Interview with David Ellefson
David Ellefson is a man who needs no introduction in the world of heavy metal. For those unfamiliar with his work, David has earned 7 Grammy nominations, multiple gold and platinum records and has been on numerous world tours as a founding member of the band Megadeth as well as with recent bands F5 and HAIL! He also holds a Bachelors degree in business and marketing, has authored a book titled “Making Music Your Business…A Guide For Young Musicians” and continues to educate musicians through his online video series “David Ellefson’s ROCK SHOP”.
David, what is one habit that you have that has been an important contributor to your success?
First off, I just love playing, writing, recording and especially performing. Because of that, I’m focused and really passionate about playing music at all costs. It has taught me to never give up, regardless of the hurdles I may encounter along the way.
You earned a Bachelor’s degree in business and marketing. How has that benefited you and the bands that you’ve played in?
I really got the degree to justify my resume! By that, I mean one day in 2002 I put a resume together and realized my entire life as a rock star was really about marketing as much as it was about playing because you are basically selling yourself and your music, which is your product. I think being a career musician is about being your own business owner and then going out to sell your product, which is your music. Sometimes, it’s even your own personality and/or image your selling to your audience.
For me, the degree just says “I know what I’m talking about” whereas without it many people in the corporate domain just don’t take you as seriously and may pass you by for someone who does hold that piece of paper, EVEN if they have less experience. It does give a person confidence, too. I didn’t need it as a player but I enjoyed the schooling process as an adult because I now see the benefit of it much more than I did when I was younger.
Why do you think it’s important to take the business aspect of music seriously?
If you want to simply play for fun then you don’t need to sweat the business stuff. BUT, if you want to make a living playing and create a career for yourself, you need to pay attention to the business, money, marketing, etc. because that is what will sustain you and provide your income and livelihood.
What do you think is the most important principle for musicians to understand in order to grow their audience?
At the end of the day people don’t buy ‘ordinary,’ they buy ‘extra-ordinary’. In order to be great you have to be different and it has to be something people really want, too. In other words, you can be ‘good’ and survive but to really excel you need to be outstanding. That is not something most of us every get to taste in this lifetime but for those who really get ahead in the entertainment business, they have to have something unique for their audience.
What would be your best advice for young musicians in terms of people skills, and why is that important for long term success?
One thing I’ve learned is that being connected is what ALL of life is about. People make things happen, not things, instruments or computers. Too many musicians think their skills and their music is all that matters so they spend all of their time practicing that part of their life but fail to get the bigger picture, which is being able to build relationships both with your own team and even your audience.
Same goes for making connections in the business. Having a rolodex of contacts is what gets us ‘in the game’ and is something all successful people have compiled in their respective industries. We all need other people to help make our wheels turn. It’s a process of ‘give and get’ and the door swings both ways.
What has been the most surprising to you about your career compared to how you imagined it would be as a young musician?
As a kid you think ‘wow, being a rock star would be fun and it sure looks easy’. But, then you realize that if it were so easy EVERYONE would be doing it!
I realized that playing the big shows to 20,000 people were really not much different than playing the small shows we all start out doing for 200 people. There’s just more zeros behind the numbers in terms of income, but also expenses, as well as the number of people required to make it all happen. You still have to rehearse, work hard and be able to get along with people in order to keep something together that will survive the most demanding of situations.
I think the internal stresses of building something to be successful is as much a challenge as actually having the success. Plus, success is a verb, a journey. So, even when you arrive at any given goal, you realize there is still so much more ahead that you can do. The journey never really ends, it just keeps changing. To me, that is the fun of it all.
What is your favorite clever idea that you’ve come across to sell more music or get more people to shows?
Writing hit songs!
What is the biggest or most common mistake you see young musicians/bands make?
When I speak at conventions I often hear local musicians complain that they feel slighted for not getting the big opportunities they see other bands get, but out of the other side of their mouth they try to hold on to the delusion that “hey man, we’re just all about the music anyway”. Well sometimes you can’t have it both ways! What they are really saying is, ‘I’m afraid to let go of my ideas and try it somebody else’s way.” If you’re all about your integrity then be prepared to starve for it and certainly don’t complain about your success, or lack thereof! To REALLY get in the game it requires being able to be very honest and self-critical of what you’re doing. If it isn’t working for you, be flexible to change, whether that’s musically, with your image, stylistically, re-location, etc.
I remember the first time I saw you perform. It was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen to this day. You guys played a great set with every member of the band doing an extended solo and ending the show with two amazing encores… and then just when we all thought the show was over you came out for a third encore. It felt like you had really milked it for all it was worth. The level of confidence and the amount of attitude that went into that performance was remarkable. How would you describe the attitude that you have as a band when things are operating at that level? What does it take to get there?
Audiences don’t come to see regular people do regular things. They come to be entertained, to see something they don’t or can’t do and most importantly they want something that takes them away to a different place outside of their own lives. That’s why we go see concerts, movies, sporting events. These things are extraordinary. When you are onstage you are there to deliver something special and memorable to your audience and that is why they pay for it with their hard earned money.
I think that confidence comes when you are committed to what you are doing and everyone is in sync with each other on the stage. That inspires an audience to want more. Most often, it’s THAT attitude the audience wants as much as it is the actual songs, because it is inspiring to them.
Who or what inspires you?
My father was a huge inspiration to me, even though he wasn’t a musician at all! He always reminded me to remain humble and to work hard. He would always remind me “You’re not great until somebody else thinks you are”. In other words, don’t get pompous and think too highly of yourself just because you play an instrument, but rather let other people be the judge of that because they will be the ones who decide if they want to come and see you play.
Was there a defining moment early in your career when you felt like you had “made it”? If so, how did that feel and what did it take to get there?
That term is irrelevant because to me there is always so much more I want to do.
Could you tell us a little bit about David Ellefson’s ROCK SHOP?
I started it in early 2009 because people were always asking me to write a follow up to my book “Making Music Your Business.A Guide For Young Musicians”. I realize writing a book is time consuming and the ideas that were building up in me were easier to film and put up on YouTube. The ROCK SHOP has been very well received and has been very inspiring for me to do, too.
For more from David Ellefson, check out these links: