WHILE MOST BASSISTS WOULD BE satisfied with a constant flow of studio and gigging work, Mike Elizondo finds that the two roles alone aren’t enough to fulfill his drive. A jack-of-all-trades, Elizondo switches between roles as a bassist, producer, engineer, and session player with the same ease that he adjusts the knobs on his soundboards. But his success isn’t by accident—his tireless work ethic and his ability to evolve have kept him innovating as other’s careers have come and gone.
In the late ’90s, Elizondo landed his big break, transitioning from hired gun to production student of Dr. Dre, who gave him the platform to write, record, and produce some of the biggest hits of the last two decades by Eminem, 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, and Dre himself. Moving on to develop a diverse career of his own, Elizondo built his own studio and began producing and playing for artists such as Fiona Apple, Maroon 5, Nelly Furtado, Gwen Stefani, Sheryl Crow, Justin Timberlake, and Carrie Underwood. His hard work earned him a Grammy nomination for producer of the year in 2008, and the slew of new projects that followed propelled him beyond the pop and hip-hop genres in which he had made his name.
Now, as senior vice president of A&R for Warner Bros. Records, Elizondo is in charge of a long roster of talent, and with more responsibility than ever, he’s relying on his musical instincts and his sharp business sense to take his career into the future.
Tell us a little about your role as senior VP of A&R at WBR.
There are two parts to my job: I’m a staff producer and I handle A&R. The bulk of what I’m doing is producing, but now it’s just centered on Warner Bros. artists. There are things that I’m very comfortable doing and things that I’m doing for the first time. I’m learning as I go, but that’s been a reoccurring theme in my career.
How did you land the gig?
Once producer Rob Cavallo became chairman of WBR, he started to talk with me and prep me for this job, which he used to have. It made a lot of sense for me to accept this position, although it wasn’t something that I’d ever thought about doing before. It just felt like a good opportunity to try it out.
Are you exclusively producing for Warner Bros. now?
I am, but if something huge came out of the woodwork that wasn’t for Warner Bros., I’m sure Rob would understand. It would have to be pretty monumental for me to take it, though. Warner has an amazingly diverse roster of artists, and we’re looking to sign and build the next generation.
Are you learning things you didn’t know before?
Getting to see inside a label’s walls is a new thing for me. Generally, I know how they function, but to see first-hand how decisions are made and what their process is like is only going to help me in the long run.
Who have you been working with?
I did the last Avenged Sevenfold record right before I took this job, and I’ve been working with Eric Hutchinson, a supertalented artist who is a mix of Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon. I did more writing for the upcoming Carrie Underwood album. I’m also doing A&R and production for Michelle Branch’s new record, which is her return to pop, and I just got back from doing production on the next Mastodon album.
How was working with Troy Sanders and the band?
I’ve been a fan of Mastodon for a long time, and they wanted to explore something different, so we met up and connected on a personal level. They’re great musicians and great people who are willing to go the distance. Troy is an amazing player, and we shared techniques and learned a lot from each other.
Working with Dr. Dre was your first big gig. What was that like?
Dre was, without a doubt, the catalyst of my career. He was the first person to give me an opportunity to do something beyond playing bass, and he got me writing credits on some big records. From there, it became a big collaboration that lasted around 11 years.
What did you learn from Dr. Dre about having a strong work ethic?
The main thing about Dre is that he never settles for anything. Dre has had three separate careers anyone would kill to have: NWA, the Death Row era, and the Aftermath era. That doesn’t happen as a fluke. That’s something that can only happen with hard work and dedication. He works tirelessly until he feels in his gut that he has reached his goal, and he never settles for anything but that.
And what did you learn from him regarding the music business?
I never hesitated to ask him questions about who was getting paid what and when, and all those types of things, but I really learned while it was all happening. I never knew about production points until I was already accumulating them. Dre was always eager to teach me, and he always took time to explain those things early on.
Were you always so openly inquisitive?
I’ve always been someone who watches what successful people do. I observe them on all levels, not just how they are as musicians or producers, but how they carry themselves and take care of others. Other than Dre, I was fortunate to have people like Glen Ballard, Ry Cooder, and T-Bone Burnett to go to for advice and counsel. But Dre instigated a lot of my knowledge of the industry before I was even looking for it. He gave me my first songwriting credits, which opened the floodgates for me to learn about publishing and how royalties are collected, who gets what, and whether I should join BMI or ASCAP.
Who’d you end up going with?
I’ve always been with ASCAP. The people who run the company are musicians looking out for musicians, and I love that concept. I’ve been a member of theirs for over 12 years now, and they’re like family to me. I highly recommend them to young songwriters starting out.
How did you first go about making sure you got publishing rights and credits?
I signed a publishing deal prior to working with Dre, but when it came to the work I did with him, I was lucky that I got to be under his umbrella—his lawyers worked everything out, and Dre made sure I was taken care of, and then some.
What about health insurance and being part of the union?
The musicians union, Local 47 here in Los Angeles, provides health insurance, so I got it early in my career. It was tricky, too, because in order to qualify for insurance, you have to do a certain amount of work for the union, and if you’re busy doing other things, that can be tricky to keep up with. I made sure I kept tabs, and I’d check in with the union to see that I was hitting the requirements. Luckily for me, I worked it out with Dre so that he paid me a certain percentage of my work through the union, which meant I could have the credits go through their services and keep my health insurance.
A few years ago, you got into working out, and you dropped a lot of weight. What inspired that?
I wanted to make sure I could do things with my family, I wanted to be doing my optimum work in the studio and as a musician, and I wanted to present myself in the best light. Doing things like cycling, boxing, and going to the gym really gets me out of the studio and lets me breathe fresh air, which has paid off in major ways. I’m so refreshed when I sit back down at the boards, and my thoughts are clearer. Working out keeps my studio endurance up, too.
At what point did you hire a manager and a lawyer?
I’ve had a lawyer since the day I signed my first contract, but I held out on getting a manager for as long as I could. I’d been doing so much with Dre that I really didn’t need any help booking things, but when I began doing certain stuff outside Dre’s world, I thought it would be good to be represented by a third party. I also wanted someone who could introduce me to new work and artists so that I could step out of the genres of music I had been working in. My manager now is Steve Moyer, who I consider the quintessential producer’s manager. He manages Rob Cavallo, Brendan O’Brien, Tony Berg—a lot of producers who have had extremely long and successful careers, which is exactly what I’m going for.
Do you think a bass player who’s just starting out should hire a lawyer before signing anything?
If there’s a contract, you should have a lawyer on board. After all these years, I still go cross-eyed trying to understand contracts. You need someone you trust who isn’t just looking at their watch to see how much money they’ll make from the session. They have to put your best interests first, and you have to be able to trust them entirely.
When you started to make serious money, were you good about saving and investing it?
My wife is extremely frugal, so she takes care of me on that front [laughs]. She helps me think long-term. It’s exciting to be given a huge lump of money, and people tend to spend it as if the money is never going to stop rolling in—but if you’re smart, you invest so you can set yourself up for the rest of your life.
One area I do invest in is gear. I want to make sure that I have the tools to continue evolving. I read about a lot of stuff, but word of mouth is the best way to find gear; I also ask other producers and musicians a lot of questions and pick their brains on specific things. I always try to make sure that whatever I’m going to buy will be an important part of my toolbox later.
I’m assuming you have a serious bass collection.
I had a Yamaha bass that got me through the beginning of my career, and right after I did my first musician’s union date for a record, I put a portion of that money toward a 1974 Fender Jazz bass. I bought instruments that I associate with my heroes. I knew I needed Jazz and Precision basses to emulate the tones that I’ve always loved, and then I bought a Rickenbacker so I could get those McCartney and Geddy Lee tones. From there, I bought a lot of vintage basses because they were built with the utmost care and I knew they would hold up. My collection has definitely grown over the years and it’s become a bit of an addiction, but I keep everything in great shape. I maintain all my basses on a regular basis so that when I need to call on one of them, it’s ready.
What advice can you give bassists about purchasing gear?
Make sure each bass suits your needs. Don’t buy a bass because it’s the hottest trend at the moment. I’ve always bought instruments that were able to be diverse, but I’ve also bought one-offs. A Hofner, for example, is only going to do what it does, but it sounds like nothing else, so I knew I needed one for specific instances. Go with the basics first, and after you have a nice foundation of basses, find the unique tones you want to play with.
You have insurance on your studio and gear, right?
Absolutely. Again, I went through the musician’s union, because they’ll fit a policy for any size and worth of a collection. Eventually, I found a larger policy with a different company at the recommendation of a business manager.
Which bassists inspire you most when it comes to the business side of bass?
Man, there are so many of them. I can look to guys like Larry Klein and Marcus Miller who can kill the bass, but also play many instruments, gig as songwriters, and produce on top of it all. Just seeing bass players expand their roles beyond being bassists is exciting to me.
What other attributes do you consider important for musicians who want to succeed in the music business?
Versatility, people skills, confidence, and adaptability. In my career, I’ve been able to bounce around a lot of different environments and be compatible with a vast array of personalities in a lot of different genres. I’ve always been confident that I could step into any room and assume any role, that one way or another, I’m going to contribute to what’s going on. Being able to adapt quickly is a huge part of that.
How do you juggle being a producer, musician, head of A&R, and songwriter with your family life?
My family always comes first. As soon as I got married, my priorities changed. I knew I wanted to have a successful marriage, and beyond love, that takes a lot of time together, and devotion. I have four kids, and I know that for my kids to have the best shot at becoming great human beings, they need both their parents to be present. I make sure that every project I take, I take a week off before and after to be with my family; for a lot of projects, I make sure I can take the weekends off to be with my kids. I try to do my best to put my kids and my wife first, even in crazy times. And if I have to skip out on a project or a gig for them, then it wasn’t a gig I was supposed to do.
VICTOR WOOTEN’S BUSINESS BASICS
“You have to pay attention, and you need to be informed. It’s almost a crime for any artist today to not understand the business side of music. In any business where there’s a lot of money to be made, there are people who are going to try to take advantage of you. And artists forever have been taken advantage of. Even today, record deals are not written and offered in the best interest of the artist, even when it’s the artist making the product.
“Learn the business completely. Learn the whole business, not just one side of it. Don’t just get good on your instrument and say, ‘Okay, I’m ready to be a businessman.’ If you have to sign a contract, know what every word means before you sign it. Learn how to write a contract. Present the record label with a contract instead of waiting for them to present one to you. Hire the record company. But really understand the business completely. But at the same time, go into the business honestly. What are your reasons for starting this business? Is it just to make money? I can’t say that anything’s wrong with that, but I would love for people to have a broader reason. You know, how are three generations, four generations from now going to benefit from your business today? If you make a lot of money, how does that affect the rest of the world, how does that affect your neighborhood? Things like that are worth looking at. You should really have something to offer society with your business. Everyone should benefit from you having a business.
“There are a lot of different options that people aren’t paying attention to. For many years, I worked at an amusement park. I’ve done radio gigs. Every time you turn on the TV or the radio, listen to a TV promotion, or watch a soap opera, there’s music. Somebody had to record that music. Whoever recorded it is getting paid for it—that could be you. Every town has a local radio station. Every town has a local recording studio. Make yourself known there. Learn to write music for that. There’re so many other ways of making money in music. You can write or transcribe. You have to be aware of the different avenues that music has to offer, but also be willing to take some of those avenues. If I wasn’t willing to play in a bluegrass country band, actually to be hired as a bluegrass fiddler, we may not be sitting here talking today, because that was how I became aware of Béla Fleck. Become a teacher, play on cruise ship, learn how to build basses, manage a band, work for an amusement park, write songs for radio jingles, whether they get sold or not. Make a little home movie and add music to it. Score your own— really start playing around with things like that so that you become a well-rounded musician, not just someone who plays bass in a band.”