There is a way to make music a decent living by creating music for big brands. However, you may want to think twice before you get too excited and quit your job and start making music full-time. That’s the mistake that music producer, Tommy Zee committed when he first burst into the scene. Having had his break doing a piece for a car commercial, Tommy hastily quit his job and quickly found himself struggling to land a decent career. In this conversation with Bree Noble, he shares how he bounced back from that situation and the lessons that he learned from that experience. For aspiring musicians out there – life in this career may be hard, but it can be a bit less hard if we learn from the failures and successes of those who came before us. Listen in!
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Befriending Reality: How To Make Money Creating Music For Big Brands With Tommy Zee
I am here with Tommy Zee and I’m so excited to talk about how he has connected with big brands and been able to offer music for them that they love, fits with their brand and helps people connect with a brand through music. That is the coolest thing. I’ve experienced that as a consumer, but as musicians, we don’t think about how we could do that, because that seems something that’s totally outside of our reach. I’d love to first find out, Tommy, how did you get started doing that?
First of all, thanks for having me on your show. I appreciate it. Like a lot of musicians in our space, I fell into it by accident. I was living two lives at the time when I stumbled into this world. I was a banker on Bay Street, which is the Wall Street of Toronto. By nighttime, I was DJ-ing. That was my connection to music and I was starting to get into music production. I was hesitant to take the leap because I didn’t believe that I could make a living making music full-time and that’s because my idea of making a living, making music full-time was like a lot of musicians’ ideas, “I’m going to sell music. I’m going to tour.”
I didn’t see myself as a star on stage. I thought I’d love to be in a studio making great music, but how do you get paid for it? A friend of mine was working at an ad agency. He was also a DJ. He inspired me to get into DJ-ing. He was working at an ad agency and he said we’re working on this Pontiac Aztek commercial. I don’t know if you remember the Pontiac Aztek, but that’s not the prettiest car in the world. He said, “We’re working on a campaign and I wonder if you can make some music for it.” I said, “Sure.” This is my first exposure to making music for a car commercial. We did that and it took a couple of days to create a track. I sent it over.
It had a couple of comments and revisions. I did the changes. For me, it was a blast. I was sitting in a studio in the evening after working at the bank. For me, I would do this for free, making music. The moment everything changed for me is when I got the check from the agency. I was surprised that for a couple of nights of sitting in the studio, I get paid. I don’t remember how much it was of my bank salary, but it was 2, 3 months of my bank salary. You think, “I’m getting paid the same amount for a couple of nights in the studio than I’m getting paid for sitting in a gray cubicle on the 37th floor doing something that I don’t have a particular fascination with or passion for.”
That’s how I discovered it. After that, I quit my corporate career and I thought it would be easy to keep getting these commercials. I started contacting agencies and saying, “I’m a composer. I have this Pontiac Aztek thing that I did.” Nobody was getting back to me. It was an interesting beginning because I didn’t realize that agencies don’t work with individual composers. I only got this project because my friend worked at the agency.
I was wondering that. It’s like that naiveté. You’re so excited about what happened and you’re like, “I can keep reproducing this.” That was amazing that you took that huge leap, but then reality set in. I’m excited to hear how you moved on from this, because I feel most people wouldn’t take that leap and they would never reach where you did. You went through this time where you’re like, “I assumed I could get this and I’m not. Now, what do I do?”
There were two things building up within me already, which was one, this taste for the corporate life and realizing that my ending up at the bank was a result of not consciously steering my working life. In other words, I finished university, I didn’t believe music could be my full-time job. What did I do? I held onto music by being a DJ, but then I got a job at the bank like a lot of people who finished political science do. I was there for five years at the bank and initially it was enough to give me a fancy business card for me to walk around in these fancy skyscrapers, downtown Toronto. Do you know how you get into it? It’s like, “I’m here.”
“I’m an adult. I’m adulting.”
My family was like, “Look at Tommy. He’s got a business card and he’s got good benefits and salary.” Initially I enjoyed it, but a few years into it, every one of us has an internal radar that tells you, “Are you on the right path? Do you feel you were born to be doing this?” I didn’t feel that. The funny thing at the bank is that I started getting grumpy because I was DJ-ing at night, I was coming into a conference call, 9:00 AM into the boardroom. I was getting all shorts with people because when you lack sleep and you’re sitting in a gray cubicle, you’re not enthusiastic. The funny thing is, during these meetings where people were doing the corporate talk like, “Let’s ensure that we maximize all available synergies to maximize your value.”
I’m still hungover from the night before and not tolerating this talk. I’ll be like, “Bob, what do you mean by this?” “We’re trying to maximize, synergize and get the stock to go up, but concretely do you have anything to say to suggest as a tangible next action?” I thought I’m going to get fired soon because I’m not being politically correct in these meetings. I feel people started noticing that and they said, “This guy is real leadership material. We need to promote this guy.” The funny thing is, I started getting into better positions and better salary because of the fact that I was short with people and trying to get to the bottom of things. When that started happening, I knew for sure that I don’t belong here, because everything was there for me, the benefits, good salary and opportunities, but I didn’t feel my superpower and my soul wasn’t lining up with this environment.
Two feelings were building up inside of me. It was a distaste for the bank or corporate life. Another feeling that was building up is more and more of a desire to take claim of my working life, my career, and to actualize what I want out of my working life, instead of following certain models or patterns, which I was doing up until then. When this opportunity happened, that was a clear sign for me. This is a music-related career. I could sit in the studio and make money doing this. I quit, but that was premature. I didn’t get to know the industry. The result of that was I started doing things the wrong way, contacting agencies and they weren’t getting back to me.
I almost thought of going back to the bank. I called a friend of mine who worked at the bank and she said to me, “What were you doing all this time? You left. Nobody even knows what you were doing.” I realized at that point it’s so important to write a love letter to your close circle in major intersections of your life and to let them know what you’re fascinated by, what your goals are, what you’re trying to do? You never know who can be in the network of your close circle to help you find your way.
It was my former colleague at the bank that introduced me to someone who worked in advertising in Toronto. He had a coffee with me and he said, “Stop calling out agencies. We don’t work with individual composers. Maybe your friend sent you a job, that’s an exception. We call these music production companies that specialize in doing this.” From then on, that’s when I got traction. I started meeting with the right people and not too long after, I ended up being a part of one of these music production companies.
Your question was, “How do you take the leap?” It’s a major change. I remember struggling with this change. There are certain people in my life that were trying to prevent me from taking this change. They were saying, “I met you as this guy. You’re working in a bank and then you’re a creative guy, you’re a cool guy, but that’s on the side. What do you mean? You’re trying to be this full-time.” That was resonating with my internal doubts like, “What do I mean by that? Am I crazy?” Your environment can condition you.
One way that I was able to make the leap is and I talk about this all the time, because I want people to take out of this story what is going to be relevant to their life if you’re thinking about a change for instance. That is that it’s good to remove yourself from your environment for a few minutes a day, so that you can start contemplating and creating a vision of what you would like to happen within you. The ordinary world, your environment which you might not like being a part of like I didn’t like going to my gray cubicle every day, that’s something pervasive and powerful in automating you.
It colors your entire worldview.
You think, “This is it. This is how you make a living. You should make a living by getting a paycheck every two weeks. You should get benefits. You should have a business card. You should dress well.” For some people that may be right. I somehow didn’t resonate with it, but I didn’t know anything else. One of the key things that I started doing that I believe eventually led to this decision. I had enough power and motivation, conviction to make this decision as I started spending my lunch hours alone. Instead of going with my colleagues on the bank down to the food court of the skyscraper where everybody went to have combo number six, fried rice with sweet and sour chicken. The things people eat in the food court at a corporation.
I would leave and go for a long walk by myself. Half an hour walk to someplace far away from the financial district. I take my journal with me. This is something that I’ve been doing since my twenties. I would start writing my thoughts, my doubts and possible futures. On those pages started coming out, formulating my desires like, “Am I crazy? Is there any hint of potential for me to make this into a full-time career? Do I have musical talents? Do I have craft? What strengths do I have that I could lend in a different industry other than this one?”
By extracting myself from the environment and affirming myself on these journal pages, I started to believe in the possibility of this. Even returning to the bank from my lunch hour spent alone, I already felt a different person, because everybody else was still involved in the day to day, but I extracted myself from the matrix for an hour to see and envision the different possibility. That’s what kept me enthusiastic and alive in the afternoon for the rest of the afternoon and eventually it culminated into that decision.Be friends with reality. Click To Tweet
I love the matrix idea because it’s so true. If you stay in that world, then you are constantly like, “Am I crazy? No one else here is thinking this.” You start doubting yourself and you have no one that supports the idea of what you want to do. If you don’t have a community, I’m so big on building a community where people can go and be like, “No, you’re not crazy. We’re doing this.” Building each other up and letting people know what’s possible, but if you don’t have that, then at least separating yourself out from the reality that you’re stuck in is going to help you commune with and be able to build yourself up in your desires.
It’s more important than ever. It’s a practice that one should continue even if you’ve already made your decision and you’re on your path, because that’s how you contribute to the world in a unique way. If we don’t separate ourselves from the world and we don’t spend time to figure out what’s happening inside of us and what are we drawn toward and fascinated about? What are all the experiences that we have gone through that mixed together with our fascination can produce a unique voice? I’m sorry to tell everybody reading, but you’re probably going to end up sounding everybody else, because it’s so pervasive. Masters back in the day, the great artists, we didn’t have mass media, we didn’t have social media. When Matisse and these guys were painting, they were living in solitude.
All it was is their fascination with a tree, and they painted a tree and there was nothing to disturb that. I don’t think people realize the extent to which we are speaking in the voice of a certain news station or our social media feed. We’re repeating after those things. Now more than ever, for any person who endeavors to create something unique of their own, the practice of journaling, separating yourself from the matrix and spending time with yourself to commune with oneself, it’s not an option. I think it’s almost like a basic survival mechanism.
Another thing that I always say is try to handwrite something every day because otherwise you’re going to be a font. Spending all of our time writing on platforms which are predetermined in their look and their feel. We’re Times New Roman or Helvetica, but there’s nothing as unique as your own handwriting. That’s the most unique expression of you. I find that a handwritten letter to somebody, it’s the highest expression of individuality and something that makes us human when we’re all looking at screens and immersed in this stuff.
I never even thought of it that way, but that’s true. Everyone’s handwriting is unique. It’s the way that we express ourselves through lyrics in a way that’s completely unique. If you know somebody that’s in the position that you were in, would you advise them to take that leap you did and figure it out? If you had met that mentor, the friend of the friend that helped you that said, “You’re doing this wrong. This is how you do it.” If you had met that person while you were at the bank, you might not have landed so hard after you left. You would have been trying to build this up as a side hustle and you could have a little more smooth transition. Is that what you would recommend if musicians want to do something like this?
People ask me every day. They’re excited. They discovered this new possibility because we’re teaching this thing and they’re like, “I’m ready to quit my job.” I’m like, “Do it in phases.” I would recommend that people do it in phases. First, you discover a possibility, but stay at your day job, investigate the possibility, start learning everything you can about the business so that you get comfortable and that you can talk with any industry professional as if you were a part of the business, because that you can do without being a part of the business.
For instance, people can know how to score films in Hollywood without being a Hollywood composer because you read the books, you watch the YouTube videos. When you’re talking to someone from the industry, they don’t have to know that you’ve never scored a film before. They’ll get the impression that you know what you’re talking about and that’s because you’re studying. This is a long process. I don’t want to make it sound like, “I discovered an ad that you can compose an ad, I left the bank and that was it.”
I was building up toward that moment by learning how to produce music and that was years. That was long evenings after coming home from the bank and the studio practicing my craft. By the time the advertising opportunity came, I already put in a lot of hours into the craft, therefore when the opportunity came, that’s when my friend asked me. He wouldn’t ask me if he knew that I couldn’t make good music. It’s all a process. I encourage people to be friends of reality. Creative people tend to be impulsive, spontaneous, instinctive, driven by the moment, creative and emotional. Those can be dangerous.
It is all great for writing music, but not for starting a business.
Not for life. I always talk about the two wings, one being reason and one being emotion. This is what makes us unique as human beings is that we can exercise both. You can think about things and you can feel things. These are two wings. If you feel too much and you don’t reason enough, you’re going to fly around in circles. It’s the same thing with thinking. If you’re all in your head, you’re all 100% rational, always analytical, always think it through, but you never feel, I can guarantee that if you’re honest with yourself and when you get older, you might go, “I wish I let myself feel a little more. I feel I made all the good decisions, but maybe I should have lived a little.”
Use those two things, reason and the emotion and stages. Be a friend of reality, what I mean by this is you have a day job that’s paying your bills, reality is we’ve got to pay our bills. Unless you have someone that’s going to come along tomorrow and pay all your bills so that you can do what you love, you need to not have the rug pulled from under you. Stay at your job and investigate the new business. The first thing I always recommend is see what you can take from your previous story. For instance, from being at the bank, I took a lot of things. My ability to communicate in a boardroom, my ability to combine business and the arts together. Those things are invaluable. Years later, I’m sitting with a chief marketing officer of Phillips or UBS, a big Swiss bank, whatever brand and they’re surprised at my ability to be able to speak the boardroom speak.
You’re working with the same people that you were in the boardroom, but you’re in a different relationship. That is a great point that you do have that experience.
For instance, if you’re working in a day job that you don’t like but you want to be a musician or you want to be in the music industry, the first thing I would say is, what skills do you have? What experience do you have that could be useful in the music industry? Not necessarily as a musician, but it’s all gradual movement over toward at least the arena, which within what you want to play. That would be the first step. Also as a first step, I would recommend that if you start getting traction, if somebody is paying you whatsoever in the arena and what you want to play and that becomes consistent, then you’re looking at reality going, “The fact is I’m making some money over here. Maybe I can cut down my hours at my day job. Maybe I can offer them to be a consultant so that I’m not there full-time, but I give them three days a week and two days I spend over here.”
I don’t recommend jumping into any pool unless you make sure the water is there. Don’t hope that the pool will fill up while you’re up in the air and about to land. It might, it might not. These are difficult times and we have to be responsible, but I do believe that there are humans who are reading this, who not only they have a conviction that they belong on a certain path, but they are also a friend of reality. They do have the prerequisites to succeed the potential. They have the raw material. There’s some development ahead of them but I believe that there are people reading this that are meant for change and that do belong in the place where they believe they belong.
I’ve ran into people who are not a friend of reality. What they imagined to be reality is not exactly reality. In other words, they’re like, “I could be a phone composer because my music is much better than Hans Zimmer’s.” It’s statements like that. It’s a maniacal, huge and overdramatized sweeps like, “I could do this.” I’d be careful with that. The people who make big decisions, for instance, like I did, leaving corporate career, these are not sudden decisions. These decisions take time. It’s like my wife told me. I’m like, “I make swift decisions. What are you talking about?” That’s how I think of myself. She’s like, “No, you don’t. You make big decisions and they’re impactful, but you sit years thinking about it.” I realized, “I am quite risk averse. I will spend time to think and to see all the possible pitfalls, but eventually when I’m comfortable that I’ve put everything out in my journal. I’ve seen the whole landscape. If the pluses outweigh the minuses, I will make the leap.”
To the rest of the world, it looks like this huge, massive decision and to you, they don’t know what’s been going on in the background with the journal and everything. That makes a lot of sense. I’m curious if there are people out there that are a friend of reality and they would love to do this at least on the side so they could dip their toe in and see if this is right for them. You have a course around this. Do you vet people? Do you try to make sure that they have the right qualifications before they jump in or do you let them learn and then you start to mentor the people that are ready to jump in and start working with brands?
I’ve thought about vetting people, but I decided it’s going to be difficult to do that because it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen to any given individual. For instance, let’s say I meet somebody and I feel their music is not up to par, but they’re taking my masterclass. They’re taking a bunch of other masterclasses and they’re gung ho. They’re in the kitchen cooking every day like a true chef to be. This person writes me back in three months and suddenly they’re amazing. You can never tell what’s going to happen with folks. I decided what I’m going to do is give people the free training. That’s what we do so that you get to know the world. You get to understand the world.
I tell people, “Go out there. Take a look at music production companies’ websites. If you believe this is what you want to do. If you believe that you belong in this game, maybe not now, but maybe in some time, then you can participate in our academy. If for some reason you don’t feel this is for you. You joined the academy and you realize this is not what you thought it would be, we offer everybody a no risk, no questions asked within 30 days, money-back guarantee.” It’s a difficult question that I struggled with for a while, because I believe that it’s always going to be a small percentage of musicians that I believe have a chance to make an impact in the industry. I was speaking to some friends and they said, “Your job is to put out the best possible teaching to prepare these folks as you can. The rest is up to the people.” I thought about it and I said, “It’s true. It’s not as if prestigious schools try to predict what your success rate is going to be.”Never jump into a pool unless you’re sure there’s water in there. Don't hope that it will fill up while you're up in the air. Click To Tweet
As educators, I’m the same way. We want so much for our students to succeed that we’re like, “Should I be doing more to make sure that this is going to work for them?” There is a point where it is up to them to take what you’ve given them and run with it. We give them opportunities to ask for more help and whatever it is they need because we care about the success of our students. You’re right, at some point, it is up to them.
There are all these schools of thought that say, “What you’ve got to do is constantly make sure the student is stimulated.” I’m like, “That’s not how music masters taught their students. It’s not up to me to motivate you. It’s not up to me to ping you with an email to remind you that you should be doing the masterclass stuff. This is almost a way of me verifying who’s who.” I had one person who asked me for a refund because they said, “You don’t send enough emails.” I was like, “I don’t send it out?” I get complaints from the people on my email list that I’m sending too many emails. The people who love our academy don’t complain, but there’s always going to be somebody who complains.
I thought that was interesting. I said, “What emails do you want me to send you? I don’t understand.” Our intention that the way we designed this thing was we don’t hold anything back. Every single thing that I know about my life’s work is in there. If you follow the modules from the foundation to the craft, the advanced craft, the preparation, building your real, building your website and learning how to reach out to industry professionals in our business, you have the talent, the tenacity, I always say success might not be immediate, but it’s going to be inevitable. We’re seeing that, but I’m not going to prod any one of my students. I’m not going to say, “Get to work.” For me, this is a natural way of verifying who’s motivated and who bought this thing hoping that it will be a quick solution to turn their career around. There is no such thing. It’s never been easy to be a full-time musician. This is no exception.
If they’re not motivated to do the course. They’re not going to be motivated to reach out to advertisers in the way that they need to get jobs.
No, they’ll give up soon because it’s difficult to connect with people in our industry. Some of my better students, the folks who do their homework, the folks who reach out to me, I give whoever gets in touch with me my personal time. This masterclass is different from a lot of online masterclasses where you buy the course and then you’re left alone. To people who are not doing the work and who are not contacting me, it may feel that way. If you don’t send me homework, you’re not going to hear from me. If you send me a question, if you send me homework, if you share your real with me, if you share your website with me, I’m going to respond.
Every Friday I record videos for my students where I’m listening to the music and they hear the music in my headphones and we’re talking and I’m talking. I’m saying, “You should try maybe a little chord change here. Maybe try to switch up your instruments there. Pay attention to the way the picture is developing here because your music is rolling right over it. You’re not acknowledging the cuts.” That’s a bonus. People don’t know that that’s going to happen when they join the academy, but then they get a video from me, listening to their music and that’s a pleasant surprise for them.
I hear it from many people that they join a course like this that’s supposed to help them with the business side, but it’s related to music and they’re like, “They never listened to my music. How would they know if my music will ever be successful?” That is a huge bonus that you do that.
From there, when I’m hearing people who are doing some incredible things musically, and I appreciate the way they communicate, the emails that they send, I’m like, “These guys could succeed.” Some of them I will introduce to friends in the business and some of them I’ll put under my wing, under my production company, Tommy Zee & Co. I’ll start mentoring them in whatever direction I think is best. Some people are meant to be composers. They want to be in a studio. They don’t want to interface with the outside world. Some of them, I believe that they will be better producers than they would be composers. I try to groom them into somebody like me.
Somebody who’s half in the studio listening to stuff. The best example I can give is Chef Ramsay. Gordon Ramsay used to cook when he was in his mid-twenties. He became a restaurant owner and now he’s running a big business that’s based on his brand as a top world-class chef. The reality is he is grooming other people who he sees potential in and he lets them be the chef. He brings them under the brand. That’s the model that I’m inspired by. To use my name in the industry, whatever it’s worth. I’ve done a few things in our business. I’m trying to give these folks that I think have potential credibility by putting them under my roof and trying to teach them.
We’re early on with that. Our Academy has 400 students and almost 20,000 people on the email list. It’s been a lot bigger of a response than I anticipated when I started this thing. I thought this was going to be a real niche subject. Now that I think about it, I guess I’m not surprised. The reason is the traditional ways of earning a living, including touring, that’s being taken away suddenly without warning for musicians because of the lockdown. Our industry is one where freelance musicians are making a living from their home studio. They don’t have to leave their home studio to create music for Nike, Adidas or BMW because our industry has worked remotely for many years.
I guess they see this as a potential opportunity and it’s not a new opportunity. Making music for brands has been happening for a lot longer than many musicians think. That symbiosis, that synergy has always been there. Early Wheaties jingles on the radio. The stuff I could show you that brings you a smile to your face, how musicians are singing about America and cars and how it’s patriotic to buy a car. It’s been there forever. It’s just that most musicians don’t consider that. We all know commercials. We’ve even seen some cool stuff in commercials, but no one ever thinks, “It could be someone like me doing this stuff.”
One question that I think my readers will have and I want to know. A big popular topic is music licensing and sync placement. Are there any backend royalties with this or is it a work for hire situation?
It depends on where you are in the world. I’ve had the privilege of working in different parts of this world, in this industry. My career started in North America and then I moved to Europe and I’ve also had a chance to work in Japan. A lot of my work comes from Japan. I’ve seen it in different parts of the world. In North America, a lot of making music for brands. Creating original songs, scores, or sounds from scratch is work for hire. It’s the brand that wants to buy everything. They want to have the rights to everything. Photographers and designers suffered that fate a long time ago, musicians were holding on for a while with the royalty thing, but the reality is in a lot of places, it’s going to be work for hire where you get paid to create a demo.
If this demo makes it, you’re going to make a final fee. In North America, you could also get paid through the musician union. This comes from an older tradition where if you were working on, let’s say a Ford commercial in the ‘70s or ‘80s, there was no way to come up with the music unless you brought in a band into a studio and you had an orchestrator, a bandleader and different kinds of musicians. These musicians would belong to a union called the American Federation of Musicians. For a long time, the way the agency would pay for the music is they would give AF of M credits to the music production company. The production company would share these credits. Orchestrator gets this much, bandleader gets this much, piano player gets this much, depending on what their impact is on the song or what their degree of contribution is.
That has changed a little bit. AF of M credits still exist, but what do you do with when the composer, the bandleader, the orchestrator, the piano player, the synths player and the rapper is all the same person working on their laptop? What happens is that the music production company that gets the project from the agency might receive some AF of M credits. They might share them with a musician, but that’s not always the case. It depends on what the agreement is between the music production company and the musician. Sometimes they share, sometimes they don’t. When the campaign gets renewed and you are on an AF of M contract, you will receive money again. If you’re not on the AF of M contract, the last money you will see is the final fee that you got paid, which sometimes is healthy.
It could be anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000, depending on what the scope of the campaign is and where it’s being aired. When you talk about Europe, it’s different because a lot of music production companies share royalties. The royalties are a real thing in places like Germany and Netherlands. A lot of musicians, they make a point of finding out, “What’s the split that I get?” You will always split it with a music production company that is responsible for the thing. In places like Asia and some European countries like Italy, Spain and Eastern Europe, royalties are tough to get. The majority of the money is going to come from that upfront payments, the demo fee and the final fee.
In some ways it’s great because what you’re getting, you’re getting it soon versus sometimes with sync placements, you’re not getting it for months and months because your PRO is going to take forever. They do their quarterly thing. It’s nice in a way that you know what you’re getting, but then you’re also not stacking that income that comes in every month.
If you can get a healthy amount of relationships going in the business like the best composers in our business, I have a guy named Naren, who’s a part of our masterclass. I do an interview with him because I put him up as a model. We started in a business in a similar time. He started as a composer and I started as a music producer. He was a guy that got in touch with me early on in his career when he was still starting and we’ve known each other. We’ve been working together ever since and it’s crazy to see his development from like, “Here are a few spots that I did.” You look at his website and it’s like the who’s who, awards, and all sorts of things that are coming his way.
He has 30 different music production companies that he has a relationship with. Every day he’s writing a demo or two demos for some big brand campaign. That’s where his income is coming from. It’s quite steady. If you happen to write for a European music production company, you’re not only going to get the lump sum, but the royalties then will be a bonus on top of that. It will be passive income. Maybe it will come in, maybe it won’t, but it will be not an exchange for your time, which is always nice when you get a check in the mail. It’s not something that you have to work for beyond your retirement.Selling out is taking a paycheck from the man at a job that you don't even enjoy. Click To Tweet
I know you have a production company. You learned early on that as individuals, you don’t go to ad agencies. You need to have a production company. Do you also teach individuals how to become their own production company? Do you recommend they seek out other production companies to work with?
I don’t teach them how to become a music production company. It’s targeted toward freelance musician, singer-songwriters and composers who want to create music. Some of these guys and girls do end up realizing that there is such a thing as being a music producer. When I see that maybe they’re more talented in their music tastes and their way of communicating rather than creating music from scratch, then I point them that way, but that’s not the focus of the course. The focus of the course is to show musicians behind the scenes every step of the way and what you need to do to break into the business. In the future, that’s going to be an idea for those who want to play a video game level higher to not be looking for projects from music production companies, but to go a step above and be a music production company and look for projects from agencies.
That could be a future endeavor. It’s a rare human being that has all the necessary qualities to become a great music producer in our business, because it requires again that unique combination of being able to connect with the artists and be comfortable in a studio so that the artist trusts you or the composer trusts you. At the same time, being able to take a conference call with the client and be able to talk strategically, diplomatically, and talk the talk that you talk on a conference call. When I come across a human being that’s able to have the left and the right brain hemisphere completely in sync, they’re as business savvy as they are craft savvy, then I always want to snag them. I want to make them a part of my family because it’s a good skill to have.
I don’t blame you. I’m a weird person in music because I have that right and left. I was a director of finance at an opera company for several years. You and I have a lot in common because we have that background of finance, but yet we have the creative side that we’ve always had. We let one take the lead for a while, we let the other one take the lead, but it’s so nice to have that other one in the back pocket when you need it.
We have a right and a left hemisphere for a reason. Some people will live in one side of their hemisphere. We talked about those two wings. Ideally you want to take a look from different perspectives, so you want to be a mix of everything. You want to be a mix of art. You want to be a mix of commerce. Some people disagree with that. I get a lot of negative comments under my ads for the academy saying, “Why are you reducing arts and musicians to making commercials? This world is getting sadder and sadder because of people like you.” I’m like, “Please don’t take this so seriously.”
It’s not as if I love advertising. It’s not as if I’m a huge brand believer or something. All we’re doing is finding our way as musicians in this world. What you do artistically may have nothing to do with what you do for a brand. It’s as if you are a sculptor. You’re sculpting something high and mighty and beautiful and timeless, but then you were hungry and someone came to you and said, “Do you want to dig ditches for money? Can you sculpt me something? Maybe you don’t like what you’re going to have to sculpt me, but you’ll still be in your shop sculpting.” That’s what we’re talking about.
It’s like when musicians say you’re selling out if you’re singing covers. No, if people want covers and they’re going to pay you for that and you have bills to pay, or you want to further the art that you’re doing on the other side, that’s your own personal music that you’ve written that hasn’t quite taken off yet. There is nothing shameful about singing covers at a restaurant because people enjoy that. The music is still going to move people. We should be proud as musicians that advertisers want us because what we do moves people, otherwise they wouldn’t pay for it.
It’s always your choice what you want to do, even if you are a part of this business. Feist became well-known because of the Apple commercial in the early 2000s, that license 1234. McDonald’s came along and said, “Feist, here’s $1 million. I bet you Apple didn’t pay you $1 million.” Feist said, “No.” She doesn’t like McDonald’s. You can do what you want to do. You don’t have to compromise your values. Let’s say you use an Apple computer to make music and Apple comes to you and says, “Can you make us a track?” Why would you say no? I don’t understand. For instance, some of these brands are exploiting people and they’re doing all sorts of evil things and it’s true.
Some of these brands are doing negative things, but it’s not condoning the evil things that the brand is doing. I feel it’s strange for someone to be typing into their iPhone about how brands maybe doing evil. If you don’t believe what Apple is doing, you’re also condoning it by buying the iPhone. We need to be a little more pragmatic about fulfilling our role as musicians. My definition of selling out is this. Maybe selling out is taking a paycheck from the man at a job that you don’t even enjoy. I thought about this long and hard. I can get you to clarify your thoughts about it so that when somebody approaches you with these arguments, you’ve already sorted out your philosophy on it.
My philosophy was this, “I want to be in a studio.” If I need to do something for somebody else that’s willing to pay me, this might not be my favorite thing, I might not even think it’s any good what they want, I’m still a craft person in a studio. That to me doesn’t feel like selling out, but to spend most of my life sitting in a cubicle or sitting behind a counter at some company where I’m not even passionate or I don’t even feel it’s my life’s calling. To be taking a check from there leaving music until last, when I’m tired from my day job and I’m trying to create something, but anyone that works a full job tries to create music at night knows, you’re gone, you’re tired. Maybe that’s selling out.
I understand there are people who feel music is a sacred art and I respect that. I believe music can be a sacred art, but I don’t believe music is just sacred art. To say that music is holy and it’s nothing else, I’m not sure that that’s being a friend of reality. Music is so vast and comprehensive that it can play the role of a sacred arts that can elevate your soul and make you more human and take your life into places you never imagined, but let’s face it, it can also be elevator music. It can also be terrible on hold music. It can also be annoying supermarket music or it can be something in between. It could be beautiful music that’s a part of a public service announcement for a good cause.
We can’t reduce music to one thing. If somebody feels the fulfillment of their life as a musician is to create music as a sacred art, then they should do so. Don’t think that those things are mutually exclusive. Don’t think that you have to make music that is sacred art and never take a commission. You could do both. I have artists who work with me who are releasing music that is not for commercials. It is for artistic expression. They want to create an album. They want to move human souls. When they’re done working on the album, they call me and they’re like, “Tommy, do you have any projects from the commercial world? I’d sure love to make up financially for three months working on my labor of love, which is costing me more money than I’m making from.”
It’s about being smart, not being radical. I’m not suggesting my philosophy should be someone else’s philosophy. I’m giving you my philosophy on it. It’s quite pragmatic, like Radiohead said, “Everything in its right place.” Keeping the holy things holy. If a brand is paying you a bunch of money to make a song, think twice before you say no, but don’t compromise your values, that’s for sure. Never take a paycheck if you don’t agree with what certain brand is doing. Don’t do it. That should be obvious to any person with integrity.
That’s so great, and everything that you said throughout this whole episode has been inspiring for the right people. It will inspire the right people to check out your free training and the academy. If it’s right for you, you’ll know because everything that Tommy has been saying will resonate with you because he was clear, who he thinks it’s right for and who he thinks isn’t right for. I want you to check that out. This has been so inspiring, Tommy. I love the whole view of friend of reality. As musicians, we need to do that all the time. I get plenty of people in my world that are not in that space yet.
I might be there again, because sometimes we think we’re a friend of reality, but sometimes our conviction is wrong and maybe we don’t have enough facts. I don’t know. Whatever the case may be, but humility is a big thing that also helps. It’s always making some room for doubts and letting those doubts in because that’s when you know you’re going to make right decisions. Be careful of gunning forward without any hesitation.
It’s important to always check in with ourselves and have a mentor, someone like you or myself or somebody else that’s within this industry that has been around, has seen a lot of things and can give you a great perspective. That’s what Tommy is here for. He does care about musicians. I recommend you guys check out his free training, his academy. Tommy, thank you so much for spending this time with us. I know it’s going to be valuable.
I appreciate you having me and you’re an inspiration to me because you’ve been doing this for a while and I’m new to it, but it’s satisfying. It’s new to me, working with human beings and not brands. Brands I don’t see, I just send an invoice or music, but now I have real humans counting on me. It was quite scary at first, but it’s such a satisfying experience when you can take a person from A to B. A great mentor’s perspective, that’s the biggest thing. A mentor will tell you what you can’t see about yourself because artists are stuck in their head. You may not see the weaknesses. You may not see the strengths and that’s what a mentor is there for.
We’re parents of the musicians and I think about that relationship of what I try to do for my own kids. We care about getting them from A to B and also making sure that they’re always checking in with themselves, they’re being realistic. They are seeing both their weaknesses realistically and their strengths. Reach out to us if you want any guidance. Check out everything that relates to what Tommy is doing. Thank you so much, Tommy.
Thank you so much, Bree. Take care.
- Tommy Zee
About Tommy Zee
Tommy Zee is a music producer, composer and founder of Tommy zee + co. a boutique music production company that creates remarkable songs, scores and sounds for some of the world’s biggest brands.
He’s worked with brands like Nike, Google, Adidas and many more – helping them to use sound in intentional and innovative ways so they can stand out in a noisy marketplace. Tommy also runs an online academy that teaches musicians how to make a living making music for big brands – without leaving your home studio.