The Balancing Act

Read an excerpt from the successful Balancing Act panel featured at Remix Hotel New York City 2008

From June 27-29, Remix hung out with tons of gearheads and production hustlers at another Remix Hotel NYC, the magazine's sixth event in the Big Apple. Remix partnered with iStandard and Shocklee Innertainment for eight panels, including appearances from Pete Rock, Just Blaze, Rob Swift, Junior Sanchez, DJ Logic, Duro and other producers, engineers and music-industry executives. Meanwhile, Grand Wizard Theodore, DJ Jazzy Jay and DJ Big Wiz demonstrated Serato Scratch Live in the Rane and Serato room; Junior Sanchez talked about Digidesign Pro Tools and Transfuser; DJ Johnny Juice showcased M-Audio Torq; and Access, Celemony, Korg, Pioneer, Roland, Stanton, Vestax and other partners demonstrated gear. Below, check out an excerpt from Remix's panel called The Balancing Act, where producers disputed the virtues of making music as art versus commerce. To watch video from this panel, as well as tons of other Remix Hotel action, go to — Kylee Swenson

How do you balance doing music for the love of it versus doing what pays the bills?

Wendell Hanes: You take a guy like Just Blaze right here, who can make the hottest track out: He didn't make it with the idea that it was going to be a sensation across the world. But the same track that's the underground joint, when he gets that gut feeling that this is a hot beat when he makes it, it's the same [feeling] he might get when he makes the hot anthem because it's integrity from the start. You can do you from the beginning. Even if you know there's a certain sound out there that everybody's using, like that little vocoder thing that T-Pain uses, you can still freak it so it's still doing you and make a hit out of it.

Just Blaze: I did a record recently with Saigon called “You Gotta Believe It,” which uses Auto-Tune, and a lot of people were initially scratching their heads like, “What are they doing?” This is a hardcore rap dude with a hip-hop recording doing an Auto-Tune record. But the whole thing behind it was, if that's what's hot right now, use it to your advantage without making a record about buying somebody a drink or loving the bartender. It's no disrespect to T-Pain by any means, but it was a record with a message. The fact of the matter is that these days 99 percent of the records on the radio and in the mainstream don't have any kind of message or substance, so if you can disguise it as that and catch the young listener's ear and then give them a message on top of that, then you are doing your job twofold, which is keeping your integrity but still making something commercially viable.

Steve Pageot: The way I look at it, if you've got love for music, no matter what type of music you make is going to come out with integrity. You can't just go into the studio saying, “I need to make a track that sells a million ringtones.” The minute you start thinking like that, you lose integrity. Now you're just doing it to make the money. But if you're doing it because you feel passion about the music, people are going to feel it — that there was a lot of integrity in making that song.

For a work-for-hire project, like a shampoo commercial where there are sometimes six different people giving musical direction, how do you set aside your ego to get the job done?

Pageot: At the end of the day when a client calls you do to a track for a shampoo commercial, you have to cater to them. To other people, it might feel like you're selling out, but you're not. It's not how you feel that's going to sell a product; it's how the consumers are gonna reach out when they listen to the music on TV. If the music doesn't go with the picture, it's not going to sell the product. Like, Will [Roberson] just did a commercial for Garnier Fructis. And the track was ill. He had to cater to what the client wanted. And I came in and mixed it in a way that it would appeal to ordinary viewers.

Rob Swift: In 2001, the Gap asked me to appear in a commercial. It was myself, DJ Shortkut from Triple Threat and Invisibl Skratch Piklz and [actress] Shannyn Sossamon. And they asked me to compose the music for the commercial. There are a million DJs out there; they talked to me for a reason. There must be something about me, whether it's the way I look or whatever it is that I give off on the turntables that made them want to use me. From that point of view, you have to go into that situation feeling confident enough to put your foot down when necessary. So in making the music, there were times when I pushed it the way I would any other project that I'm doing. Whether it's a 60-minute mix CD or 30-second commercial, I'm going to approach it the way I approach all my music. And I remember to a degree it was stressful because you have five, six different people throwing opinions at you who don't know how to do what you do, what they hired you for. I was being told to do a scratch at this part when it really didn't fit. But at the end of the day, you have to try to find a common ground and meet each other halfway because they are the client, and they're the ones paying you — they're exposing you to middle America, so you want to work with them but at the same time be you.

Will Roberson: It's also a different medium. I was lucky enough to score four two-hour specials for NBC in the '90s, and it's a totally different medium when you're doing that type of music versus when you're doing a record. When you're doing a record, it's more about emotion and how you feel. But when you're working for a corporation, it's a whole other system; there's a whole other way to mix it.

Junior Sanchez: I'm lucky that I don't have to deal with confrontation because I don't deal with the commercial world. I don't conform; I just do what I do. As far as the remix world, if a label comes to me and wants me to do a remix, I'm really picky about the artist. I've turned down a remix because the original song is dope, and I don't know what to do. It's like, “What do you want me to do? It's…really good.” At the same time, I'm lucky enough that I'm not motivated by money, so there are artists that, if I don't really feel a song or respect it, I won't do it. Those are the decisions that sometimes kill me. But I just stick to my gut.

Blaze: Obviously, if you're in a struggling position, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. But once you get to a certain point, it's just a matter of saying, “I will do this. I won't do that.” I wear Nike sneakers, so I'll do it. I don't necessarily chew Bubble Yum, so I'm not necessarily going to do a commercial for something I don't feel, personally. Work with things that you respect. Chasing the check…I've done that before and that's the worst feeling in the world. If an artist comes in and gives you $150,000, great, do it…

Sanchez: …but that could be your last $150,000.

Blaze: Exactly, that's my point. You could kill yourself in the long run because if you did so many records that weren't respectable or that just weren't good, eventually they'll stop calling you. I used to do 100-something records a year. I'm at the point where I'm doing, like, 20, but for those 20 I'm still getting my top rate because I'm not putting out B.S. in between. So it's a matter of commanding that respect and what you're doing to maintain it.