Interview: Will Rodriguez (’22) on his path to independence in the music industry

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SUMMARY: Will Rodriguez (’22) shares knowledge gained through firsthand experience in the music industry

Will Rodriguez is a multi-instrumentalist producer, arranger, composer, and performer majoring in Independent Scholars at James Madison University. Will’s music is available for listening on Soundcloud and Apple Music. More recent playlists and demo reels can be found at Shiloh Audio. Watch a time-lapse video tutorial of Will making music to accompany a broadcast commercial.

When did you start making music?

It’s been a long journey — about 10 years now. I began in sixth grade working on my dad’s laptop. I made all kinds of music on GarageBand; any kind of music that I wanted to make. I really wanted to be in a band, but I didn’t have any bandmates, so I just recorded myself on different tracks a bunch of times. All of the sudden, I’m in a band pretty much. My middle school was a magnet school for gifted students; it did a good job fostering my creativity. I would make CDs of the music and I would sell them at the lunch table. I really found myself falling in love with the software and using it to expand on acoustic instruments.

Who were your musical influences in those days, and how about now?

In middle school I was really into a rock band called Cage the Elephant. I also got into Nirvana and Catfish and the Bottlemen. It was all kinds of this grungier indie-rock. These bands pushed me past some barriers to what was playing on the radio. I think it took me a little bit of time to fall in love with music because I wasn’t exposed to the full universe of sounds that were out there. Making music wasn’t a thing any of my friends were doing either. Most kids were doing sports or playing in the band. I went to high school at Norfolk Christian in Norfolk, Virginia. Norfolk Christian is a pretty small private school and there wasn’t necessarily a big audience there for what I was trying to do. It wasn’t until high school that other people really began to discover my music.

Often, I think I’m only as good as my inspiration. I listen to a lot of different kinds of music now, and that helps me. There are artists and film scores that have opened my mind to new sonic palettes. But there have also been really simple things that I’ve heard that remind me of ways of making music that I might have forgotten. For example, Bon Iver released two albums that had this kind of experimental folk sound that I thought was so interesting. He made processed electronic sounds seem like they could have come from nature or from an acoustic instrument. That’s something that I’ve always been obsessed with — bringing a certain sound into a certain environment and atmosphere. I think that’s really true of what I do. I like to try and find a balance between a conventional sound people might be used to, like acoustic guitar or piano or acoustic drums, and then bring artificial or synthesized sounds into the mix. I have a cassette player and I’ll sometimes use that to record radio chatter and static, and I’ll find a way to make it fit in to my music where it’s not jarring, and it sounds like it belongs there.

How did you learn how to make your own music?

When I was composing on GarageBand, I’d figure it out on my own, or look it up on internet forums. In high school, YouTube became a go-to source for figuring things out. I also met some adults in the music industry who cared about the kinds of things I cared about. I think I maxed out on the kinds of things that GarageBand could do pretty quickly, and I really wanted to do more. I eventually got Logic, which is Apple’s best digital audio workstation and an industry standard for producing music.

With technology there’s kind of a pitfall you can fall into where you use nothing but the DAW and other electronics to produce the sounds. It’s easy for the music to become over-processed and synthetic. I always attempt to make the music sound organic and real — like it could actually exist in the natural world. The coolest thing is when an artist has a sound or a song or a film score and I have no idea how they did it. I’ll spend hours trying to figure out how they did what they did, knowing it’s some weird experimental method or involves some arcane knowledge. Maybe it’s just a really unique process that shows off the artist’s special creativity. Sometimes, just for fun, I’ll take a song that an artist has recorded and I’ll put it into Logic. I’ll isolate chunks of it and create something entirely new that you would never recognize from the original source. I would love for someone to take something I’ve done and make something else out of it too.

When did you realize that music could become your career?

I had long dreamed of making instrumental music for documentaries, films, and commercials. I was not particularly interested in the straight-and-narrow artist’s route: making structured songs and putting vocals on it. I did do some of that though. I would put my work up on Soundcloud and send links to my friends. I released a song in my junior year called “One Year,” and it just organically kind of blew up on Spotify. Today it has more than 1.5 million streams. I didn’t tell anyone at my school about that. But this one random song did help me learn the process of independently licensing my music. It’s awesome now to check into my Spotify account find money in there from that song’s streaming activity, and it was really cool discovering that there was a crowd outside my local area that was interested in my music.

Nowadays, because of digital collaboration, I have direct access to so many people across the United States and the world who are interested in making the kind of music that I make. I’m focused today on making connections and developing my business. Beyond producing music, the chief difficulty is knowing the right people. That’s something I am always working on. Half my time these days is dedicated to ‘delivery’ — and the other half to ‘development.’ Delivery would include making and editing the product. Development is about finding new leads and building up relationships.

Can you tell me something about your music-making process?

The business I’m in is very focused on creativity, and that means you can get burned out pretty quickly. I only have about three hours every day where I feel like I’m at peak musical productivity. Most of the rest of the working day is devoted to emailing clients and customers and maybe making minor edits to music that’s already been created. I find that I’m usually most creative when I first wake up or about an hour after waking up. That’s the best time for me to be working on my music. Sitting down in Logic and producing or composing a full song isn’t as easy as hitting the record button and playing. You have to write everything down and know where you’re going with it. Often what will get me into a creative state involves just playing the keys. I'll sit down and play for a while — maybe just going through a lot of different sounds or playing different instruments — until I feel ready to actually do something.

How does that process work when you are responding to clients?

Whatever the client sends me is my major inspiration. If they need, for example, a suspenseful but ambient Arabic piece, I have to do my research and find the right sounds and the right chords for that assignment. Sometimes the client sends me reference tracks and I listen to those carefully. Sometimes they send video; I like to compose to meet the action on the video. The video can key me into the mood, intensity, and speed that might be needed. It’s super helpful to have constraints to work within to maximize my creativity. Approaching a random project with no direction would be impossible. Ultimately, giving the client what they need is more important than what I might think sounds best. Of course, it can be a conversation too, one that takes place in editing.

I know that you recently submitted your work to a music library. How does that help you attain your career goals?

Approaching the massive feat of trying to get my music on television and broadcast was a huge task at first. I had vague ideas on how to approach this, and wondered what connections I might need in order to make this happen. The idea of my music being on television felt like an unreachable goal. Ultimately, I had good reasoning behind this pursuit. I wanted to set up a way where I could make passive income, meaning that I wouldn’t have to do any extra work to make royalties, and I would get paid every time the music got used. These hesitations and hopes were the beginning of my journey.

You can definitely develop connections over social media, but a lot of the people that you really want to work with aren’t there. You can follow National Geographic on social media, but you’re not going to get the attention of a director of their films by sending them a direct message. But social media can help me as an artist become more visible. I’ve been very active on social media for the past year and a half posting music that I’ve been making.

I also started reaching out to certain mentors of mine, including Ian Mcleod of Cleod9 (a JMU alumni) who pointed me in the direction of music libraries. I had heard of music libraries, and initially had a decent amount of disdain for them. These libraries can take away a ton of business from small producers and composers like me, as they have hundreds of thousands of songs from thousands of producers, and people and companies pay a subscription to use as many tracks as they want. It had always been hard to compete with these, but I started to think about what kind of library I might want my music to be in, if I found myself trying to get into a library.

I submitted my music to more than thirty large libraries over a long period of time, and received countless emails saying that these libraries were receiving too many submissions, and would not review my portfolio. I realized I needed to make a personal connection with someone who ran a smaller library that had bigger connections. I knew I needed help with this search, and reached out to someone on Instagram who advertised training in this area. I wasn’t sure if this is something I wanted to invest in, and after just the first meeting, I was inspired enough to not come back to the teacher, and pursued certain types of libraries on my own.

I found a long list of smaller libraries across the internet and on Instagram, and reached out to all of them with a personalized message and a curated playlist of some of my best music. I strategically sent tracks that I knew would fill gaps in their libraries. Not only did I send these messages through email, but also tried to find all the libraries on Instagram, and messaged them there. I got an email back from a library called Perfect Time Music. I was ecstatic to get an email back, and immediately researched them to find out what they were all about. It turns out they had an in with APM music, one of the biggest libraries — the main library that the NHL and ESPN use music from. I immediately responded, and we set up a Zoom call. I did my best to be personable, and that resulted in us getting into many off-topic conversations about music, which was awesome. We made a plan for me to present a ten-song project to Perfect Time, and all ten of these songs would fit into the sports/hype realm.

I immediately got to work, and after two weeks, I was ready to send it all over to him. We made revisions, and I sent him the individual trackouts in each project. He then sent over a contract which was intended to sign the rights of the ten tracks over to Perfect Time, and also give the information for my Performance Rights Organization. I made sure to have all of my mentors look over the contract, and then signed and sent it back. I was told that I wouldn’t hear anything back about if or where my music was used for two business quarters, which was disappointing, so I got to researching how I could potentially monitor broadcasts for my specific tracks. I came across about two months later. Tunesat monitors broadcasts for up to fifty tracks for free. I entered all of my information and waited. About two weeks later I checked the account and found that my music had been used on ESPN2 and WWE NXT. This was huge, and I told all of my friends and family about this victory. I tried researching how much I would get paid for each placement, and couldn’t find a solid answer other than that I would get paid more or less depending on the size of the network, the length of the track, and the number of times used.

Fast forward to today. My music has been used on television over four hundred times. This is not including documentaries, TV shows, social media, or YouTube content in which companies used my music. My music has been used countless times on ESPN, NHL, NFL, NBA, Cartoon Network, Food Network, Golf Channel, and many more. I still have no idea how much I will be paid for this, but just knowing that the journey has been successful has been fulfilling on its own. I am beyond grateful for the connections that made this happen, and already have a second set of ten tracks headed to the library as well. Music libraries don’t want nonspecific stuff that could be used across the board. This latest set are hip hop tracks that are explicitly for sports marketing.

I am hopeful for the future in this space, and my career, and thankful for the connections I have made so far. I’m excited that my music has taken off in the sports realm, as I know that live sports will survive the inevitable transition from television to streaming services.

What has this experience taught you about the music industry?

Well, I’ve learned about contracts and legal language, and got great firsthand experience dealing with copyright law. The music industry classes at JMU helped me navigate contract law and the language that’s used in contracts. I do my best to read through everything, but I also send it off to others to get their opinion. Every once in a while, a company will want to own literally everything about your music production business, and you need to be aware of that. I learned how to use a Performance Rights Organization, which helps secure royalties and deliver royalty statements. I learned about the best way to send files to business partners without losing quality. I got experience in so many practical parts of the broadcast music world.

The best industry contacts care about what I’m doing and care about the music as art. There are a lot of people out there who do not actually care about the artist or even the music. They only want a file in their inbox and that’s all that music is to them. I’ve worked with people like that and it’s not fun, but it is a business and sometimes you have to do stuff like that. Sometimes they’ll say ‘send me as much as you can.’ That really devalues what musicians do. A lot of people view music as only a product, and the more they have on the shelf the more beneficial it’ll be for their business. There’s a lot of quantity out there already. What I’m saying is that quality is also important. Talking to people who run large-scale businesses can be intimidating for sure, but I think you have to approach things with a certain amount of confidence in yourself and what you’ve produced. One of the things that’s most beneficial is just generally your social skills. You need to care about who the clients are and deliver them something of value that they can use. When you get a call or receive an email it really matters what you’re going to say.

Do you ever perform live?

I’ve done some live performance. I played drums in a gospel-style group for about two years. It was really fun to learn how to play music in that style. I also played bass for a local band called Lilac War. They were really big here in Harrisonburg. I’m willing to hop on keys for just about any band that comes around. This past year I produced a debut album — all 14 songs — for the indie rock/alternative pop band Beyond the Sea. The album is called The Other Side of Tomorrow. You can check it out on Spotify.

What are your long-term goals?

Money in the bank account is important of course. I made music in sixth grade and sold it soon thereafter. That was a revelation to me — here is something that I can turn into a career. I’ll get my royalty statement in August for the first quarter of 2022, and I’m excited to see what that looks like. But I think that an even bigger purpose for me involves storytelling. You want to see your music used in a certain way. You want to see it help a story be told or a product be sold. I think that’s where the real satisfaction comes from. Ultimately, making music is just so much fun. Doing it well is a great and honorable thing.

Sports has been where I've been most successful as far as broadcast or streaming television goes, but outside of that I’ve done a whole lot of other stuff for commercials. I love telling any story, you know; anything that comes my way. I got an email the other day about an ice cream brand, and I was so excited to make a track for this ice cream commercial. I got one for plus-size lingerie; that was interesting too. If I’m given an opportunity to tell a story with the music and make it feel like it’s supposed to feel — then I’m totally in.

I do have some bigger dreams. I’d love to do the soundtrack on a nature documentary for National Geographic or the Discovery Channel. There’s a lot of beauty to be found in telling stories that have to do with people and nature. As I said earlier, I work with this company called Cleod9. I’ve worked with them for about four years now. I’ve done every single project they’ve sent my way. I know that they work with National Geographic and Discovery on large-scale projects. By continuing to invest in that relationship and being consistent in the work, I give myself hope that I’ll get bigger assignments in the future. Recently, I got to do a short composition for a mini-documentary series featuring a young girl talking about climate change. That’s a stepping-stone to something larger. Trust and dependability are the foundation stones upon which any career is founded.

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Published: Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Last Updated: Thursday, May 11, 2023

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