Like It Or Not, You Are A Small Business — I built a music studio because I want to make music, so I started out by approaching it the way a musician would approach a project like this — which is to say, freewheeling and disorganized. It took me a while to realize that I had to start thinking like a businessman first — which, thinking like a musician, I resented wholeheartedly. I want to record bands and mix tracks all day; I don’t want to organize receipts and learn about SEO. The good news is that none of that stuff is as daunting or as soul-sucking as it seemed at first. It just required a change in perspective and in priorities. If I can spend an hour watching Tony Maserati mix drums I can spend thirty minutes learning about marketing — and if I can spend a hundred bucks a month on plug-ins, I can spend ten to subscribe to an app that basically does my taxes for me.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewingJesse Case.
Jesse is an award-winning producer, songwriter, composer, sound designer and multi-instrumentalist as well as the founder and owner of Outsider Audio. After over 10 years of working in the entertainment industry in Chicago, Jesse recently moved with his family to a 5-acre property surrounded by farmland with the dream of converting a giant barn into a destination music studio. As the former Music Director for The Second City, Jesse fuses his background in comedy and musical improvisation with his skill in the studio to make unique tracks for pretty much everything. The lengthy list of people with whom he’s made music includes Chris Redd (SNL, Popstar), Aidy Bryant (SNL), T.J. Miller (Silicon Valley), Bo Burnham, Ugly Duckling, Felonious Munk, Rhymefest, David Koechner, Renee Fleming, Chris Witaske (Love), Ashley Nicole Black and Talib Kweli for a feature on “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” and The Lonely Island during the recording of the “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” soundtrack.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and my childhood started out pretty idyllic. Our house was always filled with music. My Mom was a Dance professor at CU, and my Dad was a very successful psychologist who had always been passionate about playing the piano. He had performed a lot in his younger days, and I suspect that some part of my dad never quite came to terms with giving up on his musical career. My world was shaken in my early teenage years when he suddenly passed away. That was a dark and difficult time, but in retrospect- it was also the time when I started getting serious about being a musician. Sitting at the piano was comforting, and somehow it felt like an important part of my new role as man of the house and a way to fill my father’s shoes. Incredibly, I remember a very quick and almost drastic improvement in my musical abilities during that time, almost as if he had somehow left that part of himself behind for me to inherit.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There’s a quote attributed to John C. Maxwell that’s a core maxim in the world of improv comedy: “fail early, fail often, but always fail forward.” I love this quote because the mindset behind it is one that allows you to take risks, make big decisions quickly, and commit fully to them; but also allows you to pivot quickly if things don’t go as planned. This mindset informs the way I produce and compose music. I like to let the creative process take the lead and just see what happens, and if I had been a more risk-averse person- I would never have completely upended my life in Chicago to open a destination music studio surrounded by cornfields in a town of 600 people.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The book I have probably read the most is “The Sirens of Titan” by Kurt Vonnegut, which I realize seems like an odd answer since the book is essentially about the pure meaninglessness of life from a cosmic perspective. But Vonnegut actually takes this idea a step further and draws kind of a lovely conclusion, which is that in lieu of a grander meaning or destiny, what actually makes human life important are the small moments that we have together — moments of play, creativity, love, etc. If there is a key to happiness, it’s contained in the day to day and the menial. In a creative field particularly, it’s easy to get caught up in comparing yourself to others and obsessing about your “brand” and your “clout” and whatnot, but when I’m able to focus on the day-to-day joy that I get from my work and my life, I find that my work and my life get much better.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
Like many people who create and perform, the whole essence of my work was based around being in rooms with people or on stage in front of them. I was often out of town several days a week, whether I was recording, performing, or running workshops. A lot of my work was composition and sound design for theatre, which is of course one of the industries that’s been hit hardest by the Pandemic. Literally right before everything shut down, I was all set to perform and play in a production that I co-created and composed original music for at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Basically everything I did relied on groups gathering or even large crowds attending live events.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
The first thing I had to do was figure out how I could successfully produce and perform virtually. In the beginning I knew basically nothing about virtual meeting platforms, but suddenly I had to figure out some way to optimize mixing high-quality audio, live piano, and even video in them while minimizing latency — all while making sure that the folks I was working with could do the same on their end without the benefits of my high-end gear. This involved many late nights of frantic research and testing various audio configurations, and even still there were times when something messed up or went horribly wrong. But when I came out the other side of this insanity, I had completely re-arranged my setup, re-wired all of my gear, and learned more about virtual sound in under a month than I had in my entire career.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
To be completely honest, the plan to fully convert our barn into a destination music studio started out as kind of a “We’ll get to it when we get to it” long term goal. I was travelling and working a lot, and since we also had two toddlers at home, that dream often took a place on the back burner. Around early March when cancellations abounded, I watched all of my live work disappear in less than a week with no indication of when (or if) it would be back, and I kept hearing and reading about people leaving big cities behind to work from more remote areas. I quickly realized that not only was now the time to double down on the opportunity to expand my business and carry out the change I had moved out here to make, but that artists would probably really appeal to the idea of a “retreat” studio that they can escape to for an extended stay in the scenic, peaceful countryside where they can be creative without the distractions of city life (not to mention, witness some pretty killer sunsets). Suddenly the whole idea seemed very worthwhile, and since I could no longer travel out to work in another studio, theater, or stage, it became vital that I find a way to bring the work to me. We pretty much immediately ramped up construction on the loft space above the studio so that people could come out and stay here as soon as possible, and I continued to focus on expanding our virtual capabilities in the meantime.
How are things going with this new initiative?
I continue to be blown away by what is possible virtually, and I’m very lucky to report that I’m busier than I’ve ever been. Taking travel out of the equation has also allowed me so much more time to focus on the build, so as we put the finishing touches on the loft space and get all of the equipment installed into the studio, we’re making plans to give tours and bring people in to create and record and really looking forward to the future.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My wife has been nothing short of amazing. She’s a producer at Second City, and we met when I was the resident Musical Director, but like so many others she was furloughed when the building closed. She’s got her hands full being stay-at-home mom and could have easily stopped there, but instead she dedicated herself to the studio build like it was a full-time job, taking over everything from social media and publicity to construction and design. She had probably never picked up a power tool in her life before moving out here, but just the other day I walked out there and found her up on a ladder putting up siding with a nail gun.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
I love the space and the fresh air out here, but as a tried and true city boy the learning curve of country life has been pretty steep. I killed eight trees on the property pretty much immediately because I didn’t know what a bagworm was, for example. But the biggest adjustment has been a positive one — which oddly enough began about a week after we arrived when a very nice woman from down the road came knocking one day asking if we had “seen a horse around here anywhere” because “the idiot got out again.” We hadn’t, but we chatted on the porch for about half an hour nonetheless. Over the next month or so this interaction heralded a cavalcade of “neighbors” (I use this term loosely as the nearest house is about half a mile down the road) just driving up to say hi — often coming right up to the back door, as if we were already old friends. In all the years of living in our cramped Chicago condo, we met maybe two of our approximately 40 building-mates, but suddenly here we were in a a small town, and life in a small town necessitates a different kind of accountability to each other that I think is wonderful and didn’t realize I was missing.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Built A Music Studio:
Number 1: Like It Or Not, You Are A Small Business
I built a music studio because I want to make music, so I started out by approaching it the way a musician would approach a project like this — which is to say, freewheeling and disorganized. It took me a while to realize that I had to start thinking like a businessman first — which, thinking like a musician, I resented wholeheartedly. I want to record bands and mix tracks all day; I don’t want to organize receipts and learn about SEO. The good news is that none of that stuff is as daunting or as soul-sucking as it seemed at first. It just required a change in perspective and in priorities. If I can spend an hour watching Tony Maserati mix drums I can spend thirty minutes learning about marketing — and if I can spend a hundred bucks a month on plug-ins, I can spend ten to subscribe to an app that basically does my taxes for me.
Number 2: Know Your Minimum Viable Product
Speaking of business-y stuff, Minimum Viable Product is a term I learned from a great book called “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries. In essence your MVP is the absolute bare minimum version of your product or service that you can start selling, even if it isn’t finished. The idea is to start getting feedback as early in the development process as possible, and in effect your customers build your business with you. Not to mention you avoid wasting time or resources on something people don’t want. Especially in the pandemic, applying this concept lead me to do what previously seemed unthinkable: working out of an unfinished studio. This forced me to change how I looked at the entire process of the build, in essence, moving away from the most pragmatic way to get the whole job done and focusing in on what needed to get done to literally just get me behind the desk recording. This turned out to be pretty smart. The sooner a business can start interacting with people, the better. Not only does it get the word out quicker, but I’m learning all kinds of things that don’t work or that could be better while I still have time left to fix them.
Number 3: No One Really Cares About Your Gear
Early on I invested in a few great pre-amps and a pair of really high-end rack compressors, for the sole reason that “a lot of other studios seemed to have them.” I haven’t used them once since the pandemic hit, and it also turns out that Universal Audio makes a near-perfect digital emulation of them for about one twentieth of the price. I’m certainly not saying you should never buy good gear, but gear is not important intrinsically, analog is not better intrinsically, tape is not better intrinsically. Even a Neve board or a Fairchild is not better intrinsically (though I would very much like to own one please). What’s important, especially at first, is buying gear that optimizes your existing workflow and your creative output. People work with Outsider because they can go online and hear that we make good music. They don’t care what pre-amp was used on the snare. They liked the songs, or they heard that we’re fun to work with, or they like the vibe and retreat experience offered at the studio. Gear is secondary. The only people that gear will really impress out of context are other studio owners.
Number 4: Less Is More
Opening a business is a full-time job, which presents a problem if you already have a job (and even more so if you’ve got two little kids at home in a pandemic). I’m really lucky that I do what I love for a living and that my work doesn’t feel like work. The downside is, now that I basically have two jobs, if I’m not careful I don’t ever stop working. Obviously this is inadvisable for many reasons, not the least of which is that if I don’t force myself to take breaks, the quality of my work drastically deteriorates. Before the studio build began (and to be honest, a fair bit after) I did what I suspect a lot of artists and creators habitually do, which is working as much as possible whenever possible without any consideration of efficiency. Creating is valuable, and NOT creating isn’t. That’s simple. But when I started to think of myself as a business owner, it forced me to take a step back and optimize how I was using my time, including time intentionally spent doing stuff other than work. This has, if anything, increased my productivity, in part because I’ve discovered I can get as much done in one hour as I do in four if it’s the right hour.
Number 5: DIY is a Trap
This realization hit me as I was putting the finishing touches on some DIY acoustic panels that I learned how to make by watching YouTube. They were taking forever and to be honest were looking very… DIY. Here’s the thing: when you add up the cost of most DIY projects, often that cost doesn’t include things like hardware, tools, quality material (which you can’t buy at cost or in bulk but manufacturers can), the skill set to do it right the first (or second, or third) try — and most importantly, the sheer amount of time it takes. I was hesitant at first to spend extra cash just to not have to spend all that time, but when I look back on it, there was SO much more productive work I could have done instead. DIY is always an option to at least consider, but if you take away one thing from this list, please let it be this: your time is worth the money.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
I’m still working on this, to be honest. I’ve become something of a Twitter addict since March even though it brings me nothing but pain. Even without the ever-unfolding nightmare that is this year’s news, working from home is so conducive to this kind of thing because it becomes infinitely harder to mentally “clock out.” If I’m not careful, the separation between different parts of my life completely disappears — especially since I’m someone who’s passionate about what I do. The main thing that’s helped me to curb my doomscrolling is to set aside a dedicated “Twitter Hour,” right after lunch, which is when I get my bad news and social fix out of the way. Afterwards, I log out of all of my apps and turn off notifications other than texts. It almost always works.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Living mostly in Boulder and Chicago, I’ve spent most of my life surrounded by deep blue, so I didn’t quite know what to expect moving to a small town and being surrounded by small town values and politics. It’s been an adjustment to be sure, but my main takeaway so far has honestly been that Americans are not nearly as far apart as we’re lead to believe. The truth is that most people are genuinely trying to do the right thing based on the information they have at hand. Since an increasing percentage of our day-to-day human interaction happens online (especially during the Pandemic), it becomes easier than ever to get bad information and make bad decisions or judgments accordingly. But conversely when people are together in person, it becomes a lot easier to prioritize similarities over differences. I’d like to see a movement that leads us away from social media and towards virtual interactions that more closely mimic the actual magic of being in person, interactions that emphasize our shared humanity instead of minimizing it. I won’t make the claim that music is somehow the answer, but I will say that nobody understands the power of being in rooms with fellow humans quite like musicians and performers.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
Rick Rubin. I emulate that dude in every way — in particular because the music world has this weird need to categorize and pigeonhole artists, but he’s one of the few people who has managed to avoid getting himself locked into a genre. My dream is that Outsider Audio becomes the Midwestern version of his studio Shangri-La in Malibu.
How can our readers follow you online?
The studio just launched on Instagram and Facebook — @outsideraudio — where you can watch the build happen, and artists can get access to early-bird deals on our website www.outsideraudio.com. I also post updates on my work on my personal social media — @jessecasemusic.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!