Sean Hurwitz Shares How to Break in
to the L.A. Touring, Producing, and Writing Scenes
to the L.A. Touring, Producing, and Writing Scenes
The average dream seeker moving to Los Angeles lasts less than 1-year before moving back home. The reasons... L.A. is one of the most expensive, crowded, and cut throat cities in the country. But it is also the U.S. music capital, so if you have the drive and tenacity... YOU WILL find a career in music in L.A. Just ask Sean Hurwitz: born and raised in Israel by his American parents, and now one of L.A.'s top working guitarists. When Sean isn't touring with Enrique Iglasias and Smash Mouth, he's recording, writing, and producing for top artists. We caught up with Sean to get real advice on how to take on Los Angeles, survive your first year in a new music scene, and build a career as a musician.
By: Bri Blaire
TMG: We understand you were born to your American parents in Israel and were raised there. What were your influences in picking up the guitar and wanting to become a professional musician, and how did you train?
SEAN: Great questions. Being very influenced by my parents’ taste in music, I got to listen to a lot of Eric Clapton and Tom Petty (to name a few) when I was young. By the time I hit 13, and MTV came into my life, I was hooked. Seeing all those videos, those guitars, those sounds… It was all over, haha… I had to be a guitarist.
Although I didn’t have much musical training per se; it was more a combination of things. I had been working as a session guitarist since 16 and as an audio engineer since 17. Both of those jobs together trained me to do the job in music I get to do today.
TMG: But you didn’t go for it right away, you attended sound engineering college and went on to work for a live sound and lighting company in Israel. What was the impetus behind that career choice?
SEAN: Yes, as I mentioned earlier, that was one of the key elements of my musical training.
My parents, Ira Hurwitz and Dr. Judy Lieman Hurwitz had encouraged me to have a “backup gig” in case the music thing fell through. Their caution and forward thinking is one of the reasons my music career ended up actually happening.
I have to say that working all those live shows, dealing with all the tech issues you could imagine, on a daily basis (part of the job), meeting music professionals from all around the world…. it really taught me a lot and left a mark. When I moved to America, I came prepared with many years of advice from true professionals of the industry.
TMG: What did you enjoy most and like least about that position?
SEAN: I loved everything about that gig! If I HAD to call it, I’d say that being a stage tech (guitar tech, drum tech, etc.) was what I loved the most out of all the positions I worked (FOH, monitors, LD etc.). My least favorite was lighting. I am not a fan of heights!
TMG: What did you learn from being on the other side of the stage that has helped you excel as a player on stage?
SEAN: Another great question. For me as a, what we call in L.A., “Hired Gun” (A hired musician that comes in to do the job – Not a “band member”), it’s all about doing the job… perfectly.
You do good, you get called back and get used for other music gigs and sessions. You want to be that guy if music is your line of work. I’ve met some AMAZING musicians over the years. Musicians who put me to shame. But while some of them spent time shredding and learning every meaning to every note (I envy them), I spent a lot of time (for better or for worse) understanding tones and productions.
Being able to listen to a song, understand all the tones, and recognize effects being used. Understanding how it will sound in a live or studio setting, and being able to deliver what the producer or artist wants, quickly… that’s priceless.
Also, playing by yourself for years and years in a room can teach you a lot about theory and music. But being part of a team, whether it’s an audio crew or a band, that is very important as well. Working with crews since a very young age, I recognize the value of being a team player and doing your job so everyone can win. You, the other people on stage, the fans… everyone!
TMG: And what made you decide to make the move across the world to Los Angeles?
SEAN: I always knew I’d want to try it out, see if I could 'make it' in the states. It was only a matter of time for me. What escalated the process was me getting sick and tired of living under the threat of daily terror attacks in my country (Israel). Enough was enough! It was time to walk the walk and see where it would get me in my music career!
TMG: What were those first few years in L.A. like? Tell us how you were able to work your way into the music scene and find work in those early years.
SEAN: The key here is, I didn’t come to 'futz around'. I landed in L.A. at 11am. By 4pm I had a Recycler magazine in my hand and I was looking for:
- A place to live
- A car
I had a 1992 Chevy Beretta within a week, a place to live within 10 days, and a job at “Guitar Center – Sherman Oaks” within a month! Joining the Guitar Center sales force was a HUGE benefit to me at that time. Also learning the American culture, buying gear with employee discounts, meeting musicians that were successful and inspiring…. and of course, meeting musicians that were hungry for success!
Once I got my gear in order, I auditioned and played sessions nonstop. If I wasn’t working a shift at GC, I was at rehearsal or a session or a show! Work, work, work! As much as I could physically handle. For three and a half years, I built my relationships and my repertoire with my fellow L.A. musicians, while working at GC.
One of those incredible relationships I built over the years was with a true and inspiring professional, Canadian drummer Randy Cooke. He’s the one who got me the Anna Nalick audition and years later the Smash Mouth gig. He believed in my ability to deliver what is needed, and I can’t thank him enough for it.
TMG: We understand you were working for 7 indie bands while you were still working for Guitar Center and decided to go all-in: quitting your day job to only work with those bands. How did you get hired as a guitarist for those artists, and how on earth did you manage a schedule with 7 bands!?
SEAN: Haha, yeah, in December of 2006, I decided it was time to quit the day job. The 7 bands were bringing in the money, and I decided that GC was no longer serving its purpose. It was time to go full throttle on this music career! 7 bands is easy by the way, if you’re willing to play for pretty cheap, you too can find yourself playing in that many bands haha!
As for scheduling with 7 bands in live and studio situations… I just always said 'yes' to the gig and then figured the details out later. I always tried to add value to every gig when they brought me in. So people weren’t so keen on getting rid of me just because I was busy with another band the night they wanted to rehearse (as an example).
That being said, sometimes people’s feelings got hurt; since I wasn’t ONLY with their band. It was hard for them to understand that this is my JOB. Was it fun? HELL YEAH! But still, music is my job, my business, my livelihood!
To be honest, the gig juggling becomes harder when you’re touring a lot. But we ALL play other gigs and make our money from a variety of opportunities.
TMG: The Los Angeles music scene...what are some key words of advice for how to network in the music industry?
SEAN: That is a really interesting question. I discuss it often with fellow musicians. I’m not sure of how anyone could do it, but I can tell you how I did it specifically. My way was straight up grass roots and a lot of patience. L.A. has a lot of “hurry up and wait” scenarios, so you really have to be patient and let things happen naturally. Build the relationships and see where they go. See what YOU can do for people, not the other way around. I just always made sure EVERYONE knew I was playing and looking for ANY available opportunities in music.
If they heard about a gig, I wanted my face to pop into their mind… AND I wanted to make sure I left a very positive impression on them so they would inform me of those opportunities.
If you don’t have the patience or the time (I was only 23 after all when I got to L.A.), you can always go to the main jam nights around town, meet people, connect, get together with people for some lunch, dinner, drinks, whatever works. If the vibe is right, and you can play, you’ll get called in for a session/rehearsal/show. At that point… IMPRESS!!! And don’t overplay. Just do what they need you to do. If you can do that, you will get called back.
TMG: Who were your first few big auditions with, and how were you selected for those auditions?
SEAN: The few big auditions I can think of off the top of my head were Avril Lavigne and Daughtry. In both scenarios I was handpicked by some cool musicians I knew to come in and audition.
TMG: Walk us through a typical audition process for a major artist.
SEAN: Each camp is a little different in their approach. Some camps just want to put a band together for the summer tour (as an example). Some camps are looking for long term members. And so, the vibe can be very different in each one.
But for the most part, it’s usually either what we call a “cattle call” (a few days of a never ending list of musicians rolling in and out of the audition room). Or, it’s a situation where each musician has been handpicked by other trusted musicians.
So in that case, you may have 10 guitarists total that are auditioning for the gig instead of 100-200 with a cattle call audition.
My advice is this… if you don’t get the gig, don’t worry about it; move on to the next one, you’ll get your turn to shine. Also oftentimes, whether you get the gig or not will have NOTHING to do with your playing and abilities, so don’t take it personally. Develop that thick skin, and do your best.
I can tell you as a musical director that has auditioned many musicians for bands, I put together in the past. The people we end up choosing are a combination of:
- Good playing (in the style we need)
If you’re an incredible jazz player, and this is a rock gig.... it just may not be the right fit. You may actually be over qualified.
- The RIGHT look (for the gig)
You may be a very good looking man/woman. Dress sharp, in great shape etc. But for this gig, I may be looking for a tattooed guy who’s a bit on the heavier side.
- The right VIBE
You may look the part and play the part… but if I’m about to spend six months touring with a guy/girl all over the world…I want to make sure we get along and that the vibe is there. If we don’t get along, it WILL blow up on the road…trust me.
So, like I said, you do you. Don’t try and be other people. If you, as is, are the right fit for the gig… you’ll get the gig… or come very close to it. If you don’t, no worries, there will be others. Make some friends while you’re there and leave a great impression on everyone.
TMG: You also are a credited producer and session player. Tell us how you broke into those worlds and how you landed projects with top artists.
SEAN: I used the same grass roots and good work ethic vibe in the writing/production world. When I left GC, I had a lot of time on my hands suddenly. So, between working with all the bands, I got together with a drummer I played with, Stefan Lit. He also turned out being my business partner for the next 7-8 years. We complimented each other’s styles very much. I was very technical, he was very artistic…. it just worked. I love collaborations!
Together we wrote and produced for many years. Iin fact, we still work together often! We wrote for us, for other artists, for TV, for Film, for Radio, nationally and internationally. Between the both of us, we must have also collaborated with hundreds of other artists, writers and producers around the U.S. Like I said, grassroots… that’s what seems to work best for me.
TMG: What should aspiring producers and session players expect their lives to look like for the first few years of making a full-time career in music in L.A.?
SEAN: I feel like it comes down to relationships. So, for example, if you were a session player in Nashville for the last 10 years, and you know a lot of musicians & producers in L.A., your struggle might be non-existent. Whereas is if you are a total newbie (like I was), and you don’t know anyone to begin with, you’re really gonna have to find a way to leave your mark.
Either slow and steady (like I did) or fast and furious (by working the music scene HARD every night, at every jam) until everyone says, “Who’s THAT guy? I need him on my next record”.
Don’t think of it as a negative thing. “Oh, I need to KNOW people… that sucks.” Music is passion, it’s fun, it’s art. People want to play with people they know and love. Be that guy (if you aren’t already). But again, no need to be “fake,” just be you, and you will find your niche in the industry.
TMG: You truly are a musician that has made the most of your talent and the environment you live in, having also been a co-writer on major projects. Tell us about L.A. writing camps, and, in your experiences, how a song goes from idea to radio ready.
SEAN: Ohhh, this is another one that is very personal to different writers and scenarios. Sometimes it’s just an opportunity you get. You’ll sit down with a writing partner or two, write a sick song, produce it and submit it to the artist you wrote it for.
Sometimes they’ll hit you back, sometimes they won’t. No biggie if they don’t… you now have what’s called “Intellectual Property”. This song will find a home one day, and make you some money while it’s there.
Then there’s also the “Hey, I think we could write some good material together, but I don’t want a band, I just want to write good songs – Would you be into that?”
If the answer is yes, you may find yourself writing some great material with a partner or more and maybe five years later it becomes a #1 single on the radio... haha… who knows?
I would recommend though, before you get into a writing session, to know each other’s strengths. For instance, I’m not much of a lyricist. I can help with lyrics in a session, and I’m great with melodies, but I am by no means a lyricist. And, so I will usually collaborate with what’s called a “Topliner” - someone who is good with melody and lyrics. Between us both, we have a good chance to write something cool since we complement each others' talents.
Now… what good is a song if neither of the writers can produce it (to a certain degree) and make it presentable? So, you have to make sure that one of the people involved can produce. Or, that everyone involved is cool with paying an outsider to produce the song.
Now hang on, you’ve got your producer and your topliner (could be the same person), but who’s gonna get this song to the right hands when it is done and recorded? Well, you should also have someone associated with the session that knows the right people to submit the song to once it is done.
All of these are key elements in getting placements with TV/film, artists etc. So next time you write a song for some kind of placement… make sure you’re at least thinking of these elements before you start. Just because this is very business-y, doesn’t mean it can’t be a really fun experience. So don’t get intimidated by all these details. At the end of the day, if you wanna just write and have fun… do it. I’m just pointing out how to make a living from it.
TMG: Looking back at your journey as a professional in the music industry, would you change anything or do anything differently?
SEAN: The only semi-regret I have is that I’m not even more musically trained. Don’t get me wrong, I know what I’m doing, I just wish I knew MORE! However, a few years in Berklee School of Music may have completely changed my musical direction in life. So all in all, no, I do not have any regrets. I’m very happy and honored to play, write and produce with musicians of high caliber which I have around me.
TMG: Please share some words of advice for the L.A. newbie that may not have connections with an elite music college. Name three 'do's' and three 'don’ts' musicians should abide by in order to make the most of this city and avoid getting ‘eaten alive’.
SEAN: Do's and Don'ts...
- Focus –
- Figure out what you want to be in the business. Even if it’s ‘for now’. You can change your mind later. But for now, make goals.
- Do you want to be a band guy? A hired gun?
- Do you want to play Jazz? Rock? Country? Folk? All of the above?
- Do you want to produce? Tour the world? Only play session?
- Do you want to go the grass roots style as I mentioned earlier, or do you want to visit every jam session in L.A. for the next year in order to speed things up?
- Figure it out and focus on making it happen!
- Relationships –
- I know sometimes people aren’t fond of this, but relationships with other human beings will benefit you AND them in this life… well, that’s the goal at least.
- Whether you decide to build those relationships slowly or quickly… BUILD THEM!
- And don’t make it all about you. Think of what you can do for the other people first.
- Find people you truly like and learn from them. Respect them and take in the feedback they are giving you about the music biz in L.A. or your playing, whatever it may be.
- Practice –
- When the day finally comes, where your focus and relationships produce a viable audition, or any other opportunity you may have wanted. Be ready to KILL IT!
- Get in there, and show people that not only are YOU awesome... but be so good that you make the person who recommended you seem like the most brilliant person alive... because they brought YOU in. Trust me, that person will recommend you to gigs for many years to come!
- Sore loser –
- Don’t be a sore loser. Develop that thick skin. If the gig doesn’t come your way, no big deal. There will be another. Or, maybe this one will come back at a better time (has happened to me many times).
- Always leave a great impression. Be remembered in a positive way.
- Man/Woman of your word –
- Don’t be known as a flake! You are a professional, and that is how you treat opportunities that come your way. Your word is who you are in L.A. Be the person people can count on to come in, deliver and smile the whole time you’re doing it (genuine smile – you’re playing music for a living).
- All about me –
- Nope, it is NOT all about you! That is the wrong attitude (in my opinion).
- Always think of how you can add value to people’s lives and music careers (since that is the topic at hand). That is a relationship builder right there. If at some point, that relationship gets you an audition with Enrique Iglesias, just go in, and do your best.
But my point is, it’s not about what people can do for you…it’s about what you can do for people, by adding value!
Visit his ThatsMyGig.com Profile