Russell Simmons: "The Idea of 'I'm Going to Sell a Million Records' Is Almost a Fantasy"
Photo by Eitan Miskevich
If you're going to take advice from anyone, Russell Simmons isn't a bad mentor. He started a media empire out of his college dorm. He's easily responsible for more than half of the hip-hop classics you've enjoyed in your lifetime, not to mention tons of television and movies you've loved.
Maybe you've also browsed the Def Jam mogul's Twitter page and noticed he's got a real Buddha energy going on about him. He's even written a few books about finding "success through stillness." And he shared some of that Zen insight and other secrets during his breakfast Q&A at the inaugural Revolt Music Conference this weekend.
Success Through Stillness
Simmons started his seminar by leading the group in a five-minute meditation, though he advises personal meditations to last about 20. It's important, he suggests, to find stillness and focus in the present moment.
"I remember producing 'Rock Box,'" Simmons said. "It seemed like from snare drum to snare drum was a lifetime. I could hear the music so clearly that I knew exactly what I wanted. There was no distracting me.
"The only happiness or creativity of productivity you'll ever have is in the present. The fluctuations and noise in the mind is the cause of almost all sickness and all sadness. The stillness in the mind is the cause of all creativity in happiness."
In short, Russell's secret: The more you meditate, the calmer you will be overall and the smarter you'll work when confronted with chaos. Find that clarity in your personal time, and let it help guide you when shit hits the fan.
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The Game Has Changed
"The idea of 'I'm going to sell a million records' is almost a fantasy," he said. "The music business is changing every few seconds. Technology is moving ahead, and some in the music business are standing still. We need young creative people like you to find out new ways to exploit the artists you represent and your own talent than the traditional ways the ways we came up. You're not going to get the boat or the house on your record sales."
Don't go into this game thinking you'll succeed in the same way as your predecessors. You've must explore all avenues, from streaming services to merchandise, social media content, television and film, and of course, touring and sponsorships. Even more important is the concept of creating your own new mediums with which to be successful.
"You have to be open-minded," he said. "You're going to have to be creative not in traditional ways but in more ways than one, certainly."
Technology also allows you to take risks and make creative decisions that safe-thinking, traditional outlets wouldn't be comfortable with. Simmons knows the industry is uncomfortable with certain ideas, but he believes in his ideas and make them a reality.
"You can't do shit without their approval," he said. "Every pilot I put on ADD [All Def Digital], they say, 'That shit is funny, but that shit will never be on TV.' Well, fuck 'em then. We'll make the TV."
Make Your Own Lane
Over and over again, throughout the entire conference, speakers stressed how technology has made it possible for artists to open their own lanes, build their own hype, and take control into their own hands.
"I'm not sure they need anybody at all," Simmons said. "In this world today, I don't think anybody needs anybody. It used to be Too Short had to go out in the car with his trunk. You don't need that now; put your shit on iTunes."
It's not a foreign concept to someone like Simmons. He related the tale of how he pushed Kurtis Blow's "Christmas Rapping" with a fake order number until major-label Mercury came to them wondering what the hell this fake order number was all about. Today, it's easier than ever. Social media outlets like YouTube allow everyone to put their music or artistry into the world at no cost and with the option to monetize.
He encouraged independent artists to exploit All Def Digital's ADD52 program, in partnership with Samsung, which invites all artists to upload their content, which is then liked and shared until it hits the top of a social chart. The chart-toppers then get special release through All Def Digital, with a new song release coming every week.
The bottom line: Don't go looking for success to be handed to you. Make you own success, and let the money come to you.
"It's about creating your own," he said. "Needing nothing attracts everything."
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One performer stood up and asked what Simmons looks for in the artists he backs, and the mogul was quick to admit there's not some magical, one-size-fits-all formula.
"I have a limited number of expertise," he said. "I think some things are funny, and some things I don't think are funny, I don't get them."
In the end, it's most important to develop your unique artistic voice. If you find yourself copying someone else's moves, stop, meditate, and begin again. It's those who take risks and let their true personalities shine through who make it to the top of the game and impress the unique minds around them. And of course, offering something no one else can give is a step ahead on its own.
"Everybody has different qualities," he said. "I meet artists that inspire me, and I don't know what it is in each one of them, but they're all different, and they have different qualities. That's all."
Never Give Up
With his closing statement, Simmons reminded everyone that, despite some popular opinions, success never ever comes overnight. The key to success is accepting failure, learning from it, and continuing on the path to your vision. He should know. It's how he's earned everything he has.
"It always takes longer than you plan," he said. "You might not all be as fucked up as me. I make so many mistakes in the development of a new business, and it always takes longer than my plan. I should suggest to you that you can never fail until you quit. So, stay on your hustle, and whatever you imagine is true, and it will come true."
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