The Art of Playmaking

Posted by Doug Simpson on Aug 23

When I started out as a musician, it was slow going. Like most, I studied my predecessors, imitated them until I started to roll into my own style. Once I had about thirty tracks, I felt pretty accomplished. I let a couple of folks hear some of my work and I got good responses and feedback. So, with those votes of confidence, I went back in the lab and made more songs. By that summer’s end, I doubled my catalog and felt strongly about my work.

I looked up music A&Rs and set up listening sessions with them at their offices (which felt like forever waiting for those meetings). The experience I had at one meeting in particular stuck with me to this day. It’s early afternoon and we’re in a conference room with a 12-seat oval mahogany table and a monstrous sound system. After all the pleasantries and ice-breaking convo, I jumped right in and started playing my tracks.

After the second track, the A&R stood up and called a couple of people into the conference room to join us. I saw this as a good sign. We got to about the fifth track and the A&R stops the playback. “That’s what's up…” he says and then begins to pull out a folder, which seemed to be a press kit. He hands me the folder for me to go through and then plays a record by the artist in the press kit. I was confused. The song was good. Great even. But why am I sitting here listening to this artist when I came to play my music?

I was now confused and deflated. We talked a bit more and the A&R and his staff saw me out, handing me his card saying “hit me up when you ready to work.” Now I was angry. I figured my talent would speak for itself. I came all this way, spent all this time and money and waited for an eternity for this meeting to be told “hit me up when you’re ready to work!?! Maaaaaaaan…. Was I confident? Yes (well, initially). Was I arrogant? Maybe. Was I ignorant? Absolutely. See, the thing I missed early on in my career is that opportunities are created and generated by you.

I entered that meeting with solid work. I came in with the “I’ll play my joints and we’ll see what happens” type of attitude, and  that was mistake number one. Had I done my homework BEFORE I came into that meeting, I would have realized that the A&R I was sitting with was overseeing multiple projects, so he was listening for what could work for his projects and his needs.

He called some of his staff in to gauge their reactions to what I was playing. Once he had their thoughts and comments, it confirmed what he wanted to do. I was a producer and songwriter playing songs. He was an A&R looking for songs to place with the artists. I came in not as an artist, rather as a pitching producer and songwriter. So that was the tone of the meeting. I came in for a life-changing moment but wasn't open to any possibilities. That was mistake number two. I also had not yet developed forward-thinking and bigger-picture vision in this business. Talk about missed opportunities.

So, what did I learn?

Be clear on your goals.  This business is like going into a mall with $1,000. If you walk in with that $1,000 and have no idea of what you truly want, every shop will help you burn that grand. You could lose that grand in one shop, on ONE item! So you might have wanted an outfit but you came out with a belt. Bravo.  

Clarity (and honesty with yourself) followed by forward-thinking and vision will allow you to see and attract opportunities, even when to the untrained eye there might not seem like one. See everyone’s win and you win by default. This is super-challenging for most people because of where we are as a society and what we have been conditioned to project via social media. Look beyond your win.

People want and need to connect to things. People crave community. They need points of relation, inspiration and aspiration. What we content creators give birth to needs to have some meaning in someone else’s life, not yours. Yes, share your story, but find the common thread when talking to people about it. That’s our job. Create the art and share the art. Allow people to interpret the art. That’s where it will find it’s legs, and meaning. You have a super-power, but if it doesn't benefit anyone but you, people tune out and seek to be saved by someone else.

So when you are having that next meeting, playing that hot-fire that’s destroying their sound systems, ask the A&R or the DJ (or the producer or songwriter) “what are you working on? What are your priorities at the moment” and offer your help with their initiatives. You will be surprised at the reactions and responses you’ll get from most people. If you are talking to potential fans, ask them “life” questions. They know you are a creative, but they also know that you have super-human ability. They want to be a part of your journey but they can help you on yours and even inspire greater work if you take the time to connect with them.

As artistic creatures, what we do and make is not for everyone, but everyone is (and should be) welcome to experience our magic. The art of listening to the world and everything in it will allow us to continue creating meta-human experiences. The need to share our struggles and successes will also contributes to the narrative. But it is the practice of clarity and forward-thinking that will evolve us into innovative artists, producers, musicians and content creators that will always see the opportunities that people will talk about, debate and analyze for decades to come.

Doug Simpson

Written by Doug Simpson

Doug Simpson, founder of Vintage75 Publishing and IronHorse Music Group LLC, is a producer, recording artist and award-winning songwriter. His work has been licensed for television, independent films and major motion pictures by Universal Pictures, MTV, CBS, Viacom, HBO and VH1 among others.

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