Behind The Scene: Jesse Cannon – Producer, Author, and More
As a fan of the music we cover here at 36vultures, Jesse Cannon has likely had a hand in the creation of some of your favorite records. And, arguably, that may not even be what he is best known for. In addition to being an accomplished record producer and mastering engineer, Jesse wrote what is currently the most popular book on the music industry, Get More Fans: The DIY Guide to the New Music Business; co-founded Noise Creators, a service built to pair up bands with the best fitting producers; hosts the Noise Creators Podcast; and is in the finishing stages of Processing Creativity, his second book, which focuses on the creative process.
The first thing I did when we got on the phone was turn one of his favorite questions from the Noise Creators Podcast around on him: “What is something that you believe in that other people think you’re crazy for thinking?” His immediate response was his opinion that “acoustics for inside the control room is a con game.” Based on his experience, rooms that focus on wall-to-wall deadening and covering every surface with absorptive material “actually translate better than a lot of the rooms that I’ve been in that have spent five or ten thousand dollars on trying to do acoustics properly.”
The other, perhaps even more shocking, thought is that “the recording studio is over-rated. Records should be made in the recording studio itself in under two weeks and all the work should be done before you ever get to the studio.” Metallica and the popular record-making moves they’ve put out seem to be the ones to blame for the “we’ll finishing writing in the studio” mentality becoming the norm. “Most of those records that they’re writing in the studio are the shitty records that they’ve been documenting and the ones where they do a terrible job. When Metallica was at their prime, they were slaving away in rehearsal studios and then going into the recording studios and just putting down what they had rehearsed and thought about extensively.” In Jesse’s opinion, “the only time where you’re ever changing anything [in the studio should be] when you get more inspired and hear something new.”
This is something Jesse feels so strongly about that he is switching up the way he works as a producer. “I’m working on trying to do more development before we ever hit record and less development after the recording studio process has started,” he says. In fact, he goes as far as saying that the title “producer” is somewhat of a misnomer and that the real job should be “creative director.” In his mind a producer’s objective just shouldn’t be simply to get the biggest mix and the loudest records, “to me that is just the silliest shit on Earth.” Rather, it is their job to figure out what’s good about a band, how to accentuate it, and present them with the creative process that will best facilitate that. Jesse has been making it a point recently to sit down with the bands he’s working with to have an honest discussion about not just their strengths as a band, but also their weaknesses. Then, in addition to bringing out the positives, he tries to “figure out how we’re going to get through their weaknesses; how we’re going make a process that makes it so that those weaknesses don’t kill them.” The solution can be as simple as having a singer who struggles with writing harmonies take the time to experiment and focus on writing harmonies until things click. In the end, “a producer should be bringing more thought to what a band does because they’re experienced at bringing that out.”
With Processing Creativity Jesse is creating a guide to foolproof the creative process and make sure it doesn’t fail. While the content of the book changed and evolved throughout its writing, inspiration for it actually stuck the very day Get More Fans was released. It started out with an amazingly glowing review on HypeBot. “Like literally when I dreamed of what the book reviews for would say, this was beyond it… But one of the comments really stuck with me.” This comment criticized the book’s focus on promotion over songwriting, simplifying things to the point of saying, “if you put out something really great, it’ll spread.” While Jesse still believes that to be incredibly shortsighted and naïve, “what did strike me is that what I know a lot about aside from the music business is how to make great records. I’ve been in the room with some of the biggest musicians who have made some of the biggest hits and I’ve been in the room with some of the smallest ones; I’ve seen a lot of things in common.” The book then started with the simple idea of boiling down the similarities between people whose music has inspired even a small fanbase and contrasting that with the records where literally no one has streamed a song. While Jesse doesn’t believe that everyone who reads the book will put in the full effort these processes require, he does agree that great music is the best marketing tool and believes this holds the key to achieving it. “Now if you have the ideas on how to make great music and the ideas on how to market it [by reading Get More Fans], then you should have every tool at your disposal. The only last ingredient is hard work and execution.”
Much like what happened with the first book, Jesse expects to face questions from many people asking, “Why would you give this type of knowledge away?” The way he sees it, “your own knowledge just gets further so it doesn’t matter anyway.” The other major perk is that “I can honestly say that three and almost a half years out from the release of Get More Fans, I’ve seen some people go on to do absolutely amazing things.” Despite the messages of thanks and praise he’s received “the funny thing is that any time I navigate to their website or I watch them on social media, they’re not doing all the things. They’re not fully optimized.” So even though these books present all the right tools there’s still the fact that “1. People aren’t gonna agree and 2. People aren’t going to be able to absorb everything.”
The lack of total absorption and the call for a more handbook style version of Get More Fans led Jesse to create a vastly abridged version with the goal of giving people a crash course in 30 minutes or less (And it’s available now, for free!). The process for deciding which advice would make the cut was surprisingly ingenious. “So many musicians email me or ask me when they’re in the studio or ask me at a bar a question about what they do. So I started to just retain. I used this program called OmniFocus and I would just put in the folder every question somebody asked me for 10 months… I just literally made sure that I answered all the most common questions that I got. I figured that that was the best way.” Even so, the process of narrowing it down was challenging and the first time he thought it was done, it was twice as long. “I always joke that as a record producer I’m basically like a book editor in the same way that I’m just saying, ‘this is too long, this is too short, this is the best part of it, why aren’t you accentuating it, why aren’t we doing this, did you think about doing it this way?’ And that’s what a good editor does.” The main issue he faced was the fact that “when you understand a concept well enough to write an exhaustive thing on it… it’s so hard to get back down to a novice’s level.” Jesse believes that “at the end of the day, I needed to hear some harsh feedback on this” and credits editor Ashley Aron for being able to put things into perspective.
While best known for his contributions to the punk scene, Jesse is proud to admit that he has an equal love for dance music. “When I grew up it was right at the time that I think dance music stopped being just party music – that it started to be experimental. And I think what I’ve always enjoyed in music is the experimental. I mean the other thing is that I listen to a lot of prog rock, too. It’s even funny that I always joke that I live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and I don’t listen to any indie rock and now lately I’ve been listening to tons of indie.” While bands like Aphex Twin and Prodigy were the first to start sparking his interest in dance music, “there was this band that’s very much forgotten these days called Atari Teenage Riot that really took the lyrics and attitude of punk at the time and blended it with dance music. So you’d have punk guitars with more dance-y beats and that just really pulled me right in.” When it comes down to it the real draw of music as a whole is the emotion behind it and, growing up at the dawn of emo and screamo, it was the people in those bands who were looking to explore new, intense emotional heights at the time. But then “punk got really stagnant for a while. Especially around 2008 or 9 I feel like it was just fake boy bands with shitty haircuts and all the bands coming into the studio spent more time on their looks than their music and they were expecting us to write their fucking songs. It was just so disillusioning. But what was interesting about that time is that that’s when dance music got really punk and, like, experimental got really abrasive. Groups like Justice and MSTRKRFT were really doing what I liked about punk – they were distorting and making it aggressive and it was the more intense emotion than had ever happened before.” While these things do come in waves it’s all about finding the new boundary-pushers when others drop off. Most recently the reigns seem to have been taken by indie rock. “I’m listening to records that came out two years ago because I just largely ignore indie rock a lot of the time, but I listened to the last Tame Impala record that came out last year and to me that’s doing the intense emotion that no one else is doing. Like they found a new language to speak of intensity that no one’s doing yet.”
Tying it back to the music industry Jesse believes that YouTube is the key marketing tool that dance artists are taking advantage of while punk bands fall short. “What I think is interesting now is that so much of emo and punk has become the people who are almost luddites. There’s exceptions, but a lot of the people who are in it are just not as tech savvy as the people who are into dance who sit in front of a computer all day and aren’t afraid of technology. So what I see is that a lot of dance music really embraces the newest marketing tools that are out and the newest ways of captivating fans.” “YouTube is the single biggest way by double that people discover new music right now. Spotify is slowly creeping up now that they have been doing some good things with music discovery, but YouTube still has them by double when you do the research. And no punk band is taking advantage of this, but tons of dance bands are now taking advantage of this.” The closest example of a punk-leaning band using this opportunity is PVRIS, who have a music video for nearly every one of their songs. But, still, this is far from its full potential. “The day a punk band who does real, emotional stuff actually gets good at YouTube it’s lights out for every other band.” Much like the days when hacking for PureVolume and Myspace plays were enough to gain fame, the current crop of YouTube musicians produce “emotionless, vacuous, candy-coated bullshit. But they’re good at engaging their fans.” “There’s always a hole to be the person who’s good at marketing when they figure out that first thing… And there’s always gonna be that thing, but when the rest of the world catches on to that marketing tool and gets good at motivating fans, it’s lights out for the no talented people because of the democratization of music.”
Jumping back inside the studio it has been a busy year. Jesse is presently producing an EP with Franchise. Other recent projects include Breaking by Cold Wrecks, a solo record with Ezra Kire of Morning Glory, and “a record that will be out later this year with a band called Radiator King. It’s members of Dresden Dolls and Nine Inch Nails. That’s really awesome.” On the mixing side of things he worked with dälek, “who are considered one of the most experimental [hip hop acts] – they’re thought to be a lot of the inspiration for Yeezus from Kanye West.” Key mastering credits include Brand New’s “3 Demos, Reworked”, NOFX’s “Sid & Nancy”, and the Bad Books Daytrotter Sessions 12”. Oh, and he just finished up songs with Weird Al and William Shatner as well. While this alone sounds like a packed schedule before even factoring in the writing of a book and everything else he’s been up to, “it never feels like a lot. It’s so funny to me, it’s like unless I have, like, 20 records to say it just doesn’t seem like a lot.”