Successful Musicians Podcast Episode 1
Interviewee: Bobby Owsinski
Interviewer: Jason Tonioli
Jason: Hey, this is Jason Tonioli. I’m a piano player that grew up believing it wasn’t possible to earn a living and support a family with music. I’ve proven that idea was wrong and I’ve met hundreds of other people who have found success with their music. This podcast features stories of musicians who have found their own personal version of success and fulfillment in both music and life. This podcast is meant to inspire musicians and help them believe in their abilities and motivate them to share their talents with others. This is the Successful Musicians Podcast.
Jason: Thanks so much for joining the podcast today. I have a special guest with me, Bobby Owsinski, is a friend that I met in Sedona, Arizona, actually with a music mastermind group, and I’m super excited to talk with you today, Bobby. Tell me a little bit about your story, kinda your background. I know you went to Berklee Music School. How did you get into the music industry? Kindly give us an overview of that path.
Bobby: Thanks for having me on, Jason. I appreciate it. I was a professional musician from very early in my life. Professional means making money. When I was a sophomore in high school, I was already playing four nights a week in clubs, even though I was too young to officially be in a club.
Growing up in Minersville, Pennsylvania where there’s 5,000 people, things like that get overlooked. So it progressed from there. Eventually, I learned to play with the biggest band in that particular area and got a record deal with a major label by the way and we traveled up and down the East Coast, so, I toured a lot.
I had a revelation actually that happened when we went to record the first album in a big expensive New York studio. And I remember hearing the first playback and thinking I was a pretty good player up until that time because of course what happens is you know you play five nights a week, six nights a week, five sets a night, you get pretty good, but you get pretty good in your little area.
When I heard the first playback, I realized how mediocre I really was. It kind of slapped me in the face and that made me decide to get better and also could have changed my focus from being a player to producer. Engineering was secondary, but it did come.
So, I went to Berklee College of Music as you just said, and I was there for about two years or so. First, as a student, then as a student and teacher, which I don’t recommend to anybody. Then just as a teacher for a few semesters. What stopped me there was: I went into the teacher’s lounge one day, and there’s somebody in there ranting and raving and was basically saying, “This place is for rookies and has-been’s!”.
It hit me in the eyes and I thought I don’t want to be either of those, so I quit. And that’s when I came out to Los Angeles. And really my career started from the bottom. It started, taking any kind of gig I could, doing anything. I worked on commercials, and I worked on movie music, worked on just about anything you can think of until finally it started with better artists and better projects and things like that.
So it’s been a long, long road, but it started in a way that I never would have expected would have ended up here. That’s for sure. I am lucky.
Jason: So, you’ve been a producer, and also taken the audio engineering path early on. You’re really well known in the industry, but for those that aren’t familiar with him, you’ve kind of written one of the main books used in colleges that teaches audio engineering and just audio in general. Tell us a little bit about that. We were on our walk together and I remember you telling me how you ended up writing this book that had not been really intended. You didn’t originally intend to write a book.
Bobby: Yeah, what happened was I had no intention of writing anything. But as things happen in life, sometimes there’s something that kicks you in the pants and direction that you don’t expect and maybe sometimes you don’t even take advantage of it but I was on tour bus and I remember the bass player walked on and said, “I just got a job writing for the music paper.”
Music paper was a very famous weekly newspaper just about music, everything about the music business in New York City. And it’s no longer there, unfortunately, but it was a really great piece. And for some reason, I thought, “If you can do that, so can I.”
So, I put out some feelers to magazines, various audio magazines, and I did get an assignment and one article turns into two, which turned into 10, and next thing you know, I was writing for a dozen different music industry magazines – Billboard, Variety, Grammy Magazine, EQ, recording engineer, producer film, this video goes on and on.
So, I was still doing audio engineering, I’m still producing work in this business but what ended up happening was I met a lot of people as I was interviewing them. In the course of my day job in the music industry, I was working on projects and I was a pretty good recording engineer, but I was mediocre at best as a music mixer. And I had someone actually tell me, “I think you’re the worst mixer in the world.”
Kind of in jest, but at the same time, the truth was barely hidden and I realized that was definitely the truth. So then I thought, well, I know all the best people. I know a lot of them, I’ve talked to them all.
I went on a quest, I talked to the 25, 26, 27 of the best recording mixing engineers on the planet. I asked them how they did it and they told me. I learned a lot, I got a lot better. And I thought, “Well, I bet there’s a lot of people like me”, and so I sat down and wrote a book. It was called ‘The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook.’
Everybody said, “No, you can’t write a book on this. It’s too subjective.”
But I thought, “Let’s try it, we’ll see what happens.” So lo and behold, five publishers wanted it when I sent it out and I went with the one who was the most aggressive. It became a hit right away. Since there is no other book like this, it was adapted as a standard in music programs, colleges all over the world and still is today. It came out in 1999.
Jason: And you just barely did a new version of that too, right?
Bobby: The fifth edition just came out a couple of weeks ago. Yeah. So anyway, one book turns into two which turns into 10 which turns into 28 I’ve done, not all in the music business but a lot of books. It’s something that I enjoy, that I wouldn’t have realized was a possibility except for this quirk of fate that happened with the bass player I was playing with.
Jason: Interesting. You don’t realize the path you can end up taking until… Just a good ride as long as you’re willing to kind of follow those and kind of go with the flow, good things happen. Good songs are probably similar to that. You’re into writing music or even like listening to good songs. Luckily, some people are willing to just kind of go in directions that others may not have been willing to do and it turns into some of the best music out there. For sure.
Bobby: Yeah. I think you just have to follow those things. You have to learn to recognize, whenever something like that pops up; being creative or being an opportunity, whatever it is, and then learn to follow it doesn’t always work out but many times it does and in ways that are very rewarding. I’ve had it happen to me multiple times.
Another time that had happened and turned my career in another way is I’ve written a lot of books, but it was like well, if I write another book, I can’t really make that much more money. Not that I’m doing it strictly for the money but you know, you look at that ‘buts’ in the equation. And then I was a guest on another podcast and there was another person that was also a guest. We got to talk about things and he said, “Maybe you should do some courses for us, video courses.” This is for a company called Lynda.com.
Lynda.com was then bought by LinkedIn. So now it’s called LinkedIn Learning. But I did recording and I did mixing and mastering courses, and I did social media for musicians, courses and things like that. It turned into yet another kind of career because now that’s something that I do on my own as well doing online courses and stuff but it wouldn’t have happened except for that again, quirk of fate.
Jason: So, you’ve been around hundreds and hundreds of different musicians over time and studios. And I’m curious, have you seen any similarities and mistakes that musicians sometimes make as they’re trying to do a career in music?
A lot of people I know always focus on what successful people do but are there some similarities and mistakes that maybe they make that you’ve seen over the years?
Bobby: Yeah, there’s 2 that come to mind. The first is not being flexible. I was like this myself, really, my career thinking this is the way it’s done. This is the way I do it. I’m not even going to consider anything else. And that’s a mistake. Obviously, you don’t learn with that kind of attitude. Luckily, I learned that that was not going to be in my best interest. I certainly had that attitude myself. Well, there’s 3 of them.
(09:04)The second would be people who are very talented but not easy to get along with. And talent, regardless of how prodigious it might be, only takes you so far. Then after that, there’s a lot of personalities that really stitch into the equation.
So what I found was if you have two people that are equally talented, the one who always gets the job is going to be the one that’s fun to be around or at least isn’t a hassle to be around. Even if you have somebody who’s a lot more talented but is going to be a pain, they’re not going to get a gig or at least they’re not going to keep it. So, that’s the second thing.
The third thing is, everybody I know in the business that has become successful, (Successful meaning has a pretty good career, maybe not a star level, but certainly a good career.) There’s a certain tenacity that you have to have. Meaning that regardless of what happens, regardless of obstacles that are in front of you, you keep on saying, “I’m in this business, what I’m going to do, I’m not going to change it all.” Maybe you change within the business but you don’t leave it, because if you do, it’s hard to get back in.
Jason: That really is. It’s just kind of working it out, day in and day out. I love it.
One of my favorite things to do is I look back on my experiences with piano lessons. In my Sophomore year, I quit piano lessons and fought my piano teacher and my mom for many years leading up to that.
If there is any advice I can give to these teenage boys especially when I think just boys tend to go to sports and for some reason they don’t think it’s cool or whatever on the piano but if you had any advice for any teenager boy, girl, whatever. And when they’re in their teenage years and they’re thinking, “You know what, I got talent. Maybe I want to do something with music…” If it was your own child, in their teenage years, what advice would you have for them and what would you tell them to work on and study?
Bobby: Well, the first thing is I would tell them to make sure that they do study and they do stay at it and practice because it’s so easy to not to say “Well okay, I got this.” Maybe not have it to the degree that you need it so you can superficially have no techniques, for instance, but yet, you don’t really know if you don’t have a master. And I think that’s a secret. I wish I would have known that. Looking back in my life I would have definitely been a better player had I done that. So that’s a really big thing to me, especially if you’re a kid because it’s easy, especially when you have talent. You go, “Yeah, I can do this!” but maybe not. Maybe not the way you needed.
Jason: I think it’s gonna be easier to find those people that we can look up to and be like, maybe I’m not that good. I coached soccer for more than a dozen years now. And it’s funny when you think you’re really good at soccer and then you go play in a tournament or supplement. You just get clobbered. And all of a sudden, you know you were beaten by everybody in either division, but man, all of a sudden the girls or the boys teams that I’ve had, they come back in with a renewed interest in maybe practicing and working harder so that’s great advice.
Is there a kind of specific thing that you would say foundational things that you feel like somebody in that teenager, like early college needs to have in their toolbox and know well?
Bobby: One of the biggest things is to be flexible and to understand that there’s a lot more to the world than probably your world vision – to be open to it. It’s really easy when you’re a kid and even beyond that to get stuck in. This is what I like. This isn’t the only thing that counts. This is what I do. But yet there’s a bigger world out there. And it will really help you if you open up to it.
Jason: So growing up, I always was under the impression that (I don’t know what it was just the culture or what I’d heard), I always heard that, you know, it’s really hard to make a living as a musician, or a teacher. As I look back on trying to decide on a career path, I intentionally did not choose music because I was told that you couldn’t make a living out of it. As we’ve evolved with the way everything’s changed, with the internet, do you now feel like that’s something that still exists today in the culture? Or is it really possible to make a living in music in some way?
Bobby: Well, it is. The way to do it has changed. When I came up in kind of a golden age, or drinking age, in most states that changed from 21 to 18. As a result, there were all these bars that opened up and they all did entertainment. So as a result there were so many gigs that you literally could play every night if you wanted to. You weren’t paying to play, they’re paying. So as I said, I was doing pretty well when I was in high school and then even in college, I was out touring and paying people to take tests for me. So again, my experience is different from what happens now. That being said, the opportunities to become a musician and make some money are greater today.
You can do so much online. So much easier because you don’t need a band. You do it yourself. There’s a certain element of luck and a certain element of business acumen that’s required for this. Many artists, musician’s, they just want to do what they do, and they don’t want to learn the other part of it. I completely understand. There’s nothing bad about that. It’s just that people tend to do better and make a living doing this, they’re the ones that do have some business acumen and they’re the ones who practice that oftens.
The tools are easy to get today. If you want to learn something, it’s out there. You can do it, you can learn it, but it is easier in a lot of ways. I just saw something from Spotify, like the yearly state of the platform they put up and I forget the number, exactly, but it was something like there were 56,000 artists on the platform that were making $100,000 or more a year. 56,000. There were 116,000 that were making (it was more than that) but they were making 50,000 and there was something like 400,000 making 10,000 from Spotify.
So what that means is there’s a lot of people out there making money. Now that’s 1 platform and there are 33 others. So if you’re making some money here, you probably make money in other places as well. That means that there’s a class of musicians, a class of artists making money without having a gig. They’re just doing it online. So, yeah, that’s possible.
Jason: You look, you talked about business acumen. If you were to pick one business book that you would say has made the biggest difference on your music career, what would that be?
Bobby: The Donald Passman book. I think it’s everything you need to know about the music business. That must be in like the 8th Edition now. Donald Passman is one of the top music attorneys and he lays everything out in a very, very attainable way. Let’s face it. When an attorney talks to you sometimes, it’s way over your head. But this guy lays it out so it’s easy to grasp. That’s what I still recommend.
Jason: Very cool. Last question for you. So if you were to define success for you, what does it mean to you to be successful and have a successful career in the music business? Even for you personally, what would you define as looking back at the end of your life saying okay, that was success because of? What would that be?
Bobby: Well, I think there’s two answers to that question. First is, today, making a living is the new success. So it’s not necessarily being a star, it’s being able to make a living at something that you love. I’ve been lucky because I’ve been able to do that and having some sort of ATD where it’s hard to keep my intention in one place and I’ve been able to do it in multiple places, just like you were in multiple businesses and so do I. It’s nice to have your attention. Once you get bored in one place, you can go some place else and exercise your muscles, learn something new. And that’s the thing that keeps us all going to some degree, learning something new all the time because it’s no fun if you don’t.
Jason: Absolutely. That’s great advice. I am excited to be getting a copy of your new 5th Edition. I’ll just post the link in the show notes but definitely go check it out.
One last thing, you have multiple things where you put all kinds of resources and free subscription types of resources for anybody who wants to learn audio engineering right? I guess getting on to that audio engineering world, where should they go to find a little bit more information about these resources?
Bobby: Well, my website is bobbyowsinski.com and it will point you to lots of free resources – to my blogs, podcasts, courses. It’s all there.
Jason: Thank you so much, Bobby and I appreciate it. Thanks for your time. Looking forward to seeing you in our next mastermind call.
Hey, it is Jason here and I hope you have gotten a lot of value out of this episode. Be sure to check out our show notes to learn more about our guest for today and if you’d like to support our podcast, there’s a few things that you could do to help us grow.
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Finding success and fulfillment in the music industry is possible. Looking forward to seeing you in our next episode.
Additional lyrics were added by David Warner, long-time collaborator of Mack Wilberg, for this song.
The lyrics used by the choir, sung to Danny Boy are:
I would be true, for there are those who trust me; I would be pure, for there are those who care; I would be strong, for there is much to suffer; I would be brave, for there is much to dare. I would be friend of all, the foe, the friendless; I would be giving and forget the gift; I would be humble, for I know my weakness; I would look up and laugh and love and lift.
I would be meek in bearing other’s burdens; I would be soft toward sorrows not my own; I would be swift to love and serve my neighbor; I would be kind, for many weep alone. I would be prayerful through each busy moment; I would be constant in my touch with God; I would be tuned to hear His slightest whisper, I would have faith to keep the path Christ trod.
How to Connect with the Featured Guest:
Bobby Owsinski is an audio engineer, producer, musician, and author. He produces and mixes records, has written dozens of books, many of which are used in hundreds of universities, has hundreds of blog posts, and creates podcasts and online courses. He’s made an enormous impact on the music industry and become a mentor and coach to countless musicians.
In this episode, Bobby will give us a glimpse on how he started in the music industry and his experiences on how he started writing books. We also talked about his definition of success and his advice to everyone especially teenagers who might not think they can make it in the music industry.
Connect with Bobby
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