Hello world and welcome to another episode of Making It with Chris G, where we have conversations with people in the world of entertainment who are making it from behind the scenes to the spotlight, sharing their stories and insight to help you get one step closer to making it. We got another exciting and fun episode for all of you with Derek Sivers. This conversation was full of amazing tips, stories and philosophies for musicians and really just for life. Derek Sivers has been a musician, producer, circus performer, entrepreneur, TED Speaker and book publisher. He’s the founder of CD Baby and Host Baby. His book, Anything You Want, tells you a story of everything he learned while starting, growing, and selling his business. That’s a story from a little while ago, so we didn’t really dive into that story too much today. My goal was to pick his brain with some questions that will be new to listeners and hopefully give you some new stories that you may have not heard before. He has a new book coming out called Your Music and People, which we’ll dive into a little bit in his episode. And just a side note, it’s me personally recommending the books. Derek didn’t do the episode of to promote his books. He loves doing these podcasts because of the people that he meets through doing them. I want to encourage you guys to reach out to him because he really enjoys meeting the people through these podcasts and interviews.
I’m working on the About page currently for my podcast site and I discovered your /now page. I love the concept.
That’s a good way to catch people up to what you’re up to now, but also, what is a /now page? And is it something that you think musicians should consider adding to their sites?
Good question. Let me tell the reasoning behind it and then you can decide for yourself.
We have connections and acquaintances around the world. Some are friends of mine who I care about a lot, but we don’t talk every week. Every month or so, I wonder what they’re up to and what’s going on. But if you look at somebody’s social media stream, you see random stuff like what they had for lunch today or their thoughts on a TV show. It doesn’t give the bigger picture.
So, the original inspiration was that I wished that my friends and acquaintances would have some kind of URL I could visit over having to ask them, “Hey, man, how are you?” And having them tell the whole tale.
I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we all had a page on our personal websites like /now?”
It’s kind of like the standard /about and /contact pages that you find on someone’s site. That was the bigger reason.
But sometimes people would say something like, “Hey, man, I’ve got this business idea. I wanted to know if you want to get involved with this? Or, “Hey, we’ve got this conference going on. Can you speak at this thing?”
I’d often give these people a polite rejection, but it also helped to show them my /now page and say, “Look, this isn’t personal to you. Here’s what’s going on with me. I’m just head down, working on my book. It’s the only thing I’m doing.”
So, a /now page is also a good way of showing that this is what I’m doing now and that I’m doing nothing else. It’s a good way of letting people know that I’m not open for new projects right now. And that it’s not personal.
At first, it was just something I had on my personal site. Somebody saw me do it, and he put one on his site. And when I tweeted about it, eight more people did it on the same day. The next day, 20 people did it. And pretty soon I was getting dozens of e-mails from people saying, “Hey, cool idea. I put a /now page on my site.”
So, I made nownownow.com as a place that collects everybody’s /now pages into one place. If anyone emails me to let me know about their /now page, I add them to the site.
That’s awesome. I love it. I might be sending you a /now page very soon as well.
Good! It’s nerdy but I like it. I tend to keep everything important on my site.
I like this idea of your site as the definitive source of information about you over sending people away to some corporate social media site.
I love it. Speaking of your /now page, what are you most excited about right now?
Hold on. Let me read my /now page.
What I’m excited about right now? I finished my book for musicians that I’m sending out to the printer. I’m being very DIY about it.
It kind of reminds me of the indie music spirit. It was like in the mid-90s when the Internet was first becoming a thing. Musicians were first getting the spirit of wait a minute, I don’t need to sell my soul to the man. I could do this myself.
A record label doesn’t need to own my rights. There’s nothing they can do I can’t do for myself.
I’m realizing that with publishing. My last book was with Penguin, a major publisher. I saw that there’s really nothing they’re doing for me that I can’t do for myself.
It feels kind of cool and punk and indie to do it myself. I want to do it myself and own my own rights. I think as of now, I might not even sell it on Amazon.
I’m doing my own translations. I’m hiring my own translators. Instead of waiting for foreign publishers to contact me, I’m doing that in advance.
I’m setting up a little storefront to sell it directly from my site.
The book is called Your Music and People. That’s a collection of all of my advice for musicians over the years.
I think it contrasts with another brilliant book by Ari Herstand called How to Make It in the New Music Business. To me, that is the best book out there right now. Every musician should read that book. That really tells you what you should be doing right now.
My book, Your Music and People, has more timeless philosophy. The subtitle gives you a hint. It’s called creative and considerate fame.
I love that. I teach a Music Business I class, and the standard textbook for that class used to be Donald Passman’s book, which is still great, but I think Ari’s book is the best book for musicians. It really teaches you how to do it now versus how to negotiate a record contract that I may or may not get 10 years from now.
Right. I think that the Donald Passman book is from another era. As a musician, that book is more of a turnoff. That book doesn’t make me jump out of my chair and get excited about doing this thing. It’s more like, “Oh, my God, this sounds awful.”
I’d put that Donald Passman book on my short list of “don’t read this”. Don’t read this because it’s going to turn you off. You’ll know when you actually need to read this. If you’re about to negotiate some kind of deal with EMI, then go read that book. But until then, stick with Ari Herstand’s book.
Yeah. And then soon, your book as well. You have a cool philosophy to go along with all the applied strategies. I’m excited. I can’t wait.
You were a musician yourself. When you first started your career, your adventures, you were going to Berklee College of Music to study to be a musician. You also had a really great mentor.
Yes. Really awesome musician.
Can you share a story of how you got started in your music career, and how you got started getting paid to play music?
I started out by saying yes to everything.
I was a very, very ambitious teenager. I was 18 and had just moved to Boston to go to Berklee School of Music. I didn’t know anybody. I had no connections.
The bass player in my band was offered a gig because he knew a booking agent. But the bassist in my band got offered some random gig at a pig show in Vermont. The gig paid $75. He thought that was too stupid to waste his time on. So, he asked if I wanted the gig.
I was like, “Hell, yeah, man, a paying gig.” So, I took it.
It was a $50 round trip bus ticket to get up to Vermont. But I didn’t care. I got the gig. I showed up at some weird pig show in Vermont with my guitar and walked around singing songs.
After the gig, the booking agent called me and said, “Look, I’ve got a lot of other gigs. I got a good report on you in Vermont. There’s this touring circus, and their musician just quit. Do you want the gig?”
I took the gig, and I toured with that circus for 10 years doing over a thousand shows. All because of that $75 pig show. That was my first paying gig.
Also, when I was 19 years old, I was still at Berklee School of Music. During a music business class, I bought a pizza for a visiting speaker. He was a Vice President of BMI.
On his way to the class, I heard him mention that he was hungry. He turned to the teacher and said, “Oh, I thought we were going to eat first.” And the teacher said, “Oh, no, I thought you ate already.” And he goes, “Oh, man.”
So, while everybody was still getting seated, I dashed out and called Supreme Pizza and had them deliver three pizzas to room 313.
When the pizzas arrived, the Vice President of BMI said, “All right dude. Good move. I owe you a favor.”
A couple of years later, he totally came through on his offer. He got me a job at Warner Chappell Music Publishing in the tape room.
He heard they were hiring. I had just graduated from college. I was 20 years old. He called them up and he said, “I’ve got your guy. You’re done hiring. His name’s Derek Sivers.”
I got a call in my dorm room at 7 o’clock at night. The woman on the phone said, “Hi, this is Julie from Warner Chappell. Mark said we should hire you. So, can you start Monday?”
That was it! I was working inside the industry at Warner Chappell Music Publishing and learned a ton about how things work inside. It was all because I bought pizzas for this random dude.
There’s many ways to offer value to people.
Yeah. You never know what little thing is going to lead to big things. That’s why you have to get out there and do everything.
Yeah, but that’s so creative. That’s such a cool story. What did you do for Warner Chappell Music?
I was the bottom of the totem pole running the tape room. It was a minimum wage job. But I had this huge library of a room with every piece of music we owned. Anything that came in or out of there had to go through me.
I got to see how deals get done. I got to be a fly on the wall watching how the inside of the industry works. I don’t mean to sound like a book pitch, but that’s actually a lot of what the book is about.
Your Music and People is about the lessons that I learned from the inside of the industry because I really enjoyed sharing these with other musicians.
I felt like I was a spy. I was still really a musician, but I felt like I was spying on the industry to tell my fellow musicians how it’s done.
Learning all the secrets. I love it. Did you work any other jobs in industry or was Warner Chappell the only one?
No. That was it. In fact, I quit my job there after two years because I was making more money as a musician than I was for my day job. I quit my last job in 1992 and became a full-time musician.
That’s awesome. The full-time musician part – can you tell me a little bit more about that?
I was just doing the hustle then. It was living in New York City, doing whatever it takes to make a buck as a musician. You do that hustle and say yes to everything. You take every gig you can get.
If somebody said, “We’re looking for a jazz pianist for an art opening.”
I was like, “Yep, I’m a jazz pianist. I can do it. What does it pay?”
”Alright. I’m a jazz pianist.”
I would practice for two weeks, sitting there with a real book every night, practicing piano for three hours, even though I wasn’t really a pianist. But hey, I got the gig.
If somebody said, “We need a metal guitarist for this solo, for this thing.”
I said, “Yep, I’m a metal guitarist.”
Whatever it took, man. I was a guitarist in a West African Afro pop band. I did a lot of sessions around the city. I even got some gigs singing. I sang on some sessions.
If someone said, “We’re looking for a singer.” I’m like, “Yep, I’m a singer.”
That’s part of doing the hustle. You to say yes to everything and do whatever it takes.
That’s awesome. Instead of working some side gig while doing music, your side gig was music. That’s such a cool story.
Yeah. It really helps to be in the middle of things like that. I highly recommend it even if you have to be an intern. It doesn’t even have to be right in Rockefeller Center, New York City.
It’s helpful even to find a local booking agency or a local production company and offer to intern with them just to see what it’s like to be on the receiving end of people’s music.
That was the biggest eye opener for me – understanding what it’s like to be on the receiving end of everybody’s music. It makes you so much more empathetic and considerate. You understand that these people are bombarded with music and you learn how to set yourself apart from the pack.
It’s such a good lesson because you learn so much by getting involved in different areas of the industry. When I transitioned from working for a small theater and started working for Live Nation, the learning curve in the first six months to a year was mind blowing. You get exposed to so much and learn a lot.
Even if it’s just a short experiment where you work for a label for a couple of months or just a year, you’ll learn so much and gain some new skills that you can add to your repertoire and how you approach your career.
If you were 18 again and pursuing a music career in today’s music industry where CD Baby exists, knowing everything that you know now with only $500 in your bank account, what would be your strategy to pursue a music career over the next five or ten years?
First, I would do everything in Ari Herstand’s book, How to Make It in the New Music Business. Then I would split my time between L.A. and New York, even though I only have $500. I would do whatever it takes because when I look back at my career, so many great things happened because I was right there in the game. I was right there in New York City where everything was happening.
This is a good example.
When I was recording my album, the dude that was an assistant engineer at the studio – the guy that was wrapping microphone cables – was Royston Langdon. He had a British accent, and he was always talking about his friend Sean Lennon. He went on to become the lead singer of the band Spacehog and married Liv Tyler – a superstar. And that was the dude that was wrapping my microphone cables.
When I was 22, I got a gig playing guitar for this Japanese pop star. It was one of the best paying, high profile gigs in my life. I was playing to audiences of 100,000 people in Japan. And it was just because my roommate was an assistant engineer at the studio where Ryuichi Sakamoto was recording.
So, I think it’s a huge benefit. It’s actually still an underrated benefit to be in New York or L.A. or maybe Nashville. Ideally, if you can hack it, if you got friends with couches, do both. If you find some cheap flights, you crash on a couch in L.A. for a few months and meet everybody and crash on a couch in New York for a couple of months and meet everybody. Go back and forth and take advantage of both networks.
But that’s stretching it. You’re asking my ideal plan, but at least pick one, move to L.A. or move to New York. It may suck at first, but the people you’re going to meet along the way are the most ambitious ones.
So, knowing what I know now about myself, I would pursue the producer path, not the artist path.
That’s just about self-awareness. When I was 18, I was totally pursuing the artist path. I was trying to be the next Prince or whatever. But over the years, I found I love being in the studio. Being onstage, eh, not so much. I’d rather be Brian Eno than Bono. And instead of Billie Eilish, I’d rather be her brother, Finneas.
I want to be the guy in the studio. Because to me, that’s the most creative stuff. In the autobiography of Brian Eno, I read the story of when he’s in the studio with the band U2 recording their great album, Achtung Baby.
When the album was done, Brian Eno had a week off then he went back into the studio to work on a new record with a new artist. U2 had to go tour for three years playing the same 15 songs.
I thought, “No, I’d rather have his career than theirs”. So, if I was doing it all again now, I would position myself higher up the food chain. Even with only $500 in my bank account, I would declare myself to be a production company and a label that’s helping to find, sign, produce, and promote artists. I think it sets a certain expectation and status for yourself.
It also shows that you’re not waiting to be a pawn in somebody else’s machine. I’m saying that I’m going to be an equal player, not a little bity member hoping for your table scraps.
And lastly, I would deliberately cultivate an image. It’s nice to think that we’re only in an audio business, but the visuals matter so much. I think it’s better to be on top of it and use it as part of your artistic expression instead of saying it doesn’t matter and then having it happen anyway and unintentionally.
People are going to make first impressions about you whether you like it or not. So, you might as well control them deliberately instead of just being on the receiving end of the random impressions that you might be giving off without knowing it.
There are so many great little lessons and tips in there. The fact about moving to New York or L.A., that’s so true. Again, speaking from my experience on the promoter/manager role when I first started, there is only so much you can do over email or a phone call.
Even if that’s something that someone can’t afford, going there at least a few times a year is so beneficial because you’re surrounded by your community.
Sometimes, it helps if you’re not from there because then you’re not always around. People may make more of an effort to meet with you and hopefully that will lead to something else.
When you said, “If you can’t move there, just go there a couple times a year,” I thought, “Conferences are good for that.”
I’m not sure how valid it is still is, but I think it still is. There’s a conferenced called the ASCAP Music Expo which usually happens in April in L.A. I always found that one to be so great for making connections. Just so many people.
When you go to these conferences, you’re meeting people who are usually in the game right now, making things happen All the attendees are people who are open to meeting new people. That’s why they’re there at this conference.
Whereas, if you’re cold calling from a directory of booking agents, 90% of them might not be open to hearing from anybody right now. They’re booked. They’re not looking for any new clients.
I think conferences are kind of underrated. SXSW is still worth going to even though it’s ginormous. But look for some of these are secondary ones and especially the ones that are in the music centers. There might be other little conferences going on in Pennsylvania or Minnesota, but are probably aren’t worth your time unless you’re really wanting to get into that local region.
But if you go to the ones in L.A. and New York, you’re going to be meeting people that are right there in the game, making things happen right now.
Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more.
You also talked about self-awareness. So being more self-aware now, you would go the producer route. Is there a way to train self-awareness? Do you have any tips on how to work on your self-awareness?
Just go try it. You can think in theory you would like something. You can sit at home and think that you would like to go tour, but the only way to know is to go try it.
You might hate touring. You might love it for the first year and then hate it after that.
Or you might hate being in the studio. You never know. You have to go try these things in practice, and not just think about it in theory.
And also think about what is most important to you in life. Is it health? Is it family? Is it financial stability? And how do these things affect those other factors that are important to you as well?
I think that’s something that we also don’t really know until we try.
You can say this is what I value because you think it sounds good or because you heard your parents say it. But maybe you don’t.
I learned that your actions reveal your values, not your words. So, no matter what you say is important to you or what you say you want, your actions reveal the truth.
If you say you want to quit drinking, but you’re still drinking? The truth is, you don’t really want to quit. If you really wanted to quit, you would do it. If you say you really want to start writing a song every week, well, if you’re not doing it, you don’t really want to do it. Because if you really wanted to do it, you would do it. Nothing would stop you if you really wanted it.
Look at your actions, not just your words. Your words are actually kind of meaningless. Instead, look at what you’re actually drawn to. Or if you’re hearing me say this and you feel that your actions and your words are really out of alignment with each other, well, then, damn it, go change your actions to match with your words.
If you say this is important to you, then shut up, quit letting listening to podcasts, and go write your damn song already.
I’m glad I asked that.
One of the books I share the most with my students is The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding by Al and Laura Ries. It’s a really book about how to build a really good brand. I drew out a few of them and added a couple of my own to create the 10 laws for musicians. One of them is to have a narrow focus – to focus on one thing for a while.
On a Tim Ferriss podcast, you said, “The lesson that you would give to your 30-year-old self is don’t be a donkey.” Can you explain what this lesson is?
The story of the donkey is actually an old story from the 1400s by a philosopher named Buridan. It was a hypothetical story of a donkey that is exactly halfway in between a stack of hay and a pail of water, and he can’t decide which way to go. He’s hungry and thirsty. He looks left and looks right. Eventually, he dies of hunger and thirst because he was halfway in between. He just couldn’t decide which to do first.
The point is to not get paralyzed by choice. Just make any choice. Do something, anything always. Don’t do nothing.
To me, the lesson learned from the donkey tale is there is no wrong choice. The only wrong choice is to do nothing. So, always be doing something towards your career. As far as the 22 Laws of Branding, I think your narrow focus is already music. You don’t have to narrow your focus down to just be acoustic singles, fingerstyle guitar or something. It’s not like you’re trying to do music and horse training and architecture. We’re already narrow-focused on music.
Then one of your rules you also have is the rule of “Hell Yeah or No.”
Can you share what this rule is? You mentioned saying yes to everything at first. At what point is Hell Yeah or No something that you should apply to your career, journey, or a project you’re working on?
“Hell Yeah or No” is a mindset to use when you’re already successful and overwhelmed in opportunity. It’s a little rule of thumb that says to say yes to less. So, if you’re feeling anything less than, “Oh hell yeah! That would be amazing,” then just say, “no.”
It’s a strategy to use when you’re overwhelmed in opportunity. But at the beginning of your career, the best thing is to do it all. To say “yes” to everything. Try everything. Because like lottery tickets, the more you have, the better. Get into different networks. Know filmmakers and people in TV production. Get to know the best musicians in your local area. Take trips to L.A., New York, and Nashville to attend conferences.
Keep in touch with everybody you meet. It’s one of the best things you can do at these conferences. 99% of the people at conferences never do the follow-up, which means they’re missing the whole point. The conference isn’t where the real things happen.
The conference is just where you make a little connection. If you don’t do the follow-up after the conference with the people you meet, well, then you’ve just wasted your time.
You meet somebody. You make a couple of jokes about burritos and bicycles and you have a 10-minute chat. You trade contact info and then you follow up with that person a week later when they’re back at their desk.
The conference is not the place to be trying to shove something into people’s hands. It’s a place to get people’s contact info and then everything happens in the follow up afterwards. That’s when everything happens. It’s a week later. Not at the conference.
Within the music business, you never know what might hit. So, you have to try it all until something rewards you, whether it’s money, fame or even just more intrinsic creative rewards.
Then, you can dive deeper into that one thing and give it all you’ve got. But at first, try everything and do it all.
I think opportunities present themselves when we get involved in different things within the same area of focus.
Using your “Hell Yeah or No” philosophy, to avoid being distracted by all the things that musicians, “have to do,” such as posting on social media, creating 200 pieces of content a day, trying to book shows, and trying to write songs, there’s so much that you “have to do.”
I assume for musicians and creators, “hell yes” is creating their art. What are some things that musicians and creators maybe could outsource so they can stay focused on their hell yeah?
Do you remember Moby, the techno artist?
I read this interview with him. The journalist said, “I’ve known you since your early days, and we both know that there were many amazing artists in your scene. So why did you get so much more successful than they did?”
I’ll never forget his answer. He said, “Well, while my friends were pasting up flyers to promote their next gig, I put that same amount of energy into finding a great team. I found a great manager, an agent, a publicist, and a label. And then while my fellow musicians just kept gigging, my career took off because I had a team.”
This came up again when I read the biography of the band U2. After their first hit, they were touring around America for the first time. They had just had their first hit on the radio. They encountered this band in Boston that was la friend of their manager.
This band in Boston had been gigging relentlessly for ten years. The guitarist of U2 sadly noticed. He said, “Wow, having one song on the radio does more for your career than 10 years of gigs.”
You can write a hundred songs, you can do a thousand gigs, you can have a million followers on social media, but it won’t get you as far as having someone work the inside of the industry.
Finding your team is hard, but it’s no harder than promoting gigs. And you’ll get a much better reward for your effort.
Where should people start? Because building a traditional team isn’t easy. We’re trying to find a manager, an agent, a label. Of course, in Ari’s book, he talks about the new music business team.
Where would you start in building that team?
It’s a collection of everything we’ve said so far. So, what Ari’s book says, but also being at these conferences, being in the major media centers, L.A. and New York, and also having something to show for yourself.
There’s this thing when after you’ve written your first 10 songs, you think you’re ready. But The Beatles wrote 100 songs before they got the record deal. And after the record deal, they said, “Well, let’s throw away those first hundred. Let’s write some more.” So, we never even heard the first hundred songs by The Beatles.
That was 50 years ago, but I think it still applies. Whatever your home town, write your ass off and practice. Get as great as you can in obscurity first. So that when you start going to these events, you’ve got something to show for yourself.
It helps to have your shit together so that when people are encountering you for the first time, it shows that you’re serious. You got it going on.
So with the Moby story, I think it’s probably leaves out that he had something going on. He made something happen himself first. A chapter in my book is about making your own success first before you ask the industry for help.
I think the balancing act is you have to do something on your own first.
You’re not just saying, “Hi, I’m somebody from Tennessee with nothing going on. Could you help me instead?” You have to show that you’re going to be successful with or without them. Like you’re an unstoppable force. You’re determined. You’re driven. You’ve got the work ethic. You’ve got the talent. People seem to like you. Here’s a little bit of proof.
Now, with your help, I think we can take this to the next level. That’s the kind of mindset you have to come to the industry people with.
If you’re completely unsure of how to do this then do the thing we said earlier about interning at one of these companies. Before you go ask a booking agent for help, contact them to intern with them.
This is how I found my first publicist. I got a bunch of music magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin. They have that thing called the masthead on page two in the fine print where it gives their U.S. phone number. If you call that phone number. Reception picks up and says, “Rolling Stone”.
I thought, “OK, how can I talk to somebody in the editorial department at Rolling Stone? Well, I’ll call the main number and act like I do this all the time. I’m not going to be a stammering musician. I’m going to be like an impatient, music industry person.”
So, I did it. I called up all these magazines. They said, “Rolling Stone” and I said, “Editorial, please.” She just patched me through.
Now, all the sudden I was on the phone with the dude that decides who gets on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. I did this little pitch to every one of these people and said, “Hey, I’m calling from a label. I’m not going to tell you which one because I don’t want you to think I’m promoting myself. But we’re just looking to hire a new publicist. Who would you recommend?”
They’d say, “Oh, you should talk to Michelle from Space Baby. She’s good. And talk to Laura Flanigan. She’s all right. I’d say Laura Flanigan’s one of the best out there right now.”
That was it. Just a one-minute phone call, not wasting their time. Then I’d go find Michelle from Space Baby and Laura Flanigan or whoever they recommended.
When I was called the publicist, I’d say, “Hey, Jeffrey from Rolling Stone said I should call you.”
If you’re ambitious, you make it happen. You don’t sit at home and complain. You find a way to make it work.
I love that. It’s so cool.
You write and read a lot as well. You’re about to finish the book, Your Music and people. You’re working on another book right now.
What is your typical writing day like? How do you write? Where do you write? Do you take breaks use any strategies to be a more productive writer?
I learned a new word this year. I found out that I am monomaniacal. I get really, really into one thing at a time, and I do it to completion whether that takes hours or weeks or months.
I will work on something all day long until midnight and then I fall asleep. I sleep probably five hours a night. Then I wake up at 5:00 a.m. and I jump back into it. I get obsessed with one thing at a time.
This is just my nature. I’ve always been like this. I don’t know why I seem unable to sleep more than five hours a night. I’m a morning person. I wake up full of energy.
For what it’s worth, if you’re looking for tips to stay focused, I keep my phone completely off. I hold the power button for three seconds until it powers down. Then, I usually go over to my broadband modem and I unplug it so that I’m completely disconnected from the Internet.
So, when I’m working, I can’t go online in a moment of distraction. Like when you’re working on something difficult and you don’t know what to do next, so you pick up your phone. I pick up my phone and it’s off. I’m like, “Oh, yeah. Right. OK. Time to get back to work.”
I’m also a dad now, so when I’m on daddy duty, I do the same thing. I shut down everything. I shut off my computer. I shut off my phone. And I give him my full attention.
So, when he goes back to mom, I go back to work. Being with my kid is kind of my weekly break. I shut down all my ambitions, and I’m just present there for him.
But my advice to others is to always do whatever is interesting you the most at this moment. I think of that as using the fuel tank that’s connected right now. You may be nerding out about sound patches or about routing your effects through something.
Whatever it is that’s interesting you right now, just go for it even if it keeps you up all night. When you find yourself distracted to procrastinate, instead of surfing the Web or swiping through your phone just keep the Internet off. Stand up for a minute. Go get a glass of water. Go pee. Then dive back into it whether you feel like it or not.
I’m working on my next book, which is really rewarding, but it can get really difficult. You know how it is when you’re songwriting, and you think, “Arghh! How do I communicate this thing in five syllables? I’ve already got the melody. I’m trying to put this meaning into five syllables.”
You get frustrated. And in that moment of frustration, you pick up your phone and you want to distract yourself to relieve the pressure. But I find that no, no, no, that other stuff is going to suck you in.
Instead, I’ll get up, get a glass of water or pour a cup of tea. Then, I get back and do it whether I feel like it or not. I think of the metaphor that I’ve heard from somewhere is that inspiration, like any worthy romantic interest, will never make the first move. But if you go towards her, she’ll come meet you halfway.
I think of that metaphor a lot when I think something like, “I don’t know what to do. I’m just not inspired right now. Oh, right. Inspiration never makes the first move.”
You sit down and start working anyway even though you’re not inspired. And a few minutes into it, you start working anyway. A few minutes into it, inspiration will come meet you halfway.
It’s so true about picking your phone up. I’ve been getting better and better with turning off my phone and Internet as well. I recently got an iPhone and one of the features tells you how much time you spend on your phone and how many times you pick up your phone. It’s so scary.
So, I try to make a conscious effort to reduce that amount time and be more present in life Whatever you’re working on, the more present you are, the quicker you’ll find inspiration.
Yeah, it helps to break it into different modes.
For the most part, I think what I need is not out there. It’s in here. Most of my aspirations in life are in the self-achievement category. There things that I need to be more of and I need to do better. I know it’s tempting to feel like what you need is out there, but usually I think for most of us, what you need is already in your head and in your fingers.
It’s a matter of mastering distraction. The person who is going to win is the one who is going to work the hardest, work the smartest, and master distraction instead of having distraction master them. But, of course, there are other times, like when we’re in L.A. or New York, where you should go meet everybody and stay in touch with everybody.
That’s a different mode. Just give that a different time every day.
So, prioritize creation over that stuff. Keep your Internet off until you’ve gotten in two or three good hours of writing, recording, whatever it may be. Once you’ve filled your quota or you’re proud of yourself, then turn on your phone, turn on your Internet, and put aside a dedicated hour of deliberate networking and follow up.
Section it off in your day so that you can shut that all off again and turn inward back to your own creation.
That’s so great. I have these four core pillars that I’ve created for a music classroom setting. One of them is that musicians should always be working on your craft.
I’ve heard musicians say over and over again that your first 100 songs are, maybe not complete crap, but that they kind of are. So, throw those away. And start over. You should always be working on your craft.
And in one of your recent articles, Experiments in Music and Life, you talk about two different approaches that people generally take when it comes to writing. I assume that a lot of songwriters use these approaches as well, which is either that you’re too free or you’re too restricted.
Instead, you can create your own rules and apply that to a piece of music, your writing, or even in life. What are some of your experiments that you have used?
For example, we’re talking music about now, so I would borrow ingredients from someone’s song and mix it with an ingredient from a different song. I would do that with three or four ingredients – a very deliberate mix and match.
I’d take the structure of a specific Elvis Costello melody that I really liked, and I’d write something like that melody and kind of imitate it. Not exactly, but an homage. Then, I’d take another song I like by Fela Kuti, a West African musician. He was like the James Brown of Nigeria. I liked his arrangements, especially this one song called O.D.O.O. I just loved the way his arrangements would build up.
I’d use the arrangement of this Fela Kuti song, but then I’d decide to do it with different instrument. I really like Indian instruments, especially the tambura with the drone. So, I would use Indian instruments with a Fela Kuti arrangement with an Elvis Costello melody on top. Then, I’d just start layering all kinds of instruments in there.
I remember reading an interview about a song by Prince called Kiss. I read that he had a really full arrangement of that song filled with tons of layers of instruments. But if you listen to the hit version of song we all know, it’s just two instruments. No bass or anything. It’s nothing but drums and this one little guitar part. That’s it.
I found that was later in the mix. After he had all these instruments, then he soloed two instruments with the voice to try it out. They went, “Oh, OK, I like this better”.
I would do something like that. It’s take a production trick from here, an arrangement from here, instrumentation from there, a melody from here, and mix it all together. I knew all the sources of my experiment, but to someone listening, it would sound really unique. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.
If you’re feeling creatively stuck, you give yourself these little challenges. You say, “I’m going to write a piece using only my left hand.” Giving yourself these little restrictions and games can be way more inspiring than just thinking, “OK, what am I going to write a song about today?”
In that article, you talked about taking that concept and applying to your life.
Do you have a favorite recent experience that you’ve applied to your life? Or a story about someone that was inspired by the article?
I’m always experimenting. I think almost every day of my life is in the phase of some experiment or another. For example, I’ll say no to everything for a while and then I’ll say yes to everything for a while. Then I’ll try outsourcing everything. Then I’ll try doing everything myself for a while.
Recently, I was traveling every week whether I felt like it or not. In the name of widening my horizons because I’ve never lived in Europe before. I’m thought, “Alright. Whether I feel like it or not, I’m going to hop on a plane every week to somewhere that I’ve never been and learn something about it. I would walk around, I’d meet up with people, and I’d read a book about it and take a guided tour.”
I did that for a few months. Then one day I decided to do the opposite for a few months. I decided to deliberately not scratch my travel itch. I stayed home and hardly left the house for months. I just worked on my book for 18 hours a day. I felt really stir crazy. But I deliberately did nothing about it. I kept writing like that almost every day.
I thought, “I need to get out of here. I’ve got to go somewhere. I’ve got to do something.”
But like I said, I’d keep working. I’d stand up and stretch my back, get tea, get a coke or something like that. I’d think, “Well, I’ve had a nice little scream about that, time to get back to work.” I did that until I fell asleep at midnight every day.
I think I’m always in the phase of some experiment. Nothing’s the right answer. There’s no right or wrong. It’s all just try this. Try that.
Hopefully, you learn a lot about yourself and life by doing these different experiments.
One of the things that a lot of musicians tend to struggle with is trying to write their story. I know it’s about having a cool story to lead people to your music. Some of them maybe have a more normal life – whatever you would define normal as.
They’re not the person that grew up and couldn’t hear and all of a sudden, they have this Pitch Perfect movie. Or the kinds of you hear on American Idol or another TV show.
I feel like doing these experiments. I have a lot of questions now.
Like where did you travel to? What was your favorite place that you traveled to? It sounds like these experiments are an exciting, fun, and unique way to build your own story. You can create a story by just getting up and doing something versus just sitting there.
I think it helps to remember that the side of yourself you share with the world doesn’t have to be your complete reality. We hear about authenticity, but I think in a perfect world, everybody should have a stage name. Your public persona is separated from your real self.
You know what? If you want to turn your listeners on to a cool book that I think applies to musicians in a weird way, have them read The Alter Ego Effect.
The author found that across all industries, whether it’s football players or investment bankers, a lot of people create a kind of alter ego. When he tells a story about this sports star, he says that before he goes out onto the field, his name’s not Lawrence anymore. Now, here comes a flaming dragon. And this is his alter ego. He says, “When I go out onto the field, I’m not Terrance, I’m the flaming dragon.”
I think that having a stage name helps in so many ways because you’re not under the misconception that you need to be your complete honest self. You understand that this is a persona that you’re putting on to entertain.
Let’s use Bono again as an example. Bono’s real name is Paul Houston. When somebody is talking about Bono, if somebody says, “Oh, Bono’s a jerk” or “Bono’s full of himself,” the real guy, Paul can just smile.
That’s a personality he created. It’s a persona. So, whether somebody is attacking you or even praising you, you don’t take any of it too personally because it’s not the real you. It’s a persona you’re creating for the public’s entertainment, you know?
You asked what I would do again at 18. I would have chosen a different name for myself, but it’s too late now. It doesn’t even have to be radical. It doesn’t even have to be some silly, stupid name. You could just alter your name a little bit.
I just found out yesterday that even people you wouldn’t think had a fake name did like Rodney Dangerfield, the comedian. That wasn’t his real name. He totally like nicked that from like a cowboy star or something. Gene Wilder, that wasn’t his real name.
It doesn’t even have to be some crazy, extreme flaming tiger kind of name. But I think having a different name helps you understand that what you put out into the world doesn’t have to be an accurate portrayal of your real, ordinary life.
That brings so many thoughts to my mind. If you are struggling to create your story, you could create a persona and build a story around that persona. I believe I heard the author in a podcast with Rich Roll talk about how you could apply this alter ego effect to anything.
It doesn’t just have to be your music career. It could be in your work life. If you’re an introvert, whenever you go to work, your alter ego can be extroverted. Some who is confident and makes people laugh.
That’s what I did at conferences. I’m a real introvert. I’m not shy, but I don’t like crowds. My tolerance for talking to other people lasts about an hour or two then I’m done.
When I attended conferences, I’d be in my room reading a book and think, “OK, time to go down to the exhibit hall.” I would go to the middle of everything where all the people were for 90 exhausting minutes. I would turn on my extroverted-self – sometimes just using techniques that I learned from books.
I read books on how to talk to people and learned techniques on asking people questions. I’d listen for places in the conversation when you could ask somebody a question.
I used these specific techniques I’d learned in order to have a conversation with people. It would be exhausting, but I would do it and everybody would think, “Oh, what a cool person.” I’d go back up to my room 90 minutes later, exhausted, regroup, come back, and do it again.
Fake it until you make it. I like the Kurt Vonnegut version that says you are whatever you pretend to be.
Speaking of creating different experiments, I like to look at life in seasons. So, an experiment could be a season.
If someone’s stuck in the current season of their life, whether it’s a job, relationship, or an inner struggle, are there any experiments one could apply to their life to take a step in a more positive direction. To moving to a season of getting unstuck?
When in doubt, change something. Change anything. There are almost no wrong choices. Everything is an experiment that you need to try to know. Like when you asked me earlier about self-knowledge, you don’t really know until you try.
Go do the opposite of whatever you’re doing now. Whatever you used to say yes to, say no to and whatever you used to say no to, say yes to. That’s one way. Just to shake things up.
I’ve done that in my life, too. When I sold CD Baby, I was feeling really stuck. So, I did the opposite of whatever I used to do. And it worked well. From the outside I probably looked kind of berserk, but suddenly, I was going everywhere, doing everything, acting a little insane. But I think I needed to do that in order to reset my self-definition. So, that’s one approach.
But the best approach is to read a couple good books of wisdom. You’ll know whatever they are for you. Look at some of these top recommended books that thousands of people recommend. It’s for a good reason. If you read one of these books of wisdom, something will hit you as the right thing for you to do now.
Another thing to do is to just make a point of doing it, no matter how hard or unnatural it seems.
The important point is that real change will feel like it’s not you. You’ll be acting like someone else. It will feel weird if you’re doing it right. So, act like the person that you want to become.
I like that it will feel weird when you’re doing it right. I like that. I still have thousands of hours to practice to get anywhere close to where I want to be as a podcaster. But obviously, Tim Ferriss and Joe Rogan are influences. They’re people I listen to a lot. This is my somewhat Tim Ferriss-type question that I feel like he would ask, but I’m being curious about your note taking style because you read a lot and share your notes.
Sorry, before we change the subject to book notes, you just brought up a really good point. You can imitate your role model.
Honestly, nobody will really know you’re doing it because we’re all imperfect mirrors. We’re all warped. Even if you were trying to deliberately mirror, you’re not going to do it perfectly. You’re going to reveal your own twisted self through your imitation. So, go ahead and imitate.
I mentioned that I got this gig. I played the pig show, and then I got hired to do the circus. For 10 years, starting from age 18, I was the ring leader MC of a circus in New England. I was extremely uncomfortable at first. I was a stammering 18-year-old. I’d get up there and say, “Hey, everybody. Welcome to the circus. I hope you enjoy the show. And well, we’ve got some of well, you’ll see. OK. Well, yeah. Welcome to the circus!”
I’d go backstage and my boss would say, “No, no. Come on! You’ve got to be dynamic. You’ve have to be exciting. These kids are here for a circus show. This might be the only one they see this year. Come on, go out there and be exciting!”
God, it took me weeks. Even the next week I went out there. I was like, “Hey, everybody! Welcome to the circus!” I still wasn’t doing it because I was acting like me. Then, I’d go backstage and again, and they said, “No! More oomph! Come on, be exciting!”
So, one time, to be totally passive aggressive I went out onstage. I thought, “Motherfuckers, I’ll show them.” I got on the mic and I acted like a carnival barker. I totally imitated one of those ridiculous, over-the-top carnival barkers.
I grabbed the mic and I said, “Ladies and gentlemen! What you’re about to see is one of the most amazing things. We’re going to have elephants dropping out of the sky! We’re going to have snakes coming out the ground! We’re you’re going to have clowns that are going to explode in your face! Now! Here comes that mime circus!”
I went backstage and said, “Is that what you want?”
And they said, “Yes, finally you did it.” I said, “Wait really? You actually want me to do that?”
They said, “Yes, that’s what we’ve been asking you to do.”
That became my circus MC persona. I wasn’t being myself. You don’t have to be yourself. You go up there, and you can imitate whoever you need to imitate to be entertaining.
That’s such a great story. Great example of creating a persona to imitate someone in order to find your own voice.
Don’t let that phrase “your own voice” distract you. This doesn’t have to be your accurate real self.
One thing I always hear is that there are so many songs about certain topics. There are so many songs about love. There are so many songs about heartbreak. Do I write another song about the same topic? Yes, because it’s going to be your interpretation or your imitation or persona of that. That’s kind of what I meant by finding your own voice. It’s your interpretation of what you’re imitating, so it’s probably completely different.
I read a lot of books too, and I am experimenting with different styles of note taking. I highlight quotes and then I create tables of contents of my favorite quotes and lessons in the book. What is your note taking style like? I know you share a lot of your notes on your website. How you determine when something is worth revisiting or remembering?
Sorry, I don’t really have anything interesting to say about this. I just underline what’s surprising to me. I’ve never tried to summarize the book. All I’m doing, when I’m reading a book is that I’m trying to glean little tiny ideas from it that seem worth saving.
If I’m reading through a book and it all feels like yeah, yeah, yeah, then I don’t underline anything. But if I read something that makes me think, “Oh! That’s interesting.” Then I’ll underline whatever surprises me.
It’s usually the things that make me raise an eyebrow, so it makes me want to think about them more later. I’ll underline that and save it in a text file. If it’s on the Kindle, you connect the USB. Then there’s a file called My Clippings and you can copy that over.
Then, I usually end up paraphrasing it. If I’m reading a paper book then underline with a pen, and I retype my underlined things into a text file usually while I paraphrase them. I’m not trying to go for the exact wording. I’m just trying to capture the idea.
The point is, I really do this all just for myself. These are ideas I want to remember so I don’t have to read this whole damn book again. These are just the 15 sentences from this book that I really liked.
And after doing that privately for a few years, I realized it would take no effort to put these on my site. If you go to sivers.org/book, there are almost 300 books there now. I’ve been doing this since 2007.
I take these notes and I put them on my site for every single non-fiction book I read. It’s all there for the taking. At first, I was worried that authors and publishers would get upset. But actually, because I’m linking to their page on Amazon, I’m kind of hyping the book in a way. So far, everyone has thanked me, and people have emailed asking how they can get on there. And I say, “Sorry, I don’t do that. I just read books for my own use.”
Hearing that may have inspired me. When I prepare for a podcast, I listen to many other podcasts and write down way too many notes. Maybe I’ll share the notes that I glean out of different podcasts of interviews that I listen to when I prepare for guests.
You also said the books are your mentors. Who are your current mentors or consistent mentors? Is it mainly books, or do you have people that you talk to on a regular basis? Do you have mentors from different areas of life? What’s your approach?
I get asked about this a lot. Here’s what I do. I have three mentors right now. Whenever I’m stuck on a problem, and I need their help, I take the time to write a really good description of my dilemma before reaching out to them. I summarize the whole context.
I think, “OK, what is my real problem here? What am I really stuck on?” Let me write it down. I’ll get the context. Let me write down the problem. Let me write down my current options and my thoughts on each one.
I try to make it as succinct as possible, so I don’t waste their time. I don’t want to send somebody a 20-page email. But before I send it to my mentors, I stop and I try to predict what they’ll say. Then I go back and update what I wrote to address these obvious points in advance.
I think, “This is what she’s probably going to say first. Let me address that now to save us some back and forth time.” I try to predict what they’ll say now based on what they’ve said on the past.
A lot of my mentors are authors or people who share their thoughts publicly. I think back to their past interviews and books, and I think, “Have they covered this point before?”
After this whole process is done, I realize that I don’t actually need to bother them because the answer is now clear. This happens every time. If anything, I just email to thank them for their continued inspiration.
The truth is I have hardly talked with my mentors in years. I don’t think any of them know they’re my mentor. I know for sure that one of them probably doesn’t even know I exist.
I listen to a ton of podcasts, and I have different mentors for different areas of life. When it comes to health, I listen to Ben Greenfield, for example. It’s a cool concept to think through how your mentors think and then reach out to them and thank them even though they may not know you exist.
I’ll be transparent. One of them is Seth Godin. Over and over again, I get stuck on some dilemma. I go through that process. I think, “OK, Seth is a busy guy. I don’t want to waste his time. How do I summarize my situation?” I know that Seth will reply to me, but I don’t want to waste his time.
I’ll remember Seth has shared a lot of his thoughts publicly. He’s probably covered this somewhere. So, I’ll go re-read a lot of his past posts or re-read a book. I’ll reread The Dip or another one of his books. Afterwards I think , “Okay. I don’t need to bother Seth. I know what he would say.” And I’ll send him a little email that’s like, “Thanks, Seth. You rule.”
I feel like that’s how Seth Godin would go about things, too.
You mentioned you’re a parent, and I’m about to be a parent. Any minute now [laughter]. Maybe by the time this podcast comes out, I’ll be one.
I got this great, random advice recently because I’m asking everyone if they have any fun tips. A comedian from a show I worked on said something like bring chocolates to the hospital that they don’t sell at hospital. Bring something unique and different. Or bring magazines and give them to the nurses because no one thinks of the nurses at the hospital. I thought, “Wow. That’s such a good idea.” So, in our go-bag that we have ready to go to the hospital, we threw in some chocolates.
With that in mind, for my son, I really want to create an environment for creativity and inspiration. I want to support him with the best ability that I can and empower him to be a good and kind person. Of course, I realize that some of that is completely out of my control. But I want to create like environment where he can really pursue any career that brings him total joy and fulfillment.
I would assume a lot of people who are parents or soon-to-be parents would want similar things. I have this joke that I don’t care if he wants to be a dinosaur hunter, even though I think that dinosaurs don’t exist. Maybe they do somewhere. I will do whatever it takes in my power to help him find a dinosaur and make a living as a dinosaur hunter and pray that there is actually a career for that.
So, from all the books that you’ve read and everything that you’ve learned throughout your journey, you’ve created really cool and amazing directives for life such as how to be useful to others.
What advice would you give to a new parent who wants to build a creative environment for their child and raise a good human being?
Only a couple things come to mind. My kid is only 8, so I don’t feel like I’m a real authority yet. Ask me in 20 years, and I might have a compendium of advice.
But for now, for year one, absolutely find the book called Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina. I read a few different books, and that was the one that really stuck with me.
But starting for year two and plus, probably the single best book I’ve read is called Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen. It was really a surprise. It was one of those books that didn’t have a ton of reviews, but it sounded kind of interesting. So, I got it. I love that he points out that children communicate through play. Play is just how they communicate everything. The way you’re going to honesty out of a kid or into a kid is through play.
Those are my only two books to recommend.
Alison Gopnik wrote The Philosophical Baby. That was also a good one. It was a little more kind of ambiguous and philosophical, but I changed my mind about it.
My number one advice is to practice shutting off your life and fully enter his world. No phone, no clocks, no screens. That’s the single best parenting thing I’ve done. When we play, whenever I’m with him, we are in his world because a kid’s world is very different than an adult’s world. There’s no time, clocks, hours, and minutes. You just enter his world. You let him lead, and you follow.
I think getting out into nature is the other best thing. We spend about an average of about 30 hours a week, just one on one, just me and him, playing. Somebody expressed amazement at that and said that they would be so bored doing that with their kid.
I realized that they were assuming we were sitting in the living room for 30 hours a week. I said, “Oh, no. Whenever I’m with him, we’re out.” He mostly grew up in New Zealand. We just moved to England last year. So, we were out in nature for 20 hours a week, playing with the sticks, the leaves, the dirt, the sand, the rocks, the shells.
It was amazing to raise a kid like that in nature. He wasn’t playing on any screens or devices. He was a building things out of sticks and using leaves as the roof. And making boats out of leaves on a little river. This is how he grew up.
It’s really cool to see now that he’s eight. His friends are little device addicts, and he’s always the one saying, “Come on, let’s go make something.” They’re like, “What? Make something?”
I think, “Yeah, I did it right. That’s the one thing I’ve done right so far.” So, I would highly recommend getting outside.
And remember to shut off your life. I found that the parents I know who seemed to have the hardest time are usually the ones who are trying to make a kid fit in to their adult life. This whole, “Come on, we need to go. It’s nine o’clock. I said, get ready. I said, get ready.”
They get so frustrated. It’s because they’re trying to make their kids fit into the adult world. I think, “No. You chose to have a kid. You have to enter their world.” So, whenever we’re together, it’s his fantasy world, his sense of time, he leads the way. I shut off, shut off the devices, shut off the clock, shut off the phone, and we just enter his world.
Thanks for that. I appreciate that. When you say people that are not entering their kid’s world, they’re always stressed out or trying to make the child fit in their world.
I hear so many stories after I tell people we’re about to have a baby. They say, “Oh, my God. Be ready to not sleep.” They talk about the terrible-twos and the terrible-threes and all the daunting and negative things. I don’t want to hear that. I’m excited and I can’t wait to play and go out and be in nature and do fun things. There’s so much to do. It’s going to be exciting to experience that through his eyes.
I think it may seem tough when it’s other people’s kids. To me, having a kid is just being in love. If you’re spending 30 hours a week with someone you love, it’s also having to change the diapers of someone you love. It’s all of that.
We’re very much 50/50 parents. I changed as many diapers as she did, and I loved it. It didn’t bother me one bit because I thought, “This my kid. This is my everything.” Changing a diaper, cleaning up puke, and all of those “bad” things didn’t bother me a bit because it’s someone you love.
Exactly. I’m looking forward to it, too. It’s going be fun. It’s going to be a great journey.
I have like few, little, rapid fire, wrap-up questions for you. What is your greatest fear?
Prolonged physical pain.
Does that include going to the gym?
No. I think death itself isn’t scary. It’s the idea that I would have some horrible kind of situation where I’d be in massive pain for six years before I die. That’s my biggest fear.
Yeah. That sounds terrible.
What is the lesson that took me the longest to learn?
All of them? I mean, I’m 50 now, and I feel like I’m still learning simple things like the difference between in theory and in practice.
Like we talked about earlier, you can’t have someone teach you these things. I think you have to try everything yourself. You have to feel the pain of mistakes and then feel that deep happiness of coming out on the other side of something difficult.
It’s like the cliché interview question, what would you tell your 20-year old self?
Nothing! Go make more mistakes. I’m not trying to prevent my younger self from making mistakes. You have to make the mistakes to know.
Don’t avoid the mistakes. In fact, I’d say probably the fountain of youth is to make more mistakes. That’s where you learn.
What is something that you’re trying to learn more of or a skill that you’re trying to get?
I don’t know if we can use a musician comparison, but it’s like if you’re used to making music in a certain way. If you had an Ableton Live that you’ve used for 15 years, and suddenly, you’re doing things in Cubase or Pro Tools. It feels so weird to be doing things in a different way.
Tell me about the first time you went to a live concert or your first memorable concert experience.
I saw the Red Hot Chili Peppers at a little club in Boston in 1987. I was a fan of their first independent E.P. That’s all they had at that point. It was really funky. I loved them, but nobody else had heard of them. I couldn’t get any my friends to come with me. I was even offering to buy tickets for my friends. I said, “Come on dude. Just trust me. They’re really good. Just come with me.”
They were like, “No. I’ve never heard of them.”
I wasn’t even from Boston, I was 16 years old from Hinsdale, Illinois, and there I was in Boston. I found my way down to this dingy club. I got there early and had my elbows leaning on the stage. Flea was there sweating all over me.
It was a triple bill with Fishbone, Red Hot Chili Peppers and I don’t remember the first band. But it was pretty damn cool to be leaning my elbows on the stage with Flea and Anthony Kiedis. They were bad ass. It was when they were still a deeply funky. If you heard Chili Peppers’ earlier stuff. It was very funky.
Another memorable concert experience is when I saw the Pakistani singer named Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It was in New York City. I was living in New York at the time. I had heard he had this song called Mustt Mustt. It was on a Peter Gabriel album. That’s how I became aware of him. Tickets went on sale. I bought two tickets for me and a friend.
I guess I must have bought the tickets on opening day or something because when I got there, I was sitting fourth row center right next to the stage. The audience was half Pakistani people. This Qawwali-style of music Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was doing was very devotional. He was seen as closer to God than most people. Similar to how somebody might feel if they were in the presence of the pope or something.
The audience was just ecstatic. They threw money onstage. The ecstasy and joy of this concert was so intense that I cried out of happiness for the first time in my life. I think I was 22 or 23 at the time.
The concert was so amazing. Tears started pouring down my face. That never happened before in my life, like, whoa! Crying. I don’t cry out of happiness because of music. That was that was very memorable.
I love these stories of people seeing their first concerts or concerts that really move them. I love your two completely polar opposite styles of shows that have inspired true musicians [laughter].
What is something that you’re currently really interested in? It doesn’t have to be business or music-related. It could be an app. It could be a TV show, exercise, an artist, food, or whatever.
My real answer? Nothing [laughter]. I do nothing but writing and parenting. When I say writing, to me I combine book writing and my programming. It all feels like writing. It’s just two different kinds of expression.
It’s like writing music and writing lyrics. It’s two sides of the same thing. So, my creative output, whether I’m writing code or whether I’m writing a book, it’s all writing.
Anytime I’m not parenting my kid or on a phone call like this, I am writing. That is all I do. I have no hobbies. I don’t watch anything. I don’t do anything else. This is it.
One of the random interviews I read that I’ll never forget was with Frank Zappa. I wasn’t even a huge fan of his music. But I read this interview he gave near the end of his life. I think he already had cancer and he knew he was going to die. The reporter asked, “Have there been parts of your life that you’ve neglected because you’ve been absorbed in your music?”
I’ll never forget his answer. I wrote it down because I loved it so much. He said, “Well, what am I missing? Do I regret not going horseback riding or learning how to water ski? No, I don’t want to climb mountains. I don’t want to go bungee jumping. I haven’t missed any of those things. If you’re absorbed by something, what’s there to miss?”
So, I’m really happier obsessing on one thing instead of trying to balance out a bunch of different aspects of my life. Being a well-rounded person just isn’t as appealing.
A mentor of mine felt like I should really look into coding. I thought, “What do you mean? Where do I even start?”
Any tips on where to start coding?
For people who are interested, I wrote two articles on this on my site. They are sivers.org/prog, and that should link you to sivers.org/learn-js.
If you’re thinking of programming, step one is to learn HTML. You can learn HTML in a day. There’s a book out there called Head First HTML or find HTML for Dummies. It doesn’t matter.
There are so many ways to learn HTML, but it only takes a day. There’s almost nothing to it. You got your HTML tag, your head tag, a paragraph tag, UL, LI, H1 for headers, H2 for sub-headers. There’s really not that much to it. Do a draft, you make a link, and there you go.
In a day, you can learn how to make a basic HTML website or web page. So, then the next thing you learn is CSS, which is the very basic styling thing so you can add some visual styling to the raw HTML that you just wrote.
I highly recommend if you care at all about this stuff and you want to learn it, make your own website from scratch. Don’t just go install WordPress. Click, click. Look, I clicked a button and now I have a website.
It’s a great thing to do, but for you? For now? For Chris? No, you’re about to have a kid. You just play. You go play with your kid.
I’m in [laughter].
For those of you listening who are actually interested in this stuff, the way I got into programming was when I was actually a full-time musician.
I was a full-time gigging musician. I’d been touring for around 12 years, and I was a little burnt out from getting in the van and doing another gig. I’d done over a thousand shows. I bought my house in Woodstock with the money I made touring.
I suddenly got really into making websites and learning programming. It became so much fun because it was reaching a different side of my brain. I had been doing music for so long, it just felt like a nice antidote.
It’s like each side of my life was the antidote to the other. I would get all nerdy into programming for a while. Then I’d go out and do gigs. Then I’d come home, and I’d be nerdy into programming and go out and do gigs.
Don’t think that you’re doing this to advance your music career. This goes against most of what we’ve said in the rest of this conversation. You don’t need to know any programming at all to be a musician.
But if you find that you’re just really, really into it, and you can’t not do it. Well then, yeah, enjoy.
Interesting that you can learn HTML in a day.
Oh, it’s so easy. It’s just tags. If you’ve ever used Microsoft Word, you can take one line and just grab that little pull down menu that turns it into a heading or turns it into a list. That’s all HTML. It’s just basic markup tags that say this text is a paragraph. This text has a list. This text is a header. That’s about it. That’s all HTML is.
Interesting. There might be a musician out there who wants to customize and build their own website versus using some kind of template from WordPress or something.
This one’s kind of a fun, very different question. I call this one the Hollywood Vampires.
So, Alice Cooper, Keith Moon from The Who, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, and Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees were the original Hollywood Vampires. They would hang out in bars and drink and have fun and try to get away from the public eye. If you had to create your own version of the Hollywood Vampires, who would be the four or five people that would be part of your club?
I knew it would be amusing for me to list five funny names, and in my head, I started doing that. But the truth is, I don’t want to meet my heroes. Most of them are probably pretty shitty conversationalists.
Here are the ones that first came to mind. Debussy, Prince, James Brown, John Coltrane. Those would be my top four, hell yeah, I want to meet these guys. I would love to talk with these guys.
Then as soon as I think about that, I think, “Wait. No, I don’t.” Prince was an asshole. Debussy was apparently a notorious asshole. James Brown, he’s probably just full of himself. You wouldn’t get a good conversation out of James Brown. John Coltrane, maybe. But actually, I want to see them at work. I would want to sit there and hear them practice or compose. I’d want to be a fly on the wall when Prince or James Brown was in the studio or listen to John Coltrane practice. Hell, yeah!
But they’d probably be really shitty, even disappointing conversationalists. So the only musical heroes who I’d actually want to hang out with and talk to are Brian Eno and Björk.
You inspired a new question. If you could be a fly on the wall.
When I told you that I got that job in the tape room Warner Chappell Music Publishing, I was a huge James Brown fan. Huge. In fact, I named my band, Hit Me, after him like, “One, two, three, hit me.” I called my band, Hit Me in homage to James Brown. I described our musical style as James Brown meets The Beatles. Everybody knew I was a total James Brown fan.
One day, somebody said, “Hey dude. Guess who’s going to be here in an hour?” I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “James Brown’s coming in. Do you want to meet him?”
I said, “No, I’m leaving. I’m going home now. I don’t want to meet him. I don’t even want to accidentally meet him. Harvey, you have to cover for me. I’m leaving. I’m feeling sick.”
I took off, and I left early that day to make sure that I didn’t meet James Brown because I loved his music so much. I didn’t want the real flawed human being to taint my affection for the perfect music that he made between 1968 and 1974. Flawless, amazing, perfect, breathtaking music. I didn’t want my image of the real man to take from my love of that music. So, I left to make sure I didn’t meet him.
I can totally relate to that. I have the privilege of being around some cool musicians sometimes. I completely avoid certain shows when I’m legitimately a fan. I don’t want to be anywhere near them because I don’t want to taint my experience. I just want to be able to appreciate their music.
There have been experiences when someone wasn’t nice, and it changed my perception of them. I don’t want that with people that I’m a fan of.
Before I ask you the final question, I want to take a quick moment and thank you so much for taking so much time to be on the show and sharing so many great tips and wisdom and philosophies. It was a real joy to talk to you and have this conversation.
Thanks, Chris. I loved your questions. I love talking about this stuff. Anytime.
I mentioned my book because you asked, but I’m not here to promote anything. I’m not here for the money. The reason I do these interviews, honestly, is because of the cool people I meet. If you’ve made it all the way to the end of this interview, email me. If you go to sivers.org/contact, my email address is in big letters. Click it, introduce yourself and say hello.
I reply to every email. I enjoy talking music and love random questions.
The question I always ask at the end is what’s your definition of “making it?”
You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. That’s it.
I love it. It’s a great way to end it. Thanks so much for this and I really appreciate you again reaching out.
Cool! Thanks, Chris.
Until next time spread love, positivity, and kindness in the world. And go see shows, meet people, make stuff. Peace my friends.