Derek Sivers | Breaking out of Berklee, Making it Big in Music, and Building Key Relationships

John Corcoran  18:50  

Now the other thing Another thing you wrote about is that used to tell people that you need to move to a big city because everything that’s where it happens, right and that’s obviously what you did move to Boston then New York. But now you wrote everything’s happening online so and you use this term you write about super connectors and I, I not crazy about that term people refer to me as it sometimes my business partner people refer to him as a super connector as well. I think the reason I don’t like it is because it feels intimidating, and I want others to feel like they can do it too without the label of it. But regardless of the term, you know, you say that the reason that super connectors reason people know everyone can get to know everyone is number one, they keep creating great stuff and posting it online. Number two, reach out to say hello to the people they admire. So you want to talk a little bit about that philosophy.

Derek Sivers  19:42  

Hmm. It’s funny, I’ve been wondering how our current you know, well, I guess we’re in April 2020. Now, wondering how the current situation is going to affect the importance of being in a city. I want If being a virtual being, you know, on video is going to be, is this going to be like a temporary thing that we all stopped doing in a few months? Or is it just going to become the new normal, where it’s not so important to be in New York, LA, San Francisco anymore? I don’t know. What are your thoughts on this?

John Corcoran  20:20  

It’s a great question. I think the jury’s still out on that one. I don’t think we know yet. You know, it depends on if I did a great interview with a client who is an expert in COVID-19. And, you know, he didn’t have answers, and he’s got a medical degree and advising the governor of California. So I think at this point, we don’t know. I mean, personally, I like it because you can live in a small town and it doesn’t matter. You can connect with someone who’s on the other side of the globe, like yourself and have a great conversation.

Derek Sivers  20:48  

Right? It’s, I mean, we don’t know what’s going to happen with the virus. We don’t know if it’s gonna be a few months for us. But regardless, I wonder about the things the culture change that might have just had happened where I feel like Do you remember even back in the mid 90s, like, or let’s say late 90s Wired Magazine, or Tom Peters would talk about, you know, hey, now thanks to the internet, we can all just move out to the countryside. This is the death of cities, right? It didn’t exactly happen though. Ready? Quite the opposite just kept getting more and more and more concentrated and important. But I wonder now, if now that there’s actually maybe a health downside, or I was actually so right now I’m living in Oxford, England. And I was planning on moving to New York City in a few months. We’re kind of like making that family decision. And I think I’m changing my plans now. Because when I talk to all of my New York City friends and contracts, even the ones that are there that say like okay, personally, I wish you were here because I miss you, dude. But don’t move here. Now then. And, and a couple different people said, Yeah, all the good people have left like anybody who can leave has left. A lot of people who maybe had one foot Out the door before are just gone and they’re not coming back. They’ve moved up to Vermont. they’ve sold their brownstone in Brooklyn, they’ve moved down to North Carolina. They’ve moved here. They’ve moved, you know. And I wonder then, if enough people do that are cities not the concentration point that they used to be?

John Corcoran  22:18  

Yeah, I personally, I think it’ll wane for a little bit, but then they’ll come back. You know, I think I’m an optimist. So I think we’ll come up with a vaccine or something that will help with this virus and eventually we’ll get back to it you know, because you know, after 911 after 2008 there was this period of time, wherever and felt like oh my gosh, we’re never going to go back to normal ever again. But eventually, we kind of did you know, so like, right just kind of feel like eventually it’ll be at that point. I want to ask you, I don’t know how to pronounce his first name, but Ray Yuichi suck a moto is that is really cheese like

Unknown Speaker  22:55  

a moto? Oh, yes. That was another. I can’t.

John Corcoran  22:58  

I can’t let you go without asking about the stories. This is a great story. So let me just prompt you let me prompt you here. So, so, you know, you get a copy of his new unreleased album. So explain how you got that. And you, you know, one person maybe would just listen to it be like, wow, that was awesome. What a great opportunity to give it back. Right. But you had it for a day. And you listened to it because there was an opportunity for you possibly to work with him as a guitarist. And you decided that you would help him out in a sense, that talk about how you took initiative in this instance?

Derek Sivers  23:32  

Sure. So yeah, set the scene. I’m 21 years old. I’m living in New York City. And I want very, very badly to be a successful musician. And so I was just doing the hustle man at that point. I think I had already No, I hadn’t yet quit my day job. But I was just hustling saying yes to everything. And I was just going over the top to make everything happen. You know, I really believe that. If you just get a little whiff of an opportunity. You just want to jump on it and Just conquer it, you know, like, I don’t do anything casually. If it’s something I care about, I do it all the damn way. So, yeah, this situation was Ryuichi Sakamoto, who was like the Peter Gabriel of Japan, you know, kind of like making sophisticated music, but it’s a very famous thinking man’s musician. Yes, exactly. So really, he was recording his new album in New York City, and my roommate was the minimum wage assistant engineer, which meant the guy plugging in microphones in the studio,

John Corcoran  24:37  

which by the way, actually, I want to point out that little detail because it is really about who you surround yourself with, even down to your roommate was also in the industry because that led to this opportunity.

Derek Sivers  24:48  

Exactly right. It was because of my roommate, we weren’t even like good friends. We were just roommates. Right? But he knew that I was a good guitarist. And so he came home one night and said, Hey, man, uh, really she’s got a whole tour booked. And he’s got Peter Gabriel’s drummer Monica che. He’s got Victor Bailey on base from a weather report who’s like a legendary bassist. And he doesn’t have a guitarist picked out yet, man. So I told him about you. I was like, Oh, my god, yes, I want this. And so I said, Well, what are you doing? Like, can you give me some of his music? What are you recording with him? And he’s like, well, I got this debt in my pocket. It was like the digital audio tape master. He said, I can lend it to you for a few hours. But I got to go back to the studio at 8am. So I gotta bring it back with me. But yeah, why don’t you listen to it? And this is like 11pm on a Thursday night, right? And so yeah, john, not only did I listen to it, I literally didn’t sleep that night. I spent from 11pm until 8am. staying up all night writing guitar parts for his new album, putting them in Little home recording studio playing guitar along with his new album with the parts that I wrote for it, MIXING it back together into a new debt digital tape Master, which I said here in the morning when my roommate woke up and he was about to go out. I said, All right.

Unknown Speaker  26:15  

Give him this tape.

Derek Sivers  26:17  

Tell him I really, really, really want the gig. So yeah, my roommate brings him the tape. reel, he listens to it. He’s impressed. His first question is, what does he look like? He had to make sure I looked the part you know, yeah. This is all gonna be televised and everything so apparently I looked the part and but I still wanted to get like I wanted to make sure that like, you know, how can I go over the top to show him how much I want the gig. So that day I went and bought like six of his previous albums. And I wrote some guitar parts to those two and one had a really difficult cello piece in the middle. So I transcribe the cello piece on bass clef on sheet music, just to show him that you know, if you need that Any help transcribing parts, I can do that too. I’m a school musician. So once again, gave those to my roommate like here, please give the

John Corcoran  27:06  

show your utility really, ultimately.

Derek Sivers  27:09  

And so yeah, about two days later, I got the call from his agent saying he’d like to meet me. And I got the gig. And yeah, I was 22 years old. I got to go on this tour of Japan for six weeks. I got to be in the band with this like legendary bassist, legendary drummer and 22-year-old knee on guitar playing to audiences of 10,000 people each night. It was amazing. But yeah, again, it was all because I jumped on an opportunity that my roommate mentioned before bed,

John Corcoran  27:41  

right right now, you have another little detail here, which you wrote about the tiniest detail can degrade can derail everything. It was about an experience working with the World Expo in Seville, Spain.

Derek Sivers  27:58  

Yeah, I’ll never know. So yeah, I did the Japanese tour with him. And that went great. And if you search my name on YouTube, and if you search Sakamoto Derek Sivers I’m on a video in there somewhere with my long blonde hair playing guitar, and 1992. And so then yeah, the next year, really, he got asked to play at the World’s Fair in Slovenia, Spain. And so he called up the band again and said, We’d like to hire you to come back. So I did, and it was, you know, 20 minutes before we’re going on stage or like already, everybody, get dressed to get into your outfits. And I said, What outfits? And they said, the outfits we gave you in Japan from the last tour. You didn’t tell me to bring that I didn’t know. And they’re like, well, what did you bring? Then I said, Nothing. And I’m sitting here like wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt because it’s hot. It’s Spain. It’s August. Like and they just Well you can’t come out looking like that. I was like, I don’t have anything else. And it was too late so yeah, I went on stage wearing shorts and a Hawaiian t-shirt everybody else’s dressed in white rock star there’s no that john paul go to everybody else was wearing their jet black john paul co t outfits that he had designed for really cheap. Oh my gosh. T-shirt and shorts. And I never heard from him again after. Who knows? It could have been that I wasn’t going to hear from them anyway, but I had the feeling like, you know, that little bit of iral kind of knocked me down into my reputation.

John Corcoran  29:38  

Right, right. All right. I mean, we were running a little short on time here but a couple more stories. I want to tease out of your background here. So right I think it was right before you started at Berkeley. You called up a local studio owner and he ended up kind of taking a liking to you, in a sense, or at least he was nice to you showed a little promise and he said come on down. It turns out this is the way that he kind of tested local musicians. And so you go down and you meet him and talk a little bit about what that experience was like Kimo Williams was his Kimo Williams. Yeah.

Derek Sivers  30:14  

Yeah, again, I was just nervous. I guess I was 16 at the time, maybe seven mon. And yeah, I just said, Come on to my studio at 9am. Tomorrow, I’ll show you. It. His thing is he said, I think you can test out of Berklee in two years. He said it’s a four year college but it doesn’t need to be. I used to teach there. I think I think I can help you graduate in two years instead of four. So yeah, show up to my studio at 9am tomorrow, and I’ll show you what to do. And so you had nine 859. The next morning, I was standing outside his door. I looked at you know at the time and waited till it was nine o’clock to ring the bell. And he looked at me a little confused. And he told me the story much later that this is something that he says all the time to people that say they think they want his help? He says show up at my studio at 9am tomorrow and he said nobody ever does. Everybody flakes out, I believe it. And I was the one who did. Which is kind of funny. You know, there have been a lot of times that people Sorry, I’m taking a tiny tangent that people attribute the success I had with CD Baby to my skill as an entrepreneur and I say I was just in the right place at the right time. Like I started the business in 1997. Like Come on. It was just really lucky timing. And one of my friends pushed back on that same man No, there’s no such thing as luck. And I said, What are you talking about? Like, everything is luck. And he did that push back where he said no, it looks like it’s all these little things you’ve done over the years that add up like absolutely would have called Kimo Williams and flaked out and I think all right, I guess so. I guess I’ve always been super ambitious and just jumped on everything.

John Corcoran  31:57  

You see when you saw an advert opportunity You took advantage of it yeah there’s a lot of people who would have slept through the night instead of adding in carpet you know guitar parts to an album you know as an opportunity there’s a lot of people who you know wouldn’t have shown up when that local studio nurse had to show up you know, there’s definitely a clear pattern here but it’s that quote

Derek Sivers  32:19  

around whatever percent of success is just showing up right it just feels like well you know, that’s all i did i just showed up but anyway so sorry to the chemo Williams story is Yeah, he um, in basically six intensive two-hour music lessons, taught me two years of Berkeley’s required courses and just showed me how it can be compressed like yeah, you don’t need to sit in whatever 12 weeks of classes to learn this. I can show it to you in two hours. And he did and the most important lesson he taught me is that never accept the standard pace. He said these Schools have to set their curriculum pace to accommodate the slowest student in class. If you are ambitious, you can go 10 times faster than that. So um, he just I don’t know if he taught it as a life lesson or I just took it as a life lesson, that it’s like that and everything in life. Like there’s the standard pace that people tell you well, you know, takes about a year to write a book, or it’s gonna take a lot of work to start a podcast or whatever it may be 10,000 hours to get good at whatever it

John Corcoran  33:29 

Right, right. Yeah. And you can just, yeah, you can set your own pace. Right and your own abilities. Right. You said before I met Kimo, I was just a kid who wanted to be a musician doing it casually ever since our five lessons. I’ve had no speed limit. I love that.

Unknown Speaker  33:45  

Yeah. So

Derek Sivers  33:49  

yeah, he was just a massive influence on me. And 20 years later, or something like that, when I got married, I invited only three guests to the world. And he was one of them. Oh, that’s so cool.

John Corcoran  34:02  

That’s so great. I love that. All right, before we wrap things up, there’s one more story when I asked you about and it was going to go back about 12 years now, you did a talk to the first year students at Berklee in 2008. There are a number of different points in that talk and feel free to, if you can recall them. recall any of them but one you made, which I love. Point number four, you said learn from your heroes, not only theirs. And what I take from that is that others will hold out who their heroes are. And sometimes your hero might be different, like who you hold up as a standard, who you admire, who you want to learn from, it’s okay, if they’re different. It’s okay if it’s someone else, who maybe is a little cutting edge at the time, maybe it’s a little hasn’t, you know, isn’t like the Mozart or the Beethoven you know that it’s gonna be years from now before they’re recognized. So anyways, but I want to get your take on that point that you made.

Derek Sivers  35:01  

Sure, um, so listeners, you’re going to have to listen metaphorically, to this one, unless you are a musician. I’m just going to use a direct music example of this, attending Berklee School of Music. It was very much a jazz school. They were teaching jazz. That’s what it was known for at the time. And I also took songwriting classes, teaching you how to craft a better pop song. But the examples that the teachers used were often these like, Billy Joel, Celine Dion, old, you know, 60s or 70s classics by whatever, kind of free Disney but, you know, like lame acts that I wasn’t into. We’re holding these up as like now that’s a song. And so I had to think past that there was one, in particular, there was a teacher, who he was a Nashville. Country Music lyricist. And He really said you know, it’s not a good lyric unless you use all five senses, you know, describe the way the room smelled when you walk into it. Describe the dust that came off the, the curtains in the room as you went to go visit your grandmother for the last time. And I really at first as a 17-year-old taking his class believed that my lyrics were no good unless I use all five senses. And it took me about a year before I realized like wait, for one. I don’t like jazz that much. I mean, I can appreciate it from a distance but I don’t want to make jazz and I know that all my teachers love jazz, but that’s not what I want to do. And my favorite song lyrics definitely do not use all five senses. So what I did is I had to learn their techniques that they used to analyze their favorite songs, but ignore their Examples and extract the lesson and use that same technique to analyze my favorite songs. So now I’m analyzing the glitchy quirky electronic music of Bjork and why I like it. And I’m analyzing, you know, these weird talking head lyrics and why I like them. And my teachers would hate this music. But that’s not the point. I don’t need to emulate their heroes. I need to learn what I like about my own heroes. 

John Corcoran  37:31  

It’s a great lesson. All right, Derek, this has been wonderful. I want to wrap things up with the question I was asked: let’s pretend we’re at an awards banquet, much like the Oscars or the Emmys. you’re receiving an award for lifetime achievement for everything you’ve done up until this point, of course. And what we want to know is, you know, who do you think were the colleagues were the friends who are the professors were the studio owners who are the music industry executives, who are the roommates, he would acknowledge who’s the what pizza place would you agree knowledge and your remarks?

Derek Sivers  38:02  

Well, uh, those six intensive music lessons I had with Kimo Williams. Um, he didn’t let me pay him. He knew that I was just like a teenager. And I said, Well, you know, what do I owe you for these lessons? I think I asked him at the end of the first lesson. I said, you know, thank you so much. Oh, my god, that was amazing. What am I Oh, yeah. He’s like, don’t worry about it, you know? And so we had like, the fourth fifth sixth lesson. I’m like Kimo, what are you just doing all this as a favor? What do I owe you? And he said, someday, when you’re getting your Grammy Award, when you get up there on stage, you hold that award up in your hand. He said, All I ask is that the first two words out of your mouth are Kimo Williams. So for years, I’ve had the idea that, uh, I mean, not anymore, but, but I for years, I had the idea that if I get a Grammy Award, I would get up there on stage and I would just say chemo Williams. Thank you and walk offstage. Nobody’s ever asked me that before. But yeah, you just totally set me up for that answer that’s been prepared for 30 years.

Unknown Speaker  39:09  

There’s gonna be others as well. No, no, no, no,

Derek Sivers  39:12  

Hell no, no, I don’t even have dedications in my book or anything. I’m one of those kind of, you know, cool.

I love the fact that if you look at old Beatles albums, let’s just say when you would look at like, contemporary albums, I guess back when we would like still buy CDs, like the liner notes would be like 15 pages long listing, like everybody that ever, you know, brought a coffee into the studio. But if you look at the old Beatles albums, it’s just you know, songs written by Lenin McCartney song titles produced by George Martin. That’s it very simple.

John Corcoran  39:39  

Simple. Derek, this has been wonderful. And thanks so much for dropping by. And for this great conversation. Tell everyone where they can go and learn more about you and connect with you and read your writing and you’ve got your podcast now, which you’ve been doing for a little while. I hope you really enjoy doing that.

Derek Sivers  39:58  

Yeah, that’s funny. tell everybody where they can go. That’s a funny prompt. Go to That’s my site. And it is very plain on purpose. Yeah, that’s it. I put everything I do is So just go there and my favorite thing. The reason I do these interviews Honestly, I’m not here to promote anything as you can tell I’m, I really like hearing from people and connecting with people, as you can tell. So my email address is in a big font, right? So, anybody listening to this, send me an email, send a Hello. All right,

John Corcoran 40:35  

Derek. Thanks so much. Thanks, John.

Outro 40:38  

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