> Spirituality > Spiritual Odysseys

Leaving Lady Gaga

May 23, 2013 | by Elan Cohen

While searching for the next big thing, I found myself.

At age 19, I let the biggest music industry deal of the past decade slip through my hands.

And it was the best thing to ever happen to me.

When I began at NYU’s Music Technology program in 2005, I had two goals: to become the president of one of the four major record labels and one of the top music producers in the world. College doesn’t exactly provide a path to massive success in the entertainment industry, so on top of my heavy course load I worked day and night to groom my creative and business skills. There was a long way to becoming a “hit maker,” but by 19 I was already quite good.

In my sophomore year, I landed a rare internship at Atlantic Records, one of the biggest record labels in the world. The road to an executive seat at a major label goes like this: find a hit singer, record a top-notch album, sell millions of copies, and repeat. Though I was the youngest person at the company, that was my goal.

I scoured independent music sites, scouted local music clubs, and rummaged through endless stacks of demos that were collecting dust in our office. Nearly all of the hundreds or thousands of musicians I listened to were uninspiring. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack, but I was determined to find it.

As I searched through these mountains of music, I remembered a singer named Stefani who my roommate had introduced me to. Before I joined Atlantic Records, I spoke with Stefani about reproducing one of her songs called “No Floods.” It needed a lot of work, but I saw that she had tremendous star potential. After three long days of remixing her song in my dorm-room studio, I excitedly called her to discuss working together, but she never returned my calls. My ego was shattered.

A few months ago I was a nobody who couldn’t even get his calls returned. Now I was on the VIP list.

Months later, after I began working at Atlantic Records, I decided that I wanted to pitch Stefani to the company. Even though I was upset that she ignored me beforehand, I swallowed my pride and reached out to her manager, Bob Leone, who responded enthusiastically and invited me to see her perform at a songwriter’s showcase.

It was March 23, 2006 at The Cutting Room in Manhattan. Bob eagerly greeted me and introduced me to Stefani as “Elan from Atlantic Records.” I liked the sound of that. A few months ago I was a nobody who couldn’t even get his calls returned. Now I was on the VIP list.

Stefani debuted a new song called “Hollywood.” It was an improvement on her previous material, but there was still a lot of work to do, so I decided to wait before mentioning anything to the senior executives at Atlantic. The truth is that I was afraid to take the risk. I cringed at the thought of putting myself on the line and getting rejected. It was a bit of a theme in my life at the time. I had big dreams, but was always afraid to take the jump.

Soon afterwards, Bob gave me great news. Rob Fusari, a famous producer, was recording new demo recordings for Stefani. As soon as they finished, I would make sure we were the first company to have her in our office.

In the meantime, I was taking a whopping eight classes that semester at NYU and spending all my free time at Atlantic Records. I had no time for anything but my career and I was getting seriously burnt out. That single-minded focus was causing me to neglect all the other important areas of my life, and I felt like something was really missing. It was a classic mid-life crisis story. The only difference was that I was still a teenager.

I began a self-improvement book binge, hoping I could read myself back into balance. But it didn’t work. My life was seriously unbalanced. But this was my dream, wasn’t it? I couldn’t imagine slowing down when everything seemed within reach. So I kept pushing.

Journey to the Holy Land

As the spring rolled into summer, I had a much-needed vacation: a trip to Israel on Birthright. The trip was amazing. I fell in love with the land. I hung on every word of the rabbis’ wisdom. I felt close to my Jewish heritage. For those 10 days, I felt like a better version of myself.

When I was hosted by different families, I saw a profound degree of love and respect, not only between husband and wife, but also between children and parents.

One evening I was sitting with a rabbi at his house, and one of the kids came out of his bedroom upset about a fight he had with his sibling. The rabbi whispered something to his son and the boy immediately broke out in a big smile, happily marching back to his room. A few minutes later one of the other kids was also upset, and the rabbi did the same thing.

I was so amazed. I asked him, "How did you do that?"

He pointed to his wall filled with hundreds of Jewish books and said, "There’s a few things about parenting in there.”

In Israel I finally had a chance to slow down and reflect on life. I was on the road to everything I wanted but I wasn’t satisfied. So I decided to take a risk, which was uncommon for me at the time. I emailed my bosses and told them I was staying in Israel for another two weeks.

I’d keep pushing harder until I got everything I wanted, only to find out it wasn’t enough.

When I returned to New York, the next step was crazy: I decided to leave Atlantic Records. I had a dream job with a major record label and was about to pitch what might have been the deal of a lifetime. I could have easily stayed at the company for another few weeks, pitched Stefani and waited to see if it worked out. But I knew that if I didn’t leave then, I would just keep pushing harder and harder until I got everything I thought I wanted, only to find out that it wasn’t enough.

I scheduled a meeting with my boss. I told her there were parts of my life besides my career that were also part of my “dream” and I wanted to dedicate more time to them. I wanted to have a deeply meaningful life. I didn’t know how to get it, but I knew I wanted it. My boss understood and let me off easily. No two weeks notice necessary. No finishing up projects. At the end of that meeting, it was all over.

One Step Back

As I finished my junior year, three of the four artists I wanted to pitch to Atlantic Records were offered major record deals. I did find a needle in the haystack... a few of them. Stefani signed to Island Records and I waited to see if anything would come of it.

In the meantime, I became more involved in the Jewish community on campus by attending Shabbos meals and studying Torah. I had no interest in religion whatsoever but I had a thirst for growth. These seemingly antiquated rabbis were so consistently deep, wise and filled with joy. I knew there must be something behind it all.

When I met different Jews connected to Torah, it struck me how well they seemed to understand the complexities of life. I often felt that my decisions were like rolling the dice and I was second-guessing myself all the time. But these people seemed to have the clarity to build the most important areas of life – relationships, personal growth, family, spiritual growth, etc. They had a framework for moving forward with confidence and empowering each person to discover their own path to greatness.

I wondered why no one ever told me about this Jewish treasure house before. I wanted to go to the source to find out more. I found out that the best place to learn Jewish wisdom is a yeshiva, and the finest ones were in Jerusalem. A few of my friends had gone and had an amazing experience.

I scored internships in Los Angeles with three of the top music producers in the world.

But I got distracted with an offer I couldn’t refuse. I scored internships in Los Angeles with three of the top music producers in the world, spending six weeks observing recording sessions with celebrities like Christina Aguilera, Hoobastank and New Kids on the Block. I was being mentored by the best of the best. My bosses produced artists such as Chris Daughtry, Kelly Clarkson, Bon Jovi, P. Diddy, Fall Out Boy, OneRepublic, Adele, Katy Perry, Aerosmith, Elton John, Colbie Callait, Pink, Celine Dion and many more chart-toppers.

One of the producers offered me a full-time job as an assistant, which was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe him produce some of the most famous albums of the era. Yet it would have torn me away from the friends, family and growth I cared about so much in New York. So I turned it down.

In the fall of 2008, I went back to New York to start my career from scratch. I started an independent record label and eventually had to subsidize my entrepreneurial dreams with a salaried job. I was working with my father in real estate from nine-to-five and for myself from six-to-midnight. I used my extra money to build a home studio and the first song I produced and co-wrote was licensed by Warner Brothers Television and Red Bull.

Between all of this I was meeting my local rabbis to study Torah. I looked forward to it more than any other part of my week. I was also observing Shabbos, which rounded out my busy schedule with a full day dedicated to reflection and spiritual growth.

It would have been a lot easier to glide toward success at a corporate label or with a big producer in LA, but I was happy with this path.

Then something shocking happened. Stefani put out a new album and her music hit the radio. Then something even more shocking happened. She hit number one on radio. I was sorting papers nine-to-five and prying my eyes open in my makeshift studio at night, and the artist I wanted to pitch to Atlantic Records was all over the radio.

Then Stefani Germanotta became the biggest pop star in the world. They called her Lady Gaga. She was making millions of dollars and I was making near-minimum wage. What did I do?!

Taking a Leap

The months passed. The winter came and it was time to see if I learned my lesson. Could I finally take a risk for something I really believed in?

It was over a year after graduation and I still didn’t have the guts to go to Jerusalem. I had big existential questions and was craving intense growth, but I was afraid of all the unknowns. What would my friends and family say? Was I going to make major changes in my life? Was I going to feel homesick thousands of miles away? What if I hated this new experience?

I kept delaying. It was the same mistake again: I believed in something and was afraid to take a risk.

At the time, I was regularly attending Jewish spirituality seminars. I was inspired with each new program, but as soon as I left the inspiration waned. Eventually I realized that I was relying on someone else – something external – to inspire me. It was not self-generating, and I was operating on borrowed power.

I no longer wanted to be a spectator. The only way to have an extraordinary life is by taking extraordinary action. When the Jews left Egypt, the Red Sea didn’t split until one man, Nachshon, decisively entered the water.

So I took the leap. I arrived in Israel on December 31, 2009, to go to yeshiva for however long it took to find what I was looking for.

The Deal of a Lifetime

Fast forward six months. I was sitting in my yeshiva dorm room, speaking with my mother on the phone. She told me that Lady Gaga made $50 million that year.

I was totally shocked. Not by what my mom said, but by what I said:

“Mom, I feel like I made $100 million.”

There I was, in my tiny dorm room, crowded with four other guys. I had a top bunk, and since our ceiling was arched, when the heat turned on I felt like I was being baked in a convection oven. I was woken up almost every night by the sound of my roommates closing our loud door. To make matters worse, my tall roommate on the bottom bunk sometimes got up in the morning so quickly that he would bang his head on my bunk and wake me with a jolt.

On top of it all, I ruined a golden opportunity to catapult myself to the top of the music industry. I lost everything I wanted.

And what did I have to show for it?

Everything I really wanted.

Bringing in Shabbos with song and prayer every Friday night in Jerusalem was far more moving than any hit song I ever heard. The symphony of wisdom from my humble teachers took me higher than any concert with 20,000 screaming fans. Best of all, this song didn’t end when the curtains went down. Every day adds another building block to the most significant production I’ll ever make: a life saturated with meaning.

Music transforms a simple experience into something that seems to matter a whole lot more. The only problem is that the song stops. Money, fame, beauty, and power are all the same. They temporarily bring new color to our lives and then lose their luster.

I learned that true success is not about collecting a bunch of possessions, prestigious achievements, or exciting life experiences. It’s about collecting the pieces of who you really are, and trying with all your might to put them together.

For three years, I stood at the feet of giants in Jerusalem, who shared with me the secrets of joy, wisdom, and walking with purpose.

I definitely got the deal of a lifetime.


Leave a Reply

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram