You know a celebrity is coming to the Berklee Performance Center when a campus announcement informs students they will NOT be allowed to queue up at the BPC doors until 2 hours before an 11 o’clock event (you also know it’s a celebrity when students would choose to wake up before 9, but I digress).
And indeed, Berklee was visited by celebrity and Grammy Award-winning alum, John Mayer. Similar to his 2008 clinic, John Mayer demonstrated his candor about the pitfalls of the music industry, his sarcastic humor, and, of course, his skill as a guitarist and songwriter. Most impressive, though, was the amount of time and energy Mayer gave to the Berklee student body, spending almost 3 hours imparting wisdom, performing several songs, including some new songs from his upcoming album, and staying afterward to sign autographs and pose for pictures. But John Mayer was perhaps most enthusiastic about encouraging students to avoid letting promotion, particularly of the social media variety, interfere with their artistry.
Mayer began the clinic explaining that, although the industry has changed with the advent of social media, creating music requires the same discipline it always has, if not more discipline to combat the added distraction of online promotion. Referring to the allure of having an instant, albeit often shallow and fleeting, online audience, John Mayer cautioned against seeking out “joy in little, tiny statements – little, tiny applause hits.”
“I remember playing the guitar through the amplifier facing out the window of my house onto the street in the summer time – that was social media in 1992.”
John Mayer explained how this seemingly isolated musical grounding allowed him to concentrate on perfecting his craft and that students’ time at Berklee is perfect for this same level of focus.
“This time is a really important time for you guys because nobody knows who you are, and nobody should. This is not a time to promote yourself. It doesn’t matter. This is the time to get your stuff together. Promotion can be like that. You can have promotion in 30 seconds if your stuff is good. Good music is its own promotion.”
But John Mayer’s main reason for discouraging promotion came from his own struggle to curb using social media, which should have been an outlet for promotion but eventually became an outlet for artistic expression. Mayer shared that he found himself asking himself questions like “Is this a good blog? Is this a good tweet? Which used to be is this a good song title? Is this a good bridge?”
And possibly more alarming, Mayer realized that pouring creativity into smaller, less important, promotional outlets like twitter not only distracted him from focusing on more critical endeavors like his career, it also narrowed his mental capacity for music and writing intelligent songs.
“The tweets are getting shorter, but the songs are still 4 minutes long. You’re coming up with 140-character zingers, and the song is still 4 minutes long…I realized about a year ago that I couldn’t have a complete thought anymore. And I was a tweetaholic. I had four million twitter followers, and I was always writing on it. And I stopped using twitter as an outlet and I started using twitter as the instrument to riff on, and it started to make my mind smaller and smaller and smaller. And I couldn’t write a song.”
Although twitter was his most frequent whipping boy, Mayer also targeted the urgency beginning artists feel to update their blogs and youtube channels with new songs or videos to maintain steady flows of interest for their work. Instead, Mayer explained that he found the separation of creation and promotion necessary in his own career, saying “as you start playing music you’re going to stop thinking about getting better. As soon as you flip the switch into showing other people your music, for some reason, the other brain sort of goes away.”
“You got the distraction of being able to publish yourself immediately, and it is a distraction if you’re not done producing what the product is going to be that you’re going to someday use the promotion to sell…I had to go through the same thing I’m talking to you about – what you have to go through – which is to completely manage all the distraction. Manage the temptation of publishing yourself.”
So, to avoid the temptation of publishing himself and to increase his mental capacity for creativity, Mayer deleted his twitter, stopped blogging, and created a strict regime for recording his next album.
“Here are the rules for recording this record… no drum machines, no loops, no keyboards to start out with, no excuses, no breaks, no laptops, no nothing. If you take a break, it’s to eat. If you’re done, you go home.”
In addition to the distractions of promotion, John Mayer also discussed another enemy of creativity – judging songs before they’re finished.
“I can’t stress enough how important it is to write bad songs. There’s a lot of people who don’t want to finish songs because they don’t think they’re any good. Well they’re not good enough. Write it! I want you to write me the worst songs you could possible write me because you won’t write bad songs. You’re thinking they’re bad so you don’t have to finish it. That’s what I really think it is. Well it’s all right. Well, how do you know? It’s not done!”
After John Mayer’s main talk about distractions and mental capacity, he launched into an acoustic performance of “Shadow Days,” followed by a few more song-related topics that required demonstration. For instance, to discuss when and how to mix-and-match rhyming conventions, John Mayer performed his song “Age of Worry,” whose lyrical content about fighting against stress and over-wrought decisions lends itself to a less strict rhyming pattern. And to demonstrate how to write a I, IV, V song without sounding incredibly bluesy, John Mayer even performed one of his own new songs “Something Like Olivia.” But “Olivia” was just one of several new songs Mayer shared at the clinic, including “Face to Call Home,” which he also performed before launching into his second main clinic topic – the myths everyone tells you about being a musician and other mindsets to avoid.
Myths (and Negative Mindsets To Avoid)
- The Idea of “Right Time, Right Place”
“Not true! That would be true if you only played one show for your entire life. Then, the mathematical construct would make sense that you have to be in the right time at the right place. Forget about right time right place – it doesn’t exist! You create your place and you create your time through what you’re doing. It’s not about getting your foot in the door or meeting a person and them giving you an opportunity. Doesn’t exist. Does. Not. Exist. Nobody is going to sign you at a record company anymore – they’re not in the business of building an artist from scratch anymore. You got to bring them what you already have. “
Instead, John Mayer encouraged students at Berklee to focus on their craft and to prepare themselves for their career without concern for depending on others for a lucky break. Mayer concluded that this first myth is “dismissive of what you can actually do. It’s dismissive of your actual talent.”
- So Few People Make It In the Music Industry
Referring to his father’s remark that “it’s like the NBA – so few people make it,” John Mayer went off on the idea that there’s a maximum number of people who can become successful musicians – “There’s no set lid on how many people get to come in – its the art world.” And on a related note, Mayer encouraged students not to listen to naysayers who suggest having a back-up plan for music.
“Anybody who tells you to have a fall back plan are people who had a fallback plan, didn’t follow their dreams, and don’t want you to either.”
- Learning Too Much Theory and Technique Will Replace One’s Style
John Mayer ridiculed this myth, mimicking the nerdy grievance of many a music student – “Well, I don’t what to learn too much theory because I feel as if it’s going to replace my style that I already have.”
With his swiftest de-bunking of the clinic, Mayer said “I’ve been trying to extend my vocal range for 10 years. I just can’t get that original style to get replaced And I’ve been trying. So if I can’t do it when I try, you can’t do it when you don’t try. It’s a lazy excuse, it’s a cop-out, I am on to you, not allowed to say it anymore.”
John Mayer’s words speak best for themself on this topic.
“If you’re good, and you know you’re good, and you know you’re better than those people getting paid to do it, you still have to have an open ear….Nobody’s music is the enemy of your music…The idea that someone else has made it when they shouldn’t have made it is toxic thinking.”
- Rationalizing Another’s Work As Being Beneath One’s Own Work
This negative mind set was met with great laughter not just because of John Mayer’s humorous, anecdotal delivery, but probably because it struck so close to home “This is when you see somebody who’s frighteningly good and you stay and watch them until the moment you can rationalize with yourself that actually they’re not.” In addition to his earlier statement that “nobody’s music is the enemy of your music,” Mayer also added that “your limitations will define you in the best way. Your limitations make you who you are”
And then came the most anticipated portion of the clinic – the Q&A. John Mayer took a great deal of time answering each question with a long, fulfilling answer, but that meant that dozens of students who had lined up at the microphone throughout the audience (including one in the balcony which John Mayer dubbed the voice of god) were turned away empty handed, except in the case of one clever student who asked a student further ahead in line to ask Mayer to sign his guitar once he realized he would not make it to the microphone to ask Mayer himself. John Mayer was asked a range of topics from his feeling on rewrites (“I just feel like I’m massaging a dead body”) to his thoughts on a lack of support for a music career should become one’s fuel (“Anybody who’s made it will tell you, you can make it. Anyone who hasn’t made it will tell you, you can’t”) to his appearance on South Park and beyond.
But eventually Mayer needed to wrap up his time answering questions and closed the clinic with three songs from his older catalogue, “Stop This Train,” “Who Says,” and “Neon,” to the huge delight of the audience. Ultimately, I gained far more from John Mayer’s clinic than I had ever expected, especially given my sullen attitude about having to upset one of my professors over having my midterm moved to 9:00 that morning so that I can attend the clinic. But after it’s all said and done, I’m so glad I got permission from my professor to reschedule my midterm since Mayer’s wisdom about distractions and mental capacity definitely gave me a lot to think about……