Berklee Blogs

First-hand accounts of the Berklee experience

John Mayer 2011 Clinic – “Manage the Temptation to Publish Yourself”

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.”

  • Cynicism

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……

– Elisa

Previous

Berklee Presents Nick Goldston and Endangered Speeches in the Summer in the City Music Series

Next

BGJIQ at The Toronto Jazz Fest

45 Comments

  1. i just can’t get enough of this guy.

  2. Viviana torres

    Even though I don’t go to Berklee and am not a music major in any way this is an amazing piece.

  3. Ben

    Wow…that was spot on.

  4. Artistry wins out over hype for longevity and credibility every time. We’ve got to be sensible about self promotion. I’m old school, but do partake in a moderate amount of social media b/c it can be useful and enjoyable. Moderation is also the key to longevity. I admire his honesty and wisdom.

  5. Great article thanks!

  6. Every word of this makes sense. You can get so distracted by the little things that don’t mean much that you never do much that means anything.

  7. Fascinating — I have always wondered how much tweeting takes away from blogging, the time that goes into blogging subtracts from writing columns, and columns detract from writing books.

    Interesting to read about it from an artist like Mayer

  8. For an artist social media is a platform to share the creative process. True fans want to know what you’re doing in the studio, how are the sessions going, what new projects do you have?

    I find it hard to believe that Twitter was ransacking Mayer’s ability to write songs. Yes Twitter is a definite distraction but a song stealer? No way. He identified the distraction that was keeping him from getting work done and that’s fine.

    Mayer got in trouble on Twitter because he tweeted asinine stuff.

    Look at what Jane’s Addiction is doing. They’re promoting their new album via YouTube and Facebook. We get little glimpses of the songs but nothing even close to the finished product. It makes me want to hear the new stuff even more!

    Twitter is great and as an artist it’s a great way to engage with your fans. Is it a distraction at times, definitely. But a song stealer that steals your riffs? No way.

  9. Indeed – premature marketing doesn’t really do much good. Focusing on establishing a sound and “getting your stuff together” is important. However, it is not a bad idea to establish and know your way around social media. It changes rapidly and it is a very relevant form of marketing now and that is not going to change anytime soon. Companies are outsourcing to people like me to do this for them. I think I’ve put a little more effort into my own social media accounts lately because I’ve realized the the knowledge I have is valuable and I do in fact have something to promote. I will probably not get a record deal or ever be in a situation with record label size distribution and marketing, but because of the internet, I can push my own stuff. If I don’t keep up with twitter and all that stuff, I will be left behind. I know because I have been. Obviously, an artist should have more respect for their craft than relying on social media to “appear” to be something that they are not. Ethically, yes, that would be nice. That being said, if a new musician is not keeping up with all of the social media and the management of it, they will be unpleasantly surprised to find out that it does not take 30 seconds to promote something. Hopefully they have enough money to pay something else to do it for them. I wish that Berklee had offered a class on promotion using digital media when I was there. It would have been extremely helpful and relevant!

    But truly, I can depend on no one helping me. I am my own label and the internet is my forum of distribution. I was slow to start using social media as my own promotion and I really regret that.

  10. Thank you for writing this blog – would have been a great experience first hand but brilliant to experience through your writing.

    I really needed to read this.

    Thank you.

  11. Mike

    Fantastic words of advice!

  12. Keith Thomas

    Without question, the quintessential artist who happens to be my favorite songwriter on the planet!

  13. I have a few up-close HD videos of John’s new songs at my YouTube channel. Here’s “Something Like Olivia”.

  14. What an awesome bit of advice from Mayer. Spoke volumes, said a ton of stuff that I think every aspiring musician needs to hear. This was really helpful for me. Thanks for this! 😀

  15. A great blog. Some wise words from a very wise Guy.

  16. This is a very important article. Is it more important to create or to tweet?

  17. Thanks a ton for posting this!! The whole bit about focusing your creative energy into what actually matters is something I needed to hear.

  18. Great advice. There has to be a balance between using social media and not. Part of the appeal of using social media is not “depending on others for a lucky break” but building your audience on your own. Direct to your fans.

  19. Sarah

    What a wonderful article!! Thank you! Wish we had master classes like this at U Miami!

  20. At last some words of wisdom that actually could make a difference to the next generation of musicians. People buy albums when there is good music on those albums. It takes time, work and development to arrive at music that other people might want to hear and buy. There are no over night sensations that will last. The record companies have simply gone for style over content in recent years and blamed the internet for falling sales. Write some great songs, and when people start telling you that they love your songs, then you know you are on the right track.

  21. Thanks a lot. That was very helpful.

  22. I graduated from UT School of Music in 2003. If I had not had that time to lock myself away and practice for 5 hours a day I would be nowhere today.

    Not only does that time without distraction give you time to focus on your craft, it also builds skills that you can use to potentially fund your music career. For example, teaching. Teaching my instrument has given me the freedom to avoid finding a day job or a “back-up” plan.

    beyond that, this is some of the best advice I have seen come out of an artist to date!

  23. Ike

    Thanks Elisa, I truly needed to hear that!!

  24. Thanks so much for this great post. Really appreciate it

  25. Fantastic read. Glad to see John further striking the point for Artists to place focus on their product and realizing everyone has their place after working hard on their craft.

    Thanks for post Elisa 🙂
    Jiggy Piggy

  26. “your limitations will define you in the best way. Your limitations make you who you are” This is the most important thing Jm said IMHO. Find out what your non-talents are… and be OK with that.

  27. John has an excellent point – let others do the promotion and marketing. Stick to being an artist.

  28. I enjoyed reading this a lot…and I’m not a musician. Feels like it can apply to anybody building their career. I agree with James and Katelyn Benton. I think there are many talented artists that are grateful for Twitter/youtube for giving them more exposure. Moreso than hampering their creative process. Thanks for sharing this, saved in my favorites.

  29. Fantastic article! Well done, Elisa!

  30. Surprisingly a great read. Lots of solid quotes. I’m such a sucker for him, and this has made me excited for his new album.

  31. Alyssa

    amazing job, elisa! was well worth the wait! :):)

  32. John’s wrong.

    Yes, it was his account with which to do as he pleased. That said, it’s false to think erasing a space where 4 million people were passionate about his art isn’t a hugely wasted opportunity for massive social good.

    He’s wrong in so many places. Saying, “good music is its own promotion,” is insultingly bad advice. Play good music alone in a closet and it will not be heard. Twitter doesn’t truly allow you to manage your promotions — it simply allows you to manage the community your art built. How do people share good music? Social media. The community takes your content and shares it as they collectively see fit.

    It’s especially insulting because next he says of new musicians, “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.”

    Well, if you tell a record company ‘what you already have’ is a song you wrote, it’s simply not going to be good enough. If you tell them you wrote a song that your 20,000 Facebook fans already shared with their friends, you have the start of a bigger conversation.

    As an artist, one is constantly forced to deal with two conflicting influences — the need to remain artistically relevant, and the need to reach the maximum amount of people who might enjoy the art. I get that. It sounds more like Mayer was reaching an artistic level of comfort with Twitter, it freaked him out, and he retreated back into his guitar-based comfort zone. I read this as Mayer stifling his own artistic growth in a new medium. From the article:

    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?”

    I read that as Mayer saying, “Oh. There is artistry required with Twitter, and I’ve developed some.”

    And then he quit.

    The online world is very different than he describes. Try ‘amping out a window’ online today, and communities have very effective ways of blocking your information because you’re disrespecting their sense of community. The whole point of, say, Twitter, is engagement with a following — taking 4 million people and enabling each one to feel like you’re hanging out with them individually. Could hanging out with 4 million people instead of writing songs be detrimental? Sure. Is managing your desire to promote important? Sure. But organically building a huge, potent community of 4 million devoted followers of your life’s work only to abandon it with a sense of self-righteousness is sickening to me.

    I’d be more comfortable reading this article with the idea of, “content should count more than the distribution and promotion of that content,” but it’s too clear to me that Mayer is focusing on the peripherals of social media (promotion) and blatantly ignoring it’s core function (nurturing community). As an educator of social media to a class of students, this is inexcusable on his part. If you treat your Twitter account (etc) like a guitar amp built to broadcast thoughts out to who ever will listen nearby, yes, it will be as taxing and distracting as trying to constantly be loud enough in a crowd. But that’s not how social media works — maybe it used to be closer to this in the earlier 2000’s when social privacy rules were newer, but that’s not today’s internet.

  33. John Mayer is clearly a bright guy. But many of these maxims of artistry have indeed been around for a long time. Most notably, you are most uniquely defined by your weaknesses (for better or for worse). I’d also like to add that he certainly has people taking care of his internet presence while the rest of us professional yet lesser known artists still may find some utility in hands on marketing and networking via social media. I’ve gotten signed to a very respectable Roots Label (with some Grammy cred) via social networking online. It has its place but as Mayer suggests it certainly can become a HUGE distraction. I don’t think he is suggesting throwing it all out as much as he is suggesting a setting of priorities. Great blog…now I must go practice. 😉

  34. Kevin

    Thanks elisa. Great article.

  35. sara

    He is Brilliant.i just heard some of the new songs and i was flored.Amazing artist!

  36. Does anyone have a recording of his session/presentation ?

  37. Very interesting and insightful comments. However I doubt they apply across the board. While social media may have stifled his creativity, I don’t think that is the case for most people.

  38. This was a really great read i agree with Greg Nagy’s comment. It seemed more so that John got his priorities in order which helped him focus. At times I beleive Social Media can be very distracting just like other things ie video games maybe. Let me say that i am not a musician i am a photographer and I was thinking about doing the same thing (as John) myself before I read this post, i believe it will help out a lot, and im glad im headed in the right direction. 😀 thanks for posting this again!!
    -Dez

  39. I respect John Mayer as a singer, songwriter and guitar player. He is obviously a very talented musical artist. However, as an independent musician, I disagree with a many of the things he says here.

    It might be okay for an artist as mega-popular as John Mayer to ignore social media. He is signed to a major record label, after all. However, for the 99.9% of the rest of musicians, you MUST use social media to form a fanbase, interact with fans and create a buzz for your music. That’s just the way it is.

    It true that your fans and followers are paying attention to everything you post on facebook or twitter. That’s why you need to be creative with what you write and engage with your fans.

    “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.”

    Unfortunately, that’s just not realistic, John. The truth is that it is extremely difficult to make a living as a musician. For the vast majority of musicians, if you want to pay your bills, have a decent life and maybe even a family, you better have a “fall back plan” – that is, a day job. This is reality.

    You can definitely still follow your dreams with this. Keep doing music part-time and on weekends. Keep writing songs and sharing them with your fans on social media. Put your songs on iTunes, Amazon and other stores. Make CDs also if your fans like CDs, etc.

    If you keep at this long enough, eventually you may be making enough money to quit your day job if you want to. It’s a very tough road to take, but it can be and has been done by musicians.

  40. “Anybody who’s made it will tell you, you can make it. Anyone who hasn’t made it will tell you, you can’t”

    Perfect!

  41. there’s a manifesto written by an artist (Hugh MacLeod) for artists that I highly recommend. It’s at http://www.changethis.com and it’s called “How to be creative”.
    Says things like “if your plan depends on some big shot suddenly discovering you, your plan will most likely fail” and “ignore everybody”. Great stuff.

  42. Great slant, thoughts and article. You should submit this for professional publication in a music trade mag.

  43. A really interesting read. Thanks!

  44. Great article, re: premature marketing doesn’t do much good to anyone. Better to put the time initially into focusing on establishing a sound and “getting your stuff together” is whats more important at the start of your career.

    However, it is no harm at all to establish and know your way around social media. It changes rapidly and it is a very relevant form of marketing now and that is not going to change anytime soon. it all depends on the artist and how involved in the promotional side of the spectrum, some have massive teams surrounding them and let them take over that realm, whereas others like to become involved, but its not good if it deters the artist away from their creative flow. which is what I think Mayer was saying happened to him.

    Great article again, from a great musician.

  45. I agree with him on many points, EXCEPT…
    “DO NOT HAVE A BACK-UP PLAN.” What?!? I DID “follow my dream,” and I have no regrets about it. I DID NOT because “rich and famous” (like John Mayer), but I AM happy that I was true to my heart.

    It is totally UNREALISTIC to claim “nobody should have a back-up plan” to fall back on *if* they DO NOT BECOME A RICH & FAMOUS MUSICIAN. (“if???”…for most of us, it is “when!”) If that were true…ALL MUSICIANS WOULD BE RICH & FAMOUS, LOL!

    Unfortunately, only a VERY small percentage of us become rich playing music. Thus, most of a need to “KEEP OUR DAY JOBS” teaching music, working at music stores…or whatever other skills we chose to learn.

    DO HAVE A “BACK-UP PLAN,” because MOST OF US WON’T BE “RICH & FAMOUS” MUSICIANS…SORRY, but that is reality…period. By all means, “follow your dream” or you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. BUT…Also get training and education for a “day job” too. Most of us are going to need one!

    Strength Through Unity,

    Lynn
    http://CookieCutterGirl.com
    http://InnerSuperhero.com

Comments are closed.

Copyright © 2017 Berklee College of Music