By Zach Collier
Dee Kei Waddell and I go way back. We shared classes together at BYU while working through the Commercial Music program there. I played several memorable shows with Dee Kei’s pop/soul group Motion Coaster, and still gig with his old horn players today (since many of them have ended up in Roadie, a local favorite of mine). My band even tracked an EP at Cold House Studio back when Dee Kei was running it personally. I’ve always been struck by Dee Kei’s enthusiasm, his energy, and his no-nonsense attitude when it comes to business.
After running Cold House Studio and ReachProvo.com for several years here, he and his family moved to Los Angeles. “I’ve always been a dreamer and a natural-born hustler, so moving to LA was something that we decided we wanted to do pretty early,” he says. Neither he nor his wife are originally from Utah, so once school was over they were ready to go. “My wife and I decided that LA would be the best place for our family and my career in the music industry as the world’s entertainment capital and the closest airport to our hometowns in Japan.”
His career took off almost immediately upon arriving in LA. With the help of his business partner, Lu Moreno, he immediately started working with major label clients, was asked to become a member of The Recording Academy (the organization behind the Grammys), and opened his first commercial studio. This all happened within the first year. He’s still actively engaged in these efforts while also producing his Mixing Music Podcast.
“It’s funny to me how big the podcast has gotten over the last few years and I am extremely grateful that such a spontaneous project ended up becoming something so influential,” he says.
Cold House Studio was already seeing financial success in Provo when Dee Kei was here. Making the decision to start over someplace new wasn’t easy. “But I can wholeheartedly say that just being brave enough to move away from an already successful music studio in Provo changed the trajectory of my career in ways that I never thought possible.”
Still, studio management culture is very different in LA, and took some getting used to. “In Provo and in most other smaller music scenes, the studio owner is usually the head or lead engineer,” says Dee Kei. “For example, Dave Zimmerman owns and runs his own studio, Noisebox, and Scott Wiley owns and runs June Audio. This is not the case in LA. Our studio is one of the only studios in LA where the owners also know how to engineer. Usually, studio spaces are offered as rental spaces you can pay per hour or per day, and then the client would be responsible for either bringing their own engineer or hiring someone from the studio staff.”
Operating a studio this way makes it an extremely passive business. The cost of operating one in LA, however, is significantly higher than in Provo. In Utah, Dee Kei was paying roughly $1,000 a month for an entire building to himself with two large rooms and a smaller upstairs studio. In LA, he’s paying over $5,000 a month for two rooms and a small storage unit.
Despite this, he knows that the rewards far outweigh the risks. “I know that seems quite intimidating, but the size of the music industry and economy in LA is just not comparable to Utah. Not only are there significantly more people looking to book studio time, but they also often have proper funding or bigger budgets to accommodate for higher quality services. The number of opportunities out here as an engineer/producer is just unparalleled. If we account for opportunity cost, it is significantly more expensive to try to build a music career as an engineer or producer in Utah than it is in LA – even with substantially higher living costs.”
Case in point: since moving to LA, Dee Kei has worked with major artists like Kanye West, Trey Songz, Daphne Loves Derby, The Game, and more. All fantastic opportunities unavailable to most Utah artists.
Still, his favorite clients are local and independent artists who make music because they love it. “I love working with labels and celebrities, but I’d rather help play a bigger role in blowing up a smaller artist than work with someone already big,” he says. Many of those indie artists are still here in Utah. “I still work with many artists remotely. I genuinely love the music that comes out of Utah and I think the quality of the music that is coming out of the local Provo music scene is much higher than most people realize.”
I asked Dee Kei what Provo artists need to do to operate at a higher level. Like he mentioned before, opportunities aren’t as plentiful or lucrative here as they are in LA. Many in the industry struggle to make ends meet when first starting out.
“I have so much business advice to give to aspiring musicians and producers but I’ll try to condense it down,” says Dee Kei. His first suggestion was to focus on building a quality brand. “As an artist, that means to find your image, audience, and personality and then sell the sh*t out of it. If you want to make TikToks, do it. If you want to make a vlog, do it. If you want to make an album, DO IT! Most of the artists getting signed to major labels don’t just have good music, they also have infectious branding/personalities and are consistently making influential content with an engaged fanbase. Social media has democratized who gets attention and building a personal brand has never been easier in the history of modern man. Also, making content can cost you nothing.”
His second suggestion is to have clear goals. For recording and performing artists, he believes getting signed to a major label should be one of them. “It is unequivocally better to get signed to a MAJOR label than try to stay independent, but getting signed is only the first step to success,” he says. “Getting signed is just the first baby step to a whole career. Think of major labels like the investors on shark tank. They want to see the potential to profit from your music/brand in exchange for the risk they have to take on investing an otherwise unprofitable amount of money into you. You may end up with a smaller amount of the pie, but the slice of pie you will have will be much bigger than the whole independent pie.” He says major labels are a well-oiled machine, complete with experienced individuals who know what they’re doing. “Your money may be able to pay for a team of people who can help you with all the aspects of your business, but they won’t have the history or the experience the managers on the labels do.”
Dee Kei’s last advice is to make sure you’re constantly meeting people and forming new relationships at home and abroad. “Utah is a booming state right now and opportunities are increasing every day,” he says. “That being said, if you are serious about your music career, then the goal should be to grow beyond Utah’s borders. Becoming the biggest in Utah alone is not a worthwhile goal that makes any sense. You must think about scale. I understand that moving may not be feasible, and that is okay. If you don’t move to LA, then I would make it a regular habit to visit some people you may already know in the industry and try to make more connections and do some work out here. If you take the effort and invest your time/money into meeting more people in music cities, those relationships may blossom into something life-changing.”
At the end of the day, though, Dee Kei wants everyone not to lose sight of why they do music. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with goals and budgets, but music is meant to be cathartic. “Just have fun with it,” he says. “If you keep working at it, success is inevitable. Don’t over-stress about doing music full time. Don’t stress about making money from music. Just enjoy the process and you will find yourself being grateful for the opportunity to make art.”
Dee Kei is emphatic about music not being a top priority 100% of the time, even if you love it. “It definitely isn’t for me. My family is my top priority. The fact that I have been able to sustainably and consistently build my career for many years is why I have become relatively successful. Prioritize music or don’t. It’s up to you. Whatever you decide, just don’t regret it.”
Make sure to follow Dee Kei on Instagram. You can listen to an episode of the Mixing Music Podcast below.