1 2 x 1 2 : Twelve Interviews. A Dozen Answers.
A while back I got an voicemail from my friend Mark Goodchild about a new social media concept he wanted my opinion on. I actually hear a lot of these sorts of pitches (mostly from non-designers and mostly half-baked) but with Mark, I knew it would be thoroughly vetted, totally fleshed-out and completely well-conceived. That’s because he’s always been the hardest working, most selfless pro I know. Which isn’t easy to do in the highly competitive, egomaniacal music industry.
1) Damn. We’ve been friends for 14 years… That’s crazy! I remember our early collaboration started while I was still in college. I designed the covers for the last two mixtapes in your Walkman Relief series: “Clully Wong Style” and “Jesus Piece Rentals”. The funny thing is, I can’t really remember how we actually met.
MG: Ha! I’m pretty sure we met through DJ Hope. I ended up moving in with him, and he was friends with Travis McCutcheon who was cool with you. We started choppin’ it up and kickin’ it. Actually, the first time I really made an effort to hook up with my now ex-wife, was when you and I went and saw her at a dance tryout outside on Peachtree Street in Buckhead. Who woulda’ known I’d marry that bitch!
2) Oh, man! That’s right. I remember hanging out and listening to you play all sorts of dope hip hop I’d never heard of. You were the first to put me on to Necro(!) and explain how record pools worked and what whitelabel releases were all about…. Where’d you get the name Exit?
MG: The name is short for DJ Exit 6. When I was in high school I was part of this club called Distributive Education Classes of America. It was basically Future Business Leaders—but for marketing—which I was studying in high school. With this club I won my way to national competitions 3 years in a row with other delegates from my state. I fell in love with a girl from the other side of the state. I always remember she said she lived off “Exit 6” off the highway that passed through. I doodled it all over my papers. At that point I was either DJ Mischief or G Wanna B. One day I started playing with the idea of DJ Exit 6. Shortened and kept it. I knew that would be my name forever when I met DJ Enuff at a party at UMass Amherst and told him my name and he said it was fly.
All of this took place back in my home state of New Hampshire. I was born and raised in a small city of 30,000 people called Keene. In junior high I caught the music/hip hop bug, and by the time I graduated in ’95, I was out the door to a city with a music industry. I landed in Atlanta. Atlanta was where I became ME. I chose Atlanta after high school because of The Source magazine. There was an issue all about Atlanta, and it intrigued me.
3) Nice! A small town kid with big city dreams. You’ve always been an ambitious dude. So once you got to Atlanta, how did you make the transition from DJ to engineer?
MG: My goal was always to be a mixture of Roc Raida, Kid Capri and Cut Chemist as a DJ. When I first came to Atlanta I was attending AIA to get some kind of music education. Over time I realized that’s what I would rather do. I first started working at DARP (Dallas Austin‘s studio) there in late ’95/early ’96. When we first started getting our education at AIA, they would talk about internships a lot. There weren’t a lot of studios in town. My buddy Rick Scott got one at DARP so I decided to bite his style and go there. It took me a couple months of phone calls and even an unsolicited visit on my part to show the assistant manager how serious (desperate) I was. From there I went the typical engineer route: intern at studio; get hired for small work around studio; move up to assistant; spend time learning from other engineers; move on to be your own engineer. That’s basically how it happened for me. Although I will say I’m constantly reevaluating everything I do. Every year I compile all the songs I mixed and critique every single one of them. I work on my weaknesses and reinforce my strengths. I’m pretty tough on myself. But I am who I am professionally and personally today because of DARP. Most notably for the influence manager Monica Tannian and engineer Leslie Brathwaite had on me.
4) Working with colleagues (and friends) who motivate and inspire you is so critical. As I’ve advanced in my career, I’ve realized how important it is to build on the positive, supportive relationships I have and trim away anyone and everything that pulls me down. It may sound harsh, but I just don’t have time to be held back by unproductive people and pastimes. So what does an engineer actually do? Is it more complicated than having an ear for how music should sound and sweetening the mix?
MG: There are two main engineer functions: Recording and Mixing. I do both. When you’re in recording mode, you are in the studio with the artist, producer, and musicians. It is your job to capture a great sounding performance. Nowadays you are also responsible for TUNING that performance. You have to make sure you are ready for possible scenario in the studio if someone wants to get creative. Case-in-point: I’m at a studio now with a great Steinway piano. I knew that everyone would see it and want to play it so the first thing I did was set up mics on that. I pick what mics are used, what outboard gear is used to amplify and compress/EQ those mics, then record them to whichever medium is in use. Protools being the standard now.
As a mixer, your task is much different. You are given all the parts to a song and must make it all sound good. You normally work for hours on end alone, then call in the client when you get close to satisfied. From there you work together on the finer points of taste until it’s finished. Mixers make more. Sometimes exponentially. But being a recording engineer has its advantages. You are there from the idea conception and have a closer working relationship with the artist. You become a big part of the project. Sometimes the mixer doesn’t even meet who he is mixing for.
5) You’ve lived in Atlanta, New York and Los Angeles for work. And have done a significant amount of touring as both DJ and engineer. What are the highlights/lowpoints of all that moving around?
MG I’ve toured once as Phife‘s DJ, and toured several times with Cash Money Records and Akon on studio recording buses. I was young and dumb on tour as Phife’s DJ. I brought my own Techs across all Scandanavia. That was dumb. But I was told to. A great experience that makes me cringe. Touring as an engineer with major acts is much different. We outfit tour buses with full recording studios because these guys want to keep capturing ideas and working on music. It’s great, but stressful. Touring is not necessarily glamorous. You don’t get to see much except the back of stages, the bus and hotels. I think I’m at a point now where I wouldn’t again, under most circumstances. It wears you out greatly moving so much and working on a bus while it’s traveling.
6) Client privacy and discretion is a big deal in your line of work—but who would you love to work with that you haven’t yet? And who’s been the best to work with so far?
MG: Paul McCartney. No-brainer. So far though, the best would have to be Lionel Richie. He’s probably also one of the richest people I’ve ever worked with! I was actually more scared to work with him than Michael Jackson! Something about guys that have been doing this THAT much longer than me is a little intimidating. Luckily, he’s pure class and extremely professional, and also works hard to get the songs done right. He’s a trooper. After a career like his, you could totally mail it in. But no, he still gives a great amount of effort.
7) Yeah, your client list is pretty amazing—especially to someone outside of the music industry. How do you define success in your work? Is it client rosters? Awards? Or just making “good” music?
MG: I don’t really keep track [of awards] because, to me, they don’t matter. But I know I have a Grammy certificate (not a statue) from Outkast’s “Stankonia.” I’ve got so many nominations I can’t remember though. Grammies are what a lot of people measure themselves by in this biz, but I measure my success by whether I’m still working tomorrow or not. I will say this though: I’ve worked on probably 250 albums, with them selling a combined 150+ million copies!
And what’s “good” to some people is crap to me, and vice-versa. Some people think Mumford & Sons is incredible. I think they are terrible. The Black Keys are horrible musicians but have cool sounds and melodies. So are they good? I’m a huge John Mayer fan but he has a very strong anti-following. For my own personal taste, I would say music that can instantly change my mood is “good” music.
8) I love that you’re not afraid to name names. You’re always very frank and honest on Twitter and your Life of a Studio Rat blogs and now your process on #TweetMix. How does social media play a role in your career?
MG: I think everyone wants to be heard, and I’m no different, so that’s the easy part. It’s funny because someone recently said they love following me on Twitter ’cause I’m such a hater. I had no idea I was a hater! I have an opinion, but I don’t think I’m a jerk about it. I think I post more movie quotes than anything. And song lyrics. I like throwing things out and seeing what comes back. But I also feel the need to call bullshit sometimes. And that can be often. I’ve seen success in my business and I know which attitudes work and which don’t. I have to speak on it! I think the other part of my social outpouring is that my social life actually sucks. Well, it sucks to someone who doesn’t understand my job. My friends are very scattered. I don’t have a “happy hour” group of friends. In fact, when I want to go out, it’s a struggle because most of my friends do what I do so they’re in the studio! I use social networks to keep connected and sane. I’m usually in a windowless studio 12+ hours everyday. That’s not healthy, socially.
9) True. For so many people, Facebook et al keeps them from connecting in a meaningful to real people, way but for you it seems like a healthy lifeline. Keeping with Twitter for second, tell me more about your #TweetMix project.
MG: This was something I started when I wanted to find a new angle to my mix career. Basically offer a free mix per month. There were multiple motivations for this. a) Good way to advertise myself as a mixer, b) great way to educate people on mixing, c) works as an A&R tool to discover new talent, d) possibly open myself up to gear sponsorships. There’s more angles but those were the core. It got off to a great start and it was definitely a labor of love. I have huge plans for it, but unfortunately I’ve become so busy that I can’t maintain it at the moment. I was going to have other engineer features, but I didn’t want to introduce that until I was already a year in and had established myself. It’s something I’m going to bring back and give more attention to but right now I’m very busy with recording Usher’s new album. It requires a lot of my attention so I have to prioritize!
10) I love this concept. It’s like a mash-up of Twitter, American Idol and reverse-crowdsourcing! What are your thoughts on the RIAA and the MP3 format? How can we fix the current system/ways of doing things? How do you motivate people to pay for music? What trends do you see emerging in terms of technologies, social media, business models, etc.?
MG: I think the RIAA and major labels can’t keep up with technology and aren’t being honest with themselves how music is really being consumed. Buying musical digitally is way too expensive. I don’t think one song is worth $.99 or any more for that matter. I would say the best digital price for new music is $.49. There are so many reasons for this, but I’ll try to keep it simple:
- The cost of making music has come way down because of digital tools.
- The cost to distribute music is come way down because of the internet.
- There is so much new music to be consumed because of both A + B that it’s only right that the price of digital music comes down to make it more sensible to be purchased.
People that love artists will still spend extra to support artists, whether it be special releases for Radiohead, or Third Man Records vinyl… BUT, if you want to sell your stuff in an online major retailer like iTunes or Amazon, I say drop the price. I also think that we are now close to seeing streaming actually working with Spotify. For a very low or free price point, you can have a whole ton of music right at your fingertips. Because of the massively low price point, you will see people exploring and compiling music that they never would have before. This will turn people back into music buyers, but at that lower price point. I believe the future will be a mixture of subscription and hard copy music (vinyl, CD) that will live in harmony. The whole accounting system in the music industry and the actual price of that music has to be scrutinized though. That’s my short answer.
11) What advice do you have for young artists and people interested in the behind-the-scenes work like production or engineering?
MG: My advice for young artists is not going to be engineering related. It’s career related. If you want to “do music,” you have to realize it’s a marathon, not a race. Your goal shouldn’t be to become a millionaire. It should be to make the best music you possibly can over a long career. Just because you have a song and you throw it up on YouTube, that doesn’t mean you’re doing it. How many tours have you been part of? How much have you actually performed? I think artists are looking for that instant media-fame related boost. I say concentrate on writing good songs and performing them greatly. The rest will fall into place.
For people that are interested in the music production side: Get a core education from one of the numerous music programs available. Then, find the album you love the most, read the credits. Wherever it was worked on most, go there and don’t turn back! Give yourself an honest two years for anyone to really pay you attention and make a real living off of it. Realize that even the best producers and engineers are constantly evolving.
12) In a word, what’s it all about?
Follow Mark “Exit” Goodchild @exit1200