Alumni Give Primer on Making it in L.A. Music Industry
Since graduating from Berklee, Jim McGorman ’95 and Steve Fekete ’96 have built careers playing with some of the biggest acts of the past two decades. But the path to success didn't roll out before them as they had expected. McGorman, a guitarist and keyboardist, left for Los Angeles in 1995 with dreams of being a soon-discovered rock star while Fekete stayed in Boston in hopes of landing a gig that allowed him to travel the world and play guitar.
Instead, McGorman got a job in the mailroom at Chrysalis Music (thanks to a former Berklee classmate) and got called to his first audition after more than a year and a half in L.A. Fekete played gigs around Boston until 2007, when he moved to L.A. and scored a job with Avril Lavigne. Now, after years of work, both enjoy careers many students aspire to have, having worked with such artists as Cher, Paul Stanley of KISS, the Goo Goo Dolls, Shakira, and David Archuleta.
On a recent tour with Cassadee Pope—the first female winner of The Voice—the two stopped by their alma mater to talk to students about playing the long game, and what they’ve learned about making it in the music business. The following is a condensed and edited version of that conversation.
On overnight success
McGorman: I wish that I had heard it years and years ago: (Quoting This American Life host and producer Ira Glass) "It’s only by going through a volume of work that you will close the gap and your work will be as good as your ambitions, it’s going to take a while, it’s normal to take a while, you’ve just got to fight your way through."
I believe in that wholeheartedly. There’s a gap. You aspire to certain things and you know how to recognize greatness but you might not necessarily be there with your abilities at that point. And most people just give up.
I told my mom I was going to be a rock star in six months, I told her I was going to a have a record deal. It took about a year and a half, a year and nine months, before I got my first audition to play with an artist who was on a major label.
McGorman: When I left Berklee I was focusing on pop/rock stuff but here I learned jazz, classical, all these different styles, and I didn’t really use that for a number of years, until I got a call to play for Cher. I got the list of songs and Cher’s catalog spans over four decades, there’s a lot of music there. There’s jazziness, there’s some big band stuff, there’s some classical things. And when I had to prepare for this gig, after a week or two of rehearsing, I called and I said, "thanks again for Berklee’ because I would not have been able to do that gig if I didn’t have all the training and stuff I had here.
You never know when you’re going to use it, and that was nine years after I graduated and I still kind of had it in the back of my mind. These things that you’re getting, sometimes you think "oh, I don’t need to learn that" or "that’s not where I’m headed," but you never know where you’re going to need that stuff.
On being instrumentalists who sing
Fekete: If you’re looking to do the touring thing, or you’re looking to audition for big gigs, it really pays to sing, at least a little bit. You should really focus on doing that. It could only help your chances. I can’t stress that enough. It’s a really important asset to have.
McGorman: As a musical director, if I’m trying to hire a guitar player or a bass player or keyboard player or whatever for a job and the artist is asking me, "okay, does this person sing?" when I ask the player if they sing and they say "I sing backups," what I hear is "I’m not really a singer."
In the work of music that we do—pop, rock, indie kind of stuff, with big name acts—if you want to get up there I’d say the vocals are a massive, massive part of that.
Every gig that I’ve done, I think I’ve sang on every single one. And that has definitely helped me get jobs.
Fekete: Attitude plays a big role in your success. Just be nice. It’s so important to just be engaging, and it’s less about what you say and more about how you act. You never know who you’re going to run into that might make a huge difference in your life, and in your career. Sometimes it will be the president of a label, and you won’t know it.
When you’re dealing with people in a professional setting, it’s really important—I can’t stress it enough—when you’re tired, overworked, not in a good mood, you have to rise above it because that one particular day when you’re grouchy and you snap at somebody, that person could affect you in ways that you don’t even realize.
McGorman: When you’re touring, you’re only playing 20 minutes, 30 minutes, maybe an hour. In the touring world, the playing is such a small, small part of it. It’s all the other stuff: getting along, dealing with artists, dealing with label reps, dealing with sound men who don’t know what they’re doing.
On the importance of connections
Fekete: Just get out and meet as many people as possible. Make connections and keep them. I’m a perfect example of that. Jim and I went to school, we kept in touch for years, 10-plus years went by and if I didn’t keep in touch with him most likely I wouldn’t have heard about the Avril Lavigne audition. All this time went by but the connection changed my life.
McGorman: Connections are a huge, huge part of (being successful). You never know—after 10, 15, 20 years in the business—where a break’s going to come from.