Great Brands In Action Series: Tom Jackson Interview
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Jackson, renowned live music producer, in Nashville.
I wanted to interview Tom for several reasons. Of course, I wanted to spend some time with him, and learn from such a successful and well-rounded entrepreneur, but primarily, I wanted to bring Tom’s wisdom to my audience of artists and musicians. However, I believe Tom serves as an example of a successful personal brand in action for all my clients, regardless of career.
In brand development, likeability is critically important. Almost 80% of everything we buy —78% to be exact — including buying services from people, is not based on what they do, i.e., “content,” but on how we feel about that specific person. In other words, if we like you.
Tom has been the expert for over 25 years on how to create successful live music shows for artists and bands. He has worked with famous artists such as Taylor Swift.
Tom was born in New York and grew up in San Diego. He says he had a very “normal” childhood.
On first impression and follow up, Tom is very personable. There’s something about him people like. I set out to find out how he does it — so we can all learn from this great brand in action.
I asked Tom if he’d always been like this — even as a child — or if he learned something along the way that helped him prepare for his great career and being so likeable. His answer spoke volumes about how he is a great brand. Here are what great brands possess and do, and how Tom serves as a perfect example:
Great brand are happy. If we truly “buy” from a place of how you make us feel, there’s only one emotion that sells and that’s happiness. Every great brand must authentically “be” happy at some level to emotionally resonate and sell happiness to its audience. As a person, Tom says he still feels like he did in his early 20s. He attributes this partly to the work he does with young people. His young clients keep him on his toes. Does feeling young necessarily mean feeling happy? I’d say so, because it’s a good indicator of overall satisfaction with your career and life.
Great brands are humble. Spend five minutes with Tom and you can see how humble he really is. For instance, I asked Tom who influenced him and helped him along the way. His first answer was his faith/Jesus and his wife.
Tom’s second answer was his band mates. As he explained, he and his band were true musicians — playing 12-minute pieces. Tom professes he fell in love with music then and realized it can’t be put in a box. The band taught him how musical arrangements work — that they must be different for radio than live shows because people listen to radio in a very different headspace, especially when they’re driving. This headspace is not the same as when people listen to commercial and sitcom arrangements.
Great brands are relatable. They understand their target audience’s/client’s reality and adapt and empathize. While Tom admits he can’t totally relate to a 14-year-old artist client, he has the tools, it seems, to adapt and put himself in every client’s shoes — regardless of any differences, including age. Why and how? This brings us to the next attribute of great brands.
Great brands use their natural strengths and innate abilities well. According to Tom, no one else in his family did what he does for a living. So there really is nothing that got passed down to him and he likely isn’t emulating anyone in his family. However, you spend five minutes with him and you can see what he does is primarily a flow of his natural strengths and innate abilities.
How Tom started his business explains so much. Early in his career, he played music a lot until he got tired of playing and traveling. Ironically, he now travels over 150 days a year. However, just like any other brand that is living its purpose — using its natural strength — this travel doesn’t tire him out the way traveling and playing with the band used to do.
Along the way, Tom found out he was a better live music producer than bass player simply by doing it. He realized he could take a big picture and make it better — he could take a song and make it better musically. That’s an innate gift.
Tom says 25 years ago, he intuitively “knew” something was wrong with people’s live shows. He also knew this because he played a lot of live shows himself with his band. When he first started consulting on live shows, he would watch the artist. He would then see that something broke the emotional connection between the artist and the audience — and would figure out what caused it: was it verbal, visual, musical? Next, he would simply set out and fix it.
Tom claims to use a combination of his intuition and a set formula he applies to everyone to work with clients. The interaction with each person is what makes the process unique.
Tom claims he’s been fixing conceptually the same song/ballad for 25 years. Part of it is innate, and part of it is that he’s been doing it so long that he’s an expert based on experience and can now fix a song fast.
Tom has a method; in fact, his book is called, Tom Jackson’s Live Music Method. He looks for themes and the artist’s personality in every song. As in any industry where everyone wants to be an original by fitting in, Tom works to find who the real artist is on stage and make them relatable to people.
The key is that the song cannot be in control. Tom fixes this problem as part of his formula. The innate part, as discussed above, is that Tom knows there’s something that needs to be fixed. He then uses his formula/method to fix it.
Great brands are courageous. Every person is a bit different. Tom and I agree that overcoming fear is the biggest challenge any client has (fear of looking silly, taking a risk, etc.). Smart risk is different (winging it versus taking a risk from a safe situation, i.e., not trying something new the first time you are opening for Taylor Swift).
I find many artists are introverts and thus have a fear of the stage and being live with their audiences. So, they often just want to share their gift via recordings. This is also true of my non-artist clients, who would rather work and network from behind their computer. However, as I coach my clients, this method won’t work. You are missing the human connection, which is critical in brand development.
I work with artists on the back-end to remove their walls so when Tom works with them afterward, they are prepped and ready to take Tom’s advice and truly captivate the audience and connect. This is emotional resonance — artists are genuine and still well-rehearsed.
Every artist and client we work with has talent. It’s just sometimes we all forget the better version of “me” sells in anything in life. This requires removing our egos from the picture — and releasing our egos requires letting go of fear.
You must be willing to choose to see things differently. Ironically, ego gets in the way here, as Tom and I have seen. As with everything in brand development, we are dealing with the subconscious processing of information. As Tom puts it, it’s subliminal — every artist wants to think, “how couldn’t it (the live show) be good; it’s me?” While this is ego talking, it’s not from a place of courage, but rather fear.
How do Tom and I deal with this fact for our clients? Frankly, the only answer is giving permission to clients to sit in discomfort (and fear). As Tom says, “when I’m hired, I know I’ll make them uncomfortable, but I come prepared with the new song version so creativity and spirit can flow through the room. Then my ultimate job is managing that flow of spirit.”
Great brands have self-awareness and intentionality. In brand development, the key is being intentional and that requires self-awareness around perception and reality. Everyone should always be asking, how is this landing on my audience?
According to Tom, he doesn’t necessarily do anything intentionally to be likeable. However, he always prepares mentally, physically and spiritually to go on stage. Tom says he teaches with that same level of intention. This intention is based on his level of self-awareness of who he is and why he does what he does.
As Tom humbly proclaims, this is not just innate, but also a combination of all his experiences of sitting in the audience so many times. However, he does it intentionally by stopping and seeing what the audience sees.
Great brands are adaptable and always strive to strike a harmonious balance. In all interactions with an audience and clients, there must be some order as well as some off-the-cuff adaptation based on the audiences’ personality and its in-the-moment needs and wants. We like rules to follow because it makes us feel better. On the other hand, total randomness doesn’t land well on any the audience or client. As Tom says, you can’t be so sterile that you leave no room for new ways of thinking. But this must be harmonized with spontaneity.
Tom believes great art and a successful live show are a combination of form and spontaneity. Spontaneity is not winging it, though. Artists get this notion confused often as do most of my clients, whether artists or professionals. However, there is a consistent thing Tom does with all artists to bring out their spontaneity. For Tom, genre is irrelevant. Tom tells all his artists there are rules in life. These rules apply in all areas of life and artists must make it work within limits. No artist can just go on stage and not put any songs together and just do a show; that’s really winging it, but it doesn’t work because artists, like everyone else, need form. He leaves space for spontaneity. But people overrate the space for spontaneity, he claims. As Tom says, just like most of us can’t just get in a car and randomly drive, every artist thinks they are more spontaneous than they really are.
Great brands are curious. Curious brands win. Stagnation is the best way to not only become irrelevant in the eyes of your target audience, but also the surest way to become forgettable and boring to your audience. According to Tom, he wants to know more about life and peel back the onion. Tom says he’s still discovering “stuff” all around him. Curiosity drives him to the point he wishes he had more time to be curious.
Great brands have empathy and compassion. To be a great brand, you must be able to emotionally resonate with your audience. To emotionally resonate, you must have empathy and compassion for yourself and others by being willing to see the world from another’s perspective.
Playing those live shows early in his career with his band helped Tom harness his empathy and compassion. Often this happened by studying the audience. For example, Tom relays the story of the time their drummer had to play with a broken arm. Tom says he noticed how much empathy the audience had for the drummer playing with one arm in a sling.
Tom says artists don’t choose to see the show from the audiences’ perspective often enough. For instance, the audiences’ adrenaline is not pumping like the artist’s is on stage. So naturally, the audience doesn’t see and feel the show the way the artist feels it on stage. To be successful, the artist must include the audience as his partner in the show.
Tom’s ability to read people and see their point of view allows him also to have this understanding of the audiences’ emotions. In this way, he can coach his clients how best to connect emotionally with their audience.
Great brands prioritize themselves and maintain internal control of their environment. It’s almost impossible to build a following and loyal audience or client base, when we are falling apart and don’t care much about ourselves or feel in control of our own lives and destiny. People can sense this and flee from us. Although Tom wishes he had more time to himself, here’s how he does it.
For Tom, the most important time is the morning. He has a slow start morning like I prescribe to all my clients. He gets up and jumps into a closet where he reads the Bible, listens to his inner voice (i.e., meditates), speaks, and groans. This ritual, which unfortunately doesn’t happen every day due to his travel schedule, takes anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour. In the evenings, Tom puts on his favorite music and relaxes with a glass of wine. Tom doesn’t watch much TV, but prefers to think and be entertained otherwise. He chooses what influences him and his environment and uses it to intentionally create what he wants in his life. That’s what a great brand does.
Great brands persevere with patience because they know their passion and purpose in life and have faith. This notion does not allow for living in fear. I asked Tom how he found the patience to keep going and growing the business and what motivates him to keep persevering. Very simply put, he loves music. Tom claims he didn’t really have a Plan B if this business failed.
Oddly enough, I never had a Plan B when I retired from the practice of law and started this business a decade ago. Tom and I both agree that more often than not, a Plan B doesn’t work. Why? Most people we both know who had a Plan B revert to it when their real plan gets tough. What kept Tom (and me) going? As Tom says, he did have some great breaks that helped him along the way. However, his faith kept him going. I sincerely believe if you do what you feel you are aligned with, you keep going and persist. You don’t feel like a fraud; you feel authentic and real. For example, I don’t offer insincere advice to my clients because I genuinely believe in my advice to them.
You don’t need a Plan B if you do what is your natural talent and persist.
Of course, keep in mind, branding is a marathon and not a sprint. Everything takes time and patience. As Tom says, his career didn’t grow overnight. Back when he started, he used to charge $25 for a four-hour consultation and he worked much slower, of course.
Great brands have fun. Having fun establishes the emotional connection of your brand because you are automatically more likeable when you are having fun. This is true despite your occupation or the musical genre you play. Enjoying what you do sells it.
As Tom claims, over the years he has spent a lot of time on the content and can naturally deliver from the stage. He does so without fear and while having fun with his artists.
Great brands are confident. As my formal, documented research has shown, there is a direct, inverse correlation between our stress and our self-confidence. As our stress naturally increases, our self-confidence will decrease proportionally. This is true even for the most self-confident person. Enjoying what you do sells it. As Tom and I realize, every one of us could have high self-confidence.
While I believe the stress trigger is critical to confidence development, Tom says confidence comes from preparation. He says that then, and only then, can authority manifest. In other words, once you have confidence, you get to be the authority by being humble and accepting the role you have been called to do.
Great brands take responsibility. Tom always asks his lead singers: “what role are you called to do and will you accept that responsibility?” If they won’t accept the responsibility, Tom claims that’s false humility, which is accompanied with false authority to affect an audience.
Tom and I believe we are each here to fulfill the role we’ve been called to do. As Tom puts it, it’s not enough to “let your music speak for itself” and not learn verbal and stage skills. That’s a mistake.
This notion transcends music.
Each of us must take responsibility for the good, the bad and the ugly. I always tell my clients that if you are signing up for something, it is your responsibility to make a difference for your audience and teach them something. You can be grateful for the audience/opportunity, but now what do you do to make their life better?
Every one of us is capable of having a great brand and resonating emotionally well with our respective audiences. There are certain attributes all great brands share and Tom Jackson is a perfect example of them all. This doesn’t apply to just artists and musicians, but everyone. As Tom Jackson shows, it takes intentional devotion and drive.
 The Impact of Stress And Self-Confidence On Your Brand, Katy Goshtasbi, JD. Updated April 2017.