How working in HR can make you a better music producer (and vice versa)
Because producing music and working in people ops are basically the same thing.
I picked up the guitar 18 years ago. 11 years ago, I attended Grammy Camp to study music production. 2 years ago, I joined BuzzFeed to lead People Analytics. And this year, I decided I was going to record my own album. Lucky for me, this winding path in and out of musicianship is no waste of time — at my first recording session of the year, I was reminded that producing music and working in HR inform one another, and are basically the same thing. How?
You need a recruiting strategy.
It’s a major luxury to have a band — to walk in with your close friends, record music you all are used to playing, and walk out to grab dinner. But when you’re solo, every single personnel decision is a recruiting task. Who will play drums on song 1? Who plays guitar on song 3? Who will engineer it all? Who will do the album art? And so on.
Just like in an office job, I had to combine sourcing, recruiting and referrals to build the dream team. Some of my closest friends and collaborators will play with me, and some strangers I have never met before will walk into the booth and join in on my vision. To get these people on board, I needed the musical equivalent of a job description. Just like the real thing, I put together a general mission statement, a per-song job description and a list of inspiration and requirements for each instrument. I got to work playing recruiter and sending it out! And then I realized…
You need a compensation strategy.
Early in the recruiting process, I faced the a truth of growing up: that things cost money. You need to hire talent, engineers, and rent studio time…for everything you do. This is a jarring transition from the usual experience of grabbing some musical friends and chipping in $10 for a practice space. Since this project is self-funded by a single person (it me), this becomes quite the budget management task very quickly.
I set out to negotiate to arrive at a number that I thought would make me feel comfortable for session 1. In the middle of haggling, I got a great piece of advice from a pro musician friend. He taught me to think strategically:
“You can haggle, but when someone says to me ‘I’m on board with your specified rate’, it immediately makes me that much more excited to play with them and give it my all.”
From my BuzzFeed work, I should have known to think of compensation as a means of recognition. Just like in the office world, feeling your work is valued will lead to increased engagement and a better performance. I replied to my musician’s rates with a simple “alright, let’s do it!”
You need a diversity and inclusion strategy
With so many personnel decisions to make, one route would be to just call up everyone I’ve recently worked with and call them a crew. However, with only one shot to build something I’ve never built before, a studio recording, I wanted each song to bring something new to the table. So I started to think about how I could use musical diversity to my advantage.
I selected a producer who has an academic music background (I do not), a calm and collected demeanor (nope, not me), and complementary tastes to my own so that I could co-produce alongside someone with an different perspective. On one track that’s predominantly hip-hop, I was interested in finding someone who could modernize my sound, so I reached out to an up-and-coming local musician who could provide that 2018 sound. To add a layer of complexity to my live recordings, I have a Future Bass producer adding programmed percussion layers into the mix. Through these talents I hope to come up with something uniquely representative of the people whose music I admire.
Diversity is bringing in distinct voices and inclusion is making them feel heard. At the live sessions, I do this with some old fashioned tricks for dispelling groupthink: for example, asking people to “just play you” (play without preface or instruction) so that I can see their organic contributions, then inviting my team to trade notes with the artists. For forthcoming recordings, I’ve been trying to get multiple musicians to write to the same songs and then meet in person to bounce ideas off of one another. After all, this project is non-commercial and has a mission of celebrating the wonderful people who have been goodly enough to play with me over the years! And to celebrate them…
You need an “employee experience” strategy
On the morning of the session, I walked briskly through Brooklyn to make it by the 11am call time. I thought about how we would spend 5–8 hours in a box together and remembered the one thing you always forget when booking a music session — that people need to eat. I ran into Whole Foods and picked up bagels for the group, and later made sure to put some of my producing time aside for a dinner run (because I am and always have been Paul Rudd’s character from “I Love You, Man”).
Meanwhile in my parallel universe, I sat on a panel last month at a Human Capital Analytics conference and surprised a much-more-corporate audience by telling stories about the analyses we do at BuzzFeed around snack and lunch data. I argued that food isn’t just for kicks, if you’re paying for it, it should measurably contribute to the well-being and belonging that your people feel. If you’re going to keep anyone in a room for a full day, it’s essential to consider their humanity. Do they have the resources to do their job well? Do they have a clear sense of their role? Do they feel a sense of work-life balance? These questions fit just as well in the studio setting as they do in employee engagement surveys.
All heady comparisons aside, it’s funny to think that I recreated the godfather of employee experience perks: Bagel Fridays. But I suppose buying bites for the team isn’t mandatory, but rather reflects my values…
You need values.
At BuzzFeed, one of our core values is “humble confidence”, the art of being sure of yourself, but not being a jerk (more or less). This has leaked into my music world to great effect. The project includes many songs that were started over 10 years ago. The only thing separating then and now is that where I used to say “hey, I have this track if you’d ever want to collab on it”, I now say “I‘m bringing you in you to record on my album.” Sending out your music is terrifying, and the only way to survive it is to be confident that the music is worth making.
On the flipside, at Grammy Camp we were taught the secret code of an aspiring engineer: be polite and persistent. Similar to the above, it means keep asking for what you want and just be nice about it. I learned that from the producer of Guns and Roses’ albums, but I use it every day in the office. Stand up for what you believe in, bug people if you need to, but just be cool.
And oh yes, there were Google Sheets.
Did you think there weren’t gonna be spreadsheets? There were spreadsheets. You need a data strategy in the recording world, too, especially with so many gigs of audio to mine for insights and quality. Here is my system for reviewing 10 of our takes, section by section:
Organizing and storing all this data is heavy operations work. Sadly, if I had been better at backing up and labeling data as a teenager, I wouldn’t need to re-record so much! The highlight of my whole process was the praise I got by bringing this approach to my engineer:
Such is the beauty of jumping between the music and data worlds — the study of any one thing can inform the study of anything else.
Yeah. So, why did I write this?
To make a point about experience.
I have a lot of peers who are looking to switch careers, something I did myself (twice). I know it takes a lot of talking and resume editing to convey to those less open-mined how your non-linear story fits into their mold. In reality, opportunities are still afforded to those who did a certain thing for a large number of years, or who those worked at Deloitte, or those who went to Stanford, or those whose parents also did the same thing with no regard for how much bias this reinforces or how much research proves these to be poor indicators. In fact, it shows that ‘misfits’ who move between worlds are typically preferable. So next time someone tells you to keyword load your resume or chop off the personal interests and passions, tell them Max said “no way!” and then smash a guitar if you have one handy.
Remember the moral of Ratatouille: experience comes in all shapes and sizes. My case study on music production and HR might seem pretty niche, but I hope it encourages you to listen for correlations where you least expect them.
Max is Head of People Analytics at BuzzFeed and loves to write, share and consult on his work. If you liked this story, I bet you’ll love my HR music video. Reach out: firstname.lastname@example.org