Episode 794: How To Make It In The Music Business

Sep 15, 2017
Originally published on September 18, 2017 3:00 pm

Illmind is a music producer. He isn't famous. He doesn't DJ at festivals in front of huge crowds. He's not best friends with Drake. But the producers who do DJ for huge crowds, who are best friends with Drake — they know Illmind. They use his sounds. They text him when they're working on a song that needs a little something.

Aspiring producers who want to be famous — they also know Illmind. Some of them pay hundreds of dollars and fly across the country just to sit in a room with him and hear what he thinks of their work.

Behind almost all of the popular music you hear today, there is a hidden, high-tech, producer economy, where people trade and sell musical snippets and tiny sounds. Illmind is at the center of this economy. In fact, he helped create it.

Music: Alec Britt's "Africa" (Mario Paint Cover), LL Cool J (Feat. 50 Cent & Mobb Deep) "Queens", Frank Dukes' "Lap of Luxury," Anderson .Paak's, "The Season/Carry Me", J. Cole's "Love Yourz", and Illmind's "Reverse The Clock."

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Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hey, everyone. Just a quick note. There are some bad words in this podcast, so if you're listening with kids, just know that.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, HOST:

Before Illmind was Illmind, he was Ramon Ibanga, a kid from New Jersey who loved to play Super Nintendo. One game in particular.

ILLMIND: It's called "Mario Paint." And in that game, there a feature that allows for you to compose music, which is, like, insane.

GOLDSTEIN: The game lets you make cartoons with the Nintendo characters. And then, like, as a side feature, you can create this kind of cheesy music. You can create any beat, any tune to go with the cartoon. Illmind got obsessed with making music in this game. He didn't save any of the songs he wrote, but you can find tons of Mario Paint music today on YouTube.

ILLMIND: You would grab, like, the mushroom character, and that would be your bass drum. And then, like, the Koopa Troopa would be, like, your snare drum.

GOLDSTEIN: Mario's face was a piano. A star was a xylophone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEC BRITT'S "AFRICA (MARIO PAINT COVER)"

GOLDSTEIN: Illmind didn't know it yet, but this - sitting in a room, alone, using technology to make music - was the start of his career.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEC BRITT'S "AFRICA (MARIO PAINT COVER)"

GOLDSTEIN: Today, behind almost all of the popular music you hear, there is this hidden, high-tech economy, and Illmind is at the center of it.

Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Jacob Goldstein. Today on the show, we go into this universe of music producers buying and selling musical snippets, texting each other half-finished beats, angling for back-end royalties to hit songs, even selling the sound of a single tap of a snare drum recorded just right. This is the world Illmind helped create.

A few years after he got obsessed with "Mario Paint," Illmind went off to college. But it didn't last. He dropped out, moved into his mom's basement and just messed around all day with a keyboard and a cheap drum machine. This is not what his parents had in mind when they immigrated from the Philippines to give him a better life in America.

Was it tense?

ILLMIND: Definitely tense. I mean, the first five, six years...

GOLDSTEIN: Were you in your mom's basement for five or six years?

ILLMIND: I was. I was, yeah.

GOLDSTEIN: That's a long time.

ILLMIND: Long time, man.

GOLDSTEIN: And then, in 2006, Illmind gets his first break. He gets a call from a guy at a record label, who had found some of the music Illmind had posted on MySpace.

ILLMIND: Shoutout to MySpace, man.

GOLDSTEIN: The guy asked to hear more of Illmind's music, they developed a little bit of a relationship. And not long after that...

ILLMIND: He's like, hey, LL Cool J wants to use one of your tracks, right? So I ended up doing a record for LL Cool J called "Queens," and 50 Cent was on the record.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUEENS")

50 CENT: (Rapping) Ask us what zip we claim and what hood we from, we say Queens, Queens, Queens...

ILLMIND: And so they paid me $6,000 to do that track - a shit load of money. I mean, I've never seen that much money in my life, and they paid me in cash (laughter), so, you know...

GOLDSTEIN: What'd you do with it?

ILLMIND: I remember I took that money and I put a deposit on an apartment. So I finally moved out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUEENS")

50 CENT: (Rapping) I bang bang and boogie, your blood on my hoodie. You outside stunting with your jewelry all goodie...

GOLDSTEIN: So this was a break for Illmind, but it's not like he's got it made. You know, he is, at this point, like thousands of other young producers who manage to get what's called a placement - somebody paid to use his song. Now he wants to get to the next level. He wants to be not just, you know, one of thousands. He wants to be a famous producer. He wants to be somebody with his own sound.

To do this, he decides he's got to stop using the sort of generic drumbeats that he's been using and come up with something nobody else has. But it's not like he can afford to, you know, rent a music studio and pay some professional drummer to just tap a drum over and over. So he comes up with a different technique.

ILLMIND: Yeah, I mean, it was me. It was me in a closet, yeah.

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter).

ILLMIND: So it was literally me in a closet with, like, you know, tambourines and, like, shakers and, like, a couple other snare drums.

GOLDSTEIN: Was it a closet in your apartment?

ILLMIND: Yep, closet in my apartment. And I was just, like, creating my own sounds, basically, right?

GOLDSTEIN: Then he goes onto his laptop, manipulates those recordings and creates this whole library of hundreds of sounds and uses those to make his beats - his songs. He starts getting more work. Does some more stuff with 50 Cent, works on this Tupac remix album, starts hanging out, getting to know people in the industry. And people start to know Illmind and his sound.

ILLMIND: So one day I woke up, 2011. And I said to myself, well, I have a little bit of a following, right? And I'm wondering if there's producers out there who want Illmind drums.

GOLDSTEIN: He thinks, all my drum sounds, all my tambourine sounds and snaps and everything else are just digital files on my laptop. I could sell those online. I mean, not whole beats not all songs. Just sell a folder with, like, a hundred different sounds - sound of a snare drum being hit, sound of a tambourine shaking one time. Other producers could buy the pack and use it to make their music. He thinks, it could be a way for me to make a little money, get my name out there a little more among other producers. Or maybe he would be selling away the one thing that made people want to use an Illmind beat instead of some other beat.

ILLMIND: I'm afraid that people might end up sounding like me, right? And that was the whole fear behind that old-school mentality of not sharing your sounds.

GOLDSTEIN: Sure.

ILLMIND: Well, there's only one me. If I put my sounds out, then there'll be hundreds of versions of me, right?

GOLDSTEIN: And you are all you've got, right? Like, your whole business is that you sound only like you, and nobody else sounds like you. And if that's gone, then you've got nothing.

ILLMIND: Exactly.

GOLDSTEIN: So he weighs these options, thinks about it and decides, you know what? I'm just some guy playing the tambourine in a closet in New Jersey. Why not?

ILLMIND: So I said, you know what? Twenty, 25 bucks, 100 to 150 sounds in a folder. And that's what I'm going to charge. So I went to my blog site. And I put up a PayPal now button. And just - I didn't think anything of it. I said, OK, Illmind drum kit - I named it a Blap Kit. B-L-A-P-Kit. Blap Kit. Just, like, a cool name, right?

GOLDSTEIN: And to be clear, what he puts in this folder is not beats or songs. It's just individual sounds manipulated all these different ways. For snare drums alone, there are 46 different files, each with its own name. There's snare bassy, snare blue, snare born, snare born again, snare Buddha, snare buzzworthy. And those are just the B's. So it's just this folder with 113 little sounds. Illmind has no idea what's going to happen with it. He posts it online and just goes to sleep.

ILLMIND: I woke up the next morning, and I found that I had, like, $2,000 in my PayPal account...

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter).

ILLMIND: ...That I didn't have the night before. So I'm like, holy shit. Like, people want this thing. So I'm like, wow. And then, like, more sales are coming in. And so, literally, you know, I didn't have an e-commerce store. It was PayPal. So I was literally emailing every single customer, saying, hey, appreciate you buying a drum kit. Here's the download link.

GOLDSTEIN: People keep buying the kit. And for a while, he's worried that everybody is going to start sounding like him. But when he listens to the music people are making with his kits...

ILLMIND: I discovered that, you know, a lot of these producers that are using my sounds don't sound like me. They're taking my sounds, and they're kind of putting their own unique twist to them. You know, discovering that was a big revelation for me. Like, I can put all these sounds out, and people out there won't necessarily, you know, take my spot or steal my sound.

GOLDSTEIN: Other people figured out the same thing. Back when Illmind released that first Blap Kit, drum kits where this new idea, something just a few people were experimenting with and a lot of people were afraid of. Since then, the idea has taken off. Now there's this whole industry of drum kits and sample packs, all these different kind of, like, Lego blocks that producers can use to build songs. For instance, there's this company called Splice in New York. They've raised millions of dollars in venture capital. And they want to be kind of like the Netflix of this world. They're signing up famous producers to create sample packs and drum kits just for Splice. And through the company, you get access to this huge library of sounds - you know, drums...

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUM BEAT)

GOLDSTEIN: ...And pianos...

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO RIFF)

GOLDSTEIN: ...And effects...

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR IGNITION)

GOLDSTEIN: ...And basically everything you can think of.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANIMAL BLEATING)

GOLDSTEIN: So Splice is kind of one end of this spectrum. There is also this other very high end of the spectrum. And the sort of key guy there is a big-time producer named Frank Dukes. Frank Dukes has put out this record label, and the record label releases albums like this one. This one's called "Lap Of Luxury."

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANK DUKES' "LITTLE MORE BARRY")

GOLDSTEIN: But the songs on this album and the other albums - they are not made to go on the radio or on Spotify. They are made just for other producers to sample...

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANK DUKES' "LITTLE MORE BARRY")

GOLDSTEIN: ...To chop up and remix and put into songs that do go on the radio and on Spotify and everywhere else. When that happens, Frank Dukes often ends up getting royalties. This means he can make tons of money. Illmind has gotten into this high-end sample business, too. But he is also still releasing those basic Blap Kits that people can buy for 20 or 30 bucks and use however they want.

ILLMIND: Fast forward to now, which is six years later - has become this full-blown, like, legit business.

GOLDSTEIN: Give me some sense - like, what's the revenue, more or less - like, order of magnitude?

ILLMIND: I mean, it's definitely six-figure revenue.

GOLDSTEIN: Every year.

ILLMIND: Every year.

GOLDSTEIN: Hundreds of thousands of dollars.

ILLMIND: Yeah.

GOLDSTEIN: And this is people buying kits for 20 bucks each?

ILLMIND: Yep.

GOLDSTEIN: So when you turn on the radio, do you just, like, here, like - oh, I know where they got that kick drum?

ILLMIND: All the time. All the time. I'll put on a Spotify playlist. I'm like, oh, there's my snare. Or, like, oh, there's my cowbell, you know?

GOLDSTEIN: List some.

ILLMIND: I mean, Bruno Mars - his new album has Blap Kits all over it. You know, Kendrick's new album, Taylor Swift's recent album.

GOLDSTEIN: A lot of these are just, like, a snare here or a snap there. But there's one that he played for me that is a little easier for an ordinary person to recognize. It's from a kit called "All Grunts Everything." And it's Illmind's own voice tweaked in all these different ways. Illmind played me some of these.

(SOUNDBITE OF VOICE SAMPLES)

ILLMIND: It's coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF VOICE SAMPLES)

GOLDSTEIN: Illmind recently heard that last sound out in the wild. Here it is again right here.

ILLMIND: Again.

(SOUNDBITE OF VOICE SAMPLE)

GOLDSTEIN: He heard it on an album called "Malibu" by Anderson Paak.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SEASON/CARRY ME")

ANDERSON PAAK: (Singing) I tried my first pair of Jordans on.

GOLDSTEIN: It's right here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SEASON/CARRY ME")

ANDERSON PAAK: (Singing) It was late in the fall. I caught a glimpse...

ILLMIND: That little yeah, yeah in the back.

GOLDSTEIN: Play it again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SEASON/CARRY ME")

ANDERSON PAAK: (Singing) Momma, can you carry me? It was late in the fall. I caught a glimpse of my first love, my God. Momma, can you carry me? Knees hit the floor - screams to the Lord.

GOLDSTEIN: I know it's hard to hear. Just here it is one more time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SEASON/CARRY ME")

ANDERSON PAAK: (Singing) Momma, carry me to the early morn.

GOLDSTEIN: So this is obviously subtle. I mean, I could barely hear it. And I was sitting there next to Illmind, and he was pointing it out to me. But, apparently, to music producers, it is not subtle. Music producers listen to a song, and they hear every single part in their head the way, say, a chef can be eating some fancy, complex dish and taste every single ingredient.

Music producers listen to this song, and they hear Illmind's yell, and they recognize it. And a lot of the time, they like it. And so the Blap Kits have become not just a source of income for Illmind. They've been sort of an ad for him. Other producers hear the sounds. And they decide, oh, I want to work more Illmind. I want to do whole songs with him. And there's been this whole other part of Illmind's career where he has made songs for people like Drake and Kanye and J. Cole. We'll have that part of his career in a minute.

Illmind has been a writer or a producer on songs for Drake and Kanye West and J Cole. And each case, each song is a little different. But it is never - so a bunch of us went into a studio and made a song from scratch. It's always more spread out than that, more technologically intermediated. One of Illmind's favorites is a song that J. Cole it called "Love Yourz." It's been streamed, like, 74 million times on Spotify. It's on an album that went double platinum. Illmind told me this story of how that song got made. It was 2013. And a producer Illmind had met at a beat battle years before emailed him a folder with a bunch of little piano riffs.

ILLMIND: It happens all the time. So just another day - they send me this piano loop.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO RIFF)

GOLDSTEIN: Illmind says this is the way music gets made now. Somebody in a room somewhere comes up with some little thing, some little riff and thinks, who do I know who might be able to use this, to work with it, to create something with it?

ILLMIND: And so I added the strings in there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ILLMIND COMPOSITION)

ILLMIND: A little drum roll I added coming up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ILLMIND COMPOSITION)

GOLDSTEIN: Illmind's doing all this just sitting at a desk, playing a keyboard, manipulating all those sounds on his laptop.

ILLMIND: B section.

(SOUNDBITE OF ILLMIND COMPOSITION)

ILLMIND: And that's basically the beat - real simple, just straightforward - didn't want to overdo it.

GOLDSTEIN: How long did it take you to create that?

ILLMIND: About 20 minutes.

GOLDSTEIN: So in a day of work, you just create one of those after another?

ILLMIND: Yup, one after the other. You know, some days I'll spend eight hours, and I'll create maybe 10 tracks, 10 lottery tickets.

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter) Yeah. Like you say - why do you call them lottery tickets?

ILLMIND: Well, I mean, they're lottery tickets because every beat, every piece of music that I make has potential to get placed somewhere. So there's potential to make money.

GOLDSTEIN: But, I mean, most of them don't, right?

ILLMIND: Most of them don't. Most of them sit on a hard drive, ready to make money, though, at some point.

GOLDSTEIN: The email is open. The phone lines are open.

ILLMIND: Phone lines are open, you guys.

GOLDSTEIN: One of the things you hear here in this part of the conversation, I think, is a big part of the reason Illmind has been successful. It's because he thinks of himself not just as a musician or a producer. Clearly, he thinks of himself as running a small business. You know, his studio is just a room in the back of his apartment. There's a stack of books in there on the window sill. There are business books. One of them is by a marketing professor at Wharton about how things go viral.

ILLMIND: Amazing book. This is my second time reading through it.

GOLDSTEIN: He's even built this whole new side business around being a producer who is famous among other producers. This summer, he traveled to cities around the country and held these events where aspiring producers paid $250 each to come sit in a studio, play him their beats and get advice. I went to the one he had in New York.

(CROSSTALK)

GOLDSTEIN: There's about 20 people crammed into this little studio in a kind of rundown building north of Times Square.

ILLMIND: So I'm going to call your name out. Basically, you're going to come up and plug the aux in. So I'm assuming people have their computers, phones ready to plug in. OK, cool.

GOLDSTEIN: People come up one by one. They introduce themselves.

ILLMIND: So what's your producer name?

SPICE PRODUCTIONS: I go by Spice Productions.

ILLMIND: Spice Productions.

SPICE PRODUCTIONS: Yeah. I sent you a long-winded email a while ago.

ILLMIND: OK.

SPICE PRODUCTIONS: And you replied. You know what I'm saying? And that was big for me.

ILLMIND: I try. I try, man.

SPICE PRODUCTIONS: So I appreciate that. You know what I'm saying? It was important.

GOLDSTEIN: And then Spice Productions plays his music for Illmind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPICE PRODUCTIONS COMPOSITION)

GOLDSTEIN: Illmind lets it play for a minute or two, turns it off. Everybody applauds.

(APPLAUSE)

GOLDSTEIN: And then Illmind gives his feedback.

ILLMIND: I really like the sample.

SPICE PRODUCTIONS: Thank you.

ILLMIND: In terms of the mix, like, the bass sounded a little muddy.

SPICE PRODUCTIONS: Yeah.

ILLMIND: I think you just want to try to balance the bass line and the kick drum.

GOLDSTEIN: A lot of the feedback was technical.

ILLMIND: Do you have a sub?

SPICE PRODUCTIONS: I don't.

ILLMIND: What kind of monitors you got?

SPICE PRODUCTIONS: The Yamahas. But I got the 8-inch.

ILLMIND: OK. I would - I always suggest having a sub.

GOLDSTEIN: And this is kind of what I expected. But what's really surprising to me is that Illmind also gives a lot of basic business advice. This isn't just polish up your beats with a beat-making pro. This is how to make it in the music business.

ILLMIND: This whole shit that we're trying to do here is to just, like, become successful, right? And the only way to do that is to get to know people. There's guys out there that are mediocre that know everyone. And they're really cool. And there's executives that like being around them. And they're getting every opportunity. But it took them, you know, five, 10, 15 years to nurture those relationships, right?

So I think that's another misconception we get as producers - is, yo, like, my beats are good enough. My beats are better than that person, that person. Why am I not put on? It's 'cause you don't know them. You didn't put five years in, like, you know, pulling up to the crib and watching football and getting to know the person. You didn't do that. They did it. So he's getting a shot, and you're not. Does that make sense?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yeah.

GOLDSTEIN: Illmind didn't just become the producer's producer. He has spent decades not just making music but also becoming the guy who knows a guy, which is why, back in 2013, he got a call from someone he knew in the industry.

ILLMIND: And he called me. And he said, hey, yo, Ill, I work with J. Cole. I'm wondering if you have any tracks for him.

GOLDSTEIN: Illmind thought immediately of that track that had started with the piano loop those producers he knew had sent them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ILLMIND COMPOSITION)

GOLDSTEIN: He emailed it off and heard back, like, a week later. J Cole wants to use this on his next album. Illmind and the producer who sent him the piano loop in the first place both got credited as producers and writers, which means they get royalties.

ILLMIND: Here's the song. It's a really special song. So it's called "Love Yourz." Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE YOURZ")

J COLE: Love yourz. Love yourz. No such thing. (Singing) No such thing as a life that's better than yours. No such thing as a life that's better than yours. Love yourz. No such thing as a life that's better than yours. No such thing, no such thing.

ILLMIND: There it is, "Love Yourz" by J. Cole.

GOLDSTEIN: That's your song.

ILLMIND: That's my song. Twenty minutes in the studio just making music freely with no intention, having fun, which eventually got me a Grammy nomination and a couple bucks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE YOURZ")

J COLE: (Singing) No such thing as a love that's better than yours. Love yourz. No such thing as a life that's better than yours. Love yourz. No such thing as a life that's better than yours. Love yourz. No such thing, no such thing.

GOLDSTEIN: But the point is it wasn't just 20 minutes in the studio. It's what he has been working on his entire adult life.

(SOUNDBITE OF J COLE SONG, "LOVE YOURZ")

GOLDSTEIN: Is there some other corner of the economy that you want us to explore on a future show? Email us at planetmoney@npr.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Today's show was produced by Nick Fountain.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANIMAL BLEATING)

GOLDSTEIN: Our senior producer is Alex Goldmark. Bryant Urstadt carries the crates of records. Special thanks today to Alkota, who runs the site The Drum Broker - also Gray, Brasstracks and Steve Martocci of Splice. That "Mario Paint" song at the beginning of the show was by Alec Britt. If you're looking for something else listen to, let me recommend Fresh Air. Terry Gross is perhaps the best interviewer of musicians in America. She has been doing it for decades now. You can get her show, Fresh Air, as a podcast. Listen to it any time you want. I'm Jacob Goldstein. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ILLMIND'S "REVERSE THE CLOCK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.