Derek Sivers

Interviews → Ariel Hyatt / Cyber PR Music

First interview in over three years. About being an introvert in the music industry, finding balance as a creative, the benefits of a stage name, and conferences.

Date: 2019-08

Download: audio (mp3) or video (mp4)

Link: https://www.cyberprmusic.com/podcast7/


Ariel:

Alright, Derek Sivers. Welcome!

Derek:

Alright, Ariel Hyatt. Thank you!

Ariel:

So everyone, today’s guest is a very old friend. Not in his age, but in our friendship.

Derek:

I am old [laughs].

Ariel:

You are quite old [laughs]. A lot of us haven’t seen you in a minute. If you would love to catch us up on what you’ve been up to. That would be spectacular.

Derek:

Ohh, not much [laughs]. Yeah... this is my first interview in three and a half years. I have said no a few times a week for three and a half years. And after three and a half years, I said yes to you – you only. I was living in New Zealand for six years, had a kid, moved to Oxford, England a few weeks ago, got a dog...here I am! There’s my update.

Ariel:

You have a new book for artists and musicians on the horizon, and I know a lot of people will be very excited to hear that news. I know about a lot of the contents because I have been a longtime reader of your work and a subscriber of the old CD Baby emails, but will some of this come from the old Music Thoughts?

Derek:

Music Thoughts! Well, there’s a term I haven’t heard in a long time. I think I’m actually technically still the moderator of that. Wow, for those who don’t know, I think it was 1999, I set up a Yahoo Groups email letter list called “Music Thoughts” at yahoogroups.com, and I think it’s still active. I stopped going there a few years ago, but I think technically I’m still the moderator. The Music Thoughts email list was more of a community before social networks, you know, like in 1999, we didn’t really have social networks, and so people would use things like email lists and Usenet to just talk with other musicians and just say, “Hey, does anybody have any good advice for picking a digital audio workstation?” Or somebody would say, “Hey, do you know any booking agents, or got a club to recommend in Miami? I’m thinking about playing there.” It was a way to communicate with other musicians and ask their opinion on things. So the things that I prefer to talk about are the more timeless things. Maybe just because, like you said, I’m old, but I think even before that, I think the tips come and go. Maybe I’m just really slow. But to me, things like mp3.com and MySpace would just come and go in a heartbeat, and then things like...god, I don’t know, I was about to list a whole bunch of brand names, but now I don’t even know if they are gone or not, but there are a whole bunch of companies that they come by and they exist for a couple of years and people get all aflutter about them and then they disappear a couple of years later, and I’m not too concerned about those things. I really admire that some people stay on top of that stuff, but that’s not me. I don’t aim to be on top of things. I like to be at the bottom of things.

I really like the things that are more big philosophies that applied 20 years ago and will apply 20 years from now. So when I was putting together this book called Your Music and People that was the big thing that I was looking at in every page. I was thinking that I’m going to print up paper versions of this, like maybe even hardcover, which means that somebody might buy it in 2019, and it might be sitting on their shelf in the year 2049. So what can I write now that will still be true in 2049, and that’s the kind of stuff I like writing about. So, I’m not even going to talk about MP3s because those will be gone, and trying to just remove any kind of idea of contemporary advice, and just think more of like the root of things – like what are we really doing here? Why are we really making music? And why do people really like music? Why do they choose to go out to shows? Why do people choose to listen to the music they do? What gets them hooked, and what makes people pay attention to things or not? So, these are the subjects that interest me.

Ariel:

So I imagine that a lot of those subjects have to do with human relations because you’re not talking about tools, and you’re not talking about, you know...

Derek:

Dogs.

Ariel:

Yes, we’re not talking about dogs.

Derek:

[Laughs] Let’s talk about humans. Let’s just limit it to humans, yes. We don’t care about the beasts.

Ariel:

I think of course, it’s timeless, but it is also relevant. I’ve been reading Cal Newport’s very brilliant book, Digital Minimalism recently, and there’s a very alarming article that just came out in the Atlantic about how we’re basically destroying our young teens and tweens brains by giving them smartphones and how all of this stuff is making us feel unhappy and not connected. And I know that a lot of your work has focused around connection and how to make connections. We’ve been friends for a long time, and I am the extreme extrovert in this friendship, and you are the opposite. I would love if – I’m sure it’s somewhere in the book – you could talk a little bit about something I see many musicians struggle with, which is they are naturally introverted. They love being onstage and sharing their musical versions of themselves, but when they get offstage, and when it comes to networking or in real-life situations, it can be really confronting, and I know you go through this a little bit yourself.

Derek:

Yeah, I think it’s part of the reason why introverts are really drawn to being entertainers or being in music. I think it’s two things. For one, to build up the kind of skill that people will pay money to hear – to be that good on your instrument or that good at singing or that good at performing on stage, it takes hundreds or thousands of hours alone in a room practicing and not just playing. Not just playing out on street corners every day, but actually sitting down and practicing that difficult passage until you’ve got it under your fingertips. Sing that arpeggio until you’re nailing it and all that kind of stuff. It takes a lot of alone time to be great at something.

So first, I think it’s that. I think us introvert-types really like being alone for as long as it takes to get great at something that just fits well with the personality. But then, I think the other interesting thing is that we all need some human connection, right? I think with introverts and extroverts, it’s just a matter of how much feels over stimulating. So, I think it’s really interesting, this idea of going on stage for one hour and giving it your all, and you’ve now just connected with 300 people in that room in a very efficient way on your terms, and 300 people now feel an emotional connection to you, or 3,000 or 30,000, and then you get to go “Aahh,” and go backstage and just like collapse, and how cool to just give it your all for one hour and make those connections?

I know a lot of musicians do the same thing I do. It’s like you get off stage and you go backstage and you just go ”Whew!” You’re just spent, and you just gave it your all and you just need to recover a bit. I think it’s the same thing with not being on stage, but just going to say, a conference, or going out to some kind of party or get together, or even just meeting up with – well, let’s not say one-on-one conversations because one-on-one conversations usually aren’t draining unless they’re just a miserable conversationalist – but it’s usually just the situations where you have too many people around. Conferences, for example, I like that you can go to a conference and emerge from your hotel room, show up for 90 minutes, turn to lots of people and say, “Hi, what do you do?” You can almost just kind of approach this thing with a list of some conversational questions that you can use to break the ice, and then after the first few questions, now you’re having a real human connection with another person, and it’s not exhausting at all because that’s when it gets rewarding. Especially once you get into a one-on-one conversation. Like I said, those usually are not draining. It’s just when you look at a room with like 500 people at a conference, and you think, “I don’t know any of these people. I just want to run away!” But does that help? I kind of included a couple of tangents in there.

Ariel:

Yeah, it helps tremendously. I think what you’re basically giving are tools. If it’s really intimidating to go into a room, think about taking yourself out of the equation, really. Because that’s what asking other people about themselves is. You could be anyone saying, “Tell me about what you do,” and I think that’s an enormous gift that so few have. You know, they’re always gunning it. They want to talk about “I got this thing! I’m doing this thing! And I have my pitch!” You know all that stuff. There is a huge gift in listening and in asking, and I know that you have this gift and people will end up telling you all kinds of things that would not come up in normal conversation because they’ve just been given the opportunity to share or just talk.

Derek:

Right. Right.

Ariel:

Without feeling like, you know, it’s carnival barker time because we’re at a conference or at a networking event.

Derek:

[Laughs] Oh, god, no, that’s the worst thing you could do! I think this is one of the most counterintuitive things about promotion is – I know we’ve heard it, but it’s hard to put it into practice instead of just theory – that the way to be interesting is to be interested. Right? We have our time on stage. Your time on stage of course, that’s just me, me, me, me, me time. It’s just you up on stage and everybody is looking at you. You’re not supposed to be so interested in the audience when you’re onstage. They’re into you. That’s understood. But when you get offstage, the best thing you could do is to just be interested in others, especially if we’re talking about a situation like a conference. It doesn’t even have to be an official conference, just any kind of get together where there are people in one place that could benefit your career in some way. The best thing you could do is to not talk about yourself, like just don’t be that annoying self-promotional person that doesn’t shut up about themselves because nobody wants those people around. They’re annoying and they pitch their shit to anybody who will listen. They’re like a mosquito. Right? Nobody likes mosquitoes. A mosquito enters a room of people looking to see, “What can I get out of you?” They just go up to each person and they just try to drain them and then move on. People hate mosquitoes, so don’t be a mosquito.

Instead, you look at a room of people and you usually just pick one – somebody that’s not already engaged in the conversation – and you go up and you say, “Hi. What do you do?” You get interested in somebody else because the other counterintuitive thing about conferences or any kind of public events is that that’s not where the real business happens. This is just where you’re making a little human connection with somebody. This is where this person thinks, “This is a cool person! This is somebody I’d like doing business with.” Because ultimately, people do business with people they like. Right? So, if you are a likeable person that they like talking to, and could see themselves enjoying working with, then the real business happens a few days later when they’re back in their office. When they’re sitting at their desk giving something their full attention. They’re actually working. Then, they can remember that cool conversation they had with Ariel:, who seems like a cool person. You send the follow-up email, and everything really happens in the follow-up. Not pitching your shit at somebody at a conference.

Sometimes I think the best promotion you can do is to say nothing of yourself, or almost nothing of yourself, in the moment in those situations – maybe just one good sentence about who you are and what you do. Just one intriguing sentence, that’s it. And then shut up and listen and then make sure that you do the follow-up, because especially when you go to these conferences, 99% of the people you meet don’t do the follow-up.

Ariel:

That’s so true. It’s unbelievable.

Derek:

Which means they just completely wasted all of their time and money because nothing is supposed to happen at the conference – everything happens in a follow-up. So it was amazing to me, like how many people, especially when I was at CD Baby, I would give my business card to. I would really come with a stack of a few hundred cards and only give them to people who asked, and then I just sit back and watch to see what would happen, and I’d get like one or two follow-ups after the conference a week later and that’s it. And I’d think, wow, hundreds of people just wasted all their money because it’s not about pushing your shit at somebody - it’s all about the follow-up.

Ariel:

Right. I printed my mobile phone number on every single one of my business cards – thousands of them. I think I can count three times that people have either texted or called me directly.

Derek:

Wow...wow.

Ariel:

Yeah!

Derek:

See a lot of that is just social anxiety. People are just like, “Oh I don’t know what to do!” That’s what’s so interesting about some of these books and techniques that have been used to teach people, like the original 1930s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. There have been a dozen other books similar to that, like Power Schmoozing, How to Make People Like You.

Ariel:

Never Eat Alone… All these books. It’s the same version of that classic for sure.

Derek:

Yeah, and a lot of them have very specific bits of advice like that. I remember the writer Neil Strauss, who was a journalist and a great interviewer, said that whenever he’s talking to somebody he listens for what he calls hooks. He said, “I almost kind of imagined little fish hooks in a sentence. Whenever somebody says a word or a phrase that I think I could ask more questions about that.” So, if somebody says, “Well, you know where I’m from, we don’t do that.” But of course, that just leads up to, “Well, where are you from? And why don’t people do that where you’re from?” Listening for those fish hooks that you can add more questions to. It’s just like a simple technique, but it’s powerful, and sometimes these things are artificial techniques at first, but then you internalize them and they become natural, kind of like music. At first, some teacher teaches you to put your fingers on the frets like that. Even though it doesn’t make sense to you, you’re going, “Like that?” Then, eventually, it just becomes natural and it’s just the way you make music. I think it’s the same thing with people skills. You can learn them unnaturally at first, which might feel weird. Just let it feel weird for the first two times and then it’ll feel natural.

Ariel:

I love that you have the word “people” in the title of your new book.

Derek:

Oh, I gotta tell you how that happened! Okay, so for years, I had been calling this collection of essays “How to Call Attention to your Music”. Before that, I think I called it “Marketing Your Music” and I just kept feeling like eh that’s just not the right title, and I’m like, what about this? What about that? I tried a bunch of titles. Then I did a word count. There’s a thing you can do on the computer, where I took the entire finished book and I said show me the most popular words sorted in order. Of course, the most popular words were “the” and “a” and “and,” but then immediately past the articles and conjunctions, the first most popular word after that was “your.” The next most popular word was ”music,” and the next most popular word was “people.” And I was like there you go – Your Music and People. That’s what this book is about, and actually just a couple more words down, the next most used words were “creative” and “considerate.” I keep talking over and over and over again about being creative and being considerate. So the subtitle of the book is ”Creative and Considerate Fame.” So I just figured I’ll just go through the most popular words in the book and just use those.

Ariel:

I love that – creative and considerate fame.

Derek:

Yeah.

Ariel:

Because if you think about the sort of fame in 2019 like the Kardashians, it’s neither creative nor considerate.

Derek:

Right. It’s different. Different role models. There’s a T-word, I won’t mention it. People wanting to be rich should not emulate anybody who got rich. You look at somebody who got rich the way you want to get rich, and go for that. I think it’s the same thing with fame. I think you’re famous. I think I’m kind of famous. Fame can be any amount that you want it to be. Fame doesn’t have to mean stupid Kardashian fame.

My dad is actually a famous high energy particle physicist. If he gets into an elevator or a conversation with somebody else who’s in particle physics, they’re just like, “Holy shit, you’re THE Doctor Sivers?! Oh, my god.” But nobody would recognize him outside of the narrow field of particle physics, and that’s the best kind of fame. So, you could just be famous among jazz bass session musicians, and that would be really cool.

Ariel:

Yes. For sure. There is an article that you wrote quite some time ago and then rewrote that I’ve been visiting a lot lately, and you call it “Balance,” and it’s an article that has been striking a chord with me. Because as I’ve shifted what we do here at Cyber PR from being publicists and pitching music to being more on the strategy side and helping our artists with the large picture of what does the next year of your career look like, I am always hearing the same theme and this deep urgency that I feel a lot of creators have to make music full time, and to make money off of everything. We have to license and we have to understand where every penny is coming, and we have to have multiple streams of income. The reality of what’s going on with Spotify is it’s harder and harder to make money the way that we used to, and so everybody’s in this conversation about making money. But that article – instead of delivering a 150-page marketing plan to a lot of artists that call me and want this, I feel like I should just deliver “Balance” – your article. Can you talk a little bit about why you wrote it and what it’s about?

Derek:

Yeah. There are some things in life that we are predisposed to believe. We believe them first, whether there is evidence or not. There’s other things in life that it takes us a while to admit that this is true, whether we like it or not. So for years, I would just tell everybody to just follow your dreams all the way. Whatever you’re thinking, go do it all the way through, find what you love and let it kill you. Throw yourself into this completely.

And, I think maybe there are certain times in your life or for certain people or certain situations where that’s the correct advice. But what I started noticing slowly again and again, just meeting hundreds or thousands of people and talking with everybody, is that the happiest people I know are the ones who have something that pays their bills, like some kind of regular job that doesn’t suck their soul dry. They just kind of show up, and it’s just kind of like no big deal. Maybe they just work at the government office shifting papers from left to right or whatever. But they show up. It’s easy. It doesn’t drain their soul, and that pays their cost of living. That means your mortgage, your house, your life lets you save money and then, they pursue their art seriously in the hours outside of that. Whether it’s morning people waking up before work, night people staying up late or just doing it on weekends, whatever it is. To have this magic balance you have to pursue it seriously. Because here’s what happens is I feel that everybody I know who’s a full-time artist, not everybody, but almost everybody I know that’s a full-time artist, is weary because it can kind of suck your soul up.

You’re being vulnerable full-time. You know, you’re naked full-time. Your heart is sliced open full-time, and that can really drain your soul. So I’ve kept in touch with a lot of people over the years. You see it suck the life out of them, like constantly trying to make a living with their art, or they get upset because they found some compromise where instead of doing the gigs they want to do, they’re doing cover band gigs or they’re playing as a sideman for somebody else when what they really wanted was to be their own frontman. So, they compromise and then they feel weird about that compromise because they’re kind of like, “Well why did I get into this in the first place? It’s not to be somebody’s sideman. This is never what I wanted. I know right now I’m doing jingles like, yeah, I guess this is music, but what am I doing?” You know? So I noticed a lot of those people are not happy. Then of course, entertainment and music is a gig economy. So every time you do something, you’re wondering where your next gig is going to come from and you’re having to constantly try every single thing all the time.

OK, so then there’s the other half, which are the people who have a day job that drains them and they don’t give their art the serious attention it requires. Those are the people who let their day job take over their life too much and they feel like a stone statue version of themselves. They feel like a shell of their former passionate self because they’ve let all of their passion disappear. They’re going through the motions, but their life feels empty because it has no art, it has no meaning, it’s not filled its soul, and heart, and ambition. They’re just going through the motions, so those people are miserable, too. You don’t want to go all the way into the life of a day job and letting your art be something you do for a few hours on the weekend. No, that’s not enough. It has to be a balance of both. The happiest people I’ve met are the ones who have the day job that’s not taking up too much of their life and then they actually seriously pursue their art, meaning, not just playing music, but practicing and improving, and sweating out what it takes to make that song great, or learning some new style of music on your instrument that you weren’t good at before. Continuing to take lessons, challenging yourself, and continuing to grow as an artist and then releasing your music. Not just saying, “Oh you know, I’m just going to leave it sitting in my bedroom,” but actually releasing it to the world, but not caring too much whether it sells well or not, but giving it a serious go. Then it seems to me that each half of your life becomes a remedy for the other.

It’s like you’re at work, you’re earning money, but your soul, your heart, your art is a little dormant for eight hours, and then you go back to this side of your life and then it flowers and flourishes and you’re creating and you’re making things and changing your corner of the world. But once you send out your music for whether it’s reviewers for opportunities that you hear of, you send it out and get constant rejections, and it’s just like goddamn, this vulnerability hurts. Then, you get to just go back to work. Each half becomes a remedy for the other half of your life. And these are the happiest people I’ve met – the ones that have balanced their life this way.

Ariel:

It almost takes away all that pressure from the music side? Because I never thought of it the way you just said it. The day job actually helps to alleviate the pain and pressure of the rejection. Then the need that, okay, this has to get wherever it needs to go in, whatever you choose. I love that. I will obviously put a link to this article and another one that’s come up recently from a much more millennial perspective than Derek: and I have, which is all about how the next generation below us has really taken to heart that if you have a passion, you have to have a hustle around it. And how that’s also quite detrimental. The article cites a woman that makes beautiful dresses just for herself, but she doesn’t have to start an Etsy store, she can just make the dresses for the beauty and art of enjoying the journey of making a dress. You know, I love cooking and that’s my outlet. I just like to cook. I have no intention of starting a restaurant or a catering company. It’s just really nice to have people come over and prepare a meal for them or cook together.

Derek:

Right. The most lewd and obvious one is like is sex. Just because you enjoy sex doesn’t mean you need to make money off of it. You can just enjoy it [laughs].

Ariel:

Back to Neil Strauss, right? Exactly [laughs]. So that’s right. Or gardening or any of it. But I think around music and art specifically, there is this messaging about if it’s not a full-time gig, if it’s not legit, you’ve failed somehow. And so many artists, you know, they pay me money and they won’t tell me what their day job is because there’s some sort of weird shame around that, which is why I love your outlook on it. It’s just a different way of balancing these two things.

Derek:

By the way, I don’t know if it’s too late for anybody listening to this, but if it’s not too late yet, if you can still adopt a stage name, I highly recommend that. I think it is so healthy to disconnect a little bit. Paul Hewson knows that Bono is his public persona and Paul Hewson is who his friends know. I’m sure his friends don’t call him Bono. If somebody calls him Bono, he knows they’re referring to the public persona. It’s a good reminder that the public you is not you, that if somebody is leaving a nasty comment on something you’ve created, that’s not you. That’s not the real you. They’re commenting on something you created – even if they’re attacking you. What they’re really attacking is an avatar of you. Almost like you’ve created a little video game character that’s running around and somebody is hacking at it with a sword. That’s not you personally. I think that you can understand that without getting a stage name. I’m actually very disconnected from my public persona. Both directions – if somebody says something nasty about me, I think it’s kind of cute. If somebody gushes praise and compliments on me, I also just think that’s not me. They’re just praising something I’ve created. But the real me is just sitting here on the couch with my dog and it’s not the public me. I think having a stage name makes that really obvious and I highly recommend it. Therefore, somebody could be a practicing dentist with a fairly stable life as a dentist from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and then once you get home from 5 p.m. to midnight, you are, you know, whatever. D.J. Lava Face, and there is no mistaking which one is which. Yeah, I highly recommend that.

Ariel:

I love that. That is a perfect place, I think, to end this fantastic few minutes with Derek Sivers. Do you have anything else that’s on your mind these days that you want to share before we sign off?

Derek:

Yeah, I’m actually looking to take lessons in modern music arranging. When I was at Berklee School of Music, there were classes in arranging for a big band and classes in rock music arranging that were just like, have the bass drum and the bass line match up! Oooh you know, big stuff!

But I’ve been thinking about how much I admire sophisticated pop arrangements or sophisticated arrangements of any modern music where there are so many layers in that production. But it’s not necessarily the music production that I’m interested in, you know, tweaking the cues and such. But I’m so fascinated with a combination of musical instruments together – like more than I’m interested in just the guitar or sax or drums. I’m really interested in how instruments go together. So if anybody listening to this wants to email me with any advice or courses or where they’ve learned about arranging and combining instruments, if you go to sive.rs/contact. I put my email address in huge letters there. So just email me and say hello.

Ariel:

Derek, Thank you. Delights always. Book is coming out sometime within the next couple of...

Derek:

Ah who cares [laughs]

Ariel:

Get on his email list, and are you on social media these days? Can anyone ask you questions? No more Twitter? Nothing?

Derek:

Email me. It’s like every now and then I check to see who @ mentions me on Twitter, but the most interesting things I have to say won’t be said in one sentence. I usually have more than a sentence to say about things. So, if you have a real question that needs more than a few words, just email me. I read all my emails. I reply to all.

Ariel:

So there you go. He reads all his emails.

Derek:

And replies to every single one. I don’t think it’s that hard [laughs]. Anyway, thanks for the chat!