Ken Lewis: The Pitfalls of Major Labels, The Importance Of Work Ethic, Mixing Tips
In this post, musician/songwriter and AirGigs interviewer Chris Dunnett sits down with mix engineer, producer, and songwriter Ken Lewis to discuss Ken’s career, and the music industry. Ken has worked 19 Grammy winning artists. He’s worked on 99 Certified Gold and Platinum albums, and 70 #1 albums and singles to date. Ken addresses the pitfalls of major labels,
What are your thoughts on artists pursuing major label deals at this day in age?
One of the artists we’ve developed is a guy named Skrizzly Adams. He’s done about 85 million, 90 million streams on streaming platforms, mostly independently. He was signed to Atlantic records, didn’t work out for him. They signed him and it just never got off the ground. We had a great album in the bag that they never put out, so, you know, it can happen. And I think there’s a lot of artists that have experienced being on majors who will say the same thing. It was like, it was the end of my career, not the beginning. So I think if you’re going to pursue a major label that’s totally fine, if that’s the path that you want to go, you just need to understand that there are certain parameters… the deal is not the reward.
The deal is just a stepping stone on your way to stability and a career and any sort of name recognition and stardom, if you don’t have it yet. Too many people get the deal and think that they’re famous and that’s just the kiss of death right there. A lot of times, you know, record companies play the numbers game. They still sign way more than they’re gonna profit from and they know it. And you know most of those artists get caught in the system. But if you go the independent route, I mean, Des Rocs is around a hundred million streams independently. Now we’ve done an unbelievable amount of a sync licensing on his project as well. All independently. You know as an independent artist, it’s hard. You need great music, you need some sort of “savvy”. You need to know how to work your social skills and connect with your fans and things like that.
That was a great quote you said … “the label deal is not the reward”.
Yeah, a lot of people look at it as you know, I have gotten signed by a major label, I am now successful. I have succeeded but that is not the case at all. In fact I was talking about Skrizzly Adams earlier. I had him on my show one night and one of his most poignant things that he said…he said, virtually anybody who has been on a major label or is currently on a major label either hates their label now or hates their label later. There’s nobody on a label that loves their label. It’s just like bizarro world. So, you know, but they can make you famous. So I’m not saying that major labels are bad, they serve their purpose. And quite honestly, I’ve seen more artists destroy their own careers than I’ve seen labels ever destroy or shelf artists you know? So it goes both ways.
That’s true. So, to back up a little bit, some inspiration for others, how do young producers out there and wanna be mixing engineers go from being a young kid from Ohio get to where they’re working with Jay Z and Snoop Dogg and Mariah Carey.
Good question. I don’t know how the hell I did it. I mean, I don’t know if that path is repeatable. So, I mean, basically I went to Berkeley college of music. I graduated in 1991 and graduated with high honors, busted my ass at that school, went back to Ohio for a year and engineered back there and then went to New York city in 1993. I got a job as an assistant started on the intern schedule for two weeks and then learned, you know, all the studio protocols and all that stuff. And then was assistant. I had already done two internships during college. So I had worked at two other studios, professional studios, but I started as an assistant at Soundtrack in 1993 and worked my way up and was the number one engineer in a niner (9 engineers) facility within a year, was there for two and a half years and went freelance in 95 and I’ve never looked back.
So my path is not exactly (repeatable). I don’t know what to tell people nowadays. Jesus, what do I do? I think the biggest point of my longwinded story is people nowadays have this entrepreneurial spirit that you just think I’m just going to be a freelancer. I’m just going to go out and, you know, I’m just going to produce for people. I’m going to mix. I’m going to be a mix engineer. Who the fuck is going to hire you to mix shit and why? Nobody hires you for anything meaningful at all until you have credits and how do you get credits? You either develop an artist and get them a deal and hang around for the ride and you need to have good contracts in order to hang around or, uh you start in a studio as an employee, an assistant of a big producer or a big mixer, or a studio somewhere where you can get bonafide credits and bonafide experience. Because, you know, if you’re young in this game you probably really don’t know shit about record making. So there’s some guys around who can really help, you know, fill in some gaps for you and make you a lot better at what you’re doing. So I think a lot of people just don’t have the patience nowadays to say “Oh, I want this now.” They see what he has and don’t take into account the 29 years of seven days a week that it took to get and stay there. I just want “that”. Like how, how do I get that? I’m your competition? Good luck with that, right?
Right. One thing you talk a lot about is just having a really really strong work ethic. Can you touch on that real quickly?
Yeah. I still have been working seven days a week, almost my entire career. I’m 29 years into making major label records and, you know, I could slow down, but every time you turn down a gig, somebody else takes that gig. And the person that takes that gig probably is going to get the next 10 or the next infinity phone calls from whoever gave them that gig instead of you. And if you turn down enough of those, all of a sudden your career really slows down and you don’t really know why. And so I try not to turn shit down that I think is gonna make sense for me, which usually means I work seven days a week. And the artist development is the thing. I mean, if I’m not working on something to make a paycheck in the moment artist development is – you can never put enough time into that.
You just never know what the thing is that you’re going to do. That’s going to help the thing take off or help you long term. So you got to work on it as much as you can in a smart way. And you know, it never ends. The biggest takeaway is if, if whoever gets that gig is probably getting the next one and you know, one of my big themes is if you’re going to take a gig you just do a hundred percent period! I don’t care if you hate the music or you love the music, or you hate the artist, or you love the artist. It doesn’t matter if your name is going on it. If you’re taking your paycheck for it, if you’re whatever, if you’re committing to it you either do your best job or you just don’t take the work because the person that you’re working for doesn’t deserve that.
If you’ve agreed then they are assuming that you are going to give your hundred percent. So, you know, so if you’re not going to give a hundred percent, just don’t take the gig. The great thing about that is I’ve gotten a lot of clients from artists who went and worked with somebody else who just didn’t really care about them and then came over and was like, Oh wow, He did the same thing for me that he does for everybody else. Oh, shit. I like him. Okay. And you build a career that way. Like for instance, I knew Kanye West as a client long before he was a signed artist. And I’ve been working with him since 2002. The founder of Cruella was signed to me when he founded Cruella. Ariana Grande, I worked with her before she was anybody. If I hadn’t done my best work in the moment, those relationships would have amounted to nothing long term. And maybe those artists would have amounted to nothing long term. That’s the scary part, you know, like who knows?
That makes sense. Okay. If you had to narrow it down, what are your top three mixing tips for people?
Stop thinking about math. Stop thinking about frequencies and ratios and thresholds and, you know, pan positions and shit like that. Just listen to the song and listen to what’s coming out of the speakers, your headphones, and just very simply listen. Take it in and ask yourself, what does the song need? And let the song tell you what it needs. So, for instance, this is an example of a change in that style of mindset, instead of thinking, like, I wonder if the kick drum needs more, one hundred Hertz, you listen to the song and you say, the song’s not driving enough. Why isn’t the song driving enough? Okay. The kick is not really doing its job. Okay. Why is the kick not doing it’s job? Is it just a fader move? Is it EQ? Is it compression? What is it? Is it only the kick? Is it the bass too?
It gets you thinking about a whole lot of other things that are music… not [just] technical bullshit. That doesn’t really matter. The technical stuff is all just tools to make the music sound great. And if you’re not focusing on the music first, then you don’t really have a basis to make it sound great because you’re focusing on the technology and not the music. So that’s tip one.
Tip two. It would be, I think one of the keys to getting great bright vocals is proper de-essing after high-frequency EQ. Controlling the S’s with a DSR so that it doesn’t sound lispy, but it doesn’t sound like those S’s are ripping your head off is the key to getting really bright vocals I think. And a good microphone really helps.
So tip three, have a good monitoring environment or a great pair of headphones that you trust. Cause if your room is not telling you the truth, then how can you possibly know what’s going on?
Right, And lastly why don’t you talk a little about audio school that you’ve got going on. You’re doing mix nights and tips and let people know about that.
So I’m doing two things in kind of the entertainment education sphere: Mixing Night, which is youtube.com/mixingnight. We’re doing a twice monthly broadcasts at 8:00 to 10:00 PM on Wednesday nights. We just gave away a real hardware Destressor on Wednesday night. So that was amazing. That broadcast has been growing really really well. Then I also have Audio School Online, which is my school… and nobody else does the tutorials. Audio School Online is more like I create tutorials that mostly fill in the gaps where audio school and YouTube training, you know, the mid level guys teaching you don’t necessarily teach you either the right things or you can’t necessarily trust. I mean if I’m teaching it to you, it’s something that I do on a daily basis that has ended up on a record that you’ve probably heard. And now I’m teaching you that technique. So it kind of cuts the bullshit factor right out of the YouTube and everything else and gets you kind of more insights into higher level stuff.
Special thanks to Ken Lewis for his time and wisdom, and to Chris Dunnett for making this happen. Stay tuned for more interviews from Chris soon.