Mike Daly Shares Pop Secrets with Berklee

by Lily Lyons

Photo by Lily Lyons

“We live in a business of grey,” Mike Daly mused moments before he dived into critiquing student songs with brutal, charismatic honesty. I felt his statement was more than a one-liner about the subjectiveness of the music industry: it was also a disclaimer for the pitch session that was about to happen. As the Executive Director of A&R for Disney Music Group, he obviously had the ear to judge our music, but he was more interested in showing us how we could grow to become lethal writers, producers, and artists.

As Daly scrolled through the submissions looking for the first song to play, all of us were amazingly quiet for a group of Berklee kids. Respect and ambition lay think in the air. Daly sensed our nervous anticipation, and cracked a couple jokes with the first student to pitch, lightening the atmosphere. He played through the first chorus, cautioning us that most A&R people would not listen to more than that. After thanking the songwriter for her work he launched into a thorough critique, encouraging her to use more lyrical and melodic variation as the song progressed.

“Writing a song is like seducing a listener,” he said, “you have to keep pulling them in, but not too much.”

Throughout the pitch session, Daly wavered between giving intensely practical suggestions and going on philosophical tangents about reaching excellence as a musician. He encouraged us to be adaptable, remembering the time when he learned to play steel guitar and keys on the fly so he could become a member of the band Whiskeytown. “Your answer is ‘yes,’ and then you figure it out as fast as you can,” he said, and the audience laughed softly. A few minutes later, he addressed a pitch with lackluster lyrics by musing on the songs currently topping the Billboard Hot 100. “It’s nothing but detail, these really tangible lines,” he said of the Chainsmokers and Halsey collab “Closer,” urging us to be colorful and search for new, fresh, and physical ways to say things in our own writing.

As the pitch drew to a close and everyone shouldered their backpacks to return to class, I felt invigorated by Daly’s frankness. He wasn’t wholeheartedly sold on any of the songs, though he did ask one student to email him for suggestions of DJs to shop a topline out to. But that wasn’t the point—we were there to learn, and he knew this was just the beginning of our struggle to become as good as the writers we admire. He pushed us to have a relentless work-ethic and be restless and deeply ambitious. As he said in the middle of the pitch session:

“If the music is great, everything else will follow, otherwise you’re just pushing a boulder up a hill…The gap between really good and great is big.”