Last week we had the pleasure of connecting with Oscar and Grammy award-winning producer, engineer and mixer Robert L. Smith, and discussing his journey in the music business as well the development of his brand, Defy Recordings. As he relays his story, from trying to explain to his high school guidance counselor at age 17 that he wanted to become an audio engineer (before this career was well-known), to his move from a small town upstate to Manhattan, and the many struggles and victories that followed — we are inspired by his courage, persistence and conviction. Below are some highlights from our conversation as well as some interesting insights that may resonate with you.
At 19, Smith packed his bags and moved from LaGrangeville, New York to Manhattan to attend the Institute of Audio Research. When he moved into a room at the YMCA on 34th Street he wasn’t sure what he was in for, but was determined to pursue his passion and develop it into a career. And that he did. He soon began working at studio sessions around the city (the first of which he recalls being a 24-hour-straight-long session for Def Jam).
Over the next 10 years, Robert was mentored by some of the best in the business, including the legendary Phil Ramone. He feels blessed to have met and worked with some incredible people over the years.
Nine years ago in 2007, Robert L. Smith launched Defy Recordings. The website’s homepage features a grid of client photos that resembles a ‘who’s who’ in the music business, but you’d never know it from our conversation. He’s always been all about the work. He shares that it’s taken 8 years of solid hard work to build the brand and there have been many frustrations along the way. But the results are there: 2015 has been outstanding for Defy.
Why Defy. When we asked about the name Defy Recordings, Smith smiled and shared that defy is his favorite word. Many of his insights and comments below validate his way of thinking — and we’re loving it. Because to live authentically sometimes you need to defy what others want or expect from you. And having this extra bit of strength, confidence and edge certainly helps enable success!
Inspiring Career Advice: Separate Business + Friendship. “One of the new terms I gave myself last year was that I wouldn’t work with friends anymore. It’s made an amazing difference! The older I get, the better I am at leaving emotions out of business and closing the door to friends was an important step for me. By ‘friends’, I mean long-term clients that have always relied on me to help them out. In a silly way, it’s made my brand that much more serious because it’s allowed me to raise my rates without guilt and turn my entire calendar to a real work schedule instead of a loosely compiled list of favors.”
3 Life Insights:
- Honesty is a must. “I’ve been accused of being too honest. I can’t sit and join in raving about someone or something if I don’t feel the same way. And I just can’t just shake hands and go along with things because everyone else is.”
- Live your life. I refuse to live life by a template. I’ve always thought, ‘You can’t just impose someone’s template of life on me when it has nothing to do with my life.’
- Everyone needs to grow. “If I share music with someone, I feel the need to introduce that person to another new artist, in addition to the one we’ve been speaking about. It’s fun to share something completely different by playing them music that inspires me, as it will typically inspire them too.”
Favorite Aspect of His Job. “It’s amazing to have the opportunity to be there at the start of a classic song’s life. Knowing you’re one of the first people to hear a song or album that will one day become someone’s favorite song or album ever – that will help listeners through good and bad times and will become part of their lives.”
No Desire To Work With His Favorite Artists. Although his recent projects involve legendary artists like Chaka Khan and U2, Robert points out that working with his heroes in the music business is not something he aspires to do. “Certain things are better left with some mystery. When you reach a level of greatness in any field it’s not surprising that something else may be affected.” (Perhaps he’s had some less than positive experiences leading to his opinion; we’re not sure.)
Artist Who’s Had A Dream Career. “Sade has had one of the best careers I can imagine. She disappears from the world, we don’t know who she’s married to or how many kids she has – if she has any – and nor do we care. She is all about the music; she releases albums infrequently but they do well. To me she kind of has an artist’s dream life, in the sense that she’s able to release something successful and still be able to go buy a pizza without any paparazzi bothering her.
Special thanks to Robert L. Smith. We wish you and Defy Recordings continued success in 2016 and beyond.
* Song For This Moment: “Do It Again” by The Ting Tings. Produced by Robert L. Smith