Ten Tips for Students from Nashville Pros and Recent Arrivals

By 
Mike Keefe-Feldman
March 27, 2014
Former Berklee student Charlie Worsham, a singer-songwriter signed to Warner Bros., offers advice to students on the 2014 Berklee Nashville trip.
Photo by Mike Keefe-Feldman

The 120 students who participated in the 2014 Berklee Nashville trip received a wealth of wise advice from music industry heavy-hitters as well as some recent arrivals on the Nashville scene. Here are some of the tips imparted to students.

1. Keith Stegall, songwriter, artist, and producer (Alan Jackson, Zac Brown Band, Randy Travis), on getting one’s start in music:

“You’re not going to attract what you need into your universe until you begin to have a bit of success. So, part of it is just sucking it up and doing what you can on your own until you start breaking ground and getting a little attention. The only trick I used that got me in a bunch of doors was after I had met with Kris Kristofferson. Every time I would get a meeting in Nashville, if I could get to the receptionist, I’d say, ‘Well, you know, Kris told me to come to town.’ And they’d say, ‘Kris who?’ I’d say, ‘Kris Kristofferson.’ And then it would be, ‘Okay, just a second.’ So you figure out how to do little things like that that get your foot in the door.”

2. Gary Burr, songwriter (Tim McGraw, Garth Brooks, LeAnn Rimes), on songwriting:

“You don’t want to mix your metaphors. You don’t want to have the guy be a boat in one verse and a kite in the next. Which is he? He’s either a boat or a kite. You also don’t want to mix your senses. If you’re seeing things in a song, don’t switch to hearing things. Stick with one sense, or it gets confusing.”

3. Brent Maher, six-time Grammy-winning producer (Tina Turner, Kenny Rogers, the Judds), on balancing organic sounds and technological tools in music production:

“The difference between a fake diamond and a real diamond is that a real diamond has flaws. There is a false bar of perfection that technology has given us, but perfection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Don’t let that technology take you away from the honesty of what you want to do. Use it as an advantage, but not as a crutch.”

4. Kyle Lehning, producer (Randy Travis, Kenny Rogers, Phil Everly), on understanding the challenge of breaking new ground in the music business:

“The biggest problem of breaking something new in the business is what I would call the collective ego. If you bring a record to a major record company, one person will think, ‘That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard.’ If that one person could then put the record out, that enthusiasm would be seen through. But that never happens now. It used to happen all the time. But now there is a committee—of fear—that determines whether it can get through this system that will put it out. It’s the thing that makes me the saddest about the way our world works now.”

5. Charlie Worsham, former Berklee student and singer-songwriter signed to Warner Bros., on songwriting:

“The secret to songwriting is to just keep writing songs. It’s really that simple, because the more you do it, the better you get.”

6. Jason Lehning, producer (Brad Paisley, Guster, Alison Krauss), on how to figure out a payment structure for producers:

“It’s kind of whatever works. At a major label, it hasn’t changed much and any textbook’s going to have that deal in it. For an indie project, if, say, the artist owns their rights and publishing but can’t afford me, we’ll start looking at that, or other pieces like a larger royalty. I’ve never asked for a piece of anyone’s touring or anything that stretches deep into their career. It’s usually more attached to the material I work on, and usually I’ll put it to the artist to come up with something that they think feels fair rather than saying, ‘This is how it has to be.’ Then a back and forth happens and we figure out something that works for everybody.”

7. Eric Masse, engineer (Charlie Worsham, Robert Ellis, Escondido), on starting out as an engineer or producer:

“I’m a big believer in doing it yourself, buying your own recording gear, and making mistakes. I think the best way to get good at anything is to fail miserably at it. When someone says, ‘You know, this is just bad,’ that forces you to go and get better at it. You need to invest in yourself at an early age, especially in this industry.”

8. Liz Longley '10, singer-songwriter who has placed songs on ABC and Lifetime, on committing to one’s goal:

“I didn’t have a backup plan and if I did I think that would be a scary day. You’ve just got to keep going.”

9. Will Larson '13, guitarist who moved to Nashville one month ago, on networking:

“It’s good to just let people get to know you as a person—be nice, fun, and respectful—and hope that all of that leads to something. It’s not going into it thinking, ‘What can the people I’m meeting do for me?’ but you never know who you’re going to meet. For instance, Brad Paisley’s steel guitar player lives across the street from me. I could never bank on that, but he’s a super cool guy and he’s going to give me a pedal steel lesson. When I came down here on the Berklee trip, I kind of thought that people were being extra nice to me because I was a student, but in my experience so far, pretty much everyone I’ve talked to has really been that nice.”

10. Jessica Mullikin, former Berklee student who moved to Nashville nine months ago, on patience:

“If you come to Nashville, there’s just a lot of patience involved. It’s sometimes called a ‘five-year town’ because it often takes that long before you have that huge hit or that big tour.”

Read more about Berklee’s 2014 Nashville trip here.