Making Music Easier: An Interview with Author Jonathan Feist

Jonathan Feist

As we musical folk gain experience, we develop practices to make our work go more efficiently. Commonly, we learn about or develop templates, charts, checklists, letters, and other types of documents that we reuse and refine, as experience informs us how to make them more useful and effective. Some of these forms have become common, or even more or less standardized, in the music industry.

My new book, Music Industry Forms, is a collection of 75 such forms, snatched from the clipboards of many veterans of the concert hall, control room, film scoring stage, and publishing house. It presents and describes sample forms with annotations and lists of commonly associated terminology and symbols. The book serves as a kind of field guide to the music industry, with many tools to make our work here easier.

If you’ve followed this blog, you might have noticed that I’ve been interviewing authors of Berklee Press new releases. Now, with another book of my own hot off the presses, the tables are turned. To pinch-hit and to keep me from publicly talking to myself, I’ve invited my colleague/friend and former Berklee Press editor Susan Gedutis Lindsay to interview me about this new Berklee Press publication. Sue is the associate director of instructional design at Berklee College of Music. She’s also an author, an ethnomusicologist, and an active performing musician. A total rock star, really.

Here’s our conversation about Music Industry Forms.

Sue: How can forms improve a musician’s career?

Jonathan: They help clarify what work is required and ensure quality control. This helps keep everyone’s efforts focused on completing the project vision efficiently: on time, within budget, and to the highest possible quality standard.

How did you first get the idea for this book?

Originally, I planned to have a few common forms in the appendix of my previous book, Project Management for Musicians. But I kept turning up more and more useful forms that I wanted to write about, and it started taking on its own identity, so we decided to spin off the “forms” concept into its own book.

How did you get the ideas for these forms? Did they come to you in a dream? A vision?

No way, these all come from real life! My favorite form, the stage plot, is one that I lived out of during my days working in concert hall operations. Then, over my years of editing books about the music industry, I’ve learned about many other forms. Often, as an editor, when I try to press my authors to be extremely specific about some dimension of what they are writing about, or to show examples, the conversation ultimately leads them to whip out a form. Like, “spotting sheets” come up periodically in books about film music. A spotting sheet is used when a composer and film director sit down to discuss what type of music will go with each scene. My authors Lalo SchifrinRichard Davis, and Mark Cross all discuss them in their books. They are standard practice in the film music industry, and people trying to break in need to understand them. So, I’ve found that musicians are using a lot of forms, particularly the ones who have been at it for a while. (Film director/script writerIsaac Ho also helped me come up with some good samples of those, and some others.)

Why are stage plots your favorite?

Beyond evoking fond memories (it was fun being a stagehand/manager), stage plots are great simplifiers. Consider the task of setting up for a 100-piece orchestra. That’s a lot of gear! But the stage plot reveals the location of every chair, music stand, piano, riser, and so on, bringing order to the complexity. Pass around a stage plot, and everyone relaxes.

So, many of the forms in this book were from personal experience as a musician, and others are forms that you pulled from a large catalog of Berklee books that address many aspects of the professional music industry.

Yes. And from my Berklee Online course, Project Management for Musicians. Also, I interviewed quite a few experts, for all these projects. For example, mastering engineer Jonathan Wyner was very generous with his time in showing me around his studio and discussing what forms he found most helpful for organizing audio media. I used models by him and others as starting points for many of the forms that are in the book, doing some additional research with some other engineers, and then tried to present what seems to be a sort of consensus on what is the most useful information to include, for them. And then back to the original experts for a final sniff. That was my usual process.

What sort of musician would this book be best for? How would it help me, a musician who only seeks to play local gigs but makes enough money at it to actually have a separate band bank account? Or a cover band musician, or a GB musican, for that matter?

Oh, I got forms for everybody.

Ha. Okay, okay. I must say that, when I read this book, all these forms opened a window to business possibilities I had not even considered.

For a gigging musician like you, there are sample gear checklists, registers for how to track what merch you’re selling at gigs, some worksheets for putting together set lists or strategically ordering songs on albums…. There’s one that shows you how to figure out how many recordings you need to sell in order to break even financially, given your investment. A zillion others. You read it. Did anything in particular strike your fancy?

I found the telephone tree interesting. Even with five people in a band, that’s a lot of calls to make when you’re stressed right before a gig.

Yes, it’s like a lever, making an odious job easier. That one’s a classic form, and one of just a few here that are used all over the world, from political campaigns to emergency school closings, beyond just in the music industry. Most forms in the book are more music-centric than this, though some have analogues elsewhere. The graphic design spec is another example of a form with longer legs. But musicians manage a lot of graphic design, for album covers, band logos, websites, and such, so it’s a good communication tool to know about.

Tell me about the Nashville chart.  

Nashville notation evolved in the recordings studios of that fine city. It’s a type of numeral-based chord chart optimized for rhythm section players who want to get the essential information for developing their parts, in a form that is very easy to transpose to other keys. So, for studio rhythm-section musicians working with vocalists, it is generally exactly the right amount of information they require, and easily scrawled out on the fly. Very efficient, for certain kinds of players. And utterly cryptic to everyone else! Songwriter/producer/Berklee Online Instructor Shane Adams was a great help with that one.

Will there be a place that someone can download Excel files for some of the forms you mention? Templates?

Now and then, I post a form at Really, though, I think these samples should be seen as starting points for your own forms. People hate forms that are not completely on target for their work at hand, and using templates can sometimes lead to extraneous requests for non-critical information. It’s why so many forms still waste people’s time by requesting fax numbers—or worse, Telex! Also, many of these are ideally scribbled out on the spot, with a pencil, in the heat of battle. So, the concept is often more important than the actual sample.

Right. But what I also know from my own experience is that people love it when you do forms “right.” For example, the press release template you included. Formatting your press release in the right way makes you look more professional to a journalist. They have a way that they expect to see things, and if you deliver it in that format, then they see you as more of a professional and they pay attention. I wonder if that applies to some of the other forms, too? If so, which ones?

There are definitely some standard practices, and I quote chapter and verse when I find it. That said, I find a huge amount of variation. Some organizations do have exacting standards for certain types of forms. Conventions for indicating chairs and music stands on a stage plot are pretty standard everywhere. Spotting sheets, though, have different layouts at different studios. (I give two competing versions of that one.) Industrywide, most of the time, I think it’s more about being neat and organized and easy to figure out. But yes, there are some conventions, and certain places will really insist on their own form being used, like cue sheets for the different PROs. Same, same, only different. I tried throughout to give both standard formats and terminology, and also some common variations.

How did you ever score an endorsement from John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants?

I bribed his wife with an alpaca fleece.

HA! How did you even reach her? I need to hear more.

Isn’t it better if that’s my only answer?

Okay, okay, okay.

I’ll add, though, that Robin Goldwasser is a very gifted artist in her own right: actress, musician, and puppet maker. And she’s crazy for fiber. Fortunately.

And I have to say, I am a bit in awe of my back cover blurbists. John Flansburgh, Gary Burton, Marcus Hummon, and Sean Slade. Ridiculous/earth-shattering talent, back there. Their generous quotes are on the product page.

If there were one person on your birthday list that you would give this book to, who is it? Tell me about that person.

YOU. Because You are so Awesome.

Hahah! There’s a lot there that I can use!

After you, I’d give it to musicians at the beginning of their career, who are trying to figure out this vast, crazy, complex world of the music industry. Especially musicians with a history of bringing me chocolate.

Was this a fun book to write?

Yes, this was probably the most fun book I’ve written. Project Management for Musicians is really a deep, methodical exploration of how to get music projects done, and kind of an epic journey about how to become a professional. Hopefully, it’s useful, but yes, it’s also a bit exhausting. Writing this book, to me, was more like discovering a series of little lightbulbs—almost like compiling a book of cartoons. It was fun because it was eclectic, giving me a chance to talk to performers, engineers, concert operations folks, songwriters—lots of people all around the industry, and everyone here is such a character. These forms are each a delight because they can make life so much easier. It’s a joy to be around them.

The book is like a field guide to the nuts-and-bolts mechanisms that really make the music industry possible. To me, each form was a revelation, giving insight into how to make the magic happen. That’s fun!

What’s next?

Well, I’ve been enjoying presenting live workshops about the creative process and music project management, and there are some interesting opportunities in the works along those lines. I continue teaching my two courses at Berklee Online and editing books for Berklee Press—a few great titles in the works, there. My next freelance writing is actually going to be through as their music education expert. I’m editing my wife Marci’s next book about charter school boards, and I’m hoping to edit a book or two about beekeeping. So, I’m keeping busy, occasionally stepping out of the music industry and then bringing the stolen fire back home. It’s always an adventure.

Jonathan Feist
Jonathan Feist

Jonathan Feist is editor in chief of Berklee Press, where he has been bringing hundreds of music education products to a worldwide market since 1998. He is the author of "Project Management for Musicians," among other Berklee Press books and Berklee Online courses. He holds a bachelor's and master's degree in composition from New England Conservatory of Music, and tends to various farm animals and a sweet little orchard in his backyard.

1 Comment

  1. The film industry, being hugely lucrative, definitely requires these forms. The potential cost of a mis-scheduled recording for a film composer, for example, will cost the studio thousands of dollars. Checklists make sure that all the gears run smoothly.