Successful Musicians Podcast Episode 8 Part 1
Interviewee: Michael Walker
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: Hey, I’m so excited to share today’s guest with us, Michael Walker. We’re gonna do this in a two-part series. Mike and I talked for quite a while and it was such good information so we’ll just carve this out into 2 sections.
In this first section, Michael’s gonna share how he got started in the music business and kind of grew into his coaching business that he has, the Modern Musician and that journey. There’s really some great value bombs in there that people find helpful so can’t wait to share this one with you. Will Jump into the podcast now, with Michael.
Michael, welcome to the podcast. We’re so excited to have you. Just do a quick introduction for people who may not know him. He is not only a friend but an incredible person that has done so much for the music industry. He started Modern Musician and he’s literally coached, we’re talking thousands and thousands of people. You’ve given so much to so many people to help them to understand how to be an independent musician. You’ve got your Gold Artist Academy™, you’ve got Mastermind Trips. We’ve been to Costa Rica together on a music mastermind trip. He is a musician. You’ve hit the million mark on some of your videos. The guy knows what he’s talking about. I guess that’s what I’m trying to share with you before an introduction…Help me fill in the tank.
Michael: 24 million streams to be exact. [laughing]
Jason: So, Michael, share a little bit about your background. How did you get started in music? Were you the kid that had a mean mom like I was that made you practice piano? Where did you get started and share your journey of how you got to where you’re at today and share a little bit about that.
Michael: It’s funny, I think we had a similar upbringing as it relates to piano lessons. I started playing when I was about 5 years old and definitely didn’t enjoy playing piano back then like any 5 or 6-year-old. I’ve never seen a six-year-old who’s like “I love playing piano!” and being disciplined and sitting down at one place at a time. But my parents bribed me with video games when I was growing up but that was how they got me to to stick with it and oh my gosh, I’m so grateful for it for that because now, looking back on my life, I can see that that one decision was really what led to me to the greatest blessing in my life, like my wife and my kids and my business and my best friends all came from knowing how to play piano and go on tour and and kind of share that gift so I’m super grateful for that. Although at the time, you know six years old, I certainly wouldn’t have appreciated that.
Jason: Was there a time, as you were growing up, was it like your teenage years where you all of a sudden we’re like “Maybe this is fun”. How did that happen?
Michael: Yeah, I think that was right around the time when I was in high school and realized. So, I was a pretty socially awkward kid in high school. I was very, very shy, really kind of kept myself very quiet and sometimes felt like I don’t know like a loner or a loser, like I didn’t really fit in and when I was in high school I realized that playing piano and playing guitar and performing was one of the, I mean I wasn’t good at sports really, I wasn’t very charismatic or outspoken so I didn’t have a whole lot going for me but music was something that when I played music and I performed, then there’s a bunch of you know a bunch of friends and a bunch of girls that would come up and would pay attention to me in a way that I wasn’t really used to and so I think that was probably around high school when I realized that playing music was something special and it was a way that I could express myself in especially when I didn’t have a whole lot of other tools that I knew how to do that.
Jason: When you say that girls would all of a sudden pay attention to you, I remember sitting on the piano, fighting with my mom. I was probably in like 4th grade and we had somebody that was staying at the house and he came up and he says, “Jason, you will find out that girls love guys who play piano and and I remember as like a 3rd or 4th grade, I’m like, “Oh you know what, that’s totally true.”
Michael: People tell you that for a long time. For most of that time you’re like, “I don’t care about that” until you do.
Jason:… and then all of a sudden high school hits you like, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, now I’m cooler than the football players.” So you ended up playing piano and then I mean, what was that journey? I know you ended up having a band I know and you toured and did you know quite well with that so give us a little background there.
Michael: Yeah, so in high school um started performing kind of local open mic nights with a few classmates and started a bit of an unofficial band with a few. I grew up in Vermillion, South Dakota, so a very small town probably like 2 or 3 thousand people year round and we had started this band and in junior and senior year of high school, we started practicing every day and we started competing and local battle of the bands and things started to… I mean we’re in Vermillion, South Dakota so it’s not like the competition was super fierce but we won a few local Battle of the Bands we went to Battle of the Bands in Minneapolis called Rockzilla where there’s like a few hundred people or a few hundred bands that competed for. And so when it came time to graduate High School, we all had different career paths that we had sort of outlined for us. For me, I was planning on going to medical school and becoming a dentist mostly because I had done research and I spent like pretty good hours and pretty good pace like that seemed like a decent living and in retrospect, I’m like what was I thinking, like for me personally like working on teeth is not something that was really in my
DNA or really like my dream life but… but that was the plan and then nothing against dentists, you know I think the dentists are amazing like I’m very grateful for my local dentist. It’s an amazing service but…
So, in high school when we were getting ready to graduate we had a decision to make where either like, three of us had full-ride scholarships and we’re planning on going to College or we could take a year off and pursue the band and give it a shot and I remember a kind of a turning point. You know it’s rare that you have one of those moments or those experiences where you can look at it and think “this is where my road forked into two and my life would be completely different, if it wasn’t for this one single conversation” and I think back to when like the day that I met my wife it was one of those big ones but another big one was this fork in the road where we had a conversation with one of our first producers, this guy named Jordan Schmidt and he was the first producer that we worked with that. Yeah, I think for a lot of musicians, here’s a learning lesson and it’s something that we certainly didn’t appreciate until we had this experience, was how huge of an impact working with the right producer can make on the quality of your music.
There is like a point before we had that experience where I think we just thought you’re either super talented and your music sounds great or like you’re not talented your music doesn’t sound good and we had no understanding that like of how big of an impact the production makes on the overall outcome on the product of your music and there’s probably artists, if you’re a musician listening to this right now, there’s probably artists who are much less talented than you, who are super successful, have amazing music and it’s not necessarily because they’re more talented than you but it’s because they’re working with the right producer. For us that first experience was with Jordan Schmidt who was up and coming at the time and now you know we got lucky to meet him when we did and now he’s like a multi-platinum award-winning songwriter and producer but we had a conversation with him where we were telling him our plans with the band that we were thinking about going to college and rehearsing at the same time and doing the band at the same time and he stopped, he pressed pause and he’s like and he stopped, he said, “Look, this is a really important decision that you guys are about to make and it’s really kind of up to you based on your goals but you should know that if your number one goal is to be successful with the band, that’s not going to happen if you go to college. The bands that are successful are the ones who have no plan B and they go all in and so if you do that just know that you’re not going to be successful with the band if that’s your number one goal.
Because of that conversation you know we looked at our options and realized that we could defer our scholarships for a year and have a full year to pursue the band full time and give it our all and leave it all on the table and after the year we could decide if we want to go to college and transition and so that year was when we really went all in and we worked our butts off and yeah we basically crawled over broken glass to figure out some of the things that don’t work and to figure out a few things that did work. But one of the first lessons that we learned was we worked really hard to book our first tour and I remember back in the day we were on Myspace, reaching out to a bunch of bands locally and judging
Jason: You’re gonna date us Michael if you start talking about Myspace [laughing]
Michael: Right? This was like 2010. This was over 10 years ago and so I remember being so proud because we booked our first tour and we learned really quickly that it’s not enough to just book the shows, you actually have to figure out how to get people to come out to the shows. So, I remember our first tour, we were playing shows like nobody, just the bartender in the back of the room. In some cases, we had to lug our gear up like three flights of stairs to play a show to an empty room, to nobody.
At the time, we were sleeping in our van, you know eating peanut butter tortillas for breakfast, lunch and dinner just to save as much money as possible and you know my parents are kind of like “How are things going?”
“It’s awesome, it’s great!”
But you know, clearly like it was not. We were like the definition of starving artists and I would say, probably if I had to rank the biggest lessons learned or like most important transformations or turning points in my life, this would probably be in the top 3 for sure was this idea that our lead center came up with, which now we’ve come to call tour hacking and this one idea took us from that place where we were living in our van, sleeping in Walmart parking lots, eating peanut butter tortillas to selling 24, 000 CD’s in about six months and because of that we got an opportunity to open for one of our favorite bands growing up which was called All-Time Low. They had millions of fans and so we went basically from sleeping in our vans to touring with an artist that had millions of fans and playing shows for thousands of people a night in the course of six months and that idea in a nutshell was… I think our singer got this idea from some bands at Warped Tour.
Warped Tour was a festival where there’s a ton of pop-punk, pop-rock, and emo scene bands who were playing this festival. In between the shows, some bands would walk around and meet people and have headphones or they’d share their songs and if they liked it, they would offer a CD and we thought you know what if we’d take that idea but we’d do it on the road because it didn’t seem like the people were doing that at the festival but no one had really done that just at a normal tour.
Our favorite bands, when they went on tour, like All-Time Low, Mayday Parade, Blink 182, they had millions of fans and before their shows, they’d have thousands of people waiting out front, on the side of the street, sometimes for like 12 hours in advance, just sitting there on a blanket and waiting to get a good seat in line for a show. And so we thought you know what if we walk up to those people and introduce ourselves and share some of our music and just build a relationship, connect with as many people as possible and if they liked it, we had a backpack full of CD’s and we would offer a CD and I was a super shy, awkward kid so that didn’t come naturally at all.
I remember shaking and stuttering as I walked up to people but what we found was that strategy worked incredibly well and between the 6 of us, we sold 24,000 CD’s in about 6 months and because of that, one of the bands that we were tour hacking on, All-Time Low, heard about what we were doing and yeah, we weren’t trying to keep it a secret, like every single band that we hopped around, probably 12 different tours and every time we would give someone a CD in line and ask if they could give it to the to the headliner and we would stay after the show and try to meet them as much as possible and we actually were able to connect with some like truly amazing musicians just by hustling our butts off and trying to connect with them and in being there at every show but one of them was All-Time Low and they gave us opportunity to open for them on their next tour.
… and you can bet that when that happened, I mean first of all, when we first learned that, I remember jumping up and down like a little girl and it was like that scene from that movie, that thing you do, you know when they first hear themselves on the radio and they all start flipping out and jumping around it’s just like amazing excitement. That was that experience. I’ll never forget the moment that we learned that we were going to be able to tour with them.
Jason: You have that happy-cry moment. It’s like, “oh my gosh I just did it!” It’s hard to describe unless you’ve had it and it’s not very many times you get that in your life. I don’t think so either.
Michael: Absolutely, it was a dream come true. It was surreal like that’s the best way I could do, it was surreal and I remember being backstage with them, seeing them for the first time and this was like our first experience meeting our idols or like being able to, you know, share the stage with them so it didn’t seem real at first. It was just amazing and they were super good, like they’re some of the best, best guys too. They like brought us under their wing and they were just really, really cool guys and that opportunity led to you know kind of like a snowball where we got to meet a lot of our favorite bands that we really look up to and tour with them. In some cases, they ended up even opening for us which is really humbling.
We toured for about 10 years, full-time. In that time, we released an album that hit number 2 on iTunes as an alternative rock album. We got about 24 million streams on Spotify and we toured around the world, you know, playing music full-time, independently without a record label, which was kind of a new thing. I mean all those bands that we were touring with for the most part, they had a record label and they had an established manager but we did it independently. We didn’t have a manager or a record label. We were just 6 friends from Vermillion, South Dakota who are stumbling their way through this world and figuring out how to market ourselves right and so that was my life for about 10 years.
I’ll say to you, about tour hacking, like the reason I think that that was one of those pivotal moments was because before tour hacking, I was a super shy, awkward kid, didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin and walking up to those strangers, waiting lines for shows, meeting thousands of people face to face, interacting with them, I think really helped to overcome the fear of rejection and sort of understand that…I don’t know, there’s something weird biologically when you’re getting ready to walk up to people, like strangers. It’s so terrifying, like this is gripping fear, it’s kind of like public speaking. It’s not really logical, right?
It’s not logical to be that terrified but apparently it was because we evolved in tribes and so if you got rejected then you might get ostracized and die and so that’s why we’re afraid of it apparently.
Jason: As I think about a lot of people, the whole idea you may have been told “Hey, you can’t make money with your music” and I think a lot of people just protect themselves, discourage people from doing anything that’s scary or out of their comfort zone and I think you find a lot of family members who are very well-intentioned sometimes discourage us from doing the thing that they were scared of and and I think a lot of times that creates, I’ve heard people call it imposter syndrome where you feel like, “I’m not worthy” or I’m not gonna be able to do this even though you feel like you’re probably drawn to do that but it’s a scary imposter syndrome that you got to somehow. It’s probably not just with musicians, I think it’s almost everything in life no matter what career path we go down.
Michael: 100%! I think, especially early on, very few people have had the experience of connecting with like an artist before they were successful and then when they became successful and so it almost seems like it’s out of reach or it’s impossible because they’ve just never really like seen it happen and it is similar to the way that we discovered how big of an impact a producer makes on the music. I think most people, they don’t think about that, they just hear an amazing song and they think “Wow, this is a really talented artist” or if they hear, even if it’s a super talented artist, if it’s like a horrible production amateur quality then it’s not it’s going to sound awful and it’s so easy just to think that it’s you know it’s the artist or it’s the talent that that’s not good enough when really it’s just that one, it was having the right product.
But certainly, when we were starting out, I remember we got called the Paradise Fears in high school. That was an insult back then but it was really validating. I think to be able to eventually reach a level of success that you know, I felt really, really proud.
I remember coming home and playing in my hometown show and all of those people in high school who had made fun of us and all of our family members came out and people fly in from like all over the country to come to this hometown show in Vermilion, South Dakota and we played this amazing show and I remember my sisters like walking up afterwards and you know and you’re like signing autographs and taking pictures for fans after the show and there’s definitely something special and it’s probably a large part of it is just based in my ego and of wanting to feel special but it certainly felt very validating, very fulfilling to go from that initial point where we were made fun of to a point that we were able to accomplish something that we had always dreamed of.
Jason: One of my takeaways that I’m hearing and I hear from a lot of artists is believing in yourself and having that confidence that you are good enough and that you’re capable…
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.
First, if you hit SUBSCRIBE, it will help ensure that you do not miss future episodes. Second, if you SHARE this with your friends on social media, send it via email or messages, help us spread the word as well. Third, if you leave an honest review, it really helps with the algorithm so that other people can find our podcast.
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 Michael Walker, founder of Modern Musician, a successful and highly renowned musician and entrepreneur. He is a husband, father and keyboardist for the band Paradise Fears, who made headlines years ago for a technique he started called “tour hacking.”
He spent around 10 years touring full time and during those years, their band released an album that hit number 2 on iTunes as an Alternative Rock Album. They got about 24 million streams on Spotify and toured around the world, playing music full-time, independently without a record label. He also coached thousands of independent musicians and paved the way for them to be successful musicians.
What You’ll Learn
In this episode, Michael recounts how he was transformed from a socially awkward kid in High School to signing autographs and taking pictures for fans, and overcoming the fear of rejection.
He also shares how they deferred their full-ride scholarships to college to focus on their music and realizing how huge of an impact working with the right producer can make on the quality of your music. He believes that even if it’s a super talented artist, but a horrible production of amateur quality then it’s not it’s going to sound awful.
He also highlights his “tour hacking” technique and how connecting with real people, and having core relationships with them, helps you build a solid fanbase.
Things We Discussed
Modern Musician – a team made up of highly-talented musicians who understand what it takes to be an independent artist in today’s industry.
tour hacking – a marketing technique where they walk up to people and introduce themselves, share some of their music and just build a relationship, connect with as many people as possible and if they liked it, they would offer a CD
Warped Tour – a festival where there’s a ton of pop-punk, pop-rock, kind of emo scene bands who were playing
Connect with Michael Walker
Connect with Jason