Sam, you really beat yourself up.” I was like, “No, I don’t. I’m just hard on myself,” and I’ve never felt like I self-loathe. I’m just like, you need to be doing better. You need to be working harder, and I enjoy that, but this person, if he had that kind of self-talk, it would destroy him. So everybody has those different motivations.

It’s a really good point, and I think you’ve changed my view on that. Because I get a lot of people emailing me and they’re like, “Oh, I want to do this and that,” and who am I to say that that’s wrong?

Derek:

I think the same thing about when people have their fears. People often email me saying, “I’m really scared to do such and such. How can I get over my fears?” And I say, “No, don’t get over your fears. Pay attention to them. I think they’re trying to tell you something that you probably should be paying attention to.

Maybe if you’re scared of this thing, it means you haven’t practiced enough, or you’re not prepared enough, or there’s still too many unknowns there. You need to go do a little more research.” The point is, we don’t need to ignore our negative emotions. We can use them and not think there’s something we need to get rid of.

Sam:

I like that a lot. Switching gears, when you’re learning, I know that you’ve written a lot of articles on learning skills and all this kind of stuff. When you’re learning new skills, how do you balance the theoretical learning with the actual practice and the doing?

In other words, how do you make sure that you’re not just slowly learning by trial and error without any kind of framework, but also at the same time, making sure that you’re not just theorizing and thinking without putting in the reps?

Derek:

OK. This is one of my favorite subjects. You’re talking to a guy that went to Berklee School of Music, and not just that, but I loved it. I devoured it, man. Some people thrive in those situations. Some don’t. I thrived in that situation because for most people, making music is almost entirely kind of right brain creative stuff.

So, when I got to music school, and I took my first songwriting class – actually, you know what, we’re talking to musicians here, I’m going to give you a real example. So it was a class about the craft of songwriting, and the craft of melody writing blew my mind.

I’ll use another Beatles example because I just have it on the tip of my tongue right now. He talked about how – this is just one of many techniques – he said instead of always making an eight bar phrase into two four bar phrases or four two bar phrases, there are different, more creative ways to split it up. He said you could break up eight bars into three, three and two, and the class went “Huh?”

He said, “OK, real example – the song “We Can Work it Out” by the Beatles.”

[singing and snapping fingers]

“Try to see it my way, Do I have to keep on talking till I can’t go on? While you see it your way, Run the risk of knowing that our love may soon be gone.

We can work it out, We can work it out.”

So that was a way of dividing eight bars into a three bar, a three bar, one, and one.

I think this was the first day of class, and I just went like, “Whoaaaa,” and I’m scribbling some notes. Of course, that night just went back to the piano, and I write four different songs using a three bar, three bar, one, one – totally imitating the example I had just heard from class.

But how cool that now I had a specific technique to go try, and to me, I think that’s the best balance. We spend a lot of time in this creative mode where we’re trying to be fountains of creativity and come up with new things, but first, you have to make a real effort to go learn a specific new technique.

Take a song that you like, and figure out what you like about it. Get analytical about it. What is it about this arrangement that keeps this song interesting? What’s coming in or dropping out? How is it that they’re maintaining my interest here? What is it about the melody? What is it about the instrumentation? It can be those technical things that you learn. You’re learning about sidechains, and so now you’re gonna go compose three pieces using that new technique that you learned. I love that balance.

Sometimes you’re just deliberately doing exercises. It’s almost like the composer’s version of a musician doing finger exercises. Whether you’re a saxophone player or a guitar player, you sit down and you go [sings and gives examples]. You do it just to exercise your fingers.

Think about that with songwriting, recording, and arranging – even just arranging – if you’re just taking Ravel’s piece called “Boléro.” It was criticized in its day because apparently a famous critic, I think – I’m doing off the top of my head – said that it was 20 minutes of arrangements. There’s no composition there. It’s just an arrangement because Ravel’s song “Boléro” just took one basic melody, or maybe just an A-B melody, repeated it again and again, but each time the instrumentation changes a little tiny bit. I think it’s fucking brilliant. In fact, the best performance I’ve ever heard of it was by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in Wellington. I’ve become a bit of a nerd for this particular piece of music. I’ve listened to it everywhere, and listened to a bunch of different orchestras do it, and the best I’ve ever heard was New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

But anyway, I love “Boléro” because it’s just an arrangement. It’s almost like an exercise. Take this one melody. Repeat it 30 times, but keep it interesting. Go. Like you’ve given yourself an exercise now. You don’t need to be such a fountain of of pure creative genius. You’re just doing an exercise. So, I love this!

Lastly, I think of the metaphor of fertilizer. That these experiments you do. They can be shit, but that’s the shit that helps the other stuff grow.

[Laughs] I think I heard that from Björk actually. Björk once in an interview said, “You know, 95 percent of everything is all crap. But hey, crap makes things grow, right?”

Sam:

A hundred percent. I’ve actually found the times where I’ve developed the most as an artist and learned the most is when I have just come across one technique. I think this was earlier on when I was a newer producer and there was less – how do I put it? There was less of a feeling that I had to perform for people and look good and do the right thing.

I was just completely into the music. So I’d learn a technique and then just spent three days writing music and applying the technique to every single instrument or every song. To the point where it was overkill, but I learned so much.

Derek:

Exactly. I think it’s all healthy. That’s what we’re supposed to do.

Sam:

Yeah, exactly man. Following up on that. Should an artist strive to be original? Or is imitation a valuable approach?

Derek:

You can probably guess what I’m going to say, right? [Laughs]

OK, so my take on this is that something that seems obvious to you is probably amazing to others because it’s like there’s no truly new ideas in the world, right? We just combine things in a new way. We heard a sound somewhere, and we combine it with a theory we have. And you combine the sound in the theory, and you make something that’s technically new. But you know its origin. So it doesn’t feel so creative or original to you because you know exactly where it came from. You’re taking the melody from here and the harmony from there, and combine those two things.

So, I think even the most “original” or “sophisticated and complex” musicians know exactly what ingredients they’re combining. I think of John Coltrane. People would hear him and they’d think, “Whoaaa man, you’re blowing my mind,” but that dude would do finger exercises hours a day. He knew exactly what he was doing on his instrument. To him, it was not, “Whoaa. Amazing. Original.” He knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s just kind of obvious to him.

And my favorite example is Tom Waits.

I had already been a full-time musician for ten years or so. Then, I heard Tom Waits. It was the most unique music I had ever heard. My jaw dropped like, “What the hell? How the hell is he making these sounds? How did he come up with that? That is the weirdest, strangest, most unique sounds I have ever heard in my life.”

His originality blew my mind. I just wondered how could he ever come up with this? So, just a few months ago, I went to the Wikipedia page about Tom Waits. I was sitting here daydreaming and found myself thinking about him. And I’ve never looked up his history. Where did that dude come from? I’ve been a fan of his for years. Right there on his Wikipedia page, it said he started out doing a certain style that was more classic – singer-songwriter, piano-focused.

Then, he took a new artistic direction where he combined his influences of Harry Partch and Captain Beefheart. I’d heard of Captain Beefheart before because he’s got a memorable name, but Harry Partch – I’d never heard of him. So I copied the name from Wikipedia, pasted it into YouTube, and dude, I was listening to Tom Waits. This stuff that I thought was so uniquely Tom Waits, it was totally a Harry Partch ripoff, but Harry Partch would just do instrumental percussive music.

So that’s where Tom Waits’s kind of strange, clangy percussion was coming from, and then vocally, he was kind of imitating Captain Beefheart, maybe a little Howlin Wolf. You put those two things together, and I can imagine for him it was pretty obvious. It’s like [in a deep voice] I’m going to take this Harry Partch over here and mix it with some Captain Beefheart.

Just mix and go! He just takes these two influences, but then everybody else hears it and goes, “Whoaaa! What is – what is that?”

And I guess, the trick then, is to not go announce your influences so much [laughs]. Now I hear Tom Waits’ music as kind of obvious and maybe even formulaic, once you realize what he’s doing, I still think it’s absolutely brilliant, but now I take away the label of original, which is fine – I still think it’s a masterpiece.

So, back to the listener here. I think it’s the same with you, as a musician, that you don’t have to worry about being original if you just go combine two of your influences in an interesting way. You know, you take a little rhythm from over here, a texture from over there, and a melody influenced by you-know-who and voilà. You’re doing a very obvious exercise combining these obvious influences, but you put them together and people will say it’s completely original and new.

Most people won’t be able to recognize your influences, so you don’t have to worry about copying. Lastly, I think that we’re all kind of like we’re all warped mirrors anyway. You know the cliché funhouse mirror? There are those mirrors that are just deliberately extremely warped and curved so you can stand in front of it and go, “Wow, look! My head is here. Look at my funny little legs.” So I think that we are all warped mirrors. Even if you tried to completely copy somebody, go ahead. Try to imitate Bjoörk [laughs], you come out sounding like you because we are all warped.

Sam:

That’s a really good point. Have you seen the documentary series called, “Everything is a Remix?”

Derek:

Wait, no.

Sam:

It’s old.

Derek:

I think that’s what I’m trying to remember. Did I actually see that years ago or did I put it on my watch someday list? Sorry, I don’t remember.

Sam:

I forgot who it’s by, but they talk about how Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is almost a direct copy of the guitar melody of another song from 20 years earlier.

Derek:

Right!

Sam:

But, it’s so interesting to watch because what you realize is – nothing is original. Everybody draws from other places. When I learned that, it freed me up creatively because I was like, “You know what? I love how this artist has done this with the drums. I’m going to copy that. No one’s going to know. Even if they do, it’s not copyrighted.”

So, what’s the big deal. It’s such a better way to make music. Otherwise, you just work yourself into paralysis because you’re you’re always worried about, “Oh, is this gonna be original enough, or does it sound good?” If it sounds good, leave it. Move on.

Derek:

I started treating almost everything I made as just an exercise. Kind of like, “Hmm I’m going to take these Fela Kuti drum rhythms and mix it with the Bulgarian Women’s Choir. I don’t think anybody has done that. Let me play with that combination.” And you just give yourself an exercise.

Sam:

Yeah, exactly. I like that a lot. Alright, Derek, I’ve got two more questions and then we’ll wrap this up. One thing that I really admire about you is that you seem to have a range of mental models in heuristics that you’ve either adopted or created yourself.

One that’s always stuck with me – I think it was in a Tim Ferriss podcast, you mentioned this idea of small tests before making a significant life decisions. Maybe you want to move to the city. Well, instead of just renting or buying an apartment, get an AirBnb for two weeks and see if you like it. I love that idea, and I think it’s a great mental model for making better decisions in life. Do you have any of these mental models for creative people doing creative work?

Derek:

Oh god, a lot. I tend to live my life a lot by these. Huh, I actually never made that comparison. I don’t get to talk about music much these days [laughs]. Most people don’t ask me about music, so I really enjoyed our conversation for the past 45 minutes talking about this stuff.

I had never made the comparison until this very moment that the way that I spent years making music, doing these deliberate exercises – like what happens if I combine this thing I heard with that thing I heard, or this thing that I actually heard combined with this in-theory technique, you know, like I said, like splitting up three, three and two or whatever. Let me try that split up with that. Sometimes just a straight up exercise, like can I reverse a drum beat? Not actually just reverse the sample, but if I were to actually reverse the beat and play it backwards.

I would do these deliberate exercises of inversion. Let me try the opposite now. Let me try to bring it down to a tenth of its size now. Point is, I think I take that exact same experimentation approach with life. Sorry but I think I might answer this the opposite way that you might have intended that.

Sam:

Sure.

Derek:

I think you were asking about taking life philosophies and heuristics and applying them to music. I think what I’ve actually done more often is take things that I learned from music and apply them to life.

For example, I often think about the role model of some musicians’ careers like Miles Davis. Miles Davis had phases of his career where he was the bebop guy. Right? So for years, he was right there with Charlie Parker doing bebop. Then he decided, alright, I’ve I’ve been there, done that. Even though people still want me to play bebop, I’ve got to change it up and come up with something new.

Then, he did his cool phase with the kind of more modal, less changes, and then eventually, he did an electric thing, and each time he would make a change, people would get mad about it. They’d say, “What’re you doing? That’s not what we’re paying for. We want the other. We want the thing you’re doing already.”

Then, he started covering Cyndi Lauper songs and had electric guitars in his band, and he had brightly colored red trumpets and wearing bright outfits, and people were mad again. I think of musician’s careers applied to life like, “OK, yeah, I’ve done this thing for a number of years, and maybe I’m not necessarily done with it, but just in the name of the arc of life, it’s time for me to switch it up and do this other thing.” And people get mad at me for not continuing. Some people are still mad that I’m not at CD Baby anymore. I probably get one email every week or two of somebody still pissed off like, “Man, I’m still pissed off you’re not at CD Baby. They’re not answering my phone calls! When you were there...”

Sam:

[Laughs]

Derek:

It’s like sorry, [laughs] I can’t keep doing the same thing! Then I think about artist careers like David Bowie where he would put on a persona for a few years. He’s like, “For the next few years, I am this guy. Now I’m Ziggy Stardust. Now I’m the thin white dude.” Whatever it might be.

Paul Simon. I don’t know what he’s done in the last 20 years, but if you look at what he was doing in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it felt like every album or two, he would pick a new genre of music he knew nothing about and dive into it. He’d say, “I really don’t know anything about gospel. So I’m going to make a couple gospel records.”

Then he got together with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and did Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints after that. He would just take these periods, and I heard that before he made “Still Crazy After All These Years” – even though he was already a successful, famous musician, he started taking lessons, learning jazz theory, studying with jazz musicians, and totally increased his repertoire of changes. I so admire that.

Sam:

I think that’s what being an artist is about.

Derek:

Yeah, it’s living your life like the artist’s life. Then, of course, there’s Bob Dylan who has great lines – something about an artist can’t look back? I forget what the exact lyric was, but I think about that too, like in life.

Before we hit record, you asked why I moved from New Zealand to Oxford, England where I’m talking from now. It’s like, oh, I love New Zealand, but it was time to go. Just in the name of the big changes in life, you know? I’ve already lived here, and as much as I love it, it’s time to try the next thing.

Sam:

It is funny how fans, and I guess consumers think that they can control artists.

Derek:

[Laughs].

Sam:

I have noticed that a lot. You kind of mentioned it, “Oh, you shouldn’t be doing this, you should be making this.” It’s like, come on, you don’t have any ownership.

Derek:

And we’ve all felt that, too. You know, there are some artists that we all kind of wish they would just keep that thing that we like [laughs]. Then you have artists like AC/DC that do the exact same thing for 40 years. I don’t know how the hell they did it. I could never do that. But some people are thrilled about that. Some people are really happy that AC/DC made the same album over and over again for 40 years.

Sam:

That is a good point. I guess that’s kind of hypocritical because I know quite a few artists who, if they change their sound and style, that would piss me off, and I’d be a bit angry [laughs]. So yeah, I retract that statement or completely.

Derek:

[laughs] Well, that’s life really. It’s kind of like being in relationships and in love. You don’t want your partner to be jealous of you when you’re doing something that she shouldn’t be jealous of. You think, “Hey, how the hell can you be jealous?” But on the other hand, I remember what it’s like to feel jealous for no reason, and that’s life [laughs].

Sam:

Exactly. I want to end this by talking about an article that you wrote in 2016, and I think this is crucial for our audience. This article was titled “How to Do What You Love and Make Good Money.”

In it, you recommend that one should have a well-paying job and seriously pursue the art for love, not money. Could you expand on why you think this is a good approach and what you meant by that?

Derek:

I’m only saying it out of observation. I didn’t go out into the world deciding that this was the best way to be, but I started noticing it over and over and over again. I mean, imagine this –at CD Baby, by the time I left, I had 185,000 musician clients, and because I lived in New York City and I lived in Los Angeles, it was different than the years when I lived in New Zealand and I was living pretty remote and isolated.

My years in L.A. or New York City, every single week, I was out at events meeting anywhere from five to 100 musicians a day at various events, get-togethers, conferences, and all that. I met with so many musicians, and over and over and over again, I noticed that the unhappiest musicians I met were either the ones that were full-time musicians desperately needing their music to pay their rent, pay their mortgage, and they would get so stressed out and freaked out if their music wasn’t making enough money to pay their cost of living.

I just thought they were always really on edge and really unhappy and really freaked out if the slightest thing changed. You know, whatever Google changes their algorithm, it’s like, “Fuck! I can’t pay my next month’s rent now.” You know, so on the edge.

On the other hand, I would meet a lot of musicians that had a full-time job, and they weren’t giving enough time to their music. They’d be miserable because they weren’t expressing themselves enough. Each half of those miserable people always felt that they needed more of the other. So, if a musician was depending entirely on their music for income, I’d often hear them say, “Man, maybe I need to learn computer programing or something. You know, make some money on the side.”

Then, people who were only working a full-time job would just say, “I think I need to quit my job to do music full-time.” I’d say, “Ahh, you guys should meet [laughs], and see that the other side’s pretty miserable, too.”

But the happiest musicians I met were the ones that had this balance. It doesn’t even need to pay a ton. It can just be some simple job working at the post office, or whatever it may be. A simple job that doesn’t completely suck your soul. The kind of thing where you can go in at 9 a.m. and leave at 5 p.m. Not freak out, but then, the important balance is to then take your art seriously after that.

You come home, and whether it’s before or after you make a meal, you actually pursue your art seriously two to three hours a night, or six to eight hours a weekend or whatever it may be. Not after you’ve completely relaxed and after you’ve watched a TV show. It’s kind of like people who only read books half an hour before bed. They always just read a few pages and fall asleep, but what do you expect? You saved it until half an hour before bed.

So, same thing with your music. The ones who actually take it seriously and actually practice hard, work hard, try as hard as they can to be great. They’re not just completely giving up. They’re not just like, “Eh, I do it just for fun. It doesn’t matter.” No, it does matter. They would they would actually release music, put it out for sale, take their artist career seriously, but while maintaining a 9-to-5 job that paid their cost of living.

Those people I met were so happy because the cost of living was covered by the day job. So now their music –they could they could do it and enjoy it. Rewinding 30 minutes ago to your question about enjoying the process. They really seemed to enjoy the process, but it’s important that you have to take it seriously. So sorry, I’m answering you off the top of my head, but if you go to sivers.org/balance, I write it better there. I think I put it into better words.

Sam:

Yeah, it’s a great article.

Derek:

Thank you.

Sam:

One question I have, let’s say I’m in that position where I have a day job and I’m doing this on the side. Then, my music starts to take off a bit, and I don’t jump to really, but I wait 12 months. I’m making as much money from my music as I am for my job. Do I just continue down that path or does it make sense to just go all-in on the music? Was that too much of a contextual question, and it depends on the person?

Derek:

It depends on the job, depends on the boss, depends on the person. You actually just described my scenario exactly when I was 22. It was the last time I had a day job. I worked at a music publishing company in midtown Manhattan for 2.5 years from the age of 20 until 22 and a half when I got this great gig playing guitar for a Japanese pop star, Ryuichi Sakamoto.

It was going to be a one month tour of Japan. So I went to my boss and I said, “OK, I’ve got two weeks of vacation that I haven’t used. I’ve got eight sick days I haven’t used. I just want to ask for two days off because I can use my two weeks here and my eight sick days. I’m only missing two days. I don’t need to quit, but I need to tell you, I gotta take this gig. I’m going to Japan for a month. I want my job when I come back in a month.”

He was just like, “No problem, man. We love you. Just go do your thing. We’ll use your sick days and vacation days. See you in a month.”

They got somebody to cover for me, and I came back a month later. Then, I carried on at that job for another six months or so with all the various musician gigs I was doing around town. I was a session musician, I was playing guitar on people’s records, producing peoples demos, and I was playing with a circus on the weekends and doing all these gigs as a freelance musician. All of it while maintaining my 9-to-5 job, and at a certain point I realized I was earning more from music than I was from my day job.

That’s when I quit. I had to go as long as I can. It wasn’t just out of some frustration, like, “Oh if I quit my job, then I’m sure my music will take off…”

Sam:

Ryan Holiday has a quote that goes something like, “Jump when you see the landing, but not before.”

I think that’s crucial because a lot of people – it’s the whole survivorship bias thing – they hear about someone who quit their job, had no money, and still managed to make it work. It’s like, yeah, that probably won’t be you though [laughs]. Not to be discouraging, but...

Derek:

Right, we don’t hear the other stories. They’re the 9 out of 10 that that doesn’t work for them, and we don’t hear them glorified in magazines. I like the metaphor of Tarzan swinging through the jungle. He’s swinging on the vines in the jungle, right? So if you’re swinging on vines in the jungle, you don’t let go of the last vine until the next vine is in your hand,

Sam:

Oh, of course. I like that.

Derek:

It’s kind of like when you’ve got the next vine in your hand, that’s when you can let go of the previous one. The other lesson from Tarzan is don’t lose momentum because if you stop swinging, you’re just hanging still on a vine [laughs]. You’ve got nothing to do but drop down.

Sam:

Very good point. Well, Derek, thank you so much for your time and great conversation.

Derek:

Thanks, Sam.

Sam:

Are there any last words that you want to leave for the listeners?

Derek:

As you can hear, I’m not here pitching anything, so I actually really enjoy hearing from people. It’s actually one of my favorite things. So, anybody who listened all the way through this podcast, if you go to sivers.org, you’ll see a contact me link right there.

I still read and answer every single email. So, drop me an email. Say hello, even if you don’t have a question for me. Just introduce yourself. I enjoy it.

Sam:

Excellent.