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We’re back with another "Chat With Pros"! Today we’re talking with Michael Torres, a Founding Partner of SoundLife Music Academy and A&R Manager at Position Music. Today’s chat is all about music publishing, sync licensing, the current state of the music industry, and how writers, producers, and artists can make a living in music.
I first met Mike in Boston at Berklee College of Music. We met as students and have remained the closest of friends ever since – although today’s story isn’t about us, or me, or even SoundLife. Today’s interview is about Mike’s journey from being one of the most in–demand bassists in Los Angeles, to killing it behind the scenes as an A&R Manager at a record label and publishing company.
Mike graduated from Berklee in 2007. For most of the next decade, he worked as a bassist… constantly. Mike spent years touring with big artists, most notably Macy Gray and Selena Gomez. With those artists and others, he has played an impressive number of major network television and awards shows, and even Cowboys Stadium for the Thanksgiving Day game. As a musician, he has reached heights that many people only dream of. Then he charted another course.
As an A&R Manager, Mike is directly responsible for signing, developing, and pitching music for producers, writers, and artists. For those writing, recording, and putting out their own music, today’s conversation will give valuable insight into what someone at a record label or publishing company is looking for.
Chris: Mike, thank you so much for doing this today. For those who have no idea, you and I have known each other for almost 20 years now. And I think some of the people that are part of our community know that we started SoundLife together and that we have this journey as musicians together, but there is a whole other side to what you do outside of SoundLife. That is what we want to share with everybody today. So, if you could just give our audience a little summarized version of your journey from going to Berklee to be a bass player to now where you're running SoundLife with me and also an A&R Manager at Position Music.
Mike: It’s crazy, right? I’ve done music my whole life. When it was time to start looking at colleges, there was only one I was considering, which was Berklee. My family didn't have a lot of money, so I did the World Scholarship Tour and was fortunate to get a pretty decent scholarship. On my first night in the dorms is where you and I met, and we jammed on some jazz standards. Our friendship started then. Throughout Berklee, we were in bands and did gigs all over town.
When I graduated, I moved to LA, and together we started auditioning and doing professional gigs. We worked a lot together, and then after a couple of years had gone by of us both living the musician's life, I know we both started thinking, “What more is there?” What else is there besides playing gigs and touring? Then I remember I came back from a tour with Selena Gomez, and you were like, “Let's go to Big Wangs and have a meeting, I have an idea.”
And so we sat down, and you showed me the business plan for what eventually became SoundLife, and it was based off of conversations we had when we were still students at Berklee. I had thought about a brick-and-mortar music school, but I hadn't really developed it. And then I went on this tour, and I came back, and you were like, “You know that little nugget of an idea you had? Here's an entire binder of how it can become an actual thing, and it's not a brick-and-mortar school. It's in-home lessons.” Then we got into it, and now, years later, here we are: SoundLife...
Throughout building SoundLife, I had done a lot of touring, but at a point, I had a couple of big tours get cancelled at the last minute for me. So while we were building SoundLife, I stopped touring and actually started working on the business side of music. I was very fortunate to be taken into this company called Position Music as an assistant to the head of Sync Licensing.
At that point, I was a 30-year-old assistant. I knew I had to hustle. So as we're building SoundLife, I'm also working at the assistant job, and in my first year there, I got a band signed and a couple other things going on. Eventually the president of the company and the head of A&R took me out to lunch, and they said, “You have to be in A&R.” And then two and a half years later, I'm still doing it.
For our students who are learning how to play an instrument, it’s important to understand the scope of what is beyond playing on stage. There are all of these other worlds as writers, as engineers, as mixers, in the business on the back side of things, how you promote, market, and share music. That's what we want to shed a light on today. What does it mean to be an A&R Manager? What does A&R mean, and what is your role as an A&R Manager in the sync and licensing world?
M: A&R traditionally means Artist and Repertoire. Back in the day, if you were in A&R and Frank Sinatra needed songs, you would literally pair him with a song; because traditionally, there were songwriters and then there were artists. They were separate. You had to get the right songs for the right artists. When bands like The Beatles started coming around doing their own writing, the lines got blurred, and now we have both scenarios fairly equally represented. These days, it is still very much pairing the right music with the right situation. A lot of my job is trying to get writers and producers connected with artists at major labels who are charting. It's also trying to get songs from my producers and writers that they've already written in front of those teams. So if I want to get a song placed with Sia, for example, I first find the song that is perfect for her, and then I try to get it in front of the right people.
There is also the publishing side of this, because Position Music is both a publisher and a record label. At the easiest level, it's dealing with copyright. You have two sides. You have your copyright on the writing side, and you have your copyright on the song side, so there are two different copyrights. As an A&R person, you're trying to bring in more valuable copyright. I have a bunch of writers, and my job is to keep them writing music and creating songs that have value to both me as a publisher and them as a writer. Then on the record label side, I have to get these songs out, promote them, and get them to make money so that the label and the artist also make money.
How do these songs make money?
M: Well, it's a good question. It's very difficult these days. There's the traditional way, which is streams and sales, but my company has gotten very good at synchronization, which is what we focus on a lot. Sync licensing is when you put music to picture. When you see that trailer for a new movie coming out and there's a cool rock song in the background, or you see that advertisement for the new Apple product and there's a really cool electronic track in it, those are all agreements between that product and a publisher. They pay the money to have the rights to use that music. The synchronization field within the last 5 to 10 years has blown up because there's so much media now. There's phones that are capturing media, and there's advertising on all these different platforms like Netflix and Hulu, and it's not just traditional broadcast anymore. The Sync industry as a whole is growing in response to the demand, and there's a lot of money out there. It's a multi-million dollar industry.
What's cool in sync is that though there's always gonna be the people that wanna use the big songs by the big artists, at the end of the day; for the most part, it's just the right song. If the song is right, they'll put in the ad or trailer or whatever, so a lot of artists these days are actually breaking through Sync. There's a band called Shaed here at Position, and their song "Trampoline" is in a massive Apple commercial. That commercial broke that band and took them from an independent band to the top of the charts. Artists are breaking through sync because it's such a great platform for discovery. It's a great way to promote yourself as an artist, and also it's a great way to make money. I have artists and producers who are making more money than a lot of major-label artists. As long as you have the right skill set and the right team behind you, you can actually make a really decent living off of just music, and you don't have to have a song on radio.
How much of A&R is getting writers to write the right thing for a situation versus going out and trying to find the right thing that already exists?
M: Good question. It's both. If I'm looking to sign an artist or a band that already has created music on an independent level, I need to sign something that says I think they're syncable. That's how we just generate income and revenue for everyone. So if I'm looking for a band and I'm not working with them creatively, they just have to have the right songs. There are specific sounds, lyrics, and styles that work better to picture than others. If I'm going out to see a band live, and I think to myself, "they have the right tone and the right sound," I will try to sign that band. That's a situation where the music is already created. I also work creatively with a lot of artists and producers where we just start from the ground up. They start demoing songs and send it to me, then I'll give them notes. They are definitely the professionals when it comes to writing and producing, but I know a lot more about sync and what has a better chance of placing. I might suggest we flip a lyric or maybe that a pre-chorus should set up the chorus a little differently. In this way, we are creating together to get a song that will work better in sync for them.
Do you find that writers are often more open or protective about making changes?
M: I would say 50/50. It's all about meeting people and understanding what they're looking for in a partner. If I have a first meeting with a band, I can get a vibe pretty quickly as to whether they're down to collaborate or more fixed on “this is my statement.” If they're the latter, then I don't even suggest. I just let them do their thing, and then hopefully it connects.
I think these days, Sync is a lot cooler too. In the late 90s and early 2000s, Sync wasn't cool. It was seen in the industry as selling out. Artists and writers didn’t want to be in that L’Oréal ad because they would be considered lame. However, once the labels started folding during the early 2000s and the value of a master in the market on a traditional level started dipping, meaning physical album sales, labels and artists started looking at other sources of income. They were like, “Okay, how else is my music making money?” That's when Sync started getting really popular. You see statistically throughout the 2000s that the Sync business grew and grew as a way to make money in music. The quality of the music also got better and better because now it’s not just independent artists. You have major artists that want to get their music in trailers and ads as well. Nowadays, it's not considered lame if you are in the Sync world. Everyone is all in. For example, a lot of people come to my company because they want help getting connected, and they want that creative input from our team. They’ll say, “Hey, how can I get more Syncs? Will you work with me?” So I think it's easier these days than it was before to find talent, but in general, it's still half and half.
Many of our students at SoundLife have really focused on writing their own music over the last year, learning how to record things at home, learning how to use the various recording softwares, and then going on to getting their music mix mastered and putting it out in the world. We have students who are ages 12 to 17, much younger than we were when we were getting started, who have an incredible head start. They have their own Spotify, their own Apple Music account. They have their own Instagram profile. They have their own image, some have websites, music videos, and other things like that. How does that person position themselves to be successful, if we think about success as creating art and delivering that to people, and being able to support yourself in that process?
M: Back in the day, the record label really handled those things like the websites, marketing strategy, photos, and the creative direction on all things outside of music. “What's the look and what's the story?” Now, there are so many tools at your fingertips as an independent musician or artist that the bar has been raised higher. I work at a label, and we still help with marketing, and we still help many of those other things. But if I'm looking at two artists, and I want to sign both of them, but one has done all this labor for themselves—they started the story or the creative direction, they have things on Spotify, they have an Instagram following and are creating content—it's much easier for me to see their vision and then go, “Okay, I wanna work with them.” Versus traditionally, back in the day, it's like all you need is a demo, and the label can say, “Okay. We'll figure out all the other stuff.” So I think a lot of it is very important to learn these things as early as possible. “How do I demo a song on my own and get it to a good spot where it's going to sound good if someone listens to it?”
I get pitched songs where they're very rough sometimes, and sometimes I can say to myself, “Oh yeah, I know what they're doing. I like it.” But in many cases, the quality of what people are sending in now is so high. A lot of times you get these songs, and it's like they're almost final, but they're still demos. For me, I'm getting so many songs, that the higher quality things I get are the ones I'm going to be more attracted to. Also, I'll be able to clearly hear better what they're trying to do or say in a song. So I think it's very important these days to start that early, like you're saying with our students. Learn how to record yourself. Don’t only learn how to play your instrument and play it well, but think, “How do I record it into my computer? How do I get it out onto Spotify or SoundCloud? How do I promote it outside of that? Do I want to do a little home video for YouTube or a quick 15-second clip for Instagram?” All of those things make a huge difference these days because it really helps give a clear idea of the package to someone on my end, who's looking for it.
So what you’re saying in all of this is that the record business isn’t gone, it’s just evolved?
M: Yeah, it's made it possible for anyone to get involved. I'm seeing musicians that we came up with who were just focused on gigging, but who now are becoming artists themselves. They're doing things like branding and music videos. I think it's just the next evolutionary step. If you want to just tour and play gigs, that's all you want to do, it’s totally cool. But if you really want to grow something outside for yourself, you have to think of all the other things involved with it.
We always talk about empowering kids with tools to be successful in life, that's the whole inspiration behind SoundLife, and I feel this takes it to another level. Now, as musicians, we get to be creative with our image, we get to be creative with how we present ourselves, with our story. We get to be creative with where and how we share our music and our audience. How does a student who's thinking about things this way position themselves to get noticed by someone like you?
M: The very first thing I consider is the songs. They have to work. It has to resonate with me. I first listen, and then if it's something I'm interested in, I'll start clicking around and looking more into it. So the very first essential thing is the music, the song writing, the performance of it. Beyond that, it's all the other sonic things like drum sounds, vocal sounds, and production—things like that. Also, how did they get it to me, and have they taken the time to really develop themselves?
Last question: how did your music education position you to be able to communicate and work with these musicians, writers, producers, and artists?
M: A lot. Actually, I think that's what helped me move into and grow pretty quickly at my company. A&Rs are not typically musicians with that type of vocabulary. They more often came up in the business side, legal side, or management side of the industry. These people know music obviously, and they know how to communicate it, but I know how to communicate it on an actual note level. I find a lot of the producers I work with are very appreciative of that because typically the joke is always like, “Oh man, the label says the song should be more blue or it's not happy enough.” It's so vague. What does someone mean by that? I can say, “Go to a flat VI cord, it's too moody, keep it at a flat VII to I and leave it unresolved on IV, or whatever the case may be. Then the producer would be like, “Oh my God, it's so helpful.” It saves a lot of time. I think that's helped me move a little bit quicker into my role just because I was able to quickly and efficiently talk with my producers and writers without being vague.
That's perfect. Alright, so everybody who's heard this out there, get your stuff together, start now and never stop, and every little thing matters. Thank you, Mike.
M: Thank you.
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Interview by Chris Vazquez, Founding Partner of SoundLife Music Academy and a professional session musician in Los Angeles, CA.
At SoundLife Music Academy, we make it our mission to continuously bring valuable, exciting, and helpful information to our students. One of the most valuable things a developing performer can learn is that working in music is so much more than just one single path. This interview is part of our ongoing interview series with professional musicians from all avenues of the music industry, where they share stories of their own personal paths to successful and rewarding careers in music.