It’s clear Bright Lights has worked incredibly hard to write, produce, and sing for artists like Porter Robinson, 3LAU, Dyro, Justin Bieber, and Hardwell.
There’s no doubt that Bright Lights (real name Heather Bright) has become one of electronic dance music‘s most recognizable female vocalists and producers over the last decade. She has sang, been featured on, and written tracks with 3LAU, Porter Robinson, Justin Bieber, Hardwell, Dannic, Dyro, and so many more.
I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Bright Lights for an episode on my podcast, When Life Hands You Lennons, after we stuffed our faces with tacos from Heather’s favorite taco spot in Los Angeles.
During our conversation Bright Lights talks about the work that she’s put in to achieve such success. She attended Berklee College of Music but didn’t finish. She said, “I learned theory and how to play with a band/group of musicians. Regardless of whether I knew the musicians or not, we all speak the same language. It really taught me how to jam. That’s a skill that I still use a lot today.”
After she left Berklee College of Music about 10 years ago, she moved to New York to be immersed in the “mecca” of the creative artists, producers, and musicians.
“I remember randomly cold emailing the manager at one of the biggest studios in New York asking for an internship,” states Bright Lights. “We talked for about an hour, and he let me use the studio when nobody was in there.”
‘If you don’t have any balls in this [music] business, then you might as well not be in this business.’
Period. The music industry is a tough industry to ‘make it’ in, and you have to be willing to put forth your absolute best effort all of the time. I asked Bright Lights how someone that’s more nervous can overcome their nerves and move forward, and she responded with, “This business requires a lot, a lot of guts; a lot courage; a lot of perseverance and persistent, and very thick skin. If you don’t have a lot of courage you will not make it.”
As a journalist and musician myself I see so many musicians who are taking very traditional routes to grow their business and audience. They email me their press release every time a new track comes out. They message me on social media. And they share their music on social media to their few followers, but they’re not garnering the traction they want and deserve. This is where patience comes in, and it’s one of the most important factors in the music business.
Taking the next step in your career requires a lot of patience.
“If you’re doing all of the right things and saying, ‘nothing is happening for me,’ then continue doing the right things,” states Heather. “A lot of times I hear this from kids where this is their second release. And I respond with, ‘you’re upset because your numbers aren’t poppin’ on release number two?'”
Heather’s right. Unless you’ve already been setup for success (don’t bank on this, ever), your tracks won’t “pop off” until you have multiple releases out, a solid brand image, and a great marketing strategy. But none of this is going to come without good music. Start with good music and a story and build upon it when you’re ready and the opportunities start flowing in.
“I released 15 songs last year on my label (333 Recordings),” says Bright Lights. “It’s a brand new baby label. Almost every single one of those records flopped. I fell on my face as a label owner. I lost a lot of money but I learned a lot. And I don’t regret any of it.”
Heather goes on to talk about turning a profit after years of failure and few successes. If you’re going to see success you have to remain persistent. A lot of the artists out there today want their success to happen overnight, and that’s not how it works. Sometimes it takes 10-20 years. Empires aren’t built overnight.
‘Electronic music producers are the best producers in the game, hands down.’
They know how to manipulate audio like nobody’s business. Just listen to some of the music that I write about on this site. The sound design is impeccable. And the space that some of these artists create is mind-boggling. If you really know how to manipulate and maneuver around audio, then you can create something that’s never been heard before. And the possibilities are infinite.
Just listen to Gammer break down what he did to create his whining synth in “Out With The Old.”
“The level of production skill is unbelievable,” says Bright Lights. “You don’t see that from pop producers. When I was working on Britney records and Bieber records, you know how fast those songs were done? We made those songs in a day. Done. Next. Boom. Like fast fashion.”
She goes on to talk about the track that she’s working on and how it has over 100 different automations. “I just fell in love with the quality and TLC that electronic producers give to their music,” adds Bright Lights.
Bright Lights uses Apple’s Logic Pro X to produce her music because of its vocal comping feature.
Logic Pro X’s vocal comping feature is quite powerful, so I can see why this is her DAW of choice. She is a vocal producer, so this feature “changed her life.” She mentioned how Pro Tools tried to add a similar feature but it’s just not the same as Logic Pro X’s.
She also loves Ableton’s workflow, but states that she hasn’t been able to “wrap her mind around Ableton.” There’s just something about the look and feel of it that is so very different than any other DAW available. It looks like it was made in the ’90s. And the layout of it is so much more different than Logic Pro X, Pro Tools, and FL Studio. I’ve messed around in it a few times and can definitely understand why electronic music producers use it.
Logic Pro X is great for audio editing, mixing, and mastering.
I, too, have used Logic Pro X for production. It’s not easy to write music in. However, I love it for recording, mixing, mastering, and editing audio, but I’m not a fan of writing music in it. There are too many extra steps that are done to complete one simple task.
When I heard that Bright Lights is using Logic Pro X for production, and after she mentioned she has over 100 different automations, my jaw dropped a little. The automation is Logic is quite counterintuitive if you’re drawing in the automation like I do. Bright Lights uses the latch feature, which means she can MIDI map a filter, for example, in a plugin to, say, a knob on her MIDI keyboard, play the track, and turn the knob to automate the aforementioned filter. This can provide a much more non-linear, human feel to the automation.
‘I don’t think sonically when I’m writing. I don’t let production boggle down my writing.’
Artists often put on their producer hats before the song is even written. Flush out the track and get the chords, lyrics, melodies, etc, down and then focus on beefing up the sounds, getting them mixed well, and produced. It’s good to have a vision of what you want the record to sound like when it’s done, but Bright Lights mentions how she doesn’t even think sonically when writing.
“I get the writing done first and then I add in the ride of it,” she says. “I don’t do effects until the end. I’m not thinking about adding the white noise to this synth pattern until the end when I start thinking about frequency spectrum and what’s missing. I don’t let production boggle down my writing.”
Bright Lights goes on to discuss the ins and outs of her songwriting and production techniques while dropping knowledge bombs throughout. She talks about a really good point that I see far too often: Running into issues and trying to work them out when you’re having a spark of inspiration.
For example, if you have a killer chord progression and lyric that is so good that you have to write a song about it, then get those things out and into your DAW. Don’t get hung up on learning a new automation technique when you’re inspired. Stay off of YouTube and get the record written. Produce later.
It’s an admirable trait to be able to turn off your producer brain when you’re in songwriter brain, and vice-versa.
“By the time I get to producer mode the song is written,” states Bright Lights. “There’s no more songwriting to do unless I didn’t do the second verse, which I hate when I do that. By the time I finish production I’m out of that spark. So sometimes I screw myself in that way because you’re not in the same headspace.”
When writing a track, Bright Lights writes the track around the vocal that has been written. That goes for artists she’s working with too. The vocal can carry a specific energy in a track, and if it’s not portrayed correctly in a track, then it can break the track. The vocal should always be at the forefront of every mix. How is the listener supposed to know what your song is about if they can’t hear what you’re singing about?
‘It’s hard for me to pick a sound because I’m a songwriter first. I always do what’s best for the record, even if that’s not what’s best for the brand.’
And Bright Lights’ previous tracks show that. This is one of the main reasons she has been able to rise to the top in the EDM vocalist and producer world. She always does what’s best for the record. Even if that’s not what’s best for the brand.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think Bright Lights has ever written a song that her voice or songwriting skills haven’t fit on. Listen to 3LAU’s “How You Love Me,” Raiden’s “Heart of Steel,” and Thomas Gold’s “Believe.” Her vocals fit flawlessly into each one of those tracks because she knows exactly what’s right for the record.
She goes on to tell a story of how she was producing a record with a Latin artist that wrote a gorgeous Spanish track. They asked her to sing on it. She mentions that her Spanish is very “gringa” and how the key of the song is very important to a track. Unfortunately, her voice just didn’t fit the track because it wasn’t in the right key for her. She told the artist that he needs to get a Latin singer on the track to truly complement its beauty. This is not an easy term to come to, especially when you believe in the track so much. But you can’t force art – it must come naturally.
Marketing is one of the most difficult aspects in the modern music industry, especially for independent musicians and labels.
The music industry changes almost daily. New technologies are introduced, laws change, and people continually make moves to further their own professional careers. Working and building relationships with people at Spotify, Apple, and various music publications can be tedious. One day they’re there and the next week they’re not. You lose your “foothold” and your “in” at these companies to grow your brand. Entire business and agencies have popped up around this very skill. Heather calls this musical chairs.
“Oh, I’m at Spotify,” says Heather. “Six-months later I’m at Warner. Six-months later I’m at Def Jam.”
And this is a very common occurrence in the modern music industry. This continuous game of musical chairs makes it difficult for artists and digital marketing companies to keep up with the industry. This is why it’s always good to vet these digital marketing companies before you throw a load of money at them.
“That was one of the hardest things I dealt with as a label,” states Heather. “I don’t regret anything. There’s not one release or person that I spent money with, even if it was a waste, that I regret. I learned something with every dollar I spent.”
These companies, agencies, and “playlist pushers” often claim they can get you into official playlists on Spotify, Apple, SoundCloud, etc, but that doesn’t mean they can do that in a month when your track is finally available.
There are playlist companies out there that are out to take advantage of artists and labels. If you’re not careful you could lose thousands of dollars.
“I would say half the money I spent was lost [on one of these companies],” states Heather. She mentioned that all of the companies that she uses come through referrals from friends. There was one unnamed company that was a playlisting company (which often claim to get you in high traffic playlists) she used. They were a referral from a friend, but they took the money and disappeared. They didn’t even try to secure placements. When she jumped on a three-way call with them, he claimed that he “did the work.” He clearly didn’t and had nothing else to say during the call.
Artists and labels, watch out. These people and companies do exist and they are gutless and ruthless. They don’t give a damn about your success. They’re just after your hard earned money.
Royalties vary on each platform. And believe it or not, you can make a lot of money on YouTube.
Napster pays the most, TIDAL pays the next best, Apple’s in third for best royalty payout, and Pandora’s payout is embarrassing. These royalty payouts change continuously, and Songtrust has a great article on the platforms that have the best payouts.
Each platform’s payouts vary on a number of things, including location, free or paid subscription, etc. And with YouTube, Heather says that you can make a good amount of money on the platform. It depends on the advertisers that are placing ads on your videos. So, as we discussed in the podcast, you’re going to make more money from a Chevrolet ad than a local grocery store’s ad. Furthermore, you’ll make more money from Spotify on subscribers who have Spotify Premium than those who are using the free version of Spotify.
“I remember when we put ‘Gringa’ on YouTube,” Heather says. “We got a beer ad in front of it. I forget which company it was, but I was like, ‘YES!'”
Digital service providers that are paying out the most are spending on their infrastructure and not software development.
Spotify has the most monthly users, with Apple trailing behind. Spotify allows users to use its services with a free tier, while Apple does not. And Spotify has a lot of really cool features, including their Discover Weekly, Soundtrack Your Ride, biggest fans, and end-of-the-year most-streamed song and artist. Their algorithmic playlists are what make music discovery such a powerful feature.
The monstrous streaming platform hasn’t been profitable since its launch, but it saw a Q4 profit in 2019.
These investments into the software development and somewhat gamification of the service makes it incredibly attractive to people, especially artists. “You might not being paying out as much, but you’re developing something that has much more value for us artists,” adds Heather. “I can sell merch on Spotify. My tour dates show up on Spotify. That’s amazing. 40% of my music is listened to through algorithmic playlists.”
There are a few factors that determine how Spotify’s algorithms add your music to their playlists.
“I get added to these playlists every week,” states Heather. “But they’re algorithmic playlists. It depends on how I categorize the track as a genre, too.”
Heather continues telling a story on how she released a track with TYNAN years ago. In November of 2019, she released a track called “Heartless” where TYNAN remixed it. “All of the people that saved the first track with TYNAN got my new track in their algorithmic playlists.”
Heather adds, “Spotify isn’t doing anything that’s crazy innovative. It’s just common sense.”
They are, however, trying to get artists to cough up their royalties in exchange for some in-platform promotion.
If you want to make it in the music business and learn production, then you have to show up. You can’t bail the day of.
Seriously. If you want to meetup with an artist like Bright Lights to talk production and learn about the music business, then you better put aside your ego and allow yourself that time to meet with them. Professionals like Heather are incredibly busy and can absolutely spend their time on bigger and better things. So if they’re setting time aside for you, then you better show up. On time and prepared.
“I’ll have someone reach out to me wanting to learn production or the music business and then get a text the day of that says, ‘it’s not a good day or I’m feeling a little tired,'” says Heather. “I literally woke up for you. I woke up for you because you were in my schedule. I usually work until 6 or 7 in the morning. I get a lot of work done at those hours.”
She says this is a common behavior in young producers who say they “want it or claim they want it so bad, but when it comes down to doing the dirty work, waking up early, showing up, and putting your feet in front of another human being’s feet, that’s rare.”
‘The mastering process has gotten easier because my mixing has gotten better.’
If you have to overload your master bus with a handful of plugins you might want to go back and check your mix.
Heather doesn’t put a lot of stuff on her master channel because her mixing is tightened up. Mastering is an art form in and of itself, and she says that she only uses a few plugins on her master channel. It obviously varies greatly on the mix and the sound she’s trying to achieve, but her master bus is usually pretty bare bones.
“My mixes I’m dialing into the point where I only have two or three plugins on my master,” states Heather. “It’s usually a color EQ, a subtractive EQ where I’m pulling out the muddy elements, and then I’ll usually go straight to the L2 [limiter]. I might add some distortion to it, especially if it’s a really trap-leaning record.”
Bottom line: Show up (on time), learn the business, and be prepared to go through a whirlwind of an industry if you’re going to be in the music business.
Heather highlighted quite a bit of important aspects of the modern day music business, and these are all philosophies that I live by on a daily basis. So I thank Heather for solidifying them as true and the right path. This industry isn’t always rainbows and lollipops, so take Heather’s advice and run with it. Work on your craft, do the right things, and show up.
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