I used to think Simon Cowell was cruel

I used to think Simon Cowell was cruel.  Now that I’m a music producer, I've cut the man some slack.

As a music producer working in a medium-sized Canadian city, I get to record my fair share of “talent.” Singers who cannot carry a tune even if it were in a plastic bag, bands who believe they are God's gift to music and rappers whose studio entourage give half-baked ideas that makes the music worse. Yes, I've recorded them all.

On the other hand, I have also recorded people with real talent. Vocalists who move you with their voice, instrumentalists who inspire you and the odd rapper who actually raps about something worthwhile. These are the ones that help to keep me sane.

You see, the challenge with music is that it's inherently fun to do. And who doesn't enjoy a little fun? Because of this fun, music as a profession attracts a lot of wannabes foaming at the mouth with excitement at the idea of fame, fortune and fan adoration. And the few globally recognized celebrities at the top act as fuel to the fire of fame, and so they'll keep coming. The good, the bad and the ugly.

When I tell people about the pain my ears have to endure from time to time, they usually sympathize and ask me “What do you tell these people?” My one-word answer is usually “Nothing.”

My job is to be a music producer. When people pay me they are paying me to render a service that makes them and their music sound good. They are not paying me to render an opinion about their music. Plenty of people will do that for free. Read YouTube comments on music videos as entertainment in your spare time. Thank me later.

It is not my job to police what passes for music and what doesn't. Who am I to say? And besides, for all I know, they may have a dedicated fan base of 100, 1,000 or 10,000 people who wait with baited breath for their next recording to come out. And if that's the case, good for them. Far be it from me to tell them that their music is no good. So no, I don't criticize like Simon Cowell — but sometimes when people sound truly bad, I think I should.

Second to sounding bad but believing they're brilliant, a lot of people want to be famous. They believe that just one song and one video upload to YouTube is all it’ll take to “make it” overnight. Although possible, this idea really grates my cheese. 

So when I tell my friends, they ask me “What do you tell these people?” My response to fame lust is a bit more abrupt. I ask simple questions like:

  • Why music and not (profession x)?
  • Why do you want to be famous?
  • What do you want to be famous for?
  • Which people will appreciate your fame?
  • How long do you want your fame to last?
  • Can you afford to pay the price of fame?

They usually get stuck for answers a few questions in. I tell them “If fame is what you want, you can achieve that quickly. Simply commit a crime so ridiculous that you'll make headline news online, TV, print and radio. And presto; you have achieved your fame. But you'd be famous for the wrong reasons, you'd be famous with the wrong people, and your fame would only last until the next news cycle. Fame itself will not fulfill you. But if you're interested in a music career; then we can work together to build one.”

Although the pursuit of fame by the inexperienced is one that frustrates me, I understand it comes from many places. A steady diet of reality TV talent shows like The X-Factor and American Idol, coupled with YouTube sensations and our get-it-now culture leaves them thinking, often wrongfully, “Hey, I can do that!.” What they don’t know is:

  • The time it takes to write an original song or entire album
  • Spending 30 hours or more recording one song that'll last 3 minutes 30 seconds
  • Creating the branding and artwork
  • Writing a business and marketing plan for social media, radio, TV, print and blogs
  • All the money it costs to get to this point
  • Building a band, countless hours of rehearsals, booking shows and the travel needed
  • Steadily building a fan base, sometimes for years before fame comes to say hello
  • And many other tasks that are too long to list

The average person will not consider this. They want to be an overnight success like the person they saw online. What they don't understand is that it may have taken 10 years of hard work for that person to get to that one night that made them famous “overnight.”

So what am I saying in all this? Music is a non-traditional form of employment, but it is a real profession. You will actually work harder than a 9-5 job. There are many disciplines needed if you’re serious about making a living, you can feed a family with music, but fame should not be your primary focus. If it is, you will be sorely depressed to know that fame may never get to you. Go do something else.

However, if you are diligent in your work of writing great music, putting on great live shows, connecting with and growing your fan base, not only will you start to build a sustainable career, but fame will eventually come to you for the right reasons, and it may stick around for longer than if you committed a crime.

Yes, I used to think Simon Cowell was cruel. I use to believe he shattered dreams and made people cry. But now that I'm a music producer I've cut the man some slack. Because if you listen closely, he is often saving the delusional, untalented but very entertaining hopefuls from disappointment, heartbreak, or maybe worse. In short, he's being cruel to be kind. Something that I may need to start doing.

Michelle Brownridge

British Music Producer Elias “Ellie” Lenge is fanatical about the music business. He learned the ins and outs of the industry as an intern at EMI Music whilst getting his degree from the London College of Music. Ellie used this experience in New York working with young up-and-coming talent who now lead successful music careers.

In 2014, Ellie moved to Canada from England to work at Blue Door Recording studio in Regina, where he also serves on the Board of Directors at Sask Music.

Together with Blue Door Recording, Ellie launched a record label that develops and promotes Canadian-based music talent.