David Franz is a California-based music business entrepreneur, producer, engineer, multi-instrumentalist, performer, and educator. He is the founder of the record label Underground Sun, co-founder of record label Underground Sol, and Author of Producing in the Home Studio with Pro Tools – the first ever book about using Pro Tools.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Well, I tried to fight it. My parents didn’t realize that being a musician could be a real career. They pushed me towards being a doctor or an engineer and I went along with it. If the people around you don’t know that a career exists in something, they won’t tell you about it because they can’t – it’s not their fault, they just don’t know about it. I got into the engineering school at Virginia tech but I couldn’t stop making music. I was playing in bands and taking all the music courses that I could while trying to be an engineer. It just wasn’t sticking.
I kept going and I finally switched paths during my master’s degree. The event that catalyzed the change was that I got a job offer at FedEx. They flew me down to Memphis and I met the guy that I was going to replace. No offense to this person, but he was the most boring person I’d ever met. He had the most boring life. I saw his office, it was incredibly bland with nothing on the walls. He wore khakis and a buttoned down shirt. His car was this ugly brown, gnarly thing. We drove by his house. Boring. It hit me right then and there: I can’t do this. I don’t want to live here. I don’t want this life.
After that trip, I knew I had to change everything about my life. I couldn’t keep going down this path; this is not who I wanted to be. At that point I decided to go to music school and get out of the engineering stuff. I would finish the degree, but I committed to going back to school to study music.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
It was 2001 and I was at Berklee College of music. I had just graduated and was going to move out to Los Angeles where I was trying to become a studio assistant engineer. I lined up this trip to go out there, and I set up some interviews at a bunch of studios. I was super pumped to move from Boston to LA and get started in the music business. So I tried to book the cheapest flight I could find and it was one on September 11th at 8:00 AM, direct from Boston to LA. I would have had to get up at like 4:00 AM to catch this flight because I lived far away from the airport.
But… I’m a rockstar. I needed to sleep in.
Even though that flight was cheaper, my computer mouse hovered over the 11 o’clock flight. Click. Purchase. Done. I didn’t think much about it.
The week leading up to my flight, I told my parents, my family, my friends, and everybody else how stoked I was to move to LA. The morning of September 11th comes and I get a call from my work boss. I immediately knew something was off. Why would she call me this early? On the other side of the receiver she was aghast. “Oh my God, you’re alive,” she exclaimed, “Call your mother!” Calls weren’t going through. I was so confused.
I got up and turned on the TV. I saw that the first plane crashed into the first building of the Twin Towers. I started to realize that everybody that I told I was going to LA thought that I might be on that plane. I told them all that I was on a direct flight from Boston to LA in the morning.
It turned out that the very first flight, the 8:00 AM one that I decided against, was the one that crashed into the towers. It was crazy that one split decision, one click, saved my life.
The entire rest of the day, the phones didn’t work so nobody could get in touch with me. Nobody knew I was okay. All my friends and family thought I was on that plane, imagining the worst. Finally, around 6:00 PM the phone started to work again. I started getting calls on my cell phone and it turned into the best day of my life, by far. Not just because I survived, but because I got all these calls from friends and family saying, “Oh my God, you’re alive. I love you. I’m so happy you’re here. I don’t know what I would have done without you.” It was, to me, it was the best day of my life because I got to hear all these things that you don’t even get on your birthday. But for millions of people, it was the worst day of their lives.
Every day is a gift. I got to live 20 more years of my life.
Because of that tragedy, I stayed in Boston. All my interviews were canceled. I didn’t even reach out to anybody to try to reschedule it because the very next day I went into the Berklee campus and they told me that they were starting an online school. I had just written a book about music production and protools; they asked me if I wanted to turn my book into an online course.
I went from like going to be a studio assistant to getting into education and technology. Working with Berklee online schooling ultimately led to Lynda.com, which then became LinkedIn Learning, which I’m still doing now.
9/11 changed the course of my life.
What was the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson did you learn from it?
Internet trolls. I made the mistake of letting them get to me.
When my first book came out, the very first review and the very top of the page was a horrific one. It was like the guy hadn’t even read the book. I let it get to me. I couldn’t do anything about it online… I couldn’t respond. I let it fester in me. That book was the first thing I’d publicly written. In 2001, Amazon was blossoming and reading reviews was incredibly popular. The first person to write a review completely gutted me with a scathing review.
I learned the lesson that you can’t control what other people feel or post publicly about you or your work. When you open up and make something public, it’s not really yours anymore. It belongs to everyone. People will respond in strange ways and you can’t control that.
Recently, I posted a music video “Tree Pose,” and told a little story in the video description about how I got stung by a scorpion while recording it. This guy commented and called bullsh*t on my story, saying in essence that he lives in the desert and it couldn’t have happened.
Taking in what I learned from the Amazon review, instead of feeding into his negativity, I did my best to respond with kindness and openness. I told him the story, didn’t engage in the vitriol, and was real with the person.
So when it comes to internet trolls, I learned: engage with the person, tell your truth, and don’t respond from an angry place. Don’t feed their vitriol. Be real. This will often quiet them, and in the best case, maybe actually convert them to a fan.
How are you helping to make popular culture more representative of the US population?
At LinkedIn learning I am on a committee that we call DIBs, which stands for Diversity Inclusion and Belonging. Because LinkedIn learning is such a worldwide platform, we need to be representative of the entire world and of the diversity of worldly authors so that people learning can see themselves as authors. If a person is only represented based on how they look, or what gender they are, then people can’t connect with them as much. We need everyone to feel included and everyone to feel like they have someone to connect with. We are actively seeking a much wider representation of humanity on our platform. We are very active and proactive in seeking out candidates of varying races, cultures, ethnicities and genders.
We are able to bring in authors that can have a positive impact on people who might not think that they could have their dream career until they see someone else that looks like them do it – that’s the goal.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by the work you are doing?
I like to write about topics that cover diversity, inclusion, belonging, equity, empathy, inspiration, specifically with Underground Sun artists Iggy T and The Crazymakers, Dammien Alexander, and Iyeoka, those are topics that come up pretty regularly in our songs.
One of the songs that I co-wrote was played as the wedding song for a lesbian couple. I didn’t even really know them, but being a part of their love story was really beautiful. I was happy to see them celebrate their love story and to contribute to it the best way I know how – through music.
As an insider, this might be obvious to you, but I think it’s instructive to articulate this for the public who might not have the same inside knowledge. What are three reasons why it’s really important to have diversity represented in entertainment, and its potential effects on our culture?
- Diversity encourages people to learn about people with different backgrounds than themselves to broaden our world experience.
- It lays the foundation for empathy.
- Diversity Encourages to us to see the interconnectedness of the world, the similarities bring us together, and differences that make us unique.
In entertainment, and specifically in music, diversity helps to make music more rich, more nuanced. If someone only listens to one type of sound, or one type of genre, or even just one artist or one voice, that person will only have one point of reference for how music sounds. Whereas listening to a diverse swath of music opens your mind to make unique connections between the sounds that no one else can make.
Diversity has the same type of effect on business decisions as it does on making art. Diversity enhances creativity. It feeds the mind and encourages conscious and unconscious connections that help develop originality.
If three different chefs had to make a meal using the exact same three ingredients and no spices… there would not be a lot of diversity in the flavor of their food. However, open up the entire spice rack and then each chef can get creative and make something very unique.
Furthermore, what are three things the community, society, and the music/entertainment industry can do to help address the root of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?
Self-learning: Dedicate time to understand the issues. Learn history that you may not have been told in school. As I dove into learning more about DIBs, I learned so much. We just weren’t ever taught proper history on slavery. It’s about putting yourself into the shoes of others in terms of what it feels like today.
All of those old ideas are watered down today, but still affect our everyday lives and how some people walk about this earth, what they might be afraid of. How they walk about this earth may be 50 times more challenging than how it might be for me.
Empathy: Put yourself in the shoes of others. Imagine what it’s like to have their experiences. For example, imagine you went to get a loan and it was almost impossible to convince them to give you money. Or if you get pulled over by the cops and there’s a much higher chance that you’ll actually be shot and killed, even if you’re with your family. That is something that never goes through my head as a white man, because it’s far from my reality… but it’s not far from others reality.
Active change: It’s not just that white people need to be empathetic, it’s that white people need to address the issue within themselves and make changes internally. What can you do to change yourself? If you have empathy, then you can address those issues within yourself and make changes that can help that community.
Everyone is connected. We need to show compassion to everyone.
How do you define leadership?
Leadership is first listening and synthesizing, then it’s bringing out the best in the people that you work with, creating a shared vision together that people can passionately commit to, and choosing what to act on and in what ways to turn that vision into reality.
Leaders utilize charisma to energize people towards a common goal. If a leader can make the goal or vision something that people can connect with emotionally, then it will be easier for people to believe in the goal and take action towards making it reality.
When you help people believe in a cause, you can lead them towards action that’s real.
I see that at LinkedIn. We are trying our best to make the world a better place. We aren’t doing everything right but we are making an effort greater than many other organizations. With Underground Sun, I use my control to translate everything I learn at LinkedIn within DIBs to the landscape at Underground Sun.
What are the top five things you wish someone told you when you first started?
- Fear stops progress. It is crippling. It is a disability. You must push through into uncomfortable places if you want to grow. Getting in front of the camera has brought all of my fears out to the surface and recorded them for me to watch. It has forced me to push through the discomfort and grow.
- Time is your most valuable asset. Choose wisely what you say yes to. What projects are worth your time? Why would you give someone else your time instead of working on something for yourself? Are you working on something you believe in? Take time to work on your own projects or others that you truly believe in.
- Connection is the best way to get people onboard with your mission. People take action based on emotion, and if they have an emotional connection with you, they will help support you. When you are a positive light for others, that light will reflect back onto you.
- Marketing is way more important than I ever wanted it to be. As a kid, I loved making sand castles. I’d incredibly elaborate designs, but as soon as I was done building, I didn’t want to play with it anymore. I didn’t run my matchbox cars through the tunnels. I didn’t try to show off my work. I just wanted to build another sand castle. If I had been in the business of making sand castles for a living, I would have failed because no one knew that I was even making them. Artists, fortunately or unfortunately, have to make marketing themselves a full-time job these days in order to get enough fans to support their art. Or, better yet, they need a team that believes in them and will help them market themselves. The most successful artists are the super talented AND the best marketed.
- Imposter syndrome: I never really knew what the term was even though I always felt it. I’m convinced that an artist, or really just any skilled person, may find out that I really don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m always concerned someone will catch on. But I think absolutely everybody feels that way. So I want to call it out and say that everybody has this feeling. We should normalize this feeling and not let it hold you back.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
It’s not very original, but I’ve been studying the Dalai Lama a lot. He talks about compassion and I feel like many issues can be solved through compassion. Human empathy connects everybody, not just to other humans, but to nature and other living creatures as well. Being in touch with your surroundings and having compassion for all living beings is vital to understand the world.
When you can put yourself in another person’s shoes and try to imagine what their experience is, it opens your mind.
If you had to choose just one, what is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
This was recent, though it struck me. I just watched this movie this past week, Stalker, a 1979 soviet sci-fi art drama film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. “Wishes never come true immediately.” I’m not clear what it meant in the movie, but to me it means that your dreams take time to be realized. You have to work at them. Nothing will come easy or magically appear. There’s hustle involved.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Politically, the Dalai Lama, Barack & Michelle Obama, or the Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern. Obviously I have a lot of musical inspirations: Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Dan Auerbach, DangerMouse. I also love TV personalities like Oprah, Graham Norton, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and Aisha Tyler.
This has been the hardest question of the interview because all of these people intrigue me in the sense that I would love to know how they do what they do. They do things that inspire me on a daily basis and I want to know how I can be that type of person for someone else.
Last but not least, how can we keep up with you?