Successful Musicians Podcast Episode 7
Interviewee: Doug Hammer
Interviewer: Jason Tonioli
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 us today. This is Jason Tonioli on the Successful Musicians Podcast. I have a special guest, Doug Hammer, a friend of mine that I’ve met at a couple of events and a super talented pianist and producer and all the other titles maybe Doug that you have, you could fill me in but tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you end up in the music a little bit?
Doug: Well, Jason, thanks so much for having me on the podcast. First of all, I am happy to join you today. I would say I was attracted to music right from the very beginning. My dad used to have this huge record collection like a wall full of records and I would just put my nose right up to that when I was like a toddler. I would pull records out and make sure like “You don’t bend them.”
And he played different kinds of music. I grew up with a lot of classic, country and western and Broadway, Benny Goodman and big band, swing and all sorts of things like that. So by the time I grew up with a small spinet piano in our living room, a Wurlitzer. I believe that they used to make pianos besides organs.
Doug: … and when I was six, I started on piano lessons. Over the years, I shifted to classical for a while then I had a hard time with classical because it’s so much of it – its technique and sometimes technique a certain way, but I love that music and I was too much of an improviser and arranger. I wanted to mess with the notes and that was a big no-no. You can mess with the phrasing and the dynamics, but you can’t mess with the notes.
When I was doing more popping contemporary. I don’t need a hit song on the radio, and then I get the sheet music for it and then realize, “Wait a minute, this isn’t how the song goes. This is a real simplified version of it.”
And then I would listen more to the song on the radio and figure out a more authentic version of it on piano rather than the sheet music, that type of stuff. And then over time, I went back to classical because I just loved it. Especially Claude Debussy, and I love Bach and Handel, Haydn, and Chopin.
I went to music school in Boston here. I grew up in the Midwest, Chicago area, but went out to Boston, to Berklee College of Music, and that’s where, again, I’m more pop based than anything else but obviously, Berklee is known for their jazz and that was a great introduction and just immersion in everything jazz, as well as other musical styles, of course. So I learned a lot about jazz harmony and voicings.
When I was going to school, I got a lot of gigs playing in hotels and restaurants, and various places as a pianist as a piano player, piano bars, that kind of thing. And I would have these big books called fake books, which would have over 1000 songs and it literally just has the melody and the chords. That’s it, nothing else and so you have to just kind of improvise on that.
So all these things really just rounded out my musical education. And I’ve always loved a wide variety of music but my core has always been piano and more in the pop new-age realm.
And so over time, I built a recording studio, more of a project based recording studio and what that means is rather than a commercial studio where you just rent out time to anybody, this was in my home and it was more an extension of what I could offer as a producer and engineer, sound engineer and arranger, orchestrator all of these various hats. So, I built up seeing lots of local artists, some non – local artists in New England and across the country. And then over time, frankly, I put my own music on the back burner for quite a long time as I was building up a studio, and then realized, you know, “I gotta start putting my own stuff out.”
So my first album was ‘Solace’ 2007, which ended up being probably at this point my biggest release, and just built it up from there. So I feel like an explorer, there’s lots of different things that I’ve done with my music so far and then there are things that are in the works. 05:38 It may sound like a cliché, but you know, music isn’t what I do. It’s who I am. Really, there’s really no separation. It’s not a hobby. It’s not a profession. It’s just who I am and it’s been there literally from the beginning.
The only other thing, especially in college, I was always a huge fan of science. I thought well, you know, this music thing doesn’t pan out, I could go into science and maybe work. I was smart enough to do it like JPL. My dad worked on the Mars robotic missions that are the stuff I love, space exploration. All these emerging new technologies, some may seem scary but are pretty amazing.
Music is just like I said, in my bones, who I am and really couldn’t see going into science.
Jason: So, you’ve done music for your career from day one and then you’re out of school. So you’ve never really had a corporate job or anything else other than that.
Doug: Oh, well, when I was in Berklee, in High School, I did just a whole bunch of different jobs. I was a horticulturist for a while. Just all sorts of different things. But that was just to kind of keep paying the rent. Until, you know, I was doing more music-based stuff.
Jason: That’s amazing. As you look back, you mentioned that fake books were kind of one of those things that really helped you. Would you say that playing out of a fake book, was that kind of a tipping point where you really opened up your eyes and you felt like you learned a lot about composing and improvising? Where do you feel like you really kind of grew and progressed as an artist and a musician the most?
Doug: I would say, that’s a part of it — playing in piano bars. Sometimes you’re just kind of in a dark corner, playing away for hours. It depends. I am still fine being background music. It was a great way, like I said, to just introduce myself to all of these songs, all of these standards, all the show tunes and all the jazz tunes, and I would just learn a lot about arranging action. I used to play downtown Boston at a place called Quincy Market next to Faneuil Hall, and I would play the same Christmas songs over and over and over again.
And instead of being bored out of my mind, I would work on arranging these Christmas songs in different ways. Sometimes it would be reggae, sometimes it would be like a stride, Chaplin kind of thing. Sometimes it would be Latin. Sometimes it will be a swingy jazz thing. Little did I know that years later, a lot of those arrangements would end up on my first Christmas album called ‘Noel’. Then my second Christmas album, same thing. It was all just because I didn’t want to be bored playing the same Christmas songs over and over. Oh my gosh! Yeah.
So it’s just interesting looking back at how that all happened. But I’ve always loved ranging and that’s why I’ve loved working with different artists, on their music, whether they wrote it, or someone else wrote it. What can we do with the song? What can we do differently with it?
Jason: Take it to another level and find the same thing I know I’ve gone to the recording studio and we’ll, I’ll go with the music that I’ve written and then we’ll record that in but I found that when you really start being critical about the notes and you just take them one at a time, and even when I’m writing the music, a lot of times I’ll do one note at a time, sometimes even though there are programs like you just play it in and spit out. So I feel like sometimes when the thought goes into the arrangement or the song, it always comes out better, taking the time to give it that attention that it deserves. It’s interesting how that works.
What a cool thing to get paid and to go play and practice piano for a couple of hours a day.
Doug: [laughing] Exactly!!
Jason: When you worked with a lot of musicians over the years, as you’ve worked with them, everybody kind of has different goals as they come into the studio and work with you, I’m sure you know. Ideas of what is success. What’s the thing that’s gonna be like, “Yes, I’ve accomplished this thing and been successful.” In your opinion, and when somebody here is a successful musician, what does that mean to you?
Doug: Yeah, well, it doesn’t mean that… especially in this country, a lot of times success is obviously based on numbers, that type of thing. It’s a little different in Europe, I think where there can be more money available for artists. In this country, it’s more kind of make it or break on your own kind of thing, which I’m not knocking at all. I’m just talking about the differences of what success is.
Over the years, I’ve gotten amazing emails from people or they’ve contacted me in other ways of how my music has helped them in their lives in some way. Sometimes, in a very dramatic way. You just can’t beat that. For me, that’s one part of success. If you’re able to not only move someone or touch their heart and soul through music, but even more than that, they’re going through an extremely trying time., and your music is like a source of comfort and solace to them, I think it just doesn’t get any better than that.
It’s like your numbers could be whatever but then you don’t get this feedback from people of how sometimes they change their lives in a way and you can’t put a price on that. I know it can be very harmful for any artist, musician or painter or whatever. It is so easy to compare and it’s even easier now to compare because everyone’s statistics and plays and all of our metrics are just available for people to look up online and oh I have this many listeners this month and so forth. It’s like always in your face, especially with social media. It’s like, it can be I think very damaging to just get too far deep with that kind of stuff. And it’s an amazing time I think because there’s been a great equalizer and whether you’re staying or Bruce Springsteen, or you Jason or me, we’re all using the same tools, we are all using the same platforms.
Now sure, the big established heavy-hitting artists can have the muscle of a big record company behind them and that promotion vehicle obviously but regardless we’re all using the same tools, and something could break out on Tiktok, something could break out on YouTube and it’s like you just don’t know. What it seems to me is the most important thing and I tell everyone I worked with because sometimes while I’m working with an artist here in the studio, they’ll be like, “Oh, but nothing will ever happen with this.” They’re already in a self-defeat mode. And I’m like, “No, hold on. What are you talking about?”
Like you know, when I tell him, You have no clue. When you put this out what could happen with it? You’re literally clueless. You have no idea at all what can happen with it because you could put it out and three years goes by and not much happens with it. Then all of a sudden, someone on A&R, someone working on the next big Netflix hit series hears it and they go, “This is perfect for end credits or this is perfect for the season” and next thing you know, it’s fire rockets to number one or Tik Tok or anything? You don’t know. So in that way, I think that’s awesome. It’s great that we have this platform. You don’t need a major label, necessarily. Now, again, that marketing muscle of course will be an attractive thing, you know.
So there’s pros and cons to everything obviously.
Jason: I think one of the things I’ve realized as an entrepreneur but also as a musician is nobody’s going to care about your thing as much as you do. And as much as we want them to spend time giving attention or marketing, if you just leave it up to other people it’s not likely to happen at a level that you can do yourself if you’d really put your energy behind it
Doug: Exactly!! You know, I think as artists we have to like to create art for ourselves. We have to do something that we enjoy, that we love, that like rocks our socks off and if we love it, chances are, someone else will too.
I think trying to second guess what people want is futile. It’s like a dog chasing its tail. Who knows that there’ll be various trends that are happening in various genres and you can hop on that trend and something could happen and maybe something doesn’t happen. Maybe if you focus more on just doing your own thing, as weird as it is or different or not different, that could be a better thing as an artist.
Jason: As I talked to a lot of people, it’s just being true to yourself and who you are is one of the recurring themes that comes up over and over again. And those people who really found joy and success in what they’re doing when they try to be somebody they’re not, they might be able to play a song and sound like that person or whatever the thing is, but if it’s not you, it’s not you. It’s just interesting to see how I think music at an emotional level comes out if you’re into it or not into it. You can kind of feel it when a performer’s there or not there. Interesting, great thoughts.
I’m curious. You’ve worked with a lot of artists, so, if you were talking to a young artist that was debating, “Man, do I want to get into music or it’s just so hard to make a living as a musician? I know I hear that a lot when you’re younger and I’m sure you probably even when you were growing up, I tell people I’m going to go on to be a musician you probably have more than you snickers or smiles. What advice would you have for that younger student that’s right in that kind of deciding phase, would you tell them to do it if they really were serious about wanting to be a music person or not?
Doug: If it’s really your passion, you really have to give it a go and give it a go 1,000% not 99% – a 1,000% and have little or no expectation. That can be a problem if you have high expectations and you put your artistic masterpiece out there and nothing happens. What are you going to do now? Lather, rinse, repeat, you can do it. Just do that over and over again. And the answer to that is yes. That kind of just keeps doing it. Explore various new technologies and avenues to get your stuff out there. It takes challenge and perseverance, both, but it’s worth it.
And I think it rarely happens overnight. I think even so-called overnight successes are not overnight. They appear to happen quickly but they don’t. At times it’s just pounding pavement and it really just kind of grinds away for years. But like I said, I think this is such a great time, even with how some streaming companies really have very, very low payouts for musicians but that is being done through various entities to make that a better situation for us. Over time, I think laws will change and that will improve but never has there been a time where literally, a kid could buy a laptop and in their bedroom, like make a hit song. And it’s really doesn’t matter if it’s a piano or a laptop or a bunch of plugins or an accordion or kazoo or you go into a canyon and you’re like chanting and a cave and you’re recording it on your phone or something and then you’re using part of that as a sample and doing this and doing that. None of that stuff really matters. It’s the intent behind what you’re doing and what you’re communicating as an artist and that expression that transcends any technological barriers.
We’ve seen time and time again, things that were initially demos recorded on cassette tapes, (showing my age a little bit) they were recorded on cassette tapes, and then you know, they go to the studio and they try to recapture the demo and then they can’t. They’re like “You know what, let’s just release some of the stuff, the original demos that we recorded on the cassette tapes”, and they tried to clean that up and get that out because the emotion and the feel was there.
So I would say you know, again to that young artists just don’t give up. We live in amazing times actually. There were these barriers before. You need a major label record deal. You needed someone to go to all these radio stations and say play this. Alright, let’s play that. And now that’s all removed.
Jason: Oftentimes, you can be more effective than the label, if you have a really specific strategy and things you’re trying to deal with with your music. And then a lot of times labels don’t even want to talk to you unless you’ve achieved success with your numbers.
Doug: If you already see that success, it’s kind of like why do they need the label?
Doug: Who needs who? or whom?
Jason: Unless you’re wanting to really go on tour, or another thing, every label is different. But I’m not sure sometimes that it’s an advantage. I think there’s definitely gonna be some hybrid or some hybrid models that are gonna evolve over the coming years that will make sense whether it’s helping to pay for some of the production costs or things like that. I mean, there’s a lot that you can build into a contract. I think the old school, labor loans, everything is nearly dead. Thank goodness!
Doug: 360 deals.
Jason: Those were a good deal for us, right?
Jason: Awesome. Well, I’m just curious, if somebody were to come into your studio, and come work with you. I’m just curious about what the process would tend to be? What have you found works really well?
Let’s talk about like a piano person coming in to do a project with you, what’s kind of that process that they would need to know in order to be more efficient, make it really go well when they go into a studio for the first time>
Doug: Obviously, one needs to be prepared, but I believe not over-prepared. You have to allow some wiggle room and allow some room for spontaneity for one thing. Obviously, when I’m just working on my music, I don’t have to pay myself for the studio time. So I do understand the whole time thing, but I’ve just developed a way of saying that this is very real and authentic here – just being very chill and relaxed with people. I want them to be as comfortable as possible, because I want to get the best ticks out of them. And one needs to be as relaxed and comfortable in order to do that. So on one hand, I’m very relaxed. On the other hand, I’m working very efficiently with all of the equipment behind the scenes, making notes as we’re doing takes, as we’re recording things.
I think we have to be careful of what’s called analysis paralysis. What can happen is someone does a take and then I’ll say that was a great take except for this, this, that and this and then they go to do the second take, this could be a singer, a pianist, anyone. And now they’re focused on technically fixing this, this, that and this and so a lot of times, most of the time actually, I’m more like, “Awesome, that was a great first take, let’s do like one or two more. Let’s not listen. Yeah, let’s just get a few more down and then go from there.”
Another thing is just kind of after a take, completely breaking the flow and talking about something else that has nothing to do with music for a few minutes, not for an hour, not for 10 minutes, just something that’s completely unrelated and then that can enable them to kind of hit the next date very fresh. They’re not always that hung up with all of this stuff in their mind. I found it in my own stock to have done all this recording, you know, on my own, I notice this as well.
And so I noticed that if it’s not happening after a while I’m getting diminishing returns. I’ll stop, I’ll go for a walk. We have a pond in our backyard. I’ll go out and feed the ducklings, like I’m doing right now. Well, not the second but they’re back there., they’re waiting for their corn. Do something completely different and then come back to it fresh.
I call that peripheral thinking where it’s like a peripheral vision out of the sides that you just see like a little bit. And just this is more to access, any kind of creativity really, not just about recording, it’d be about composing, about arranging. A lot of times I find I come up with great ideas in the studio, not at the piano, I could be washing the dishes or in the shower this or that or just going for a walk in the woods. Some will come up in Oh, let me put that into my phone or something.
It’s like, a relaxed mind is a creative mind. Basically, kind of getting into a more relaxed Zen state. So peripheral thinking, trying to get into that what I call ITZ (in the zone) and I spent a lot of time in the studio with a lot of people and based on my experience of that, as well as just my own stuff, I found this to really bear true that you have to, just really be totally relaxed.
You know, it’s funny I remember working with a jazz-sax player, overdubbing on a project, then he would be what we call noodling. I just played the track and got used to the sound and kind of like soundcheck and I would be recording and then you’d be like Okay, I’m ready to record. And then we would do takes – two or three and four sometimes. Usually, that first noodling take was the take. It’s like he didn’t know that I was recording. It’s gotten to the point where my software program is always recording even if I don’t hit record, like I could just play and I have a record enabled track and then at the end, if there’s a thing that’s I can go in command and all sudden, it just pops up, it was recording the whole time.
So in a nutshell, this is just a long-winded way of saying just being relaxed is really, really important and making sure you’re not too hungry either.
Jason: Those are good words of advice. I wish I would have had those when I was going in the studio for my first couple times because I think you nailed it on the head. So great words of advice.
Is there anything in the last little recent period like tips that you’d have for musicians, that oh man that was a great marketing idea or things I learned in the last little while that might help another musician out?
Doug: Yeah, a lot of times it helps working with what I find with younger clients because I’m working with the singer-songwriter, obviously a different generation and back in the day, as musicians and composers we’re always used to kind of working with various mediums and technologies and so forth. And back in the day, it was about selling sheet music and there would be a music store with sheet music and they would have a piano on the sidewalk with someone playing the tune and have a stack of the sheet music on the piano around a table. People would hear the tune and they’d be like, you know this is back in the day when a lot of people had pianos in their homes.
I want to learn that tune! Here you go!!
What I’m learning about now is that a lot of people are doing YouTube Live. So I’m not even talking about Facebook Live or Instagram. I’m talking about YouTube Live and I’m talking about Twitch Live where there are musicians that are just whether it’s a couple of times a week, two or three times a week. They’re just like sometimes for hours live on Twitch which tend to think more as a gaming medium platform. And musicians really expose what they’re doing on Twitch more than anything else and YouTube Live so it’s always a moving target for one thing.
That’s one thing. I’m kind of exploring some of those options right now.
Jason: Awesome. Well, Doug, thank you so much for your time today. If somebody wanted to go find out more about, check out your music, where should they go to find that?
Doug: Doughammer.net. Everything is there.
Jason: I can vouch for the music that some of the songs you’ve got on there. I was almost late for our podcast call because I was in the middle of listening and just enjoying it.
Doug: Thanks so much, Jason.
Jason: Definitely worth checking out and thanks so much and we will catch you on the next one.
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.
How to Connect with the Featured Guest:
Joining us in our podcast today is multi-award-winning pianist, composer and producer Doug Hammer. He is educated in contemporary, jazz and classical music styles. After graduating from Berklee College of Music in Boston, he opened his own studio and production company called Dreamworld Productions. He has over 14 albums under his belt. Doug tours regularly and has performed in the prestigious Carnegie Hall. Doug’s 14th release, Night, debuted at number 1 for a week on both Amazon Hot New Releases and Best Seller New Age Charts.
What You’ll Learn
In this episode, Doug recounts how fake books rounded out his musical education and eventually led him to build a recording studio. He would tell us how it became a tipping point where he felt he learned a lot about composing and improvising.
He also shares what success means to him and shares how music should be a source of comfort and solace to your listeners.
He also mentioned YouTube Live, Twitch Live, Tiktok, Facebook Live or Instagram and how musicians should explore these platforms.
Things We Discussed
Solace – first album
Noel – Christmas album
ITZ (in the zone) – A relaxed mind is a creative mind.
Connect with Doug Hammer
Connect with Jason