Deciding to Leave the Music Industry (And What To Take From It)

Here is an interview that answers the question: “why did you leave the music industry?”
A few years back, when I started my blog, I was introduced to Alex McKenzie through my work with Doe Paoro. All I knew at the time was that he was a recording engineer at Converse’s Rubber Tracks Studio in New York. Through a few more discussions about the music industry and performance work, I learned much more…and gained some very interesting insight about the industry.
McKenzie has seen the music industry through a multitude of angles: artist, touring and promotions, writer, non-profit, publishing, and as a producer and engineer.
And now? He explained to me via email, “I’m totally fine with the concept of music being something that exists on the margins of my life.” From there, we decided to do an email interview to explore his path, and I might say it is one of the most interesting profiles here so far.

So, I guess we can start with education. You studied a lot in the Boston area with two highly regarded programs–Berklee and UMass Lowell. What sort of music stuff were you involved in before college? How do you feel you prepared yourself for the studies at UMass Lowell and Berklee?

I grew up in a musical household, in and around my dad’s home recording studio. He was self-releasing his music on vinyl in the early 80s, which was much more difficult to do back then. He has played everything from prog-rock to folk, from power pop to jazz, and we would go hear him play and whatnot. My mom is also a terrific singer, and is still active in her church choir, though she didn’t pursue music professionally. But I can’t say I ever took music “seriously” before college; it was just something I did very often, but also very casually. It was a way for me to hang out with friends, or connect with my family. I had bands in high school, and would fool around on a four-track, but that’s about it. So when I opted to go to UMass Lowell to study music production in 1999, I totally half-assed it, which was a missed opportunity on my part; I dropped out after three semesters.

I took the Berklee courses online a couple years ago — about eleven years after my stint at UMass Lowell. As I got further into the music world professionally, I thought it would be helpful if I knew more about music supervision and licensing, because it seems like that’s where a few big paychecks might be coming from for your average independent musician.

I made an effort to really apply myself to the coursework at Berklee, and because it was done online, I could simultaneously network in the NYC scene to meet people in person who had more experience in music supervision than I did. I was ultimately on the verge of signing a fairly substantial co-pub deal with an established sync company, which fell apart after about six months of hard work. I would have been representing about fifteen other musicians. At the last minute, they decided to change a fundamental point on the contract, simply because it would fit their larger vision better.

Were there other career paths you considered? Why did you bypass those at the time?

I worked in a lot of restaurants to support myself in the music industry. I wound up working for a very talented chef and restaurant owner in Cambridge, and got really into food and wine. The job actually paid me pretty well, and it’s only a small exaggeration to say that I worked seven days a week for about five years: four days at the restaurant, then three days in a studio, often on my own dime, as I was cutting my teeth in the Boston studio world. I also got into farming at the time, and was very torn between food and music.  But I knew I was never going to be able to commit fully to the serene, stable world of food and farming if I didn’t first at least really try to make it as a musician. I felt like if I gave it my all for an extended period of time, and still couldn’t make a decent living in music, then I could let it go and come back to food if I still wanted to.

You studied Music Supervision at Berklee, which has always interested me. Can you explain what a Music Supervisor does, for others that may not know?

A music supervisor works on a film or television production to source, create, and/or edit the music for a given project. They handle any contracts between the artist or label and the production house, and are also in charge of submitting the correct music cues correctly to the PROs — ASCAP, BMI, etc — so they can pay everyone their royalty checks.

I also love music licensing. Working with music licensing and publishing really shows all the ins and outs of who was involved in a song, I think. What is the trickiest part of working with licensing and supervision, in your opinion?

I think the toughest part is bridging the gap between the art and the commerce. An artist might think his perfect little love song is really special, but once it’s being licensed, it’s simply a commodity. Additionally, that artist’s own licensing agreement might be really confusing to him.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can make negotiations between parties sometimes difficult; artists are understandably protective of their music, yet they want to make money off of it, so it can be difficult to negotiate a situation that can be both emotionally and financially confusing.

When and why did you migrate to Portland, Oregon?

In 2001, I moved to Olympia, WA with a friend. I instantly fell in love with the Pacific Northwest music scene — Kill Rock Stars and K Records, basement shows, all that stuff — and moved to Portland about six months after. I stayed there for nearly five years, and worked in booking and promotions, while trying to advance my own skills as a musician in my crappy basement recording studio. I also worked at the Rock N’ Roll Camp for Girls.

Why did you get involved with the Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls?

I was really into a lot of politically or socially conscious music at the time — Fugazi, The Minutemen, that sort of stuff — and the only overtly political music I could find in Portland was coming from women, this sort of post-Riot Grrrl movement that existed there. All the male-fronted bands were doing their best Bright Eyes imitations, and I just hated it. But these women — Sleater-Kinney, Donna Dresch, Lauren K. Newman, Beth Ditto — were just destroying the stage and making their listeners feel empowered. I became very good friends with the founder of the camp, and wound up volunteering for her organization for a few years on a regular basis.

I’ve had a bit of an internal struggle with some of the rock or music industry groups or events that focus solely on women, only because I have a fear that it can subdivide us more. I think we should all be included as musicians and put talent and passion ahead of whether we’re male or female.  What is your view on this, based on your experience at the camp?

I agree with your assessment — the self-imposed subdivision of women, or any other group, can breed further marginalization, and I saw that happen with the camp, to a certain extent. But the camp definitely helped hundreds, if not thousands, of girls feel far more confident in sharing their opinions with the world, and I’m sure many of those girls have grown into very self-assured women.

You also wrote for Tape Op, which is pretty big! I hear so many tips about getting in for writing for a major magazine. How did you find your ‘in’ there?

I had met Tape Op founder and editor Larry Crane through mutual friends, and Pete Weiss, who was later my studio mentor in Vermont, was a regular contributor to the magazine. I was pretty active on the Tape Op Message Board, and a discussion of (audio engineer) TJ Doherty came up. I couldn’t find anything on the guy, but was in love with all of his records — albums by Sonic Youth, Jim O’Rourke, Wilco, Beth Orton, Stephen Malkmus. I just pitched the idea to Larry — “Mind if I interview this guy?” — and he said sure. I didn’t have any professional writing experience, but it was pretty easy and a ton of fun. I got to travel to some amazing studios and ask some very talented people whatever questions I wanted. It was great! It advanced my studio knowledge exponentially, and a few of those names look good on a resume.

Alex McKenzie for Tape Op.
Alex McKenzie for Tape Op.

What is a particularly memorable interview or article you wrote for them and why?

The Q Division article was a blast. That studio is sort of a modern legend. Some of the best records ever made came through their studio, and they have kept their doors open for a long time. The owners, Mike Deneen and Jon Lupfer, have very well-informed, unglamorous opinions about the music industry, yet have stable, healthy lives and family, and great senses of humor. Sort of amazing in the music industry today, right? I have not met too many people like them, and it makes me sad that less studios get to enjoy that sort of success today.

Boston loves Q Division!  Picture by Pete Weiss, taken for Tape Op Magazine.
Boston loves Q Division!
Picture by Pete Weiss, taken for Tape Op Magazine.

When we were introduced, you were at the Rubber Tracks studio, correct? How did you eventually land there?

I had heard through the grapevine that Converse was opening a studio in Williamsburg. I sent an unsolicited email to somebody I knew was involved, and I didn’t even hear back until about nine months later. So let that be a lesson: leave no stone unturned, because you never know what seeds you plant may sprout further down the line!

Was it a crazy schedule?

Rubber Tracks wasn’t at all crazy; it was actually very stable and professional. Sessions were only booked during the day, there were no drugs or drama, all the gear worked and was very clean, and there’s a terrific support staff there.

But the gig did pose some challenges for me as a working engineer: Because of the way the studio is run (independent artists get free studio time, usually just for a day or two), the bands typically want to spend the whole time tracking, which means that as my tracking chops were improving, I wasn’t really getting much work to be a mixer. I would track five different bands in a week, send them all home with a decent 20-minute rough mix, and then they would ultimately take the tracks somewhere else to finish them up. I very rarely saw the finished product, and didn’t pick up too many mixing credits.

But while I was working at Rubber Tracks, I was simultaneously working at a Manhattan studio that was mostly used by major label songwriters — the people who have written songs for Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, that sort of thing. That gig came with a lot more headaches and overnight sessions, so a week at Rubber Tracks felt like a trip to the spa in comparison.

With any of the professions I’ve covered here, I think a lot of people can think of the glamor of it without delving into the labor and struggles. Working at a studio like that is one of them. What, in your mind, are the top three things someone should be mindful of before pursuing this?

1. Don’t go to school for music production or performance. All of those skills can be learned on your own time, and that degree is going to do almost nothing for you. I would instead suggest a degree in Electrical Engineering, if you’re hoping to work in a recording studio, or in Music Business, if you’re hoping to work in the performance side of things. Those degrees will set you up for not only success in the music industry, but also elsewhere in life should you decide that a career in music isn’t for you.

2.  Take care of your health. Eat very well and get plenty of exercise, because no one is going to take care of you in this industry. Don’t do any drugs; reject the notion that chemicals will fuel your creativity. If you have to smoke something or drink something just to get in the creative head space, that’s not really a sustainable way to approach your career as a musician. You will likely wind up with hundreds of half-finished song ideas and some regrettable performances. Drink tea or coffee instead, and save any stronger chemicals for after the session or the gig, when you’re reviewing the day’s work and trying to wind down, and even then, do it sparingly.

3. If you’re an artist and you’re “young” — however you define that — tour your ass off. Any success these days is going to rely on a lot of touring, and any decent label is going to want to see that you are willing to work very hard before they sign you. Be on the road as much as possible before you’re too old for that lifestyle, because that day will come.

And you left because…?

When I moved to New York to pursue this career full-time, I had this dream: I was going to get an A&R position, and help get challenging or socially-conscious music back into the mainstream. I met all the right people, and I finally got a couple offers from the major labels, and they were both really insulting; one of them wanted seventy hours a week for forty thousand a year, and I was going to be working on nothing but pop music! But that’s the state of the major label industry today.

I got burned out; I was just having to make too many compromises to make a buck. Too many teen pop sessions, too many missed vacations with my girlfriend. I hated living in New York — I like open space and clean air. My priorities changed. I was taking whatever work I could get just so I could pay my rent, and I had ceased to create any music for my own enjoyment.

You previously said the following: “For the first time in my life, I’m totally fine with the concept of music being something that exists on the margins of my life. I’m excited to pursue another career, and it has taken me many years, and many different roles within the music industry, to come to this acceptance. I’m actually really happy and excited about the change, and I’m just now — after three years working in service to other artists in NYC — remembering how to create music for the sheer joy of it, rather than for someone else’s ideas about what sounds good.” Can you elaborate?

The “margins of my life” comment is something I re-appropriated from an interview I heard with Steve Albini. It was something that really resonated with me at the time I was deciding to leave New York, and it seemed so practical and logically sound: my music can be sustainable if I don’t grasp for something financially unattainable. The guys in Shellac [Albini’s band] maintain stable relationships with their wives, they have serious mortgages, and they’re able to create experimental, challenging music of a very high technical quality, yet they treat it like a serious hobby, something that comes after the bills are paid and the woman is happy.

I’m now back in school, studying food and the environment. The change in direction came with Hurricane Sandy; it was a very profound event for me at the time it happened. I was putting my creative energy into either pop music that sold t-shirts and paid my rent, or into independent music that was often so tightly budgeted as to render the record technically deficient by my own personal standards. I felt like I really missed making music for my own enjoyment, and that the hours I was spending to pay my bills could be better spent elsewhere.

You also mentioned to me, in the past, that you felt the music industry was more dominated with business professionals over music professionals. I often get frustrated when I see this, too–places would rather hire a business major over someone who has studied the work that they are producing. Do you see that as a weakness in this industry? Do you think it will change?

The modern major label industry consists of three labels whose financial stability lies not in the creation and distribution of their music, but in the licensing of it to other institutions, and to a much larger extent, to the selling of goods and services — whether it’s merchandise depicting their own artists’ likeness, or the products of other companies via radio ad-space. The A&R jobs don’t require a real appreciation of music or how a studio works, but rather the skill of identifying an instantly-recognizable “hit” and working out the financials to deliver a finished product to radio and Youtube.

Simultaneously, the people making the decisions for Clear Channel and the like have become equally subservient to the commercial paradigm, so those Program Manager jobs at radio are no longer staffed by former college radio DJs and music fanatics, but rather by marketing people. So now we have marketing grads at the major labels interfacing with marketing grads at radio. They collaborate to generate ad revenue, and the music playlist serves only to deliver one hook after another, to ensure that the listener doesn’t change the dial.

What was your worst experience working in the music industry?

Hmm, that’s a tough one…I remember one session in particular, at a now-defunct studio in Manhattan. I was the lone engineer in the studio that day — they had just let their main guy go, and I had only been there for about two months. This guy was cutting a demo for a musical theater production in hopes of finding financing to take it on Broadway. He wanted 11 songs — performed by a full chorus, a band including strings and horns, all these silly bits of dialogue — tracked, mixed, and mastered within ten hours. I didn’t even have an assistant! It was a completely absurd expectation, and the studio owner unfairly told the producer that we could make it happen. When it didn’t come out too great, the owner completely threw me under the bus — said I was incompetent, and refused to pay me for the session. I was so angry and dejected. I quit the next day, and I have to admit that I felt vindicated when he closed his doors a couple years later after a lawsuit he incurred for operating with pirated recording software.

The best?

Mike Watt crashed at my place a few years ago after a show. He drank me under the table and schooled me on WWII history; he was really passionate about it! The next morning I was throwing up, and he was talking fluent Japanese to some girl on his laptop. She waved at me through the the laptop camera while I was puking, and I thought, “This is amazing.”

Was there a specific spark that led to Beasty? A sort of pinnacle moment in your work that led you to it?

I was just completely burned out on working on other people’s music. I was gravitating towards some very intentionally ugly, discordant records just as a way of hearing something that resonated with me. I found these two guys on Craiglist, and their drum-and-bass demos were just transcendent: super raw and edgy, and I could hear that any guitar parts I could add would have to be so atypical. I really needed to be challenged, and to feel deeply connected to the music I was making, and they offered me the perfect outlet for that, at the perfect time.

We had a lot of fun together: a couple of tours, some decent recordings, and a lot of laughs. I ultimately left the band when I left New York, and they are continuing on with a new guitarist. There are no hard feelings; I’m really happy for them, and I don’t feel any sense of ownership over the music we created together, because it was an entirely organic process. There were no split sheets, no arguing over how to make the chorus more catchy; there was no chorus. But that sort of music — the stuff that is purely boundary-pushing and cathartic — can always exist in my life. It doesn’t need a “like” on Facebook or a spin on Spotify to make it creatively satisfying. The people who want it will find it, and I don’t need any sort of validation from the listener that my music is good. My music is inherently good, because it feels good to create it, it brings me together with other people, and it allows me to process emotions that don’t otherwise have a healthy outlet.

McKenzie performing with Beasty. Photo by Eric Phipps
McKenzie performing with Beasty. Photo by Eric Phipps

11 thoughts on “Deciding to Leave the Music Industry (And What To Take From It)

  1. Thank you for this very insightful article. Entering college, I had dreams of being an A&R rep. and have regretted that I didn’t pursue that dream. After reading this article, I’m glad I changed my major.

  2. Fantastic interview Laparadiddle. Alex’s experiences provide excellent insight as to the realities of the music industry. Also, it is great to hear that he is still fired-up about music, food and the environment but on HIS TERMS. Your interview really tapped into his integrity.

    1. Thank you, Dave! I found this interview to be extremely interesting, and I’ve found everyone’s reaction to be so positive and thoughtful…which is great!

  3. This really resonated with me. I have been working and hustling for the past 5 years in Los Angeles under very similar experiences- it’s uncanny really… At some point in the journey, you realize you’ve lost your passion because you’re doing whatever you can to survive. “Too many teen pop sessions… I hated living in NY….” Missed opportunities with your loved ones….. All too many sacrifices toward a career we didn’t set out for…..

    1. Thanks for the comment, Eric! I’ve spoken to so many who feel this way, or who just want to get away from some of the superficiality in there and focus on what makes us happy: music.

  4. As someone who is also leaving the biz after 10 years of nonstop hustling, McKenzie’s comments in this article have helped me articulate why I’m moving on. A very gratifying, interesting read!

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