Berklee intern Gary Lazzara asks the question “How does music education translate into the reality of life in the industry?” Gary interviewed Keith Harris– producer, songwriter, musician and performer with The Black Eyed Peas for answers. Read Gary’s story behind the interview here.
In October of 2011, I had the utmost pleasure in meeting Producer/Performer Keith Harris, current performer with the Black Eyed Peas and former Berklee MP&E (Music Production & Engineering) graduate of ‘99. As part of a stop at Berklee, Keith decided to give back to his alma mater by hosting a master class titled “L.A.B., Life after Berklee” where he shared his experiences after Berklee. Beforehand, I had the privilege of sitting down with Keith for an interview on the differences between college and working in the music industry. As a preface to the interview, I described my story and had an extremely valuable conversation with Keith. This is how it went:
Gary Lazzara: So Keith, what was your biggest challenge leaving Berklee and what are the challenges you see Berklee students having today starting their professional careers?
Keith: The biggest challenge was [realizing] that real world situations aren’t like the text-books. But you think that they are. What I mean by that is, you can’t apply basic knowledge that you learn in school and apply it to all situations that you go through. Whether it’s publishing, whether it’s a writing split, whether its getting paid for a record, all of these things are variables depending on your relationship with the person you’re dealing with–the budgets, all types of things. [Also] we have so much information that we feel like we need to shoot everything out all at once. But the average person doesn’t understand all that information. But we, in this world of Berklee, understand because we all speak the same language. So it takes a little bit of transitioning out of that to be able to communicate properly to people that are not at our level musically, and then to find a nice medium of that.
GL: What is a job-search like in your line of work? For example, is there a traditional hiring process? If not, how do you recommend someone entering the industry to market themselves?
Keith: Its tough. There’s not really a hiring process. Sometimes they do have a hiring process where they have auditions for different things. You know, they’ll have a, “Hey we need a guitarist.” You Audition. If you get the gig, then you stay. If you don’t, you don’t.
Then 90% of it is just “who do you know?” If you play around the city, you’ll know a lot of cats. They know how you play. They know what you sound like. You’re more likely to get a gig that way than the audition process where they really treat you like you’re just hired to do the job. But when you’re in there with some people that you know, it feels like you’re playing with your friends.
Keith: So, I would suggest that anybody that wants to get a gig outside of Berklee, they have to establish an extended network of people that they know. If you want to tour, you have to be in the state where all the touring is happening. So, if all the tours are coming out of Los Angeles, you can’t be in Connecticut trying to get on tour.
For me, back in the day, it was New York because it was the 90s, you know… Diddy. A lot of stuff was coming out of New York. So I had to move to New York. I think right now a lot of artists are coming out of Los Angeles and Atlanta, more so LA now. So I would suggest that a lot of people try and get west because that’s where a lot of the gigs are coming from.
GL: Does that same advice apply to engineers who don’t perform? Is there an alternative way engineers are selected for work other than word of mouth referrals?
Keith: Like I said, you just have to go where they’re cutting records. Including engineers. Atlanta is big now. Tyler Perry has a studio down there so they’re doing a lot of film stuff in Atlanta now. So, I would just say you just got to go where people are recording. That’s the best bet.
And then they have to work their way up the ranks. Unless they’re coming out of Berklee blazing and they already have mixed like 16 records in Berklee while they are students, you got to be a runner. For me, it was playing cover gigs, and doing all of these things until I got the big gig. With engineering, you got to be a runner, and then probably become an assistant, and then you move yourself up. So that’s what you got to do.
GL: Alright. What would you say is the most sought after personality trait in the studio?
Keith: Being non-confrontational and just being cool. One thing I pride myself is just being able to adapt to any situation. For example, if there’s a situation where people are drinking and smoking, I’m not about to do that. But I know how to still be cool and not be the weirdo in a room.
Like I said, most of the time people get the gig because they know somebody, or people like him. There’s a lot of people that get gigs that aren’t the best. But, they know the MD. They know the artist. So they’re like “Hey that’s my boy. Put him on.”
GL: What are common business considerations in the studio that students are not familiar with and might find difficult to deal with?
Keith: For me, it’s the pressure of always just trying to be better than myself. Its like a pressure that you really don’t think about when you’re here at Berklee because everything is just fun.
What it really comes down to is when you’re working for a label and they have to make money, it turns into a job. Like you said, its numbers, it’s the quotas… the things that you really got to do. And if you’re really not turning that around its like, “Okay, why are you here?” And you know, that pressure is like, “Okay, I have to produce good work all the time” and that’ll really get your head a little screwy sometimes. So just remember that if you’re having a bad day, keep it moving and try and stay on that constant level of greatness all the time.
GL: What would you say is the most common mistake a new hire makes when entering the music industry?
Keith: I would think the biggest mistake is thinking that everything works like the textbooks. You know, school is good for giving you a good foundation of knowledge on all things and you learn how things basically run. And that’s what you should take from your experience at Berklee. This is a good base, a good foundation for you to adapt to any musical or business situation in music.
People that really think that everything they learn in the book is: “That’s what it is. It’s black and white. I get out, I write a song and because I did this its going to be like that; and I’m gonna get this; and I’ve learned that producers should get paid this amount of money; and this is what it should be… Nah” [laughs]. Everything is subject to change. You just got to accept those facts going in and I think you’ll be all right.
GL: In the music industry, there are professionals who are non-musicians or don’t know the same amount of information that we know. What percentage of the people would you say have been formally trained musically versus those that, you know, you tell them to play the e-minor scale and they have no idea what you’re talking about?
Keith: I would say a lot of the musicians I know are knowledgeable. But as for the producers, a lot of them have no clue. They can’t tell you what any of the black keys are. [laughs] That’s why they hire us. We know what we’re doing. So, I mean, there are very few musicians that I’ve met that don’t really know their instrument, but not really. Maybe there’s a couple that don’t know the names of the scales like we know them‚ like harmonic minors and all of that, but they know their instrument. They’re very proficient, they can hear things and they can play it the way it needs to be played. But like I said, a lot of producers aren’t producers they are beat makers. So when you’re doing beats you don’t necessarily need to know chords and scales and stuff like that. You’re just putting sounds together. So, in that case if they need to do some strings, that’s when they’re like “oh… I don’t know how to do strings.” That’s when they get people like us, who have knowledge, that can adapt to any type of situation.
GL: What’s the best advice you could give to a student leaving Berklee who has to work with one of these professionals?
Keith: I think it’s all about staying humble. That [producer or musician] is in a place because they are good at something that you’re not. You learn from that person and then you give to them. So its like a back and forth exchange. You know, me and Will (Will.I.Am); Will doesn’t know everything that I know musically. But there are a lot of things that he does, like song writing, the way he uses his plugins, and the way he uses Pro Tools as an instrument that I have never done before until I started watching him.
He comes to me or he’ll call me up and “Hey man, what key is this song in?’ I’m not even in the studio and he’ll call me up with “What key is this in?” [laughs]. So alright, its in G. “Alright thanks, bye.” You know, he’ll use me for certain things and I’ll use him for certain things. It’s just a good working relationship- you can’t come out, guns blazin’. Like I said, everybody has something to offer even if they’re not the most knowledgeable as a musician or on the technical things.
GL: Keith, I know you have a busy day today so I don’t want to take up more of your time but I just wanted to say it’s been a pleasure and again thank you for this interview and your time.
Keith: Oh, no problem. Thank you.
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Born and raised in Southern California, Gary Lazzara started his music career at a young age. Whether through playing the guitar, piano, marching trombone, percussion, drum set, or working in the analog/digital music production domain, Gary has immersed himself in many different aspects of the music creation and performance process. Gary currently is enrolled at Berklee College of Music as a dual major in Music Production and Engineering and Electronic Production and Design. Gary hopes to someday own his own music studio and travel around the world collaborating with artists to create hybrids in music genres by fusing new and old local styles of music with the popular music of today.
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