Redefining “Success” as a Musician: a Q&A with keyboardist Bennett Roth Newell

By Bodhi Godwin

BennetRoth

Photo by Bodhi Godwin

After prepping for one of the Riekes Center’s monthly recitals, I had the privilege of sitting down with Bennett Roth Newell, the Riekes Center Music and Creative Arts Director and one of my main mentors over the past two years. The topic was redefining success as a musician, as I felt that many musicians who make their living as musicians aren’t typically viewed as “successful.”

Q: Tell me about your background.

I started playing music at age five: I was learning piano, percussion, and how to sing. I went to Sonoma State University and studied music there on scholarship, and then went to San Jose State for graduate school, and got a Masters in jazz studies.

Q: Most people who don’t know a lot about the music industry tend to view being a successful musician as playing shows to large crowds. Do you think this is accurate?

Well, I had a realization in high school. A college professor at a school I was looking at asked me: “What’s [your] goal musically in life?” and I gave him a simple answer: “I want to be a fixture in the music industry.” Which meant…as a performer, teacher, recording/session musician, working in the industry with radio, television… I have found myself in all those. I’ve been on stages playing to big crowds, I’ve been in the studios working on my own albums or other folks’ records, I’ve been on the radio, I’ve been teaching for years.I’ve felt [I’ve] made good on being “a fixture.”

Q: Most people tend to overlook session musicians, even though they often play a huge roll in an artist’s sound. Would you call being a session musician a “success”?

Definitely. They’re just as vital to [a recording] as the artist [whose] name’s on the cover, right? Or the producer. Or the recording engineers…Because obviously they were thought of highly enough to get the gig and bang out the tunes. Especially if it’s exciting work for them, and if it’s lucrative enough, it’s fulfilling, and it leads to more opportunities.  

Q: What would you call success as a musician?

You don’t even need to be signed to a label theses days to be a successful performing/recording artist. You don’t have to have major sponsors to back a tour. Independent music is probably at its highest point that it’s ever been. Whether it’s staying relevant in a certain region, or trying to make those big steps to getting notoriety or fame in a state or in a country and in the world, there are multiple ways to go about doing it, and I can’t just say one route is the best or is the recommended route. The possibilities in this day and age with technology as the catalyst, can make success redefined at every turn.

Q: Do you have any warnings or advice for someone brand new to the music industry if they have no clue about anything?

You’ve got to be ready for sacrifices, and you have to put your love for music ahead of other things. I can almost guarantee there will be times of frustration or feeling devalued or unappreciated. But the songs and the love of your instrument can keep [you] going. A lot of people can get jaded in the music industry, and some feel like they should be validated maybe sooner than where their growth is. But you gotta prepare for those points of emotional fluctuation, and also be prepared to grab hold of the next thing and take chances. The tough thing in music is trying to play it safe. Doing that doesn’t unlock full potential. So take risks. If someone asks you to travel somewhere you’ve never been, just dive in. No matter what, if it’s the coffee shop gig or the recording session at midnight, or 8 a.m., those are just risks with it. But if the music is the first thing, the love of it, the passion, the feeling you get out of being an artist creating art, that’s the overriding feeling that you are in the right spot in what your life is calling.

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