“Read the Room” by Sean O’Bryan Smith

So. . . Here we are. . .One or two belt notches wider than we were a week ago, but hopefully, mostly content from stuffing ourselves and experiencing that time-honored tradition of tolerating the family. For me, I was most thankful for a surprisingly smooth travel weekend and that’s included dealing with Atlanta airport. Of course, with traveling comes one of my favorite activities in life. . . People watching.

My entire life I’ve enjoyed just observing our fellow humans on this big ‘ole rock. You can learn quite a bit about others when you take the time to just watch. This has also been one of the most beneficial traits that I’ve attempted to hone as a professional in the music industry.

Most recently, I observed who the movers, shakers, and people behind the curtain were in our respected genres for a couple of years before I decided to reemerge in this industry so that I could be truly effective. It is a skill that can be instrumental in your succeeding or not in your musical endeavors. It is also a skillset that can be immensely challenging for some professionals in this industry, and in particular, this genre of music because so many of us are a party of one in our daily routines. We compose our music ourselves. We tend to perform as individuals. We even interact with others in the genre from isolated locations versus meeting up in person. This creates unique challenges because for some, it can be extremely hard to “read the room” if you’re not IN the room.

Very early in my career, an extremely successful recorder producer nicknamed me, “The Watcher.” I received what became a coveted title for me in a studio in Nashville. I had not been in town very long and was searching for my break to “make it” onto the scene. It was quite an intimidating scenario, too, since the room was filled with A-List session guys with a list of artists credits that rivaled Santa’s “nice” list, or was it the “naughty” list? I always get confused as to which is longer. Needless to say, I was laser focused on that producer like my life depended on it, because, to me I had one shot at getting this right.

The room was quickly filled with the musings of some of the top players in Nashville. The musicians were all running through the song we were about to record, and the producer was in the corner with his eyes closed and appeared to be just grooving to the music. It was at that moment that all those years of watching people paid off.

I quickly noticed in the producer’s body language that he wasn’t quite in sync with what the other musicians were doing. Quickly realizing that he’s the boss and I was the help, I became even more intent on reading this man’s body language who was sitting in the corner with his eyes continually closed. After a few seconds, the producer started playing various “air” instruments to himself. I began to have an idea of what might be going on through this guy’s head.

As the sounds filled the room, I watched and then my hunch was right. He started playing “air BASS” and I thought I would test the theory I had of what was happening. I began to mimic EXACTLY the rhythm pattern he was playing on his chest. With that, the producer’s mannerisms changed slightly, his eyes opened, he looked me right in the eye, gently nodded and then went on to play the next “air” instrument. We were being tested.

One by one the producer “worked” the room and at the end of the day, I ended up being the only one of these musicians to pass the test. To say I felt a small victory was an understatement. Consequently, I ended up being that producer’s first phone call for the next sixteen years.

Whilst a long-winded description, I apologize, as I’ve been hanging out with my Southern family and things can get long winded, I think the story makes a very valid point that every single person in this industry can benefit from. PAY ATTENTION. Why every other musician in that room failed is that they were each focused on themselves. They were too busy trying to show off or make the song something it wasn’t.

What’s interesting is that these were musicians that truthfully knew better. They each have had MASSIVE gigs and yet, on this day, ego got in the way, and they forgot to just OBSERVE, and it cost them in the end. Unfortunately, some of them were very bitter with me for many years because of it, but it was their own fault. Do you want to lose a golden opportunity due to your ego getting in the way? I am betting not.

By being in the moment and allowing myself to read the room, I was able to secure what became arguably the most important musical relationship of my Nashville career. I did have an advantage though. I was physically in the room. So, how does this apply in our genres? For the most part, we are solitary entities out here trying to get by in a crazy industry. What do we do when we must use that same skillset remotely? Answer: We must put in the work and do all we can to get to know who we are dealing with.

So much can be lost in translation in the written word, but it can also hold a vast array of truth. The key to success is to be observant with it and I think this is where we all tend to struggle at times. We are in the emoji generation coupled with quick acronyms and whatever borderline ADD concept society has converted into the latest version of normalcy. That being said, it is way too easy to miss things in written conversations from basic business etiquette like responding in a timely and accurate manner to not paying attention and trust me, you can very easily end your career by not paying attention.

I am going to go out on a limb here and say that we all are ridiculously busy in our day-to-day lives.  That’s just the way of the world in the music industry. It’s a hustle, but it is 100% imperative that you slow down at times to truly learn the people you are dealing with and the situations you are in if you want to succeed. You can “read the room” from a text, email, or post if you know how, but you must make it part of your daily routine. Don’t get totally caught up in yourself or the next thing you know, you’ll lose your opportunity. Slow down, focus, pay attention, and learn. Do that and you will successfully “read the room.” With that, it is time for me to shut up and go for a walk. Damned ‘ole Louisiana cooking. . .


Sean O’Bryan Smith is an award-winning film composer, author, producer and recording artist. As a musician, he has recorded and/or performed with over 100 major and independent recording artists worldwide in multiple genres. As an author, Sean’s regular columns have been published in numerous musical periodicals and he was a contributing author alongside Gene Simmons and Nile Rodgers for a series of books dedicated to the ins and outs of the music industry. Sean’s music continues to be heard across the globe on radio, film, and television. He is currently composing, recording and producing from his home in South Florida as well as serving as Director of Artist Development and Relations for Wayfarer Records where he is also an Artist in Residence.