When the pandemic hit, Brandon Blackwell was exploring options for a new touring opportunity, but after work in the touring industry came to a screeching halt, he found himself at a crossroads. The situation presented a unique set of challenges, but he also saw opportunities for creative, personal, and professional growth and was determined to use the enforced downtime constructively.
That led Blackwell and his wife, Ariel, to create the Mom’s Choice Award-winning children’s book “The Beat In My Head” to chronicle Blackwell’s first steps on his lifelong journey in audio. The aim, Blackwell says, was “to demonstrate to young individuals who have a passion for music that there are various paths available to them beyond becoming a musician or artist. We wanted to inspire them to consider careers in audio engineering.”
Beyond that, the book challenges what Blackwell describes as the “common misconceptions surrounding misunderstood children,” the inclination of some parents and educators to resort immediately to medication as opposed to “a more thoughtful and empathetic approach to understanding and nurturing all children’s potential,” in particular those “who may have unique perspectives and talents that don’t conform to traditional norms.”
Getting From Here To There
Based in Los Angeles, Blackwell has carved out an enviable career as a freelance concert audio engineer, and since graduating from Full Sail University in 2013, has mixed concerts and festivals for some of today’s biggest artists, including mixing front of house for Alicia Keys, Steve Lacy, Kendrick Lamar, Baby Keem, Big Sean, and Lizzo, monitors for the likes of Drake, Camila Cabello, TLC, Tori Kelly, NeYo, and the 2014 Super Bowl Gospel Celebration. Blackwell was also featured in Rolling Stone magazine, Live Design magazine’s “30 Under 30,” and, in 2023, he was inducted into Full Sail University’s Hall of Fame.
Growing up in South Orange, NJ, however, Blackwell didn’t even realize audio engineering was a career option, let alone one he could pursue. What he did know was that he was fascinated by music and sound.
During his childhood, he showed little interest in conventional subjects. “I often found myself lost in creating beats and rhythms, even tapping them out on my desk. These seemingly distracting activities were met with disapproval from teachers and peers, leading me to question if something was actually wrong with me.”
Over time, however, he came to understand he just loved music. For a shy and misunderstood child, music was a welcome refuge “where I felt understood and embraced. That deep-seated love for music provided solace during times of uncertainty or self-doubt and a feeling of belonging and acceptance.”
One of his earliest musical memories underpinned that feeling: a family reunion where he recalls multiple generations listening to funk and dancing “as if no one was watching.” Irresistibly drawn to the groove, he was struck by music’s power to unite people. “The sight of my family members snapping their fingers and clapping their hands in rhythm from their seats, spoke volumes. Music was a universal language that ignited joy and created a shared experience, connecting us in ways that words alone could never accomplish.”
That really hit home for him when he attended a Sade concert as a youth, saw the person mixing, asked what they were doing, and, upon being told, he says, “That was that.” Soon, he began to develop his passion for live sound by mixing for his local church in New Jersey.
“The realization that audio engineering was a tangible pursuit changed the trajectory of my life,” he notes. “Discovering this field was like uncovering a treasure chest of opportunity that resonated deeply with me. Suddenly, what had been perceived as distractions were now the very things that held the potential to define my career and purpose. This newfound clarity infused me with an unyielding drive to excel in audio engineering, particularly as a live concert engineer. The journey to pursue this path became the focal point of my aspirations, providing me with a direction and an unwavering commitment to turn my passion into a viable profession.”
Blackwell says that the journey from honing his skills in church mixing to freelancing was fueled by curiosity, mentorship, and personal conviction, which led to him immersing himself in the craft, mixing for various events and ultimately laying the foundation for his future work: “One of the pivotal moments came when the church decided to upgrade its equipment and brought in a new music director and integrator named Cedric Weary. As a mentor, Weary expanded my technical knowledge and helped me realize my passion for creating exceptional sonic experiences. That was a turning point and ignited my desire to pursue a career in audio engineering on a larger scale.”
After attending a community college music recording program, the next step was studying at Full Sail in Orlando, where he graduated in 2013 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Show Production and Touring.
Degree in hand, Blackwell moved back to New Jersey and began freelancing in and around New York City. During that time, he connected with another key mentor and friend, Lloyd Vaughn, who introduced him to freelancing and the NYC events scene. His time working with Vaughn helped him refine his skills, and build a network of contacts.
Throughout this period, he also had the chance to form a connection with the Ray Chew, who was then serving as the musical director for American Idol. The introduction was made possible through a connection between his mom and her boss.
“That opened doors I hadn’t previously imagined, exposing me to the world of celebrity events and high-profile productions,” Blackwell says. “Working with Ray and his wife Vivian’s company, Chew Entertainment, allowed me to step into roles such as production coordinator and manager and provided a unique perspective on event execution.”
During that time, he got a crash course in mixing monitors for high-profile artists like Patti Labelle, Chaka Khan, Usher, and Pharrell Williams, among others, and also in the inner workings of the music industry. Eventually, he decided to step out on his own, focusing on Blackwell Productions. His first client was Ne-Yo, where he served as the monitor engineer. That gig led to his first tour with TLC as monitor engineer and production manager as well as future mixing projects with Tori Kelly, Max Frost, ASAP Rocky, Ciara, Nicki Minaj, Camila Cabello, and, more recently, mixing FOH for Alicia Keys, Kendrick Lamar and Steve Lacy.
Though essential to his growth and fulfillment, giving up a stable gig for full-time freelancing and life as an entrepreneur wasn’t an easy choice, he admits. But focusing on Blackwell Productions marked a defining moment, setting the stage for the type of collaborations and opportunities he’d always dreamed of and allowing him to cultivate a successful career and empower others to help them gain a similar sense of purpose that had previously eluded him.
It was also a leap of faith influenced partially by his grandfather’s entrepreneurial spirit. “He owned an aeronautics company, Bob Gilbert Aeronautics, out of Wichita, Kansas.” The company was eventually sold to Boeing,” he continues, “But it was like, man, he really built something big. That’s where my CEO spirit came from. I like being my own boss, deciding where to live, and handpicking the projects I take on. I get some of my hustle and grind from him.”
For some, making a living in a field they love – a career of your passion – comes with a downside. After getting “a glimpse behind the curtain,” some people become jaded or get so caught up in the complexities, highs and/or lows of the business side of the industry that they find their passion diminished – at least at times. That’s not the slightest bit of an issue for Blackwell.
“Now, positioned on the other side of the curtain, I have the privilege of infusing the same sense of wonder and emotional connection that I once felt as a fan into the work I do for the artists and clients I collaborate with. I have the remarkable opportunity to translate the essence of a recorded piece into the living, breathing world of a live performance. In essence, I’m part of the conduit that bridges the artist’s creation to their fans’ hearts in a live setting.”
As a mixer, Blackwell characterizes his approach as “centered on bringing the artist’s sonic vision to life, delivering an immersive and unforgettable auditory experience to their fans. I firmly believe that sound holds the utmost significance in any concert setting. My goal is to translate the essence of the artist’s work into a captivating and vibrant live performance.”
Regardless of the client or the size and nature of the gig, Blackwell says he approaches each project with dedication and commitment to excellence, with the artist’s music, emotions, and intentions foremost in mind in every decision he makes “to create a sonic atmosphere that… leaves a lasting impact with the audience.”
That’s the goal whether he’s mixing FOH or monitors, each of which, he says, demands a distinct set of skills and personality traits. Early on, he focused on monitors and cites his ability to deal with a diverse array of personalities and manage interpersonal dynamics to ensure artists felt comfortable and empowered on stage as crucial to the pivotal role a monitor engineer plays in an artist’s performance.
“Transitioning to FOH, I found that many of the skills and personality traits cultivated during my time as a monitor engineer seamlessly translated.” Among them are being empathetic as well as remaining calm and composed under pressure from audience expectations and the scrutiny of others, like management.
While he retains a sense of wonder for music and audio, the assessment that there was something wrong with him as a child and the uncertainty that resulted from that has driven Blackwell to focus on giving back in an effort to support others who find themselves in similar situations.
“Ariel and I are using ‘The Beat In My Head’ to engage with inner-city schools and young individuals. We aim to provide insight not only into the artist-facing aspect of our industry but also into the opportunities that lie behind the scenes and the diversity present within our field.”
That’s clear right off the top from the book’s dedication, which reads: “To young Black boys everywhere, keep your heads up high and believe in yourself. Greatness is within you.”
“That’s definitely one of my beliefs. Growing up, I didn’t have any family members in the industry, so I was paving the way and figuring it out as I went,” he explains, adding that early on, he saw few people who looked like him, at Full Sail and in the live production world. “So, it was always my purpose to show those around me – who were interested in the live production industry – that there are people who look like them out there. With that quote, I wanted those who are misrepresented, marginalized, and misunderstood to see someone out there doing something they may be interested in, and to hopefully provide them with insight into opportunities that they didn’t know were available to them.
“I firmly believe that giving back is a reciprocal endeavor,” he continues, “Helping someone else succeed, witnessing their progress, knowing my efforts contributed to their journey is profoundly fulfilling. It’s a constant source of motivation. Seeing others thrive energizes me, feeds my sense of purpose, and reinforces my belief that investing time and energy into uplifting others ultimately enriches my own life.”
“The Beat In My Head” has since provided more opportunities for Brandon and Ariel to do so, most recently in partnership with the Obama Foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance to welcome several young people from the foundation to a behind-the-scenes experience at the Alicia Keys’ “Keys To The Summer Tour” at Chicago’s United Center. “Our aim was to provide a first-hand look behind the scenes and offer them a glimpse of potential career paths in the entertainment industry. As part of the experience, we also gifted them an inspirational letter from Ariel and myself, a copy of the book, and a pair of Sennheiser HD25 headphones adorned with a custom design by our illustrator, Samuel Onche.”
It’s a collaboration that brought his journey full circle, he adds, one that aligned with his mission to inspire and uplift others and reinforced the belief that investing in young talents and aspiring minds is transformative for everyone involved. “That was the most rewarding aspect: witnessing the spark of curiosity and excitement light up in these young individuals’ eyes. It was reminiscent of my journey and aspirations – as if I was seeing a reflection of my younger self in them.”
Blackwell hopes his story will encourage more young people in similar situations to consider working in audio. And, although his book is intended for a young audience (kindergarten to second grade, kids four to seven years old), there’s a larger lesson here for music lovers everywhere – something reflected in his own life recently and changes he’s made: never stop improving.
While that’s important to his work, at the core, improvement starts on a personal level. That was something he took every opportunity to do during the pandemic – rediscovering the joy of his lifelong hobby of content creation via video games, and remaining informed and engaged in audio by taking advantage of educational resources manufacturers began offering to stay up-to-date on the latest industry developments and gear advancements.
Perhaps most importantly, beyond trying to keep busy and grow as an audio professional, Blackwell decided to prioritize his mental health and well-being, engaging in weekly therapy sessions, adopting a rigorous workout regimen, and shifting toward a plant-based, organic diet that helped him lose over one hundred pounds.
Like giving back, he found that investing time and energy in personal improvement paid dividends professionally. “My ability to do what I do got better. I was able to achieve a mix I was happy with faster. I also felt a renewed sense of purpose and connection to my craft. Even clients and colleagues noticed a positive shift. The entertainment industry is notorious for its all-encompassing demands, so prioritizing health was essential!”
He knows that the feeling of having his professional identity stripped away by the pandemic, and the sense of purposelessness he experienced was something so many others suffered from during Covid. It’s certainly not a situation he or anyone in our industry would like to find themselves in again. But for all the downsides, he believes the pandemic marked a turning point, not only in his own perspective but across the board – a willingness to have conversations about mental health, diversity, and equity that, hopefully, will result in positive change.
“I think the pandemic showed us that you have to think about yourself and your well-being. There’s a shift happening in our industry – and a new breed of industry professionals is leading that shift – to better mental health and better rights for everyone. We need to continue to create healthy work environments for all!”
For Blackwell, seeing the upside in challenges is a natural by-product of his experiences as a child and throughout his career and something that ties directly into the inspiration for and message of “The Beat In My Head.” Beyond that, he says, it provided him and his wife with a deeper understanding of the impacts storytelling and advocacy have “on shaping perceptions and nurturing positive change.”
Put bluntly, if there’s a silver lining, something to express gratitude for, even in times of overwhelming uncertainty, Blackwell is sure to find it. “That’s something I’ve learned from Ariel,” he says, “always try to see the positive in any situation. Even if it’s terrible, you’re going through it for a reason. I’m very big into my faith, and I believe that I’m being tested and going through trials so I can learn and gain wisdom. My trust in God provides me with the strength to face challenges, knowing that His plan for me is greater than any difficulty I may encounter. In moments of adversity, I find solace in the belief that there’s a divine purpose guiding me, and every experience, no matter how tough, is an opportunity for spiritual growth and understanding.”
He also believes that paying it forward, even in the smallest of ways, can have an outsized positive impact. “I’ll give you an example: the system engineer and PA techs on my previous tour; I know they’re up very early, and I’m coming into the arena much later. I say, ‘Good morning,’ ‘How are you?’ Don’t overlook people. Be nice. Show gratitude. Without the riggers, system engineer and PA techs, I don’t get a chance to do my job – so I give gratitude to everyone and grace to those who may not want to be nice or give gratitude to me. The world can be so heavy. But if you do good, good will come back to you.”