Mark Zubek is a Toronto-based record producer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and jazz musician. He has produced, written and performed with a host of independent artists as well as Grammy award-winning jazz singer Betty Carter, Jen Chapin, Dave Holland, and Tony Levin. Ngawara Madison gets Zubek’s Industry Insider advice for aspiring recording artists out there and finds out the costs AND perks of working with a professional studio: expect to live on mac n cheese when you’re just starting up!
Hi Mark! Once a time ago, you studied at the prestigious Berklee College of music in Boston. How important do you feel a formal education is for someone looking to establish a career in the Music Industry?
I was self-taught at first. Each instrument I play, I figured out on my own up to a certain point, then enrolled in private lessons. By the time I got to Berklee at age 18, I was already a pro – playing at weddings and corporate events every Saturday from the age of 12, and starting to get into pro record production at 17. The big benefit for me at Berklee was the networking – meeting other musicians from all over the world and going on tours with them. 20 years later I still have those friendships and still play tours in Europe with those guys. But frankly, a music degree isn’t necessary to be a songwriter/record producer. I went to college when the Canada Council for the Arts paid for it with grants. When they didn’t, I didn’t go – I couldn’t afford it. Education always helps, but there are plenty of ways to get it –
1. Private lessons
3. Doing work for cheap/free when you’re getting started.
The recording and mixing part is the only thing I have absolutely NO formal training in – I learned by watching others do it, starting to do it on a small scale myself, comparing my work to commercial records, then offering my services on a pro level as a freelancer for a low cost to gain experience. Over the years that has turned into a major part of what I do everyday as a producer.
You have worked with a vast number of artists over the past 17 years. How do you choose your projects?
It’s been a natural evolution. I have an extensive songwriting, recording and performing background in jazz – that’s what I studied at Berklee. In those days I produced a lot of singer-songwriters who had a jazzy or eclectic feel. Over the years I’ve been asked more and more to co-write with the artist as I’ve had some successful songs at TV and radio. That has brought me to work on more mainstream stuff… I get 5-10 emails every single day from aspiring singers who want me to produce them, so I can be a bit picky – I don’t agree to work with everyone who asks! You need a good voice, you need to be a marketable performer, and most importantly, you have to be ready to dedicate all your available time and energy into your career.
You need to want it more than anything else in the world.
As a producer by trade, how do you feel about the ever increasing number of home studios and fancy programs that imitate the sound of a professional recording that once was only possible in the most glitzy of studios? Has the ‘DIY’ digital generation affected business?
I don’t really debate about the tools we use. The truth is that most big records today ARE made in small spaces with say 10% of the budget that you needed 15 or 20 years ago. I’m one of the last guys who came up on analog tape and consoles, but I’m glad we are where we are today. It’s become so inexpensive for an artist to make a record – I charge $2500/song which includes everything from co-writing to finished master – all session musician costs, studio time, mixing, mastering, EVERYTHING. You couldn’t have made a record to compete with hit-radio and TV for that cheap 20 years ago. Yes, the equipment is cheap and more people have access to the gear, but it comes down to the talent and experience. Most people understand that.
How do you promote your artists once you have a record together? What people do you work with to ensure that the music gets heard, or is that someone else’s job?
I have a step-by-step list of how the artist can promote their career once we make a marketable sounding record. I don’t manage my artists, but I do aggressively market [their music] to music supervisors in charge of the soundtracks for TV shows, movies and commercials, since I have a great relationship and track record with many of them. When an artist is ready for a photo shoot, website, music video, I know who to call… I’m connected… but I stick to what I do best: songwriting and producing.
You work with big brands such as Coca-cola and Dunkin’ Donuts! How does this commercial work compare to indie and jazz projects? How do the two processes differ? Is it important to be open minded with your genres as a producer in order to make good money?
Sure, it’s important to be able to do as many things as possible so you can say “yes” to as many gigs as possible. Learn to play as MANY instruments as you can, and learn as many genres as you can. The process is the same no matter who I work with – I get a VERY CLEAR IDEA of what the artist or company wants.
I get them to give me three examples of other well-known songs that they would like their stuff to sound similar to. I ask what specifically they like about each example. It helps them articulate their vision, it helps me know what kind of sounds they want, and it keeps everyone on the same page.
Did you ever reach moments in your career where you felt like giving up? What advice to you have for those feeling discouraged in this tumultuous economy?
I NEVER felt like giving up! My advice is, just keep at it! If you don’t, then you probably weren’t meant to. The ones who are still left standing are the ones who have been too stupid to quit. If I quit 15 years ago because I was tired of eating mac ‘n’ cheese, I wouldn’t be here today with a career I love, doing exactly what I want to be doing, and supporting a family doing it. What a blessing!
What do you think of as your ‘foot in the door’. Was there a moment when you realised that you were going to be a ‘lifer’ as they say, in this industry?
There have been many of those moments… the first two that come to mind were at 17 years old – getting an $18,000 grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to attend Berklee, and then at 18 years old being picked up by [legendary Grammy winning jazz singer] Betty Carter to play in her band and write songs with her!
Who was your most successful artist last year?
Lisha Cash. I got Lisha’s songs that we wrote together placed 15 times on major TV shows like Degrassi (CTV, MTV, Nickelodeon) and Debra (Family Channel) and generated at least ten thousand dollars in licensing fees and royalties for her.
© Ngawara Madison, Music Vice
Internet link: Mark Zubek
Betty Carter – “Open the Door”:
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