Independent Industry Figures is a weekly column at IMP where we do a feature on a different music industry figure every week and try to better understand what they’re all about. Check out our previous column with Andy Patterson. With each installment we try and get a better sense of what it means to make a living in the music industry and how people can get involved. After all – what can we do but work hard and try to help each other live the dream?
Alejandro Del Pino is one of those geniuses who rarely gets the credit he deserves. Making a living as a producer and session musician around Niagara Falls can’ be easy – but he does it. He represents a very specific type of working musician – the kind who manages to make a living at it despite not being in one of those entertainment hubs. This in and of itself is a very impressive feat and shows the sheer talent of this man. One of the most passionate and interesting people I’ve met in the industry this Colombian transplant is simply happy to be here – playing rock and roll is merely a part of his job, but as far as I can tell he loves all of it.
(All photos courtesy of Ami Holmes)
Having attended Berklee, produced a whole mess of records, done session gigs for all manner of corporations and played hundreds of gigs Del Pino is a musicians musician. He gets what it takes to succeed in this world of broken hearts and fall aparts and he has put in thousands of hours of work to become one of the best in the world in his craft. At the end of the day – it’s guys like him that make this whole thing work – dudes who give their all to the music and help everyone create their art.
In this interview Alejandro reveals some of his own observations on the music industry. I was thoroughly impressed with his knowledge of new school ideas and concepts that shape the industry today. Though I think we disagreed a little bit here and there it definitely led to a more interesting interview where we get a chance to really pick apart what makes the music industry tick in this brave new world of 2015.
Alejandro – how are you?
I am doing well – I like waking up in the morning and realizing that I am alive and well. It’s always a reassuring feeling.
I can definitely sympathize! For our readers who aren’t familiar with your body of work – can you briefly explain what you do?
I do everything! I am a guitar player and I do a lot of that. I am also a producer. I work with a lot of corporate media and all that kind of stuff. I do anything that has to do with sound. As a session musician an interesting part of my job is that I get to do a lot of stuff I’m not comfortable with or wouldn’t put my name on. It’s always good to get paid for things where you don’t have to show your add your name to!
Which projects are you not happy to have your name on?
I won’t name them!
Early on in my career I used this website called Fiverr.com just to gain some experience. There was some crap I did there where I was like “I’m glad I’m not hearing from you again!” It’s all about learning though. Now I’m just concentrated on being a producer and engineer in my tiny hometown.
How did you get involved in this?
I started playing guitar when I was 12. In high school I was playing pop music for my friends and became quite popular believe it or not. One day I finally started playing with someone who was actually good at guitar and could actually play complicated parts. I started growing in it and it got to a point that I went to school for it. That led to me recording my own music.
The first recording I did I think was pretty good considering what I was using! Back in the day when we had CRT monitors and the microphone was this little long thing you stuck on the monitor. I used to use one of those and put it in front of my amp and I put a sock on it to filter the noise. I was just experimenting and that’s the bottom of everything – experimenting with what sounds good! Now when I listen to it I think it sounds really good for what I used seeing as I used a 15 watt amp for it.
How did you end up making it a profitable venture?
So this all happened in Columbia – I had already been touring with my band. In 2005 I think we played forty something gigs and I was only 17 or 18 at the time. I came to Canada and I didn’t have friends or anyone to talk to about music so I started playing in my bedroom. I found some drum samples and taught myself how to use it. In 2008 I started reading online about these things so I saved up a lot of money to go to Berklee for a year.
Berklee was one of the most helpful experiences I had in my life – not so much for what I learned because I believe that I had self taught myself pretty well until then. Most of the concepts they taught me I already knew. It was more about the interaction and meeting other people that did the same thing but in a slightly different way. Right after that I started to get really into it and producing my bands demos.
What sparked the entire thing was that I got a studio for my band and then I started recording this punk band. I became their drum tech and ended up engineering the session and cutting the album. That record turned out decent -when I listen back to it it could have sounded a lot better but after that we got onto other projects and I just did recording engineering. I had the gear and I knew how to place microphones well. It just became second nature to do it. A lot of people ended up coming to me to do their records. That’s when I realized “Oh shit – I could buy beer with this money!”
I started to look into it and did the classic Google search “How to make money with music” but the didn’t really lead to anything since nobody really wants you to make money with music! But I started to find out about licensing and submitted stuff to some shady websites but it never translated into money. Then one day I heard about the music division of Getty Images and these guys actually audition your tracks. If you send them your audio samples somebody will listen and if they’re good enough they will give you a registration form. So I sent them that and I registered. It’s all about knowing what key to hit. Sometimes you just make random music hoping someone needs it – some of those have gotten good placements – others are still there.
Just to circle back – how did you feel about your experience at Berklee? A lot of people have called it a ‘factory’…
Berklee – like every school is nothing but a factory. But most people are looking into what you take away from it. You are paying money to be taught at Berklee – you’re being tested, you’re put in classes, all of that. It works like every other school. The biggest advantage is that it goes on your resume. If you tell people you went to Berklee it always resonates well! But you learn the most from the other people there. There’s just nothing in life outside of like brain surgery that you can’t teach yourself. You can find a million tutorials online to become good at it. It’s really all about taste. If you know what you’re listening too and what you’re looking for sound is just frequencies. At that point your decision making is just what frequencies you want to put in or take out..
How do you develop a taste that’s good enough to give you a career doing this?
That’s very subjective! There’s a band I love whose producer is one of the best guys in the world. I thought the record had a lot of potential but the way it was produced kind of hurt the record. I’m talking about Book Of Souls by Iron Maiden. I love the concept – that they want to go in their hit record and slam out their record. But I feel like some post production wouldn’t hurt at all.
With production it’s all in the music. No matter what you do if the songs crap the songs crap. There’s a couple tricks in the industry like compression, enhancing the high end and making things loud enough, that’s how it works on a commercial level. That’s what you do with a commercial band.
But if you’re looking at artist performances I think that only develops by listening to music. I don’t think there’s someone out there working on this that’s not an actual music fan.
Do you think it would be possible to just have someone who knew the science of it and just engineered songs?
It’s totally possible. One of my favorite bands, don’t make fun of me for this, is Dream Theater. They came out with a few records with great tunes. Their records became masterpieces. But then they signed a deal with this label that made them use their songwriters and producers – this was the late 90s early 2000s when labels wanted to direct what bands did. It was terrible! You could tell Desmond Child wrote it! These are people who have the science of it down. There’s a trade industry based off of it! You can go online and google ‘online mastering service’ and they’ll turn them back to you in a day. They put your tracks through a preset chain and then they send that back to you and that’s the end of it.
It can be done but you can tell. Otherwise it’s not organic. When something is made with passion you can tell. The Beatles didn’t have passion by the end but they wrote brilliant songs. That’s part of why the Paul McCartney’s dead myth is fantastic because even if they replaced him with a double he’s fantastic too!
So what do you feel is the present state of the industry and what direction do you think we need to be moving in?
Right now this is something I’m currently writing about! Independent stuff is the future though. 100% independent artists. Record labels are trying to salvage as much as they can – you wrote about Sony buying Century Media and that’s a key example of it. Record labels refuse to acknowledge how the industry works now and that fans actually matter. CD sales used to give them the most profit and had awesome utility margins. Now labels are just trying to salvage as much as they can.
There was a study about heavy metal and how heavy metal fans are the most loyal fans in the industry. That’s why the big labels are going towards that end. Even Universal did it with Roadrunner. Hopefully that doesn’t do much damage! There’s a lot of decision making from people that is based off of principles though. Century Media was an independent label created by metalheads for metalheads and the fact that the money is now going towards a major label is probably going to alienate some fans.
The problem is the industry is making a living exclusively off the artist. The songwriter for that song “All About That Bass” They only got like five grand out of a hundred and eighty million plays for his song! What people don’t realize is not that Pandora or Spotify paid him that much money – they paid the label who then distributes that money. When you do trade songwriting and just belt out stupid song after stupid song you’re selling it for eight hundred dollars at the end of the day but you’re only keeping your intellectual rights. You’re selling the publishing rights which is where all the money is.
When you get to the bottom of it – we are in the 1920s. That’s the long and short of it. The difference is now you’re not hurrying to be the king of your neighborhood or your region, you’re running to be the king of the world. You have the whole world in the internet and you can cater to anyone. If you want to cater to people in Thailand you can do that. There are tools to do everything. But there’s also a lot of laziness and people not knowing how. People still believe getting a record deal is the best thing in the world when it’s actually the worst loan there is. Your bank would treat you a lot better than your label.
We are going towards a world where music is just a commodity. It’s going towards a place where people are only going to be paying the artists. The album is kind of dying. This has been happening in pop music for ages. Even in deeper genres the album is kind of going away. You produce content and we give you money. Things like Patreon make it so that every time the artist puts out a video their fans give them a dollar each. Some people give more because they make more – and that’s fantastic.
It works in a different way now though. It’s about direct interaction about fans and bands. I will not buy a CD unless I know it’s going straight to the band I’m supporting. I won’t preorder a record because I’m just feeding the label. It’s partially true at this point in late 2015 that CD sales get to determine where they get to go. When there are higher sales for your bands you’re going to look into doing more regional stuff. This is changing though – you can track streams. There is a market for it. People will go regardless of CD sales.
This gets more people to go places like Brazil where the GDP is crap. Yet big bands still go there and get thousands of people to come. It’s all about popularity – the importance of CD sales is going away.
To make a living as an independent musician these days you don’t need 30 million fans. There’s a couple guys who I know who can collect good money for 60-100 even a thousand tops fans who are just willing to give them money. It’s a micro economy. Independent music is all the rage these days and I’m a fan of that.
Recently on Metal Injection they did a series on the changing place of the record label and they said there is a spot of the label as tastemakers… what do you think?
Absolutely! That’s where labels like Inside Out can make money. I’m one of those guys. When I found out that Haken was on Inside Out I was immediately like “Oh, who else is on this label?” On the heavier side you have Nuclear Blast or Metal Blade. That’s how you start finding other stuff. Sometimes independent music is hard to find. Something like Bandcamp is not practical if you immediately want to find good music. That’s the biggest thing these days – you want things to be easy.
Spotify has a function for ‘related artists’. So if you listen to Mayhem and then later on go to listen to Belphegor or Behemoth the algorithm realizes these guys are related. Apple Music and Pandora do this too. So that’s happening now! Labels are tastemakers but they’re not exclusively doing that anymore. Any niche market just comes from finding things you like. If you find thing at the store you happen to like then there is probably more stuff at the store you will also like!
So what niche do you fit into?
I honestly have no idea. My music tastes are so broad that I was coming up with a tune today and it’s mostly clean guitars and slow and rather fusions. But then other stuff that I’m coming up with is heavily influenced by thrash and speed metal. Chances are the same person might not like both songs. But with some of my fans they will. My broad target is prog metal fans.
What attracted you to prog originally?
It is complicated enough to keep me thinking. I can’t deal with 4/4 in regular music for instance unless the music speaks for itself. There is a lot of 4/4 that is just brilliant. It’s music that keeps me thinking. I really enjoy how it goes from place to place. I’m not talking about prog like djent and that stuff. There’s a place for it but it’s not what I enjoy. I’m more into bands like Savatage, Dream Theater, Haken and all that crazy stuff from the 70s when people didn’t really have a clue what they were doing. I’m happy as hell to be seeing King Crimson in November. It makes me feel engaged with the music and it’s also a really small niche. It’s about exclusivity like “Hey I listen to music you don’t understand!” When you’re 15 that makes a lot of sense. It’s the same for you – when you were a kid into black metal and they looked at you weird and you enjoyed it!
By extension – what do you love so much about music?
It’s everything. It allows you to learn how to appreciate sounds. There’s just too much going on at any given time. Even when you’re not listening to music your technically listening to John Cage! There’s sound all the time and the fact that you can arrange them to make people have emotions is amazing. That’s all done with the power of music and the same twelve notes – and a lot of overtones. When it comes down to it it’s just how you arrange those twelve notes and that I find fascinating!
I love me some music.
Any final words of wisdom for me!
Don’t die before you’re 50! (Laughter)