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Jonathan Feist on Managing A Project To The Max

By Mary Woodcock on 17 Sep 2013

Us Londoners drink copious amounts of tea and New Yorkers are famous for their coffee but we didn’t let that tiny little difference stop us from connecting about music with Berklee Press editor in chief, Jonathan Feist.

There is always something interesting to discover when talking with music industry pros from across the globe and chatting with Jonathan was no exception. As someone who has authored and instructed Berklee Online courses alongside being a composer and songwriter, we wanted to pick his brains about challenges that face musicians and how to organise projects to get the best results.

1. When you started out in the music industry, what was your role and what was your journey to get where you are now?

I started making money in music when I was a teenager, playing trombone in pit orchestras at a local community theater (the Elmwood Playhouse, in Nyack, NY). It paid $50 a run, which I think worked out to about $3 an hour, nearly covering the gas required to get there. I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed getting paid for something more than that, though. It was a convoluted path getting to where I am now, with digressions into various other industries. While I was a composition student at New England Conservatory, I worked a lot of temp jobs and developed skills at things like stage management, software development, desktop publishing, writing, and editing. I worked for a software company as a technical trainer and course developer for a couple of years, and then got my job at Berklee through the want ads in a newspaper, in 1998. What surprised me is that everything I’d ever learned or done suddenly became relevant when I started at Berklee Press. I thought I had been wasting my time, as I wandered, but it turned out that I wasn’t.

2. In your eyes, how has the music industry changed since you started your career?

You know, in many ways, it is profoundly the same. The same people are still here, for the same reasons. The logistics and budgets and corporate structures might vary a bit, and certainly, some of the tools of the trade are different, now that everyone has computers and software is friendlier. Sure, artists are more self-sufficient, now. But essentially, it’s still creative people trying to do good work, toiling too hard for too little money, but also tremendously valuing the culture of creating art and hanging out with others who share that desire to create. We’re still grateful to be here, despite the industry’s difficulties. Perhaps, the biggest change I’ve witnessed is that there’s a lot less smoking going on, these days.

3. How versatile do you think musicians need to be?

It’s always been critically important for all artists to be versatile. Beethoven helped promote his own concerts, and Shakespeare, his own plays. It’s important to separate the illusion of the industry and its history from the reality of it. It’s always been important to be aware of the business, technology, and other big-picture factors of what we’re doing, and putting efforts where they seem most fruitful. And everything anyone learns as a human spirit has always helped to inform and broaden his or her art. That said, the possibilities today are vast and expanding, and developing skills will help anyone find their unique niche and voice. It’s just amazing what can be accomplished with a laptop and some software and no budget. It’s also important, though, to delegate work when we can, and when it makes sense. Not everyone should design his or her own album cover. In fact, probably very few people should – certainly fewer should than do. The cheap tools make it easy to put something together, but graphic design, audio engineering, marketing, and so on are all deep areas, and it’s sometimes important to get a professional to do the work. Understanding the concepts behind it all, though, is always helpful. If you understand what EQ and reverb are, it makes it easier to direct an engineer to produce the sound you want. Not everyone should be their own engineer, though. Maybe no artist should really be their own engineer. There is great value in fresh ears. What I do consider a critically important skill for most musicians, though, is the ability to manage projects. If you can manage other people doing stuff for you, then that unlocks a lot of possibilities in terms of what impact you can have, with your music.

4. What would you say were the most important aspects of organisation for a musician when managing a project?

It’s important to get the work out of your head and systematize it, somehow. That can be as simple as putting a reminder on a calendar – provided that you look at that calendar every day. But there are a lot of great project management tools out there that can give you more control.

5. Do you think musicians feel pressure to ‘go it alone’ in the industry these days?

We’ve always been alone. The illusion that “getting signed” will take care of all of our troubles seems to be waning. We have to remember that a lot of musicians got screwed by “Big Brother,” when they thought he was looking after them. Maybe, because more people are without that umbrella or the hope of that umbrella, they now feel more aware that it is raining. But they’ve always been out there, in the rain, alone. And we’ve always needed help from others.  

6. Would you say that collaboration is a key part to ensure the best result for your project? If so, in what way?

Oh, absolutely, it is so important not to try to do too much on your own. My colleague Mike King [Berklee Online course author and instructor] likes to say “DIY doesn’t stand for ‘Do EVERYTHING yourself!’” Projects are nearly always improved by bringing like-minded other creative forces into the mix. And there’s a benefit in having someone there, even if just to listen. Saying things aloud to others can make you realize flaws in them. And there is also value in having someone else witness your proposed schedule and intentions, and to keep you on track. All these reasons are why it is still valuable to engage producers in projects. It keeps artists honest, and projects grounded in reality, and it keeps the listener’s advocate in the mix. I believe that this all leads to stronger music.

7. What are your top 5 tips for organising a project?

1) Get all the details out of your head and onto some kind of reliable system for getting it done, whether that’s rocks around a sundial or project management software.

2) Plan the work before you do it. Use your artist’s imagination to consider what will truly be involved in getting each dimension of the work accomplished, in terms of required time and resources, and preparing contingencies to mitigate all possible risks. Make sure that your efforts will be in support of your goals. 

3) Study models of successful similar projects, and see what you can learn. 

4) Get advice from smart, experienced, like-minded people. Set the stage for them to tell you the truth about what’s truly involved in arriving at a successful outcome.

5) Articulate why you are doing your project. Is it for money? For producing art? For gaining fans? For fulfilling a contractual obligation? Then, when you execute the project, make sure that your efforts are serving these over-arching goals.

Forgive the plug, but my book and online course, Project Management for Musicians, give hundreds of strategies for doing all this, and for all dimensions of managing music projects. 

Anyhow, this all means that you have to think deliberately/abstractly/strategically about your work, and to recognize that your role as a project manager is distinct from your role as a creative artist. Someone has to enable your artist’s spirit – to help it achieve its highest goals. For better and for worse, that best someone is you.

8. How do you feel that Music Gateway would benefit Berklee Online students?

Music Gateway facilitates adding intelligence and co-conspirators into your music, connecting you to experts in the dimensions of your project where you need or want additional input. It also opens the door to levels of affordability and proficiency that you might not be able to find, given your current connections. This can dramatically expand your world of possibility. And that is indispensable, to any creative artist.

 

Berklee Online brings the best of Berklee College of Music online to students around the world. Another platform that makes it easy to get involved in the music industry wherever you are in the world. You can even try free lessons from Berklee Online at online.berklee.edu.