Adam Watts On Art, Commerce, New Album [INTERVIEW]
In this interview singer-songwriter and entertainment industry veteran Adam Watts shares his thoughts on the creativity, the balance between branding and maintaining one's integrity, and the future of his artist development company Broken City Artists.
Guest Post by Kevin Cornell on Tunecore
Adam Watts is a producer, singer and songwriter who has earned a ton of experience within the music and entertainment industries. From self-releasing his own albums, working with Disney, and eventually co-founding Broken City Artists, his own artist development and artist education company, Watts brings unique insight on what it means to be an independent artist in 2016. In addition to all of this, Adam has contributed to sales of over 50 million albums worldwide as a producer and songwriter.
He just released his latest full-length, The Hero and The Pain, and was kind enough to dive into a long talk with us. Read below as Adam weighs in on art and commerce, working with other artists, and finding a balance in artistic creativity and survival:
Your songwriting is personal, adult and compelling. But you’ve also got a past life of writing and producing for artists under Disney. Tell us a bit more about that!
Adam Watts: I’ve often felt like a paradox wrapped in a dichotomy living in parallel universes! It’s funny the places life takes you when you just go all-in every day. My number one priority has always been to express myself personally through my solo work and to be as uncompromising and honest as possible in that. And at the same time, I’ve always had this attitude that, no matter what, I was going to make a living through music and just create, create, create every day to make that happen. I couldn’t bear the thought of working a non-creative job.
Writing and recording songs – literally hundreds of them – as a personal expression was at the core of me, but I realized that through making my own music I had developed this broad skill-set that I could use in other ways. I love all styles of music and really have enjoyed navigating different genres as a writer, producer, musician, engineer and mixer.
As a solo artist I’ve always created in solitude, which I love, but going outside of my solo music has always felt like more of a relational, fun or career building thing; a little bit less of a personal effort of self-expression. So I started collaborating with this great dude— who was actually playing guitar in my band at the time—Andy Dodd.
So, in between writing and recording my own stuff, we’d spend days writing and recording, and our nights playing in cover bands to make a few bucks to pay the bills and buy gear. We joined this company called TAXI and started writing songs to pitch to their listings. One thing led to another, and then another and suddenly we found ourselves with two gold records as producers for a (then) new artist in the Christian world, Jeremy Camp, I met his bass player at a club in Laguna Beach and gave him my solo CD and that connected us to Jeremy. And then through TAXI, Andy and I landed a song that changed everything. The song is called “Beautiful Soul” for an artist named Jesse McCartney, which we wrote and produced.
That song landed us both really lucrative publishing deals with Walt Disney Music Publishing and became a global hit. Huge in the U.S. and #1 in multiple countries. It was a mind-blowing time. Crazy what the right song at the right time can do. It was ironic that a such a sweet pop song in a genre that was really outside of what I usually wrote, became the one that opened all the doors.
Around the same time, I landed a deal as a solo artist with the label Jeremy Camp was on (Tooth & Nail/BEC (EMI)) and life really got interesting. The parallel career universes were born! I toured with Jeremy while “Beautiful Soul” was climbing the charts and I’ve been creating on both sides of that fence ever-since. I was really grabbing from my wrist toolbox to make this other music, the more overtly pop stuff.
It was very weird to write a song for a Disney project like High School Musical, Hannah Montana or Camp Rock and later the same day, write something for myself that was nowhere near that universe in any way. It was a very grounding and surreal experience creatively.
After a few years, the Disney royalties began financing my artist career and I could create my own music in a totally uncompromising way, while simultaneously compromising in almost every way within the world of Disney. Just doing whatever was required for the project, which was a fun challenge. It was more than a little screwy and humbling for my ego to be living this dual existence, but also really cool. File that under high class problems! I feel blessed to have had those experiences. We produced both Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato’s first recording sessions for Disney. So interesting to have heard and worked with them so early in their careers. Both are really talented singers.
Stylistically, it wasn’t always super polarized either during those years, we were still making records with Jeremy Camp and later on Colton Dixon as well as with other bands like Switchfoot, Plain White Ts, Cherri Bomb, Hey Violet and others. I was making my albums and playing shows with my band. A really eclectic lifestyle, which has been a blast.
As an artist and writer with his own style and direction, were you hesitant when Disney approached you?
I was and I wasn’t. I won’t lie, my deepest sense of integrity as an artist was utterly aware of the über-pop, youth-focused quality of a lot of the music I was making within Disney. The idea that I was servicing the needs of a corporate entity always rubbed me a little wrong as an artist who puts personal expression outside of commerce, as my top priority. But, in the end, it’s awesome to get paid for your creativity and it’s a stress reliever! The publishing advances and the production money that was coming in was amazing, and I still had plenty of time to make my own art, so all in all, it was hard to pass up. I was basically subsidizing my true desires with my compromised ones. Not a bad deal.
Also, to be honest, Disney is a brand I respect. Disneyland and Disney movies were a part of my childhood, so it’s a pretty cool and surreal thing to be able to contribute to music that is a part of other people’s childhood memories through that same brand.
Disney stands for something positive and they have a certain set of standards that permeate the company in a cool way. The entertainment world post Walt Disney is a different place. He’s one of those very few, unique, paradigm-shifting visionaries that created an incredible company that’s really effected people and culture in a such a pervasive and positive way. That spirit is alive there today, particularly in their animation and parks departments which I’ve had the pleasure to work with as well.
Though my own ambitions as an artist stretch far outside what Disney required of me creatively, it’s also great to see my work out in films and on tv and to be able to go to Disneyland and hear songs I’ve written in the park. Andy and I wrote the song that plays during the fireworks show every night. I can actually hear the sound of the fireworks from my house every night around 9:30pm and I know our song is blaring! Kinda trippy.
It’s fun to trying to rise to the challenge of writing something for a pre-existing project for Disney or any other company or artist. It’s a privilege to get paid for making up stuff! I don’t take those opportunities for granted. That said, nothing beats writing a song from a personal place and having people, even one person, connect to it in a deep, personal way. That’s what it’s really about.
The notion of working with brands has changed greatly in the past 15 years. Weigh in on how artists today seem to approach staying committed to their vision while also making a living.
This is a tough one! Super complicated. When an artist’s personal expression is then repurposed and used to sell a product, it does often feel to me like there’s a mismatch of intent happening that can feel a little gross. That’s why so many artists, especially classic artists are famous for not letting their music being used to sell stuff. The business has changed so much though that artists are in a position where they have to take what they can get and many don’t have the luxury of that kind of artistic integrity. Given the choice between idealism and poverty, something primal kicks in!
That said, I think what can feel a little off with this sort of thing is that, all too often, the emotional impact of the art is used to manipulate the emotions of people to endear them to some product, or to try to create a conscious (or even subconscious) association between the product or company and the consumer. Depending on the product it can be very tricky stuff. Something about that is a bit unnerving; someone writes a legit, personal song and then a company uses it to sell toilet bowl cleaner. Hmm! It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but multiply that by a million songs and a million commercials and you start to wonder how much that capitalistic mentality negatively effects how we appreciate and perceive art and artists. There are bigger issues at play.
Every artist just has to decide for themselves how to navigate these things and follow their gut. Like I said before, if you can make music and make a living doing it, compromise often comes with the territory, and there are worse things in life. Like having to worry about where your next meal comes from, or if it’s safe to leave the house without getting shot. Being able to take the arts seriously is a privilege. That said, everyone has to draw their own line in the sand and be true to themselves if they can be.
There’s a theory in psychology called “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”. It’s worth Googling! Basically though, Maslow theorizes that the closer we are to struggling to meet our most basic human survival needs like water, food, shelter, relationships etc. the less energy and ability we have to deeply consider things like ethics, morality and the meaning and value of art, faith and philosophy. So based on that, it’s understandable to consider that when an artist is living month to month, scraping by, maybe it’s harder to be high-minded and retain your vision and artistic integrity while trying to pay the bills! It’s hard to deny though that many of the artists we really respect over the last 50 years are the ones who’ve been really careful about how they align themselves with brands.
It’s not cut and dry either. There are of course, cases where the artist and the brand have a unique and authentic relationship, everything aligns and it can be awesome. But it’s definitely a slippery slope and you might say, at this point, a necessary compromise for some artists. Would I turn down a nice big sync fee for a national commercial? That’d be tough, unless I hated the product or was promoting a belief system I disagreed with. It would depend on the song and the product. It’s a tough one! Marketing is in fact somewhat of an art unto itself.
To that point, how has the intersection of art and commerce changed most dramatically, (or maybe widened or narrowed?) since you began writing and producing music?
Ah yes, the tension between art and commerce! I’ve lived in that tension for most of my life. Trying to blend capitalism with authentic artistic expression is like mixing oil and water. They can exist side by side, but to truly mix them is an exercise in futility most of the time.
The pervasiveness of the internet and smartphones has changed almost everything! People still really value music but as a result of technology, they value it less directly related to spending money. Wanna hear a song? Just get on YouTube and there it is. This makes for a paradoxical situation for career focused creators. Budgets for productions and advances for publishing deals have all slowly taken a dive because it’s harder to directly monetize the music itself. Songs and recordings are being looked at often as marketing tools. This is why labels moved to 360 deals.
The thing is though, having great, unique, music is still absolutely essential. It’s just that there’s a move toward the music being there to lay the foundation and create value for everything else… Things like touring, merchandising etc. I think it’s all a little out of whack right now. My hope is that the pendulum will swing back a bit and the music itself will be more consistently valued for what it is, so that the content creators can be paid fairly and continue to make a living creating. If it stays the way it is now, or continues the way it’s going, it will be harder and harder to have a career as a songwriter, producer and even an artist.
The idea that there’s no such thing as ‘selling out’ anymore may seem stale, but do you feel artists just entering their career need to draw the line somewhere?
That’s a great question. One I’ve thought a lot about. I think selling out is largely in the eye of the beholder. It all depends on one’s definition of it. I think of it more as trading up. You could say that I’ve sold out hundreds of times, but the way I see it, I’ve been able to create a nice little barrier around the integrity of my solo artistry by making a living through other means. For me it was a trade up, not a sell out.
That said, it’s not easy on the soul! Really difficult actually. Some days I could barely stand the process of making music that was so obviously commercially focused, when I really wanted to make something more personal and meaningful to me.
If you create your music for your own pure purposes, with the commerce door shut and locked and then after it’s finished you assess how you might monetize it, that seems like one of the more healthy and gratifying ways, artistically speaking, to seek to build a career. One that’s rooted deeply in authenticity. People have done it. But that only works if what you naturally create has a market, or can create a market! These days though, through the internet, you have such a better chance of finding your audience and therefore your market, which is so amazing. Tunecore is a really positive force in facilitating that.
On the other hand, if we’re sitting around all day every day just trying to create music that will make money, that’s the kind of selling out that, to me, is damaging. There have been periods in my life where things got out of balance and it really wore on me. You’re depriving the world of your best work. Imagine if everyone did that? Creating while thinking about money or fame as your goal… We’d slowly but surely have no real art left! That’s not a world that sounds very cool.
My good friend/partner Mike Jackson has a litmus test for gauging whether or not an action is positive or not, that question is “what would happen if everyone did this?”. Apply that to throwing trash out your car window or to creating art with a greedy heart and the results are incredibly negative; Insanely dirty highways and mounds and mounds of inauthentic art. It’s a poignant question.
This is definitely something each artist has to wrestle with within themselves. I think it’s helpful to maybe draw a bit of a line between the two things to protect what’s important. Or at the very least be aware of the line. Overall this has worked pretty well for me; to hold high overall quality standards for everything, but draw a line between the music that is authentic and uncompromising artistically, and then also create work that makes the necessary compromises, on a case by case basis, to try to monetize some work to keep the lights on and food on the table. Inevitably, we can find some ways to be artistic even in projects where it might seem impossible.
There’s almost always some room to inject true art into even the most artistically cramped projects. I think we have a responsibly as artists out in the commercial world to bring as much of ourselves as possible to what we do, even if only a small amount is possible.
While listening to The Hero and the Pain, I can’t help but feel an overarching theme of ‘acceptance’ on different fronts. Where are you coming from emotionally on this album?
Yeah, man. I appreciate you picking up on that. That wasn’t a deliberate theme of the album, but it’s been a theme in my life, so it totally makes sense to me that it would come across that way. I would say it’s a combination of acceptance of certain things and also absolute stubbornness when it comes to standing behind what I truly believe. It’s in the precarious tension between those two things that this album lives.
I’ve been emerging from a lot of internal struggle and tension in my personal life. The title track is about that. When I was at the bottom back in November of 2014, though I know God was there, it was up to me to choose if I was going to be stuck or if I was going to make choices to pull myself out.
It’s been freeing to have grace for and acceptance of myself and other people, while also passionately standing up for what I believe in and keeping in mind that life is way too short and precious to piss away doing or creating things that don’t matter.
I love all kinds of music, but when I’m driven to write my stuff, it’s really a personal expression… just organizing and making sense of all the swirling thoughts and feelings. I kinda feel like I make music that’s meant to be listened to while driving around in a car, at night, reflecting on life. I guess that’s my audience: people in cars during around aimlessly with the stereo cranked!
Every song on this album is a song I couldn’t not write. I’ve experienced some awesome things in my career and it’s been cool, but I’ve realized that though success is great, significance is better. In fact, I think my definition of success is actually becoming more and more synonymous with significance. This album is an expression of that. This outlook is also what’s driven me to express my ideas, theories and concepts about the arts in the form of an educational approach I’ve developed called “A Holistic Approach To The Arts” which will exist within an entity I created with my partners called Broken City Artists. It will also be a book soon.
Having been signed as a solo artist, how would you compare your experience of releasing albums/EPs using a service like TuneCore?
One word immediately comes to mind: empowering. To have such easy access to global distribution across so many massive and respected platforms, is incredible, more so than I can even truly fathom. If we went back in a time machine and told some dudes in a rock band in the 80’s that this was possible without a record deal and millions of dollars in backing, their glam-rock hair would blow back and their heads would explode.
The internet is a wild and crazy place and TuneCore really helps to organize the chaos and acts as a swift conduit to all the various distributers and music services that would otherwise be such a massive and near impossible feat to deal with on a case by case basis. Even as I’m answering this question I’m realizing more how much of a privilege it is to be able to make music and then hop onto my TuneCore page and make it available to the entire planet earth! Crazy.
Tell us a little bit more about your efforts with Broken City Artists. What about your career/past-life in the industry inspired you to dive into this venture?
So many things. This long term straddling of the art and commerce divide that we’ve been talking about was one of the core issues that made me feel like a new kind of approach to artist development was needed. I felt like I’ve had unique experience in my life and career and I wanted to dig into all of it and sort it out. I had starting sharing my philosophies and educational ideas with a university film professor friend, Jack Hafer. He was really intrigued and encouraged me to stop yapping and actually write it down. Once I started, I couldn’t stop! It’s been cathartic to see it all come together. I felt like it was something I had to do, and it just grew from there. I started sharing my writings with Mike and he was right there with me. Really a kindred spirit. It’s been awesome.
I believe art is the most transcendent form of expression and communication we’re capable of as human beings. Yet, so much art is hijacked by the sly forces of greed and pride and the seeking of fame over the seeking of and expression of truth.
Our best work as artists is created by truly finding out who we are and what our unique perspective and talents are and cultivating those things. It’s a highly nuanced process that involves looking at ourselves and our work as a complete whole. Our psychology, our spirituality, our philosophies and our physiology. I call those The Four Pillars of our human experience. They interact and effect how we experience life and how we create art.
For a quick example of how profound this is, imagine if somehow the psychological and personal issues of artists like Kurt Cobain or Jimi Hendrix could’v been dealt with in such a way that may have saved them from falling victim to their personal demons. Maybe they’d still be with us. That’s just two examples. There are so many others, that may not have ended in death, but man, this world, this business, will chew us up and spit us out if we’re not careful.
On a less dramatic note, imagine the kind of time that could be saved if, through nuanced holistically focused techniques, one could understand their deeper motivations and save months or even years of chasing after an artistic self-image that isn’t truly who they are. The more time we spend chasing who we wish we were, the less time we have to be thriving in our uniqueness. It’s easier said than done. It involves some unpacking of preconceived ideas and getting down to the core of things.
On an overtly practical level, I’m passionate about helping artists relate to technical aspects of art/music making in a way that is more closely related to honest personal expression. Whatever that expression is. Removing the barriers between the heart, the mind, the soul, and the body so that expression is more direct, more pure and more aligned with intent. The intent can be anything, and it can be discovered at any point before during or after the artistic process, but intent is what drives expression.
This may sound a little abstract, but in practice it’s a highly pragmatic and personalized approach to art mentorship and education that’s built for artist seeking to find their unique voice. I’ve developed really practical techniques for cultivating these ideas.
Broken City Artists is the umbrella that everything I do is under which represents this kind of holistic approach. It’s the home for my production company with my partner Gannin Arnold. Also, we’ve now embraced an independent competitive percussion ensemble formerly known as OCI, which is now called Broken City Percussion, which is a partnership with the renowned marching arts luminary, Mike Jackson. In 2016 we’ll be rolling out the further development of artists and teach via private lessons, seminars, lectures and other events. All of it rooted in The Holistic Approach, which is a book and curriculum that is 18 months into development at the moment.
We’re super-excited. I know there are thousands of like-minded & hearted artists out there that share a similar desire to dig deep and create authentic work, and creatively navigate a career in the process. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive! I can’t wait to connect with these artists to relate, teach, share and learn.
Since co-founding Broken City, what some things that artists you’ve worked with taught you?
So many things. From little nuances of technique to more overarching things like how their personality manifests in their work and process. Also, patience is a big one. It’a always fascinating that there so many kinds of artists and seemingly infinite ways to make great work. I try to be in sponge mode. So I’m always analyzing the different ways people think, emote and create.
If I’m emotionally and mentally present, there’s so much to learn being around and involved in someone’s process. If I’m in a position where I’m guiding or producing, It’s all about creating a vibe that’s comfy for creation so that we can achieve what we’re there for. To help in removing the obstacles that are hindering the expression of their truth. That might sound s little lofty, but in practice it’s just about gauging what makes an artist comfortable.
Maybe it’s as simple as dimming the lights and lighting a candle for vocal recording. Some artists need straight talk, some need a more nuanced, sensitive vibe, or want you to just be invisible, others just need you to hang back and let them explore and then jump in to nudge a little here and there. That’s a learning experience in itself. It’s the intuitive part of it all. Finding out what’s effective and what isn’t and how to be sensitive to that. I think everyone’s teaching all the time in way, it’s all about whether we have a posture of learning.
I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all way to do any of this stuff. Though the headlines could be similar, things like fears, doubts, insecurities, over-confidence, under- confidence etc. the details are always highly specific to the artist. It’s all about finding out why these emotions are there and deciphering whether it’s hindering the process or if it’s actually what needs to inform the process! These obstacles can be hidden in any aspect of our personalities, like I mentioned earlier. We all have things we need to improve on and work through and every artist has something that’s worth learning from. I believe that.
What is your ultimate goal for Broken City Artists moving forward?
The ultimate goal is both massive and incredibly intimate. We want to revolutionize arts education, one artist at a time. It’s about prioritizing the support and development the artist’s unique identity above all else, and taking them through The Holistic Approach to give them the guidance and tools they’ll need to do this and to navigate a career as an artist.
The immediate goal is to continue to work directly with artists in all kinds of ways. One- on-ones as well as group settings like classes and seminars all centered around helping them unleash their best work through these approaches I’ve developed.
I know firsthand that as artists we can get caught up or a bit lost in situations or in ourselves in very tricky ways that can delay or even completely prevent us from creating our best work and fulfilling our potential. It’s a tightrope walk, which is why it’s so difficult to succeed. There are so many amazing artists that no one’s ever heard of.
I know that early in my life, if someone would’ve asked me the right questions, really looked at all sides of me, and nudged me in the right place at the right time in the right way—without judgement and with sincerity, sensitivity and intelligence—I could’ve been saved literally years of beating my head against the wall in certain areas. I’d have been been propelled through to better work sooner, and had a more fulfilling process. I wish I had that time machine! This is a huge part of what drives me forward with Broken City Artists. I have a heart for artists and art.
I see The Holistic Approach and Broken City Artists as both the model for the artist with more scholastic tendencies, as well as, paradoxically, an approach for the renegade, the outsider, the loner, the introverted innovator, or any artist not prone to learning in the usual way… or even repulsed by that notion all together! Being an artist is about being yourself, not jumping on the conveyor belt and letting information wash over you.
Though it depends on your focus, a lot of arts education isn’t attractive to some of the most raw and intensely driven creative artists. The typical music school can get over- focused on mere technique and theory with some conceptual or historical studies and experiential performance elements. This might seem complete, but focusing on those things out of context or without a balanced focus on the deep well of psychological, spiritual and philosophical factors that exist in every single person, leaves so many stones unturned.
I’m not even that crazy about the word education. It’s an off-putting word to a lot of artists! It’s more about a unique kind of guidance and mentorship that’s focused on the individual. the paradigm of education is often best at creating teachers rather than magnifying and producing better artists. That means something is amiss. Technique is important for one thing only: to enable the expression of an artist’s intent. Technique without intent is an empty exercise of craft, it’s not art. I’ve seen it happen, where technique can become the focus so much so, that expression and intention is hardly a part of the process at all. If we separate technique from it’s purpose we cage an artist’s voice.
When you look at the work of artists that have truly stood the test of time and created profound work, it becomes obvious that their technique was there merely in service of a larger more meaningful goal of the expression of their unique perspective and humanity. Not everyone needs to know the circle of fifths, how to read and write music or how to play all their scales. Some do for sure, while others need to know a few chords and have the permission to spill their guts. There’s a massive world of nuance involved in writing a simple song and making it truly expressive. Just as there is to write a symphony and conduct it.
I envision Broken City Artists as being a new paradigm in arts education that is a safe haven and fertile ground for a movement of artists honing in on their uniqueness, being appreciated for it and boldly expressing it while in a process of shattering the obstacles dim their light or blur their voice.
Artists are complex creatures that deserve a customized kind of support, encouragement, mentorship to unleash a sense of freedom to express what they’re meant to express. Due to the internet and global connectivity, we live in incredibly complicated times where the pressures for artists to conform are more powerful than ever. I feel a deep drive to combat that pressure by approaching the artist and their work with the tons of respect and make this new approach available to them so they can take it and run with it.
I’m on a mission, man!! I want to spend the rest of my life both creating my own work and helping to create a paradigm where myself, my team and anyone else who wants to get involved, can help support and guide artists toward being their absolute best. The work of committed, authentic, unique artists can take the sting out of the harder parts of life and make this world a better place.