while Danny still clocks his time on the road with bands like Jimmy Eat World and Band Of Horses, his other passion is a craft pasta company that he and his brother started over a year ago.
The label he founded, Kill Rock Stars, has worked with ground-breaking artists such as The Decemberists, Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Unwound, and the late Elliot Smith.
Jeff Brown’sRead To Lead podcast has become one of the top sources for people interested in leadership, personal and professional development, and a way to get a peek inside the minds of some of today’s top business and innovation thinkers. With guests including Seth Godin, Simon Sinek, Gary Vaynerchuk, Chris Brogan and Liz Wiseman, Read To Lead presents world-class guests as they share insight from their work and exploration.
I’ve known Jeff to varying degrees for at least a decade and a half, including his work as a nationally syndicated morning show DJ and music radio programmer. So I was fascinated to learn more about his journey and transition from traditional broadcast media into the brave new world of podcasting. As with so many people who have found success in varying lines of work, there are great lessons to be learned about listening, about taking chances, and of course about the value of consistently executing and staying present.
I hope you’ll enjoy this Q&A, and by all means check out Jeff’s podcast.
Q: You come from a broadcast radio background, where you have to hit posts, watch the clock and generally keep to a tightly run format. Was starting a podcast, with few rules other than what you decide to make them, a difficult transition? What from your broadcast background helped you the most? Were there things you had to forget about or unlearn?
A: I found there were a number of things from my time in radio that were transferable to podcasting. Chief among them was understanding what it means to truly connect with an audience.
You're right in that, technically, there are no "rules" when it comes to podcasting. I liken it though to writing a song. If you desire to make music people actually want to listen to, you'll do well to follow the rules (i.e. key signatures, scales, time signatures, etc.).
Q: You’ve spoken with some amazing leaders, thinkers and influencers. Are there any common themes that you’ve seen come up with the majority? Have you ever had guests whose ideas really conflict with each other’s? Could you share about any of those?
A: One theme I've seen come up multiple times is the idea that most of us believe we're underserving of success or not good enough to expect it in our lives. To that end, writing down goals and then tracking them and measuring your progress is a trait of 85% of wealthy people, according to a recent survey. Virtually every successful person I've interviewed does this.
Regarding the second part of your question: Recently, in back-to-back weeks, I welcomed the author of a book suggesting that traditional jobs are quickly becoming a thing of the past, followed by a guest who has written a book on the importance of hiring the right people.
I'm of the mindset that future generations need to ask "How can I create a job doing that?" instead of "How can I get a job doing that?"
Q: As a relatively new podcast, how were you able to get the guests you did early on? How difficult is it to reach the people you want to have on the show?
A: You'd be surprised what people will say when you give them the chance to talk about themselves.
At the outset, and still today, I leverage relationships built over time. Three of my first four invited guests were individuals I had forged offline & online relationships with. Then, when you come to your interviews well researched and prepared, your guests are much more likely to show a willingness to introduce you to their network.
Q: What lessons have you learned about developing a successful podcast? Are there key things that aspiring podcasters should know as they start? How do those lessons translate to other areas of life or work?
A: One lesson that is often under appreciated or overlooked, is the power of consistency; particularly, excellence with consistency over time. Most podcasts never make it past the first 7 to 10 episodes. Many other podcasts sound as if little if any thought went into them before the decision was made to hit the record button. If you're willing to put a little effort into it, it's probably safe to say you're putting yourself in the top 10%.
I'm also careful to tell people not to let perfection turn them into a procrastinator. Perfection is a moving target you will never hit. However, I believe anything worth doing is worth doing well. And, while excellence won't always guarantee your success, it will always precede it.
Q: How do you put together a show that people care about enough to come back time and again?
A: I believe it's important to articulate why you do what you do at the outset of every show. As Simon Sinek is famous for saying, "People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it."
When articulated emphatically and from a place of relevance to your listener, you, in essence, draw a line in the sand daring your listener to cross it and go on this journey with you.
This communicates to your listener, without apology, who you are and what you stand for. This is the best way I know to keep people coming back again and again.
Q: Do you have a favorite episode thus far? Why is it your favorite?
A: This is like asking if I have a favorite child. :-) Seriously, I'd probably have to say episode #066 with Seth Godin. He's one of my absolute favorite authors and getting him on the show was 16 months in the making.
His book Purple Cow had a huge influence on me and was the first of several books that renewed my love of reading at a time in my life when I hated to read.
Having him on a show where I get to practice my love of reading, something he personally impacted, was a real treat.
Brian Bird is a veteran screenwriter and producer for TV and film, having a 30-year career that spans from hit TV shows like Step By Step and Touched by an Angel, to the feature film Captive, a hostage drama, which opens today, September 18th. We've long been interested in the art and craft of story telling, and how story helps to give context to the human experience. So when we had a chance to connect with someone whose entire career has been about crafting and shaping stories, we jumped at the chance. A little bit about Captive:
Captive stars award-winning actor David Oyelowo (Selma; Interstellar) and Kata Mara (House Of Cards; Fantastic Four), and tells the true story of Brian Nichols (Oyelowo), an Atlanta man who, in 2005, escaped from a prison, killing a judge, a guard and two others. He then held Ashley Smith (Mara), a recovering meth addict and widowed single mother, captive for over seven hours as Atlanta police conducted a massive manhunt for Nichols.
During the course of the captivity Smith shared parts of her life struggle with Nichols. In a twist that sounds like Hollywood but is true, Nichols asked Smith to read to him from the spiritual best-seller, The Purpose Driven Life. Smith credits passages of the book with providing common ground for the two to discuss their struggles and perhaps their opportunities to find a different path.
Nichols finally allowed Smith to go, and was arrested soon after. He is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole. Smith (now Smith-Robinson) has remained clean and sober and works as an imaging technician in a hospital, remarried and is raising her two children.
We're thrilled to be able to share some of Brian Bird's insights into the power of story, collaboration, and just that the title of Producer can mean.
Full disclosure: Dunk Tank Marketing is thrilled to be part of a team that is marketing Captive, and we hope that you'll go see the movie with 10 or 20 of your closest friends.
Q: In the movie Captive, you’ve adapted the true story of Ashley Smith and Brian Nichols for the screen. How do you go about communicating the truth of the story within the context of a structured screenplay? Life generally doesn’t play out with the same arcs of a screenplay, but the format is effective for telling stories. Can you offer some insight into that process?
A: You’re right, life usually does not fall conveniently into a three-act structure necessary for the flow of a movie. And here’s a little secret when you’re making a narrative film: you can’t let the truth get in the way of good story-telling. If you’re making a documentary, it’s different… you just commit to stay with what happened in real life and let the entertainment chips fall where they may. In a narrative film, it’s much trickier because sometimes truth is actually stranger than fiction. The chronology of events and even the actual character quests are sometimes inconvenient to the rhythm and pacing that an audience is accustomed to when they are going to the movies.
In the case of Captive, however, the actual events laid out pretty amazingly in line with a three-act structure. The first act introduced both our protagonist and antagonist, leading up the moment that their lives intersected with Brian Nichols taking Ashley Smith hostage as the first act break. The second act then followed everything that happened to them in that apartment during the next seven hours, along with the escalating manhunt for Nichols, with the second act break coming at the moment Nichols let Ashley go.
The third act was comprised of SWAT teams surrounding the apartment complex when Ashley told them where Nichols was and the big question: will he surrender and do the right thing, or will he come out firing and trying to go out in a blaze of glory. Honestly of all the true stories I have adapted into screenplays, none have laid out as perfectly as Captive did. I did have to do some rearranging of key events, and used a little dramatic license, but I would say the true story accounts for 90 percent of what you see on the screen.
Q: What is a writer’s room like? Can you describe the process of collaboration on something like a screenplay or a TV show, where changes can be made almost in real time? How does that contrast with the image of the solitary genius writer?
A: The only solitude you have as a member of the writing staff of a TV show is when it’s your turn in the batting order to write an episode and you are off putting the first draft together. When you’re finished with that and you deliver it to rest of the staff, the dynamic changes. The best way to describe a staff of writers working on a rewrite together is controlled chaos. You’re always on deadline and the pressure is high to get the work done.
There is such a free flow of ideas and solutions to problems and a spirit of disruption to find the perfect line of dialogue or idea that sometimes it resembles what could be called (and I hope this is not insensitive) an Arab camel market. It’s the nature of the process. When you’re in the middle of it, it can be deeply competitive as individual members of the team are trying to get their ideas, jokes or pitches into the script.
It can be exhilarating when one of your ideas wins, and a big bummer when you pitch something that just dies in the howling wilderness. But iron always sharpens iron, and when you have a good team of people who have chemistry together, you can get to a magical place. That’s why when TV shows are good, they are really good. It’s like professional sports. A bunch of really talented people pulling for the same goal.
Q: What does being a producer mean for TV or film? Are you raising/keeping track of money? Are you wrangling cast and crew? Reviewing scripts? Do you get the 3 AM call when something goes wrong? All of the above? We see that title a lot, and it seems like it can mean any number of things. Can you shed some light on that?
A: Being a writing producer can be many things. On a TV show, the co-producer, producer, supervising producer, co-executive producer and executive producer titles are sort of like ranks in the army. Each year you’re on a show as a writer, you get a promotion to the next rank up the food chain. You are still a writer on the staff of the show, but often times your duties increase. You may involved in casting sessions, approving wardrobe and sets, and helping supervise the post-production process. But primarily you are still just one of the writers who has earned another set of stripes.
In the filmmaking process, producers wear a lot of hats. Sometimes you get a producer or executive producer title because you are responsible for bringing some asset to the project, such as money or a relationship. But true producers are involved in every aspect of production including script development, raising financing or distribution, casting, pre-production, actual production, post-production and even the marketing of a film.
Producers are bosses, counselors, policemen, firemen, travel agents and sometimes ministers on a production. And yes, 3 a.m. calls are the rule rather than the exception. In TV, the writing producers are responsible for everything, and everyone on the set reports to them. In films, producers and directors are the two most important roles on the set, and the creative buck usually stops with the director, but he ultimately reports to the producer. Of course, without the writer first, you don’t have a good set of blueprints for the skyscraper you are building and the whole thing can become a house of cards. That’s why many writers also stick around as producers on films, to guard the integrity of the blueprints.
Q: You teach a lot of writing and story development. What are the most common mistakes or oversight that you see as people are trying to tell stories? Do those things relate to how we communicate in other areas of life or work?
A: One of the biggest challenges I see among young filmmakers today is that the digital revolution and You Tube have created the sense that anybody and everybody is a filmmaker. And that’s just not the case. The same goes for screenwriting. It actually is a rocket science in it’s own way. People may be born with wonderful raw gifts and talents, but until they put in the right amount of training and experience, they will never become experts at what they’re gifted at. A lot of what I see coming from You Tube, however, skews in the direction of delusional amateurism which is missing craft and training.
In the book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell proposed the “10,000-Hour Rule.” You might be born a genius, but until you put in 10,000 hours working your gifts, you cannot call yourself an expert. How does this apply to screenwriting? All I know is it’s taken me 30 years to learn what I know, and I’m still trying to get better at my craft. I’m still striving for excellence. If we understand that we are made in the image of the author of the universe, the “good enough principle” should never be part of our vocabulary. We should strive to be the Michelangelo of our particular craft. I don’t see that very often coming from the digital revolution.
The one big fix I tell young writers is they need to “copy the masters” of their craft. All art is handed down in the same way from generation to generation, from master to student. The master is painting at the front of the classroom and the student is doing what? He is also painting, copying the master, but bringing himself to the canvas in order to eclipse the talent of the master. That’s what Michelangelo did at the Medici School. So in story-telling, we need to mimic the best story-tellers in history and then bring ourselves to the page in order to become a master. I find many young writers completely ignoring this concept.
Q: You mention a place called “Development Hell”, where things you’ve been paid to write have gone to likely never be produced. How do you bounce back from what must be a disappointing process? I ask this because we all face defeats in what we do, and bouncing back can be difficult. I’m curious as to how you do that, and what you think can help.
A: I’ve found over the years that you have to be like one of those punch-drunk fighters from an old boxing movie – too stupid to stay down after you’ve been knocked to the mat. I guess that’s what it means to have a short memory. It’s a very competitive business, and it’s a very subjective business. There is no accounting for taste in any predictive or mathematical way.
Opinions are like hind-ends. Everybody has one. So it can be tricky navigating the taste buds as you go from meeting to meeting or opportunity to opportunity. It can be full of disappointment, and highs and lows. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. But if you are called to the work – and it really has to be a calling because it’s too hard to do as a hobbyist or if your goal is fame and money – then you are doing the world and yourself no favors by chickening out.
If you are called to do it, there’s no such thing as playing “small-ball.” You keep showing up, doing your best work, and being committed to making lasting friendships and relationships that are not based on your failure or success. Persistence always beats resistance. You also have to realize they don’t call it “Show Friendship.” It’s called “Show Business” for a reason, and if you can develop a thick skin for criticism you can survive it, and perhaps even thrive in it.
Q: What are 2 of your favorite movies / 2 favorite tv shows - in terms of writing? Why?
A: I’m a big fan of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 films of all time list, but if I have to be narrowed down to two, the first would absolutely be the 1989 Oscar winner for best foreign film, Cinema Paradiso. It’s one of the most moving and cinematically rich films I’ve ever seen, and it’s a beautiful metaphor about the ubiquitous importance of story (and the movies) in our human experience. Story ties us together as family and community and it’s also the touchstone for most of the big events of our lives. The Mission is another of my favorites, and it tells about the horror and beauty of the spread of Christianity in South America during 1700s. It has one of the most moving faith redemption stories I’ve ever seen in a film, and the best ever depiction of the power of the sacrifice of the cross in any movie ever made.
On the TV side, I’m going to have to go with Breaking Bad and the first season of True Detective. Both very gritty and not family friendly at all, but rich in themes of existential angst and the search for redemption in this post-modern age when we’re being told that there is no meaning in the universe other than our own pursuit of pleasure.
Mike Dungan; Chairman/CEO Universal Music Group Nashville
Mike Dungan leads the most successful country music record label in the world at Universal Music Group-Nashville. He came there a couple years ago after having led Capitol Records-Nashville to its position as an industry leader. Prior to that, Mike was the head of Sales at Arista-Nashville, which is where I met him when I worked for a label acquired by Artista. At that time, Arista was the leading country label in the world and so success seems to have followed Mike wherever he’s been.
He started his career as a regional radio promoter handling rock radio stations, and eventually moved from his hometown of Cincinnati to Nashville. He’s universally liked and respected as a leader, an insightful businessman, and a champion of a diverse array of artists.
And while it’s no surprise to me that Mike places such an emphasis on the empowerment, happiness and fulfillment of those he leads, his commitment to his team holds great insight for any leader. Whether it’s a member of his staff or an artist he’s working with to build a successful and sustainable career, Mike’s focus on creating environments that inspire people to excel is instructional for anyone working with or leading teams.
Q: You got your start in rock radio promotion and now lead the biggest country music label in the world. How did that experience shape your career and inform what you do now?
A: Radio promotion is just a somewhat less tangible version of sales. In business, and in radio promotion, anyone with a brain realizes quickly that you must practice win-win. I learned to understand radio’s issues, and the issues of the people making music decisions at those radio stations. I was always on the lookout for what each station needed to succeed, and then it’s easier to show them that by programming your records that can fill those needs. Invaluable experience, it has helped me be a better partner with radio, and set a culture and a tone within my team to be on the right side of that relationship.
Q: You’ve moved from Arista-Nashville to take over at Capitol, and then to Universal. What are 1 or 2 of the most important things you’ve learned as a leader in terms of taking over the leadership of a new team of people?
A: Empowerment is everything. In all of my moves, I have made it clear on day one that I respect everyone as a professional, and as such they are in charge of their domain. They understand the mission, and with very little tethering, they are free to go forth and just get the job done. I usually only step up when I see someone off point, or about to step off a cliff. Everyone is free to screw up. Screwing up is part of being aggressive (although if you screw up too much, we have a problem). You are free to do the job your own way… and you are also accountable. But if you are lazy, or if you point fingers, or if you practice “cover your ass”, you will lose your place on this team.
Q: Your label dominates country music. How have you gone about putting together a team that can excel so consistently?
A: My people come first. There is transparency at all levels. Accountability at all levels. I will never ask you to do anything that I would not do myself. I will never give you a project, or an artist, or music that I do not firmly believe is competitive. Together we are unstoppable. Do you want to really accomplish something? This is the place to do it. The personal happiness of my staff is of extreme importance to me. Not only do I love every single one of them, but happy people do great work, and the feeling of accomplishment is the biggest contributor to happiness. We have flamethrowers at every level of this company – people who kill to give these artists careers, and put return on investment to our shareholders.
Q: What are the things you’ve found to be most important in building and getting the most out of your team?
A: See above
Q: You’ve championed some artists that weren’t part of any trends at the time they were signed, like Darius Rucker and Kacey Musgraves. What makes you most confident about the risk involved in someone doing something outside of the prevailing trends?
If you want to move the needle, you’ve got to stand apart. I never give any thought to the “fans” that wants to hear the same old -same old. Complacent, middle of the road music from artists that are simply the 2nd or 3rd copy of someone else goes nowhere, except to clog up the middle. Those artists will never sell enough music, or enough tickets, or enough anything to keep our interest. It’s just strategically dumb. If someone else is happy to have a business that is “just ok”, then by all means, have at it – there is plenty of that shit out there.. We aim at the audience that wants to participate. The audience and the consumer that I am talking about are crying for music that makes them want to lean in. I have a saying inside this building – The Difference Makes the Difference.
Q: Your artists include legends like George Strait and Alan Jackson, and newer, less traditional artists like Luke Bryan and Sam Hunt. How do those legendary artists respond to newer, less traditional artists? I ask this in the context of organizations that we work with who have some long time employees who really built something, and who don’t always see eye to eye with the way younger co-workers work or view the world. It’s never an either-or, but do you ever find yourself bridging a musical or aesthetic gap?
Everyone has their own personal taste, and when that lines up with the music you represent, there’s no question that you get “more”. But everyone here is also a professional. As a collective group, I would say that we are aggressively realistic. Success is at the forefront of everyone’s mind here, and I think we are all smart enough to realize that changing times require changing methods...and changing music. Right now, the newer artists are the ones that we know we can knock out of the park. But we also represent a few incredible legacy artists who continue to make great music. That music may no longer be flavor of the month at radio, but we are dedicated to bringing everything we can to the table to help keep those artists viable and relevant. We are honored to work with every artist on our roster.
Mark Montgomery is someone I always pay attention to. Mostly it’s because he’s ridiculously smart, laser-focused in his observations and commentary, and has a track record of doing cool, successful things his own way. It’s also because I’m never sure quite what’s going to come out of his mouth, and I like the feeling of being at the top of a roller coaster that’s about to drop, which is how I often feel when I prep for Marko to answer a question.
Mark is the founder of FLO|CO, a group of companies doing cool, innovative things. After launching, growing, and then selling echomusic, one of the first companies to sell music online, he founded FLO. In the past few years they’ve launched the beverage industry’s fastest-growing new spirit (Blue Chair Bay Rum) as part of their work with country superstar Kenny Chesney. They’ve worked with companies such as Google and Under Armor, and launched the Made In Network, a Multi Channel Network focused solely on music. Mark also works with the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, coaching new and aspiring startups, as well as pushing to develop tech talent in one of America’s fastest growing and coolest cities.
You’re as likely to find him at a music club (playing in or watching bands) as in a meeting with the mayor, the governor, or other industry and community leaders. Generous with his time and intellect, we’re thrilled to have him as part of this series of Q&As.
Q: You like to talk about disruption – why is it so exciting to you?
A: Because so much about the status quo is so wrong. As frustrating as it can be to try to change the “standard”, it just seems to me to be the right thing to do.
Q: What things do you look for the make something prime for being disrupted?
A: Inefficiency in a system, chronic crony-ism, and outdated models are the three big things that I look for.
Q: You’ve been an advocate for musicians to take charge of their own brands more aggressively (see Kenny Chesney with his own rum). Is that something that anyone can do in their own world / on their own scale?
A: The issue of creators taking charge is a double-edged sword. Many of the “last wave” of creators are making hay inside the old construct, which perpetuated the idea that all they had to do was create and everything else would be taken care of for them. It was, but how much of that trickled into their pockets is a whole other story. Taking charge requires a commitment to creativity on several levels…
The new creative class coming out of the universities (speaking of a system in need of disruption) understands that there is no such thing as a “free ride” in the creative arts. You have to be able to access both sides of your brain to really make your way in the world today. The great news is that many of the barriers are down, which is also the bad news. Anyone can create and come to market today.
Whether they know it or not, they are entrepreneurs first and foremost. They need to start with a core product (their art) and build around it. The art is the product, and the creativity comes not just in that core creation of the product, but the strategy to bring it to market, price it correctly, find white space and fill it, you get the general idea…
Q: You’re very involved in developing a tech/entrepreneurial culture in Nashville. What sorts of things make Nashville a strong place for that environment? What things may hold it back?
A: The secret sauce is the community aspect of Nashville. You cannot replicate a fabric as strong as the one in our market with all the money in the world. People are competitors, but they are also willing to help pretty much anyone, take a meeting, make an intro, you get the idea.
The couple biggest things that hold the market back are:
- Its generally conservative nature (both from an investor perspective and a political perspective)
- Sometimes we are too damn nice (it’s perfectly fine to tell someone their idea sucks)
- The state politicians’ idiocy lands us on the front page of national papers looking like dumb hillbillies far too often (thankfully there is plenty of that going around in a variety of states)
Q: To say that you speak your mind is sort of like saying that Keith Moon was an energetic drummer. Have you ever gotten pressure to tone your personality down? What are/were the upsides/downsides of that?
A: I get a lot of pressure, mostly external…
It’s an interesting debate for me actually. I certainly do elicit a strong reaction when entering a room, which I have learned to be ok with. One night, my bride and I were talking about this after I had challenged a big shot in a meeting that day, and I was suggesting that speaking my mind had a downside. I was feeling pretty bad about it. She asked me how I’d feel if I hadn’t spoken my mind, to which I responded; “worse than I feel now” – so, I continue to push the elephants out into the room.
Recently I had a discussion with a young entrepreneur who I gave a very hard piece of advice to. It involved telling him that he had picked a real douchebag for a partner, and that he should terminate the relationship. I could smell the stink on this guys “partner” and knew it would not end well. I happen to own this particular T-shirt a couple times. It was hard for me to say, and hard for him to hear. He had a lot invested. About a month after that discussion, he called to thank me for “having the courage to say something to him when no one else would”, he did terminate the partnership, and during that process, got to see the other side of his “partner”.
Life’s too short not to ask the hard questions, challenge the status quo, and suggest that perhaps there is a different or better way to do something, right?
Matt D’Arrigo is Founder and CEO of ARTS (A Reason To Survive), a nationally recognized organization from San Diego that believes in the power of the arts and creativity to transform lives.
I met Matt several years ago through our mutual friend who was helping to mentor a young person involved in ARTS. I learned about the amazing studio center and programming that ARTS had developed for youth across San Diego County, and specifically for youth in need of a transformative outlet for their creativity. ARTS is a place that helps young people transcend some of the toughest challenges of their lives through artistic and creative expression.
In many ways, ARTS is an outgrowth of Matt’s own life, as the arts helped him shift away from self-destructive behaviors and work through significant life issues. A TEDx speaker, Matt sits on the boards of a variety of community, arts and educational organizations, and was one of two San Diego leaders selected for a fellowship to the prestigious Harvard Business School’s “Strategic Perspectives in Non-Profit Management.” Matt speaks, advocates and advises on the use of the arts as a prevention, intervention, and celebration vehicle for at-risk youth.
As Founder and CEO, Matt is gifted at guiding a growing organization while maintaining focus on the reasons for the organization’s existence. And perhaps playing against type, Matt’s leadership style reflects his own personality: thoughtful, determined, level-headed and, to me, seemingly free of drama and histrionics. I always enjoy talking with Matt and learning from his experience and insight.
Q: What inspired you to start ARTS?
A: From an early age I identified as an artist. Although I really struggled in school and other areas of life growing up, I excelled at art. So I would go to my art whenever I needed a boost in confidence, and escape, or to find hope and joy. That time really came for me when I was 19 and my mother and sister were both diagnosed with cancer within a few months of each other. It was devastating and brought with it a lot of emotions that were hard to process: fear, anger, guilt, sadness. So I turned to my art and love of music. I would go up to my bedroom every day, close the door, put on music, and paint. The world would disappear for hours and my whole outlook would transform from despair to hope and joy. It struck me one day after one of those sessions – if it made me feel this way, it would make other kids feel the same way too. I sat down and created a little plan to start an organization that would provide the same experience for other youth facing pain. Just like I had my bedroom to escape to, I wanted to create an ARTS Center – a safe place where kids could come to express themselves and use the arts to transform their lives.
Q: In what ways do you see art reaching kids in ways that other disciplines don’t?
A: The arts are a natural language for youth (and all of us) to communicate and express themselves. When words are hard to come by, art, music, dance, theatre, etc. are an easy way to find your voice and communicate feelings that otherwise may get suppressed. That’s why we offer all forms of the arts; because you never know where a child might find their “voice”. It’s important to give them opportunities and options in various mediums. Besides the value of expression, the arts build self-confidence and esteem, social/emotional well being, and life skills needed to succeed in life. That’s why we not only provide therapeutic arts programming but also formal arts education and career and life preparation so we can meet youth where they are emotionally, developmentally, and artistically and create a long term engagement with them that follows them over time. The longer the engagement, the deeper the impact.
Q: What’s the most challenging thing about running a growing organization?
A: Managing change. We’re constantly evolving and “becoming”. We’re a very creative and entrepreneurial organization. So we need to be proactive and consistent in communicating to all stakeholders – youth, staff, volunteers, donors, etc. why we are going in certain directions or why we are implementing new systems, policies, or procedure to make our work more efficient and effective to serve the youth. Change is hard, uncomfortable, and scary for people so we try not to leave “why” on the table because human nature is to fill in the “why” in yourself and make assumptions. We also try to hire the right people that thrive in a growing environment and embrace change. The other hard part of running a growing organization is keeping that intimate, family feel and continue to build the deep relationships with each youth as we serve larger numbers.
Q: How do you balance the demands of leading an organization with the need and desire to be directly engaged with the kids you serve?
A: This is a constant challenge for me. I remember in year three of the organization I had to make a conscious choice to step back from the front lines of teaching the kids and focus on the business and fundraising aspect because that’s where I felt I could best serve the organization to grow and reach more youth. That is still true today. But with a growing organization I am even more externally focused and traveling a bit more. When I’m in the office I also need to be there to support our senior leadership team and staff. However, I have built in time to constantly walk around the ARTS Center to talk to the kids, teachers, and volunteers. It helps me get the pulse of the organization and feel connected to the kids. I also don’t have an office anymore; I just have my laptop and set up wherever I want in the ARTS Center to be more approachable and accessible to everyone there – especially kids.
Q: What do you wish people realized about the impact of art?
A: The arts impact all of us everyday but we take them for granted. Think about it: everything created by man was first conceptualized and drawn by an artist, right?
The arts bring all of us so much joy everyday – our favorite music, TV shows, or movies. Try to live a day without the arts…almost impossible.
But the arts go so much deeper than that for hundreds of thousands of youth. For these youth who are intrinsically creative, talented, and passionate about the arts, it’s their identity. Yet they are constantly being told in school and society that it’s not important and to fit into these other “boxes” to be successful. So we’re basically telling these youth that THEY are not important. Cutting the arts out of schools and communities is a true form of identity theft – not allowing youth to be their true creative selves and lead fulfilled lives. The results are devastating. We have had students who have literally stopped suicide attempts because of our program, they finally feel accepted and valued for who they are. What’s more impactful that that?
Jacob Slichter is a musician, author, and teacher. He was a member of the multi-platinum band Semisonic, whose global hit “Closing Time” can still be heard pretty much everywhere, especially at bars or when a baseball team’s closer comes in to wrap up a game (not nearly enough for this Cubs fan).
I first encountered Jacob’s writing in his fantastic book, So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star: How I Machine-Gunned a Roomful of Record Executives and Other True Tales from a Drummer’s Life. It may be the finest book I’ve read about an artist’s life in the music business, in that it is honest, self-effacing, self-aware, and thoroughly entertaining. I’ve easily purchased at least a dozen copies for others, including friends and family members whose children are pursuing their own rock & roll dreams. Much of the book feels eerily familiar to me, as “Closing Time” was a massive hit almost exactly a year after a band that I worked with, Sixpence None The Richer, had its own worldwide hit with the song “Kiss Me.” The adventures of the band and their struggle to make sense of the massive opportunities and stardom, as well as pressures from a global record label, powerful radio stations, and broadcast groups. Then there was the puzzle of, “how do we follow up?” It’s a realistic look at a career in music that pulls back the curtain from the romantic myths of rock & roll excess and shows a talented, hard-working band trying to navigate a bewildering business. Jacob now teaches non-fiction Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence, and through a series of Kevin Bacon-esque connections to childhood friends of both my wife and I, I was able to connect with him and ask him a few questions about creativity, teaching, community and pulling back more curtains in life and work. Enjoy!
Q: One thing that comes across in your book is the sense that artists are commoditized by the industry – seen as products and not necessarily people. How did you and your band mates in Semisonic navigate the demands (and fear) placed on you by labels, radio stations, etc.? Looking back – do you see that you could push back more than maybe you did?
A: We made pop music and wanted to be pop stars, so in the largest sense, our ambitions were aligned with those of the record label. Certainly they wanted Semisonic to succeed, but they came to have doubts, and it’s hard to push back against doubt. With a couple of important exceptions they were totally surprised by the success of “Closing Time.” That and “Secret Smile” (a big hit overseas) briefly inspired the label’s confidence in us, but the confidence faded quickly. It wasn’t that they wanted us to do things differently. It was more like they stopped believing.
Q: Much of the book, to me, seems to dispel myths about the business of making music and the experience of being in a band. The lack of glamour, the pressures that have nothing to do with making music taking over the creative process, etc. Do you think that there are other ways in life that we can pull back the curtain and perhaps encounter others in a more realistic way?
A: One of the things I tried to do in the book was to reveal how the structure of the music business imposed all kinds of constraints on the people who worked in it—musicians wanting to be famous, and record company employees trying to keep their jobs. If there’s a villain in the book, it’s the business.
I think it’s important to look at the larger world the same way, to learn to see the limits that various systems impose on us. If we do that, we can get on with the work of replacing those systems with more humane alternatives.
Q: What things help you to be a better teacher? Are those things different when you’re teaching creative writing or drumming?
A: Whether teaching writing or drumming, I try to remember what my favorite teachers did for me. They were good listeners, gave honest encouragement, recognized their students’ desire to learn and improve, believed in their students’ intuitions, and left open the possibility that the students might have had insights that had not yet occurred to their teachers.
Q: You’re involved in a group called Music That Makes Community that brings people together to sing (without paper). What does that act of a group gathering to sing do for a person?
A: Singing with others is empowering, especially for people who feel embarrassed about their singing voice. Anyone who has sung along at a rock concert or a protest or a wedding knows this. Singing with others allows you to become part of something larger than yourself.
Q: So often we read, hear or see stories of the lone genius, without realizing that perhaps community has affected that person. What role do you see community playing in the creative process?
A: I totally believe that creativity is much more collaborative than we know. Most performers will tell you that live performance is a something like a dance with the audience. What may be less obvious is the fact that artists hold an imagined audience in their minds as they compose, edit, practice, and otherwise work things out. Creating a work of art invites the creator to imagine what an audience will think, and that audience includes non-artists.
I recently came across a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “One must be an inventor to read well.” I believe that. Among other things, it means that if you’ve been moved by art, you’ve encountered your own creativity, the same creativity that is in the air that all artists breathe. When fans listen to records and start imagining the record they want to hear next, I think those desires make their way into the minds of music makers. I know this sounds mystical, but I actually believe this. The lone genius theory feels deeply wrong to me. We all do this together.
Q: What’s your favorite song to sing a cappella?
A: I am so embarrassed by my singing voice, I never sing on my own. But I enjoy singing with others, especially anything with tasty harmonization, anything from a Palestrina motet to some pop gem.
For more of Jacob’s writing, visit his blog, Portable Philosophy.