NEVER let anyone tell you what you can’t become, especially if you have dreams of being something that’s beyond where you’re currently at. Screw them and their insecurities. Work your tail off, combine resources, build a team, accommodate, adapt & conquer. Learn & Repeat.
If you need a side gig, don’t feel ashamed of that. Cost of life needs to be met and really if you take the time to invest your creative gains back into yourself and your dreams, destiny has a way of providing you the accomplishments with your investment that you deserve. If you have dreams, you’ll have to work harder and your normal cost of life stuff shouldn’t be jeopardized because you want to ‘be a starving artist’. Find an accommodating job that pays your life bills so you can re-invest your hard-earned creative cash back into your dreams because then at the end of the day you did it your way and you didn’t have to be poor having misunderstood expectations. Plus then you get to call the shots and be a part of the change.
As a part of our series about rising music stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Mind Exchange Music: Donny Walker & Kelly Askam.
Donny Walker is a co-owner of Chicago’s very own: Mind Exchange Music. He’s an international award-winning director (music videos & documentaries), composer, arranger, orchestrator, music producer, multi-instrumentalist, musician, and foley artist. He’s performed and produced over 42 records/soundtracks/EPKS, custom created a 600+ fully mixed and mastered song catalogue, scored and produced total soundtracks for 4 feature films, 30+ short films, 3 theatre shows, 1 museum exhibit called ‘Art is Instrumental’ with the DuPage Children’s Museum, and he and his team represented original music for the nation of America in iMapp 2019’s worldwide winners round with creative genius George Berlin. He has music on PBS, ABC, SyFy, Hulu, E!, Bravo & Telemundo. In 2020 he and his team at Mind Exchange Music’s original music, soundtracks, scores, music videos, documentaries & media performances won over 75 awards all over the world and were selected for another 90 film festivals outside. Notable projects include: Mind Exchange Music Presents, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Emil Bach House documentary, An Interesting Story About an Uninteresting Guy, I Dream of a Psychopomp and many others. He’s a past performer with Aretha Franklin, The Ojays & The Dells. Educational studies include: DePaul University, Columbia College Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University and he learned from members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, The Lyric Opera & Chicago Jazz Ensemble. He also enjoys doing production sound, boom op & foley work and is supremely passionate about learning how to produce music in literally every style under the sun.
Kelly Askam is a sound engineer and co-owner of Chicago’s boutique sound and music company, Mind Exchange Music LLC. His childhood passions for music and technology led him to study jazz saxophone performance at DePaul University where he would graduate in 2008 with a Bachelor of Science in Sound Recording Technology degree under the tutelage of Professor Thomas Miller and Dan Steinman. His career in music started that same year while interning at StudioChicago where he connected with composer and instrumentalist, Donny Walker, and fellow sound intern, Zachariah Jarrett, that began a 13-yearlong partnership of creative productions with projects ranging from studio albums to children’s concerts featuring the Lake County Symphony Orchestra. Since 2014 he has expanded his music engineering to include all forms of film sound: production sound mixer, supervising sound editor, dialogue editor, sound designer, effects editor, score mixer, and re-recording mixer. He oversees all aspects of audio at Mind Exchange Music and especially enjoys being on film sets doing production sound and working with the 5.1 surround sound Pro Tools Ultimate HDX system at MEM. With meticulous attention to detail, the zen of a saint, and a personable knack for building professional relationships he’s been able to provide quality audio services for over 100 media productions and clients ranging from: Nike, AT&T, Havas, Chicago BAR Association, Siskel/Jacobs Productions, and Freethink Media Inc, to films by Danny Villanueva Jr., JHC Productions, Mark Harris/1555 Filmworks, Production One Media, George Berlin Studios, Mathew LeFevour, with works being distributed through Netflix, Vertical Entertainment, WTTW-PBS, and Amazon. Kelly is extremely grateful for all the opportunities he’s had and looks forward to all the future ways Mind Exchange Music LLC can continue bringing engaging original art and high-quality sound and music services to the world.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Donny: I grew up in Madison, spent my youth doing music and getting into trouble. Eventually performing in orchestras, big bands, drum and bugle corps, wind ensembles, choirs, brass choirs & rock bands became a weekly thing which was cool. My parents thought it would be smart to throw me into that scene because I was getting in trouble so often, they had the novel idea of having me take music lessons (I think so that they could hear me practicing, they knew where I was) so… first it was the trombone, then tuba, piano, electric bass, bass trombone then after realizing I really loved doing music stuff when I was young, I got a scholarship to go to Interlochen Arts Academy because I wanted to be around more like-minded art-oriented students.
Kelly: I grew up in the small, rural town of Oregon, IL. From an early age I knew I wanted to perform music, and in the 5th-grade band I immediately picked up the tenor saxophone. My musical endeavors progressed to include jazz band, choir, show choir, madrigals, and musical theatre productions throughout junior high and high school. I was fortunate to study private music lessons at Northern Illinois University which helped me attain seats at the jazz and classical IMEA district bands and IAJE Jazz All-State bands every year that was possible. Accompanying my love of music was also a growing passion for audio electronics, and I was constantly tinkering with stereo systems, recording live concerts with my MiniDisc, and burning CDs of my music lessons.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
Donny Walker: After my art academy experience, I attended DePaul University on a scholarship, where I studied with the Chicago Symphony & Lyric Opera, I transferred to Columbia College after realizing I wasn’t as intent to play in orchestras professionally, so, I started training in non-jazz & non-classical music styles. While at Columbia College Chicago, I studied music engraving, composition, theory and started recording and producing with my partner Kelly Askam. Around that time, I started performing with the greats like Aretha Franklin, The Ojays & The Dells and then I went to Northeastern Illinois University, got my master’s degree in music pedagogy, while simultaneously building my company Mind Exchange Music LLC with Kelly Askam and we have been killing it ever since. My collective experience prior to starting our company really sculpted me into being the versatile composer and music producer that I am today because I literally performed in whatever I could on whatever I could so my experience is expansive. The performance stuff is really just a side of fostering knowledge of creation and how to craft and capture a genuine performance.I am very passionate about preserving the timeless approaches that fostered the greats in the industry.
Kelly Askam: After two years of studying instrumental performance at DePaul University, I realized their audio engineering program was the best of both my music and technology passions, and I would attain my Bachelor of Science in Sound Recording Technology degree. Shortly after, I began interning and freelancing at a local music studio, StudioChicago, where I would work alongside fellow engineer, Zachariah Jarrett, and re-connect with Donny Walker on a few electro-acoustic albums. Since then it has been about 13 years of crazy, ever-evolving projects that we tackle as a team. Around 2016 we realized there was a great need for good sound and music in Chicago’s film industry, and we dove headfirst into launching, Mind Exchange Music LLC, which is capable of crafting exceptional soundtracks and scores from pre-production through post. I most often take on the roles of supervising sound editor, dialogue editor, and re-recording mixer, but will also assist in sound design, music recording, and mixing. The film industry has further broadened my scope as a sound engineer while also retaining my love for music and technology.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Donny Walker: Learning to play so many instruments, learning to perform in every ensemble I could, learning how to produce in every style, building a team of specialists to represent our dreams has been awesome. I’ve always been really driven and growing Mind Exchange Music LLC with Kelly has been a godsend because after crafting content for clients — for around a decade now (museums, orchestras, chamber music groups, bands, etc.), Kelly and I came to realize that we make a seriously unstoppable team especially when we accommodate the passions of the other members of our team. Now, we produce soundtracks non-stop, we make our own music videos, built a label and a publisher and have an amazing team of brilliant creatives. We get to work on tons of cool projects, we get to hire musicians, and we have a healthy balance of company projects to client projects. Last year alone our original content won 75 awards & our original media work was selected to compete in another 90 competitions internationally — we took gold in ¼ of the competitions we entered and finished as a finalist in just about half the competitions we got into. It felt really good to realize that competition really suits us. It led to us realizing we can do anything we put our minds to, especially if we accept those hardships associated with the journey. So naturally, as soon as those awards started coming in, we realized that we’re capable of more than we originally had our goals set on. Why not go for it? Everything else has worked out fine.
Kelly Askam: It’s really difficult to narrow down the interesting experiences over 13 years when you consider all the hijinks that accompany the stereotypes of working at a commercial music studio, doing remote recording sessions with the Lake County Symphony Orchestra on Frankenstein-ed rigs, realizing it’s ok to make a horizontal shift into the entirely new and foreign world of film in your 30’s, start a small business with just a handful of ideas, and funnel all of this perspective into projects that are being well received alongside our industry peers. The interesting story is ours: having dreams, putting our heads together, doing the difficult work, and making things we’re proud of…wash, rinse, repeat, but better each time.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Donny Walker: Juggling a lot of projects is hard, losing your mind, sending people wrong emails, weird stuff happens, stressful stuff happens all the time. It’s funny because you’d think by now, we’d have learned this but nah, we’re passionate and we love the work so we still make some of those mistakes — especially taking on more than we can chew sometimes (often). It’s also hard to turn down really great opportunities so you’d think collectively we’ve learned to take on less but now the obsession is fun and silly and everyone brings their jokes to it so IT’S AMAZING and all we can do is laugh at our own ambition and inability to say no.
Kelly Askam: Once upon a time I was hired to record and edit ADR for an entire, 2-hour feature film. Every character. Every line. For the entire film. Lessons…I learned my sanity is worth much more to ever repeat that, and they learned they should’ve had me on set to get it right at the mic!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Donny Walker & Kelly Askam (combined Answer): Well, lots of cool things. We are wrapping up a feature horror film called ‘I Dream of a Psychopomp’ by Danny Villanueva, another short called ‘Party Town’ by Alex Diamond, another live film score for this crazy million-dollar media installation called the ‘150 media stream’ with George Berlin, another short for Simeone Henderson called ‘Roman’ which is a pilot for his series he’s pitching. We spent 6 weeks during the covid crisis doing production sound for an upcoming moving called ‘Ghosts of the Ozarks’ a gorgeous western horror film by Jordan Perry & Matt Glass. We did sound for another feature picked up by Vertical Entertainment called ‘White People Money’ by Mark Harris, I believe that’s being released in April. That’s all the client stuff. Now for our original company projects, we made our very own feature-length documentary about our music process & collaborations with 14 SUPER GORGEOUS music videos we custom made and designed, that’s a thing we’re pitching as a TV series and then on the side I’m producing and going to be writing music for an upcoming episodic TV series, learning a new side of the film scene — working with the investors, the lead actress, the writer & director on that now. Other company stuff-wise, a Latin American Research Album, all sub-genres of the Latin American dance scene from 1930–1970 but all done with a chamber ensemble featuring virtuoso classical musicians instead of singers. Lots of stuff, always a pile of cool projects, never any less than 4 or 5 at a time. I have lists of albums to produce just learn the tricks of those styles.
We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
- More diversity = more jobs, if you’re talented you’ll work, if you’re good at resolving conflict, you’ll work, if you are easy to work with and don’t say crummy things… you’ll work. Thus, if more diversity and more people enter the entertainment industry and we’re all respectful to each other there will be more growth and more work for everyone despite who’s creating those gigs.
- A person regardless of the traits that place them into a particular diversity subset deserves all the accomplishments they can create for themselves and the extra opportunity consideration for having to start in a more challenging spot. Equality all around means a better-rounded industry for new people entering, it means space for everyone and anyone regardless of gender, race or cultural background can be the badass they’re destined to be without others holding them back because of the way things happened in the past.
- Growth of an industry means growth of people individually, those unwilling to grow don’t move with the changing industry, they stay stuck. The more diverse creatives we know, and collaborate and work with and are inspired by, the better the opportunity everyone has and the more accountability there is for those that hold and abuse industry power. Change is good here. People consciously creating content around this change is even better, it just takes a sec to get used to but it feels like being part of the solution instead of keeping quiet about the stuff that’s taking forever to change.
Kelly Askam: Diversity, in all forms, is important because representation matters! We have such a spectrum of people in our world that it is absurd not to reflect that in our media as well. Young people, specifically, should be able to easily see people like them in a variety of tv and film roles. Much of our entertainment relies on the suspension of disbelief, and if a young person grows up never seeing or even dreaming of someone like them being an astronaut, a teacher, an engineer, a president, having a family, overcoming hardship, obtaining happiness, etc., then the idea that it’s possible has no visual manifestation and is more so an abstract idea. Our cultural and its media revolves around stories. When those stories are told by more diverse people it will inevitably increase the authenticity which then makes for more enriching content.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Don’t be what the industry wants you to be, you can be or do whatever you want as long as you do it really well. It’s not hard to create success in a niche field you want to be successful in with the correct: work ethic, dedication, sacrifice and application of intelligence to resource management. Taking the self-potential further than that is an amazing way to grow.
- NEVER let anyone tell you what you can’t become, especially if you have dreams of being something that’s beyond where you’re currently at. Screw them and their insecurities. Work your tail off, combine resources, build a team, accommodate, adapt & conquer. Learn & Repeat.
- It’s less crazy to build something that doesn’t exist that suits your precise needs than to be one in a hoard applying for a position that’s already pre-determined. Avoid politics. Sacrifice time and effort now to make something that fits exactly what you need, based on what you want and don’t waste a second because those mistakes are precious. Action first, learn along the way.
- If you need a side gig, don’t feel ashamed of that. Cost of life needs to be met and really if you take the time to invest your creative gains back into yourself and your dreams, destiny has a way of providing you the accomplishments with your investment that you deserve. If you have dreams, you’ll have to work harder and your normal cost of life stuff shouldn’t be jeopardized because you want to ‘be a starving artist’. Find an accommodating job that pays your life bills so you can re-invest your hard-earned creative cash back into your dreams because then at the end of the day you did it your way and you didn’t have to be poor having misunderstood expectations. Plus then you get to call the shots and be a part of the change.
- Don’t be afraid to work things out, don’t send emails that show others you have no control over your ego. Have a partner to send those emails to first because their reputation is at stake if you’re frustrated and dealing with an impossible person. Put your pride aside and save that emotional connection to art for YOUR work, not the paying work of your clients. Also, be honest. People in this industry may seem narcissistic but, in their hearts, they want to be sympathetic, help them understand what you need and if something isn’t working out but always bring solutions and always examine your attitude first (if you can). Then if that doesn’t work, refer to the contract.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Donny Walker: Properly recognize the balance for your own creative projects with the paying client projects. Don’t get emotionally attached to client projects, save that love for your own stuff. Because if you’re trying to make a profit on something you made, and no one is paying for it but then you get to call the shots on how it comes to. Don’t bring this control to client projects and if you’re feeling emotionally drained take time to figure out how to presume some of these complications next time around so they’re less draining. This industry is built on relationships; thus, your clients will have concerns and trust issues too. Do yoga. Get a punching bag. Lift weights. Watch what you say and take care of yourself.
Kelly Askam: First step is to figure out what your personal definitions are for success or burning out. You can’t know if what you’re doing is helping or hindering your career if you’ve not defined the objectives. Second, determine how that fits into your work/life balance; they’re two sides of the same coin and realize extremes in either direction will be problematic. Third, know your value, and charge the rate your worth. If it’s just a hobby call on favors and just have fun. However, if your work needs to support you or a family then be confident in charging professional compensation.
You are a person of enormous 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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Donny Walker: Different strokes for different folks but, I would really love to encourage film and media makers to prioritize using composers who actually use real musicians. The virtual instrument libraries work fine but they will never meet the emotional strength that real musicians bring to the performance. While I see how using virtual instrument libraries and samples and loops and all that is important depending on the genre, it’s not a fraction as satisfying as doing it live. I’ve seen soooooooooo many composers take the ENTIRE film music budget and not hire a single musician and it shows. Watching films without real musicians is embarrassing and I can always tell the difference immediately. I get that different scenarios require different tools but if I have learned anything in the last year (75 awards & 90 official selections alone) is that having LIVE musicians on your soundtrack makes it TIMELESS and it always gives the filmmaker or project an edge in competition over films that don’t prioritize this mega important component. Why wouldn’t you hire a musician who has a doctorate or has a $100,000 instrument? Jeez their passion and time spent learning those instruments always makes the film sooooooo much more believable. Besides they represent the health of the music. If its fake the movie doesn’t do as well.
Kelly Askam: I would like there to be a more sustainable business model for independent filmmakers; specifically, regarding the ability to recoup expenses in making short form content. I think the biggest reason so many projects suffer and so many content creators aren’t progressing faster or burn out is because making media is very cost prohibitive with little chances of return on investment. Comparatively, a musician could purchase a guitar, write some music, and have a decent chance of working some gigs or even becoming a sensation. Making a film takes multiple teams of people, places, and things that all cost, and then trying to find a way to distribute and monetize something that already has no outlet. Distributors favor feature length films because they don’t think shorts are profitable. There’s fewer ways to shop for and consume short films. This increases pressure on filmmakers to make feature length films with “short” film budgets just to even have a chance at potentially recouping anything. We as a society could help this by altering the value we put on the media that’s out there and tip the scales in more diverse directions than just what the big players put in front of us.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. 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?
Donny Walker: Brian Whitty gave me great guidance on fundamentals when I was probably at an age where I was being a pain in the ass. Thomas Gunther was huge for me, he hired me to edit sheet music for amazing projects — I got to work on all these amazing composers’ projects and work for the CSO & Chicago Jazz Philharmonic to study those scores before I even learned how to compose and produce. John Blane taught me how to dismantle the competition by obsessing over the details and other great teachers like Scott Hall who taught me all those crazy jazz voicings that the ‘loop’ draggers can’t even come close to realizing. Travis Heath hooked me up, accommodated my interests, provided those opportunities and taught me that you do not need to be a jerk to get remarkable results from people and Jeff Kowalkowski was like the mad scientist who helped me realize it’s ok to break conventions — there’s no shortage of music that sounds like everything else so why not put a little thought into this process and go for originality.
Kelly Askam: Everyone who’s helped sculpt me into who I am now.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Donny Walker: “Happiness does not require perfection”. I’m most happy making mountains of crazy projects. I love conquering the odds and raising the bar on the way. I do not get hung up on the details and I’ve learned to accept imperfections as a lovely sign of the human condition. Tweaking something until it’s perfect is not my job and recording something until its perfect, over and over is horrible. Get it as close as you can, call it what it is and adapt to work with what you’ve got. I’d much rather hire someone else who’s obsessed with perfection and have that free time to do yoga or kick boxing. My goals, process, concepts and follow through are what differentiates me from others as good as I. Knowing when to hire someone better than you is super key too.
Kelly Askam: “Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well” — Philip Stanhope
I think this idea is fairly ingrained in my personality because I’ve always felt compelled to give 110% if I’ve agreed to do something. There’s little benefit to anyone to have something that’s mediocre or just “good enough” because people don’t experience life with disclaimers. You only get one first impression and it is powerful. I hold myself to a high standard which makes this mindset a constant work/life balancing act.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I mean I’d love to meet John Williams, Danny Elfman, Richard Branson, Tim Ferris. I am inspired by everyone I just have so many unanswered questions.
Kelly Askam: Walter Murch. He literally paved the way for approaching modern sound design and sharing a meal would be fascinating. Even more so if that meal was in a world class mixing stage!
How can our readers follow you online?
Both: Thank you for the chance to share our story! More information can be found on our website: http://www.mindexchangemusic.com, Facebook page, Instagram (mindexchangemusicllc), and Twitter (MEMusicLLC). Check us out on social media or anywhere content is streamed or purchased. We are everywhere and we have hands in all sorts of things.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!