Photo: Krystyna Felder
Producer/Songwriter Oak Felder Wants The Music Industry To Support Creativity, Not Just Hits
GRAMMY-nominated producer/songwriter Warren "Oak" Felder knows how to craft Top 10 hits—including Alessia Cara's "Here" and "Scars To Your Beautiful" and Demi Lovato's "Sorry Not Sorry," to name just a few. Though he has the skills and experience to craft top-charting songs, he passionately believes that the music industry should foster an environment that ensures all creatives get paid—not just the ones dominating the airwaves.
— and the writer is (@AndTheWriterIs) June 11, 2019
"I think it's important for creators of music to be able to create music and make a living off of it. Because right now, the only way that you are going to be able to do your job and make money to live off of is if you're getting hits," Felder recently told the Recording Academy. "How many records do you have in your life that you listened to that weren't singles, but are just as meaningful to you?"
The Los Angeles-based, Istanbul-born alt-rock lover is also dedicated to the art of mentorship and paving the way for younger creatives. Last month, he led one of the GRAMMY Museum's Summer Sessions, speaking to a theater full of high school students hopeful to pursue songwriting careers. We sat down with Felder to find out what he learned from the students, why he believes in music education and his biggest piece of advice for aspiring musicians and songwriters/producers.
You just wrapped up the GRAMMY Summer Session program. How'd it go?
Fantastic. I was sort of awed by just the concept of it. Those kids are awesome. And the program is fantastic.
— Ava August (@avaaugustmusic) June 30, 2019
Were there any good questions from the kids, or something else that stood out to you from it?
Yeah. So one of the questions really focused on working in the studio with an artist, on bringing an artist story to the forefront and how to do that.
I feel like people forget that production and music is so psychological and they say, "Oh, well you just go in the studio, you make a beat, you write a song and you record." People forget there's a psychology to it. So that awareness surprised me. I don't think I was aware of that until I was older and much less dumb than I was when I was a kid.
Music education is SO important, but often ignored or defunded in public schools. Why do you think music education is important?
I think the kids that learn how to play the piano and play some sort of instrument when they're younger develop and demonstrate better cognitive abilities as an adult. And I think it's something that serves you, even if you're not a musician afterwards. If you've learned how to play the piano and you forgot, you still created the pathways in your brain that allow you to solve different problems, probably more efficiently than other people would.
Creativity is very important for coping with life in general. If you have an early relationship with music, it makes music as a coping mechanism a little better for you. So, education and music would apply to society as a whole. Being born and raised in another country where music is a focus educationally, I definitely see a difference between a place that doesn't focus on it as much from an educational standpoint, and a place that does.
How do you integrate teaching and mentorship into your work in the music industry?
I consider myself a natural teacher because I like to talk a lot. You kind of have to show people the ropes. I have a guy assigned to me that I consider it my responsibility to teach him. Even beyond that, after I'm done with production, I think I would continue to teach it afterwards. I definitely have the gray hairs to match with professorship, so I'm definitely going to try for that. I think teaching is important, otherwise, we'd all be sort of aimlessly walking around figuring things out by trial and error.
Did you have any mentors when you were first starting out in the industry?
The first one that comes to mind is my oldest brother Dennis. He's an amazing musician and a great guy. He definitely was an inspiration to me. I feel like I've been following him my whole life, trying to be as good as he is. I'm still not, but I'm getting there.
Another early mentor for me was an R&B producer, guy named Teddy Bishop. He gave me my initial view of what being a record producer is like, the template for what it's supposed to look like. I've been applying that to what I've been doing since.
How do you think people within the music industry can foster a more collaborative, inclusive environment?
I think there is still the perception of corruption in the music industry. I think that the day that I am not surprised when a woman walks up to me and says, "I am a producer." That shouldn't be a surprise. The moment we can get ourselves to that point as creatives, we will diversify and mutate the state of music to a point of amazingness. Because for every idea that comes from a stereotypical producer, there's an idea that wasn't heard from someone who's not a typical producer. That's going to add to the culture when we finally get to that point. I think that should be everybody's focus.
Do you have a vision to help ensure more diverse groups are working in the studio?
Absolutely. I needed somebody for my team who did pop music very well as a producer. So I asked a friend of mine if he knew anybody and he pointed me to this producer named Zaire [Koalo] Simmons from South L.A. You wouldn't typically associate a young black producer as being somebody who is immediately capable of doing pop music at a high level. You do have black producers who are capable of doing pop music. This kid floored me. And then I was like, "Well, do you do urban tracks?" And he blew me away again.
So the rule is, give everyone a shot. Because the real thing is talent, it doesn't really matter who it comes from. It's almost like a cheat because you get to look in places that other people might not be looking. And you'll find gems that exist there.
L-R: Zaire, Oak & Nelly | Photo: Courtesy of artist
So, being conscious about when you're opening the door and that you're not just looking to the usual suspects.
Yeah. That's really important. Plus, it's our responsibility to mutate the culture. And the only way to do it is if people who typically don't have a voice are given one. That's our responsibility. I take that seriously.
You've worked with a pretty major, diverse group of artists. What's the biggest thing you've learned so far in your time collaborating as a songwriter/producer?
What I've learned is that the lack of an ego is a superpower. I'm a believer that anybody at any moment could have a better idea than you will ever have.
So I think humility is what gives you the ears to hear that idea. There have been times where I had a clear concept, direction and vision for what I want it to be. And I walked in the room and somebody says, "We should do this." My immediate reaction is no, that's not what I wanted.
[But you have to] put down your ego. That's the biggest thing that I've learned. Your ego has no space in a room of collaborators. You leave that mother***er at the door.
So, if you have 10 people in a room, and everyone has an idea, how do you foster an environment where everybody is listening, is collaborating, and isn't getting upset when their idea moves to the side?
First of all, if there's 10 people in the room, some of them are going to leave. It's easier to manage smaller groups of people. And then splits end up a little bit better if there's less people in the room. But yeah, if somebody has an idea, it gets out there.
You know what's funny, everybody has developed the concept of, "let me throw an idea out and if the room responds, then it sticks. If the room doesn't respond, no one says anything." You're in the room and people are writing songs and somebody goes, "Wearing leather pants." And it's silence, that idea was not a good idea.
So a room full of people who've figured that out, have learned how to regulate themselves, as a collective, works. That's what music is, a collective of creation. We're learning how to function as one unit, especially people you have good chemistry with.
What's your favorite part then about the collaborative process?
Self-discovery. And allowing the music that you make to do the same thing for yourself that it does for other people, through realizing other people's perspectives.
The story behind that is, I was in Jamaica working with Alicia Keys, she had invited a lot of us to come out and work for her project. I'm in a room with one of my producers and Miguel, who was there as a songwriter. He and I hadn't worked together up until that point. We're at this beautiful location, sitting at a table, just me, Miguel, Alicia and a couple other people. We're having a conversation about our biggest fears, going around the table.
Death is one of my biggest fears, beyond a person's rational fear of death. It gives me anxiety to even think about. I had no way of controlling that anxiety until I said "I'm scared of death." And Miguel goes, "You're scared of death? So you would want to live forever?" And I say, "Of course I would."
He was like, "Why? Where's the rush to do anything meaningful if you lived forever? If you were going to live forever, you'd probably have the most boring, unfulfilled existence."
He adds, "There's no fun in forever." And Alicia said, "That's a song." We ended up doing a song called "Where's the Fun in Forever" [by Miguel featuring Keys]. To this day, there's three songs I've produced that are my favorite and that's one of them. Because after we did the record, that anxiety lessened every time I thought about or listened to that song.
I can mark that as the first time that my own music has done for me, what other people's music, or my music, has done for other people. It's the collaboration with other people and learning their perspectives that I'm so grateful for because now I have a tool that allows me to deal with a difficult thought.
How do you foster that kind of collaborative space where everyone feels safe to share their ideas? And to talk about the things that are raw and kind of scary but can really get those amazing songs and emotions?
I think it's about trust. When a person comes to my studio, especially if it's somebody that I've never met before, I have to expose my own vulnerabilities first. To give them the signal, look this a safe space. What that ends up doing is it gives the artist an opportunity to tell me things about their personal life they would never in a million years want anyone else to know. So that we can then take those stories and turn them into music, because that's the process.
But it starts with you being comfortable enough to expose your own vulnerabilities and hoping not to be judged for whatever they are. And like I said, having no ego is a superpower, because the ego is what gets in the way of being able to do that initially.
And then you have a session where people sit in a room and it's kind of awkward, nobody's saying anything. Where it's, "So what are you working on?" "Same sh*t you're working on." As opposed to, "I woke up this morning and I was feeling like crap because my dad called me," etc. You're having this kind of conversation with somebody that you've just met. It's a disarming thing to be that vulnerable with somebody else. And when they see that they open up as well.
That's the key, vulnerability, because it creates trust. And puts them in a position where they're able to say, "You know what, let's write a song about this thing that I experienced, that I would never in a million years tell anyone, but let's write a song with that energy in it." A lot of my biggest records are records that have been written that way.
That's really cool; leading by example and setting the tone.
Absolutely. I think the best kind of leader is the one that leads from the front.
So what's your biggest piece of advice for young, aspiring artists? What about for young songwriters and/or producers, those who are more behind the scenes?
I say this to everyone: Know your history. Current music is the tip of the iceberg, it's being supported by a large group of music that proceeded it. If you are a rapper, then you should know why Tupac is important, why disco is important, and why a break beat is important and how it contributed to the culture.
Actually, my partner (Andrew "Pop" Wansel) just produced a song for Nicki Minaj that samples a classic dancehall record (called "Filthy Riddim"). This record is historically and traditionally a song that will always get the club popping, but the newer audiences haven't been exposed to it yet.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I want people to remember that he was a nice guy. And I want people who are successful in the industry to be able to turn around and say, Oak helped me do this. That's my biggest dream, wish, goal. Because I want, in 20 or 15 years, to be able to be the person who gave a shot to someone who made a difference. And in so doing that, make a difference myself.
What's your biggest hope for the trajectory of the music industry, the biggest thing that you wish to see that isn't happening yet or is just starting to happen?
I want us to get paid. I'm part of the MLC [the Music Licensing Collective], and I think it's important for creators of music to be able to create music and make a living off of it. Because right now, the only way that you are going to be able to do your job and make money to live off of is if you're getting hits. That wasn't the case in the '80s or in the '90s; you could've produced three records on an album that weren't necessarily singles. How many records do you have in your life that you listened to that weren't singles, but are just as meaningful to you?
In today's cultural climate, that is starting to become a thing of the past. Because the economic structure of the music industry only rewards people who have big singles, which means the big singles are the only ones that influence culture, i.e., there's no album record that really speaks to people.
And think about this: From a creative standpoint, when I get in the studio and I know the only thing that's going to make money is a big hit smash, that's all I'm focused on making. I'm not gonna make the "Where's The Fun In Forever" record, which wasn't a single, it was an album cut on that album. But it's a record that affected me and it probably affected other people in the same way. Those don't exist with the current model anymore.
The model needs to change to reflect that writers get paid for records that, even if they aren't big smashes, we get back to getting paid at a level that they will be allowed to live. That is my single biggest wish for the music industry right now.