Producer Fernando Garibay Discusses His Newest Venture: Mentoring Songwriters

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Over the last twenty years, producer/songwriter Fernando Garibay has worked his way from creating electronic music in his bare bones makeshift home studio to the top of the recording world, writing and producing for Lady Gaga, Enrique Iglesias, Armin Van Burin, Whitney Houston and more. He attributes a key part of his success to having good mentors, including legendary record producer Giorgio Moroder and producer/music executive Jimmy Iovine, who took him under his wing when Garibay was sixteen. A deep thinker and complex person, Garibay has entered what he calls ‘the next mountain’ in his life, which is mentoring songwriters who have the drive and vision to succeed. He’s established the Garibay Center- “a professional, creative and wellness executive training program that delivers the best-in-class leadership development and also liaises artists with companies and creates both business and music opportunities.”

Record Producer and Garibay Center founder Fernando Garibay

American Songwriter had a long and interesting chat with Garibay about his Insights into the music business and how to look at your songs and career from all angles- creative, holistic and business.

How did music become part of your life?

My parents worked a lot and didn’t have a name for me right away. The nurses asked my dad what my name was, and he said ‘I don’t know. What should we name him?’ The nurse said she loved the song “Fernando” by Abba. And dad said ‘Fernando it is’ and went out and bought every ABBA album.

That’s interesting that music was right there at the beginning of your life.

Yes! And what’s interesting about “Fernando” is the Swedish lyrics are different from the English. The English version is about a drummer marching into a battle and the friend saying you’ll have a friend back home. The Swedish version is about how you’ve lost the love of your life, but I’ll always be here for you.

There’s this theory that what you are named sets your trajectory, your path for life. So, from the time I was two years old and putting a needle on the record I listened to a lot of ABBA. And the thing about them is that Björn (Ulvaeus) and Benny (Andersson) ‘quantified’ pop music. They took Motown, disco and everything that was American and made it more efficient. Kinda like IKEA! Very succinctly made pop music which started the Swedish model with Max Martin and others, which heavily influenced Western modern pop music to this day. So that set my path.

How was your education growing up?

I have everything from dyslexia, ADHD and insomnia. These are all strengths if you know how to utilize them. When I was two years old, I inherited a radio that only had the last stations on the left of the FM radio dial- NPR, KUSC, 89.9. They had all these extraordinary lectures by these great thinkers Alan Watts, Noam Chomsky, Stephen Pinker. I remember it always being on. I struggled with the language because I was three. But I kept on listening and that’s where I learned to speak. And it became one of my strengths.

For me it was hyper-focus with an extreme dedication to the craft of learning- both music and academic. Can I learn as much as I can about the world to tell better stories through music? My brothers and I were basically self-raised, since my parents worked a lot to support us. Music was my parent. When I heard the music of ABBA, for example, it was very motherly and nurturing. They were singing to me. Which set me on my path working with a lot of powerful women.

What age did you write your first song?

My first recollection was at age 2 or 3 and dropping dishes and making noise. That’s the idiosyncratic aspect of musicians. You’re hyper-attentive to noise. Music and the ability of noise to create an emotional resonance with people is so innate within our psychology and biology.

Think about the impact we make as songwriters when done effectively. Let’s say you want to write a song that will change the world. That takes dedication and a sense of purpose. That’s what I felt I had to do from day one. Dropping stuff as a kid and then repeating that, which created a rhythm and keep that going. And what did that do? It got me attention and interest from people, which feeds my soul and perspective. I can change people’s perspective within a sequence of moments. That was my first insight as a child. I spent the rest of my life to becoming more effective and translating that idea to music.

Did you spend a lot of time as a child playing with musical equipment?

Well I grew in South Central Los Angeles, so I didn’t have a lot of access to instruments. But the churches did! I found ways to get on an instrument and learn it. I did anything I could to get a leg up. Then being discovered by Giorgio Moroder and Jimmy Iovine obviously benefited me a lot.

My first goal was to be the greatest at defining what my voice is. I was so driven to change the world through music. By saving the world I was saving myself.

Loneliness and hunger are painful as a child, and I felt that. Music fed me in various ways. I didn’t have to think about food or anything else when a great song was playing. You’re transcended into a new place. I wanted to give that feeling back to the world. And I wanted to be highly effective at doing that. If there’s another person out there in the world feeling that pain, I wanted to relieve them of that pain. That’s what songwriting meant to me.

I think that’s a goal for most songwriters- hopefully that musical and lyrical sentiment is universal enough that if they can affect one person, they can reach the whole world.

That’s a great point. At some point you have to define success. Success can be changing one person, even if it’s just yourself. Then you get to the ‘us.’ You ask yourself ‘how many people’s lives do I want to change?’ And what genre is the biggest.  For me, it was pop music. Obviously, you also want to create enjoyment. I define a hit record as the amount of connectivity you have with people. The more people connect with your music the more of a hit it is. We’re not judging good or bad- that’s subjective. The objective is how many people are listening to your music.

How do songwriters survive?

In order to sustain a career in songwriting you have to have financial support, either through family or a day job. The majority of us have had to ration at some point. I did the dollar a day on the street to figure out how to make it work. As we mentor new songwriters, we sit down and discuss what we can pass on to them.

The key to future generation of songwriters is to look at songwriting as an entrepreneurial venture. To give songwriters some insight as to how other businesses function sustainably. We’ll focus on these ideas- the philosophy of the craft, why you do it, the neuroscience and how music operates in the mind, the soul and the marketplace.

The soul part is usually where most songwriters start their process. How can a songwriter keep the trueness of your soul and manage the commerce part?

That’s the Socratic question of songwriting! We can compartmentalize it. We all have experiences that shape who we are- the epigenetics, which is the environment affecting your gene expression. You have to imagine how and where you grew up, the month and time, the financial situation- all these things affect the way you see the world. The soul makes you who you are. Songwriting is an expression of your experiences or the imagination of imagining others’ experiences and the empathic relation with other experiences. It’s translating those experiences through song and music.

Music is its own language and songwriting allows you to become a better speaker and communicator, a better linguistic expert.

Music is also a universal language on its own. You can go anywhere in the world and strum a few chords and connect with anyone.

Exactly. And that’s its power. For me, once I made this connection it was satisfying. I wasn’t looking at it from the abstract idea of having to suffer for my art, these complicated philosophies and narratives. It comes down to can you become a better speaker and thus, a better songwriter and person.

Our experiences shape who we are. For some, it comes easy but for others it’s a desperate need to express ourselves.

A person may not be able to express themselves easily but sometimes music is their best path to expression.

Absolutely. In my experience I was not a great speaker. I focused all my energy on songwriting and music, whether it was expressing myself through melody or lyrics. Whatever it took to get my point across I did it. Then I got to what they call the second mountain in your career which is the next big pivotal moment in your career. I no longer could rely on music as a form of expression. I needed to focus on the verbal part of it to express it.

When did you achieve your first success?

I’ve been writing and producing for about twenty years. I had my first hit with Enrique Iglesias when I was sixteen. I went into pop music right away. I was doing house and electronic music. That gave me an edge because I didn’t have to rely on other people and their schedules!

Going through the whole cycle and struggles and then working with some of the biggest artists in the world and having that be a vehicle for your message was extraordinary. I got to a point where I had achieved all my goals- working with extraordinary artists that bring about awareness and changed the world- Lady Gaga, U2, Whitney Houston. Having a president thank you and the team for contribute to awareness and change. When you get there it’s like ‘now what?’ Fortunately, at that time I was getting invited to speak at Harvard and MIT on how I sustained creativity. At first it was just ‘how did you create your hits?’ But it involved into more of an academic discourse. I challenged myself because I didn’t have the answers. I stumbled my way through it.

Going back to your first hit. The million-dollar question everyone has is- how did you get your break? My take has always been that you need to be a likable person that people want to be around.

That’s a great point. If you look at your favorite engineers, they all have something- they’re just likable. Quincy Jones, Giorgio Moroder, George Martin, Jimmy Iovine… go down the list. They all have this swag. He’s your pilot flying the plane. Watching them, you felt safe and taken care of.  Surround yourself with the most extraordinary people you can find and you can’t lose.

I got to a point where I wanted a bigger hammer and a different tool to the arsenal. Music and songwriting is still at the core- it’s the nucleus and everything revolves around that. Bharat Anand, who is an Intellectual Property Management professor at Harvard, wrote a book “The Content Trap” which describes the relationship of intellectual property success out into the marketplace. The success of intellectual property (movies, music, art) defined by how many people connect with your content) is 10% quality of content and 90% quality of network.

Can you elaborate on this?

Sure. It’s about category creation- 10% quality of content specific to your audience and 90% quality of network. Without a healthy network nobody will hear, read or see your content. The network is critical. Think of it on an intellectual level so you’re not sitting in your bedroom with a desperate need to get your content out and not know how. It’s not art vs. commerce. It’s art with commerce, with the understanding of networking. Be extraordinary at your craft and also be extraordinary at how you curate your network for the output of your art. It’s all about relationships.

I’ll describe this scenario in action. We’re in a studio and get a call from a music executive for the next single for a top artist. I have no idea what this artist has gone through in their life or where their mindset is. All I know is I have a directive and an objective. They need a song that expresses something- that’s a marketing pitch. I’ll channel all my knowledge and experience and put it into a 3-minute piece. That’s insane! It’s like a lottery at that point. So, we peel the onion to see what we’re doing and ask questions. Who listens to the artist? What’s going on in that artists’ style and what new innovations can we introduce? Let’s define a mission and purpose so that artist can resonate universally. The artist will have a universal connection to the song and hopefully the audience will follow. That’s where we start.

What’s your next step?

If the artist loves your song, that’s the first stage of what I call your network value chain. Then A&R hears it and might ask for changes. Then a label executive hears it and decides if it aligns with their business plan. This is where it gets complicated. They want to know if this song will bring shareholder value to my company and keep my artist happy? Then you have your narrative for your artist and make your pitch internally to the label- selling the marketing department and the distribution channels like Spotify, Apple etc. on how you believe in the narrative of the song and how it fits the artist’s vision. Last you have the consumer. You need to make sure you broadcast the right message and the right narrative, and you’ll get a buy-in from the consumer and they will champion your work. That gives you full connectivity to your value chain network. Again- 10% quality of content, 90% quality of network. When you have those two in place you will always have hits. So long as its purpose driven and it’s authentic and genuine throughout the whole process. You can’t do it without that. The audience is too smart. They want their lives changed as much as you do. You only do this by being good at your craft. The right failure is when you fail and document it, so you don’t repeat that failure. Even better- learn from the failures of others. That’s why mentors are so important. Without them I don’t think I would be here and successful.

Let’s talk about the Garibay Center. Can you describe your mission?

The Garibay Center came out of a need. When I reached my second mountain top in 2012, I realized that I could no longer continue doing 20-hour days and burning my body out. It was sad for me at that point. I was so independent, driving the ship, creating narratives, doing whatever I was needed to get the content out. I had been with Jimmy Iovine for so long where if you don’t deliver, you’re not working in the industry anymore. It was 20 years of being obsessive and not taking breaks, being in the studios and touring with Gaga. I realized it wasn’t sustainable. You need teams. My first thought was a self-serving perspective- can I scale me? Can I multiply what I do? At the same time, I was lecturing and sharing what I learned with students. And I realized how much I loved sharing what I learned.  I love passing out knowledge. You know, the whole idea of giving enhances your pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of your brain that’s associated with compassion. Your executive order of command in your brain. As you meditate, give or share you become empowered and you feel happy. The giving part became my solution to get to my next stage. By sharing what I do with others I’ve learned so much about myself. I decided I would take time and not worry about creating content and focus on teaching what I do to others. And then maybe I could build a team who would become better than me so I could do other things as well. And that’s what happened. I began lecturing at colleges like Harvard and MIT and students would ask if they could mentor with me at my studio. That led me to approaching other universities around the world and asking them to send me their best and they’ll get college credit. I spent four years lecturing and developing a curriculum to fast track extraordinary talent. Learn by doing. Now we have teams who create hits and coach and mentor others. If you want to scale, what’s the best version of scaling? A farm. You plant crops and they seed others. It’s an annual thing. I teach others so they may teach others.

My second big motivation is critical and what really underlines my drive. My father was an immigrant who worked in factories and in cardboard manufacturing. The way I knew he was home at night was that I could smell him. I could smell his burns. His machines would run so hot that you couldn’t get through the night without burning yourself. Very blue collar. He took me to his work a few times and showed us how everything worked. That’s where I learned the process of manufacturing. It’s a part of me.

I’ve always felt that the musician became a bit of a tradesman. We’re the blue-collar workers of the industry. As far as output is concerned, songwriters and producers are at the factory stage. But why has the idea that the thought leaders like songwriters and musicians have disappeared?

I’ve always fit disenfranchised because of my background. And I saw others who were treated the same -intellectually and environmentally. I wanted to change that. In general, musicians weren’t seen as thought leaders. For me, it was important to show that there is dormant value that musicians are leaving behind. When I saw that Elon Musk was hiring the NY Philharmonic conductor in 2012 for his creativity and insight, and then corporations followed, I realized I need to give musicians the right vocabulary for what they do so they can translate what they do and create more value for themselves as thought leaders. And that’s where the Garibay Center came to be. I don’t want the future generations of musicians to struggle as much as we did, or my family did. Thought leadership and changing people’s lives are the two main purpose drivers on my side.

Can you define thought leadership?

When you write a narrative and translate your experience into a 3:45 song, that’s a high level of cognition which is valuable to the world. It’s beyond songwriting. What if you could help others create new narratives so they could bring financial means to relieve the world of hunger? What if you could help marketing campaigns to disenfranchised communities around the world? Do your narrative! That’s impact. For my next mountain I’m spending my energy by empowering others to not only become better songwriters but to become thought leaders.

The Garibay Center started as a mentor accelerator for musicians and it evolved into a thought leadership group in which our network creates new narratives and new content in alignment to create global change with the help of corporations and labels.

How can people reach you?

Everybody is reach-able these days. Instagram, Twitter… all my social media.

But that next step is that you have to make the connection with someone who ‘gets’ you and that you see is a good candidate.

Great point. I’m only one person but that’s how I started and then I scaled to my mentors.

Everyone has their own version of success. My version is how many people can I impact? How many lives can I change? I first needed to quantify what the secret sauce is to make that happen. And that is the quality of network/quality of content idea I mentioned. I’ve structured a curriculum where we can teach while we make hits to our mentor accelerator group. And we had four people every three months. We developed an extraordinary network of thought leaders from all walks of life, from the streets of Compton to the streets of Harvard. They can all help others when asked. So how can you join?

You have to put in the 10,000 hours, which is a Malcolm Gladwell theory. That’s not to success. That’s just to get to the entry point. So see me as an entry point. You have to master your craft. And then the Garibay Center can give you the next skill set to full mastery. The second tier of 10,000 hours and in a couple months we can have you writing hits. And it takes continuing mentorship to sustain that and then we let go. Then it’s up to you to decide how much you want to do. All we are is a runway for your growth.

Is there an artist you can point to who has become successful through working with you?

There are these two brothers who started with me in 2012 or so. They were ghostwriters for DJ’s. It was right when I was during a lot of lecturing and research on how music works in the brain and the marketplace. They wound up in my studio with their broken laptops and earbuds. Very similar to me when I was starting. I saw me in them. I know that face. They were at an inflection point. They were being taken advantage of by others- working for free, no credits, traditional exploitive music industry. So I let them use my studio. Now they’ve become so successful at songwriting and coaching and leadership. They mentor Fortune 500 leaders, Uber, record labels and others. And they’re young. Can you teach others the craft of songwriting and producing and can it be scaled to many people? Yes! That’s the Garibay Center in a nutshell. But you have to earn it and put in the hours.

Are there plans to expand the Center?

Yes. It’s a little premature. We’re developing a plan where we can license this curriculum to schools like Harvard and MIT. Right now, we coach and mentor and accelerate growth for artists, best in class performers, producers, songwriters and executives.

What do you consider a good success rate in reaching them?

Let’s define success and the parameters. I’ve had those wide-eyed students ask this question.

The first question I ask is ‘do you want to do this for the rest of your life?’ If they say yes, then I continue. You not only have to do this. Music is so much more. If music is like a language, then let me help you become the most effective speaker in the world and broadcast your message effectively. And then I ask them what their favorite song is and where were you when you heard it and how did it change your outlook and awareness? No one has given me a false response. Music is universal. When you see music as a language you can become clear about your objective and more empathic, authentic and genuine. That’s a conversation the student, whether young or old, will never forget.

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