The former musician and current booker/producer explains how always saying "yes" has kept his career on the ascent.
Whether it’s helping U2 plant a choir in a live studio audience, casting Beck in a surreal day job fantasy, or framing Pusha T amid a stark series of optical illusions, Mac Burrus is one of the key players when it comes to making music happen for Jimmy Kimmel Live! Being a television producer wasn’t his initial plan, but six years in an outside-the-box band called Self unexpectedly prepared him for the role. Once you’ve made an entire album using toy instruments (see 2000’s Gizmodgery), helping a TV show keep its music gear in order doesn’t seem so tough.
Burrus’ JKL! journey began when he took a job as a backline technician in 2004, but his role has evolved a wee bit since. Today, he co-runs the music department, books the talent, and produces their performances with the help of a highly capable crew (“A band is only as good as its drummer,” he quips). We spoke to Burrus about what he looks for in musical guests, how the show has adapted to social distancing, and why it’s important to take every opportunity in this industry seriously.
Spotify for Artists: Describe what you do, and give us the short story of how you got there.
Mac Burrus: In 2000, the band I was in, Self, moved from Murfreesboro, Tennessee to Los Angeles to have more contact with our label, DreamWorks. That paid off with some film work, but around 2004, right before we were set to deliver our next album, Universal absorbed the label and Self was one of many projects that were dropped. By that time, I had enough audio experience to land as a backline tech with a company called CenterStaging, who happened to have an account with a new show called Jimmy Kimmel Live! As with most people who find work in the entertainment industry, that turned out to be the right place at the right time.
I didn’t intend to work in television, but I fell in quickly at the show and made myself as useful as possible—I hustled, always said “yes,” and did my best to learn everything I could about every department. I went from backline tech to full-time music coordinator to, now, producing segments and booking artists. Sixteen years in, I run the music department with the legendary Jim Pitt, who joined us three years ago after working on Conan and Saturday Night Live.
Is there an artist you were a fan of growing up, a story you heard, or an artist you crossed paths with at some point that sparked you to pursue this as a career?
Well, I didn’t pursue a job in TV until I was introduced to it firsthand. I watched a lot of MTV and late-night shows growing up. And my dad was a general sales manager for a TV station in Nashville, but I never thought TV would be a way for me to utilize my skills as a musician. Once I started working on set, I quickly realized I had been training for this job my entire life.
I will say, Self founder Matt Mahaffey is an inspiring person—he always knew when and how to get the best collaboration. The band eventually became a “best idea wins” project, which made it feel more collaborative. "Best idea wins" is something I still try to live by at Kimmel.
How has your job been affected, or evolved, in light of the coronavirus pandemic?
The show was pretty quick to adapt. It’s a lot more producing via phone and conference call, but mainly it was trying to come up with creative ways to shift from highly produced in-studio segments with endless possibilities, to performances filmed from people’s homes. It was also important that we try to set ourselves apart from what everyone else was doing—not only other shows, but anyone with an iPhone and an internet connection. Thus, “Jimmy Kimmel Live from the Lavatory” was born. Luckily, most bathrooms have good acoustics.
Beyond that, Grouplove was one of the first video-chat compilation performances. I asked the band to each film themselves playing their parts along to the original album track. That gave us an actual performance of instruments at the exact timings we needed to edit it together in post.
What do you look for in an artist you want to work with?
A good song. Growing up my dad played me a lot of his records and helped me realize that every album has at least one good song. So I’m always looking for that best foot forward and then asking myself, “What’s the best thing about this song, and what can I do to help translate that to TV?” Sometimes artists have just one chance to get viewers’ attention, and so I look for artists that have a clear vision of what they want to present. But if they don’t, I hope they trust I’ll do my best to help them get there. I realize a TV performance is a big deal, and I’m always here for them to try and make their appearance special, and representative of that artist.
What's the biggest tool at an artist's disposal in 2020 from your perspective, and why?
The smartphone. Which isn’t a new tool—I mean, I don’t wanna be the old man saying, “In my day we didn’t have shoes!” But, really, the world gets shut down and we are still producing broadcast-quality performances using iPhones. Sure, with artists filming themselves you don’t have control over angles and lighting so you have to get creative—for instance, if they film in 1080p, you can slowly push in on the footage in editing to give it some movement—but most of the time, the viewer doesn’t even realize that’s happening. Ultimately, the ability to go from phone to fan is why I think, still, in 2020, there really isn’t a much bigger tool at one’s disposal.
What's the best advice you have for any artist just starting out?
First of all, whether you’re starting out, finishing up, or anywhere in between, be nice. Every crew member at Jimmy Kimmel Live! is as supportive as they are talented, and that attitude comes from the top down. It’s inspiring and nurturing. Secondly, immerse yourself. Take any opportunity to explore your industry that crosses your path. Arriving at the right time still requires you to be in the right place. Finally, try to never say, “No,” “That’s impossible,” or, “There’s nothing I can do.” You’ll be shocked at how far you can get with a can-do attitude and, more importantly, by the things you can achieve that you never thought were possible.