A blog for musicians and music industry people. It is a free educational resource and it is also the way I advertise my music consulting services. I am an entertainment professional with deep roots in the music industry. Throughout my music career I have been a major label A&R representative, a music supervisor, an artist manager, a reality show producer, a bass player and the head of a digital record label.
You Are Viewing how to make it in the music industry
This interview was originally posted in June, 2013.
I am often interviewing people on MusicianCoaching.com, but it is very rare that someone asks to interview me. The following is Part 1 of an interview that a client and friend Ivan David Amaya conducted in order to support research for his dissertation on the topic of entrepreneurial careers in the music industry. Ivan is a musician and recently got his MBA at Ealing, Hammersmith & West London College, University of Wales.
In this part of the interview, we discussed how the climate of the music industry has changed in the Digital Age, particularly for aspiring and emerging artists. We also talked about how musicians can be more diligent about taking responsibility for the many aspects of managing their careers.
How has the music industry changed, especially for new acts coming to the market?
This is a very stock answer and one you probably realize yourself: Technology has made recording much cheaper, and it has made digital distribution completely inexpensive. There were only six major labels that you could go to previously, and there was a certain curating process that those labels went through and invested in. And that was really the only way to have a career of any kind.
What you find now is that people are able to put their music out for next to nothing, so a lot of people are doing just that and flooding the market. Therefore, the discovery process for your average consumer has become a real chore. We’re so inundated with music that it becomes hard to stand out – to the point where the words “Oh, hey I’m in a band” make people cringe.
15-20 years ago and even before that, if you had a record out, that really meant something. It meant you had found an investor (most likely a record label), passed through a taste-making process, gone on tour, etc. There used to be all these prerequisites you had to satisfy before you could put out music. Now, for relatively little money people can just press up a demo or a full album and put it out to the world.
Of course, the ease of putting out music has made being a developing act easier in some ways: You have a better shot at making a living. On the other hand, it makes what people classically thought of as “success” much more difficult. At one time, Michael Jackson was the ultimate pop star in great part because there were three major television stations and he was on two of them at any given time. I’m not saying someone won’t come around who is that talented. But the media is no longer set up in a way that you can possibly dominate all the airwaves. There are just too many different avenues. You have a million different television channels and complete awareness of any time an artist comes into your town, so it’s not like you missed it because you weren’t paying attention; there are email alerts, YouTube, social media and everything’s on demand.
On the other hand, it’s become possible for many more people to make a living. And we’re being constantly sold this idea that success looks a certain way. In my opinion, being a successful musician means making a living at playing music. I think people have it in their heads that it’s supposed to look a certain way, and you’re supposed to get a record deal, because they watch VH1 behind the Music. I wrote an article about this phenomenon called “Everything You Need to Forget about the Industry.” It’s about why a lot of people fail because they have a very dated and unrealistic viewpoint of what success is. Today, it’s easier to make a living, it’s harder to become an icon, and the challenges you face are much different. Building a viable business has become the artist’s and sometimes management’s responsibility.
Record companies aren’t what they used to be, and many artists do not have a record label’s budget or resources at their disposal. Therefore, it becomes harder for all of us to make money in the traditional way. Music supervisors and music placement provide one gateway (albeit a difficult one), but really the best avenue that artists have today are touring and merchandise. And if these artists become more widely known, what brings in the most revenue is endorsements. But the bread and butter of your average band or solo performer is going to be touring and merch, because a lot of people are just not the type of bands that get their music placed in commercials. And touring is not the same as it used to be either. It used to be just something else to do along with getting local press to write a story about you, but now both those things are much more challenging.
Now that musicians must be in charge of the different aspects of their career, how can they demonstrate greater entrepreneurship and take responsibility for their success?
I can speak a little bit about entrepreneurship in general. The most important thing artists can do, of course, is take responsibility, which a lot of them don’t. I hear the words “I just want to be the artist” all the time, and that just doesn’t fly in today’s climate.
If, as the owner of a marketing services business, I sat there and said, “Well, I just want to market my existing clients. I don’t want to chase new clients, and I don’t want to prepare my documents with my bookkeeper to do my taxes,” my business would fail. The same rules apply to those running the business of being musicians. Being an artist no different from running any other type of business, and people forget that.
Part of the reason people forget that being a musician is a real business is because music is so sexy. There are stories of people who spend their entire lives in banking who want to sleep with supermodels or something, so they invest in musicians to get closer to rock & roll. You might laugh, but there is always some guy out there who has done nothing but chase money his whole life, hits forty or fifty and thinks, “Maybe if I’m in the music business I’ll get a younger girlfriend or the respect of my peers or I will finally be cool.”
I think the first thing that musicians should do that many of them don’t is take an honest self-assessment. I also think everyone should start as a one-person company. There are a lot of people that run out and say, “I need a manager. I need an agent. I need a…” What people don’t understand is, when you’re starting from zero with one album, there’s no business; there’s nothing to manage and no reason for a nationwide tour. It seems that most artists think, Well, I recorded an album. I have spent all this money, and now I’m going to be big.” People don’t realize that there is a lot involved between making an album and establishing a real career.
The people who I’ve seen that are successful as both musicians and entrepreneurs are people who start off keeping their overheads very low. They don’t spend major label budgets (or the budgets major labels used to have) on recording. They really invest. They say, “You know what? I’m going to make sure I continue doing this over a long period of time.”
I’ve often watched artists spend $30,000 on their first album and max out all their credit cards. They go deep into debt, because they believe that they will be big, and will be able to recoup what they spent. I’m not saying this isn’t possible but the odds of recouping a $30,000 expenditure on a first album (especially without a touring base) are about the same as getting hit by lightning. I believe all musicians should start out trying to run everything themselves. I think it is best to start a career thinking, “I’m going to be the person that books my shows and handle all of the business aspects of my career so I at least know what this job is that I will eventually hire someone to do”. This might mean you have to learn how to do some of these things on the fly and by trial and error.
The more artists take on and the more honest they are with themselves about what their strengths and weaknesses are, the more valuable lessons they can learn from the process. I think people should look at their first album as series of learning experiences and not much else. If I were an artist just starting out, I might say, “You know what? I’m going to buy some basic recording equipment, because I am really interested in developing a set of skills. I’m going to try to record some demos and to book my own shows.” And after I do these things to the best of my ability, I might realize I am failing miserably at certain aspects.
I can actually point to my own marketing business as an example, because I have run it a lot like a musician’s business. I found myself trying to do my own taxes and really messed them up. I had to say, “I don’t have the money, but I have to find it so I can hire a bookkeeper and an accountant,” because I just couldn’t do it myself. And I noticed that I kept putting off sending out my newsletter. I started out saying, “I’m going to put it out twelve times a year.” And six months would go by without me sending one out. I realized I was never going to be able to do it myself, so I had to hire someone else.
I realize that not everybody has the funds or the flexibility to do exactly what I did. But musicians have to realize that somehow they have to find people to complement them. And sometimes this can be very simple and affordable. As an example, I mentioned earlier that there is a lot of sex appeal attached to the music industry. And there are music business students all over who just need a reason to speak to people in the music industry, or what I call “conversation currency.” They want to develop their skills as music business executives, so they pick up their projects just to meet people and get school credit. And if you are an artist, they would often be happy to help you out as part of their own development process. There are a lot people that you can find if you’re diligent who will support your efforts simply because they want to better their career. I tell people who want to work in the business side of the industry, whether they want to do A&R, be a publisher or work in some other capacity that they need to find the best band they can, manage them and try to get them opportunities.
Going back to the topic of entrepreneurship, what musicians often don’t realize is that it is much easier to get an existing company additional funding than it is to run around with a blueprint of a business and say, “This is going to be great.” You can have the best idea in the world and still not get funded unless you prove your concept to a potential investor. That’s just common sense. If you look at guys who invest in companies – venture capitalists or bankers – they’re going to go down to the balance sheets and say, “Okay, this company is making this much money and spending this much money to do so” Nothing predicts future success like existing success. For years, record companies would hear of an indie artist being spun on radio, call retail and say, “There’s an independent artist spinning in Los Angeles, and we were wondering if anybody was requesting their album”. Everyone wants to be a part of project that seems to be gathering momentum on its own.
Today the process of getting attention in the music industry is more complicated than it once was, but it still comes down to the same thing: As an artist, you have to use the biggest bullet point on your resume, work on that and then make it grow into the next big bullet point. So, you might have a friend of a friend that is a producer and willing to do a track on your album for a small amount of money. You’re not necessarily paying because you think the song is going to be so much better than the rest of the songs on the album; you’re paying because it makes it possible for you to attach to a name brand: “I worked with X producer.” Then, when you go to take another meeting with an executive and that person asks, “Why should I care?” you can say, “Because I have been working with this well-known producer.”
So, musicians need to become multi-skilled. Is only focusing on the music ever a good idea in today’s environment?
The music always has to come first because without great music everything else will fail but I’ve been seeing people spending a lot of time marketing inferior products. It is as if the thought process was, “I’m going to skimp on the artistic side so I can rush this out.” The artist will have only played five shows and suddenly feel a real need for a release as if there were legions of fans waiting for a new product. I don’t recommend that.
But once you have the music together (and the live show) then yes, you’ve got to give the business side a shot. It sounds so obvious but I get so many people coming to me as if the only way to make any headway in the business is with professional guidance. It is as if the concept of trial and error never occurred to them. I’m not suggesting that musicians have to do everything themselves forever, but I do recommend that they try everything so they at least know their strengths and weaknesses. This includes playing shows at a variety of venues, promoting their own shows, doing their own work on social media, working in the studio with different people etc. You have to act as if there is no help coming, because if you sit around waiting for help, you will likely be waiting for a very long time.
I know this is a bit of a tangent to your question but there is no shortcut for hard work. You can find a million people out there who will point to an overnight success story. But then you will look at the story more closely and see that it was not actually an overnight success. So, if somebody wrote songs for ten years and then one hit, that person did not just suddenly get lucky.
I think people like to believe it is possible to miraculously get “discovered” without putting in the work. There’s a popular cultural myth that tells aspiring artists, “You can be very lucky, and somebody is going to take you from obscurity to superstardom.” It tells them that success can happen without hard work. This mentality comes up again and again, and I battle against it daily because of what I do for a living. But even someone like Justin Bieber may have been lucky at the beginning, but then he put a lot of hard work behind it after the fact to stay at that level.
You’re saying you cannot avoid hard work and have to pay your dues.
Most artists do, yes. There are some musicians who don’t have to do as much as others. But when people hear that one success story that looks like it happened due to pure luck, they want to believe that it can happen to them, too. And maybe it can, but just think about the Boy Scout motto: “Luck favors the well prepared.” If you want to be lucky in the industry, you still need go out and make sure you are working hard and being seen. It’s the same thing if you want to be struck by lightning: Make sure you build a big metal wand and wave it around on a rainy day.
You can check out Ivan David Amaya’s music at the Opensight official website. And stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview, coming soon.
This is a re-post of an article first published in late 2012.
Don Passman is one of the top entertainment attorneys in the U.S. and author of the non-fiction best seller All You Need to Know about the Music Business. A graduate of the University of Texas and Harvard Law School, Don got his start in music when he picked up accordion, which led to other instruments including guitar and five-string banjo. After playing in bands throughout college and law school, he decided to officially move over to the business side. With over 20 years as a lawyer in the music industry, his clients include major entertainers, publishers, record companies, managers, producers and other music entrepreneurs. He was responsible for negotiating record-breaking “mega” deals for both Janet Jackson and R.E.M. and has worked with many other major artists. Don has lectured extensively on subjects related to the music industry at organizations and events including the UCLA Entertainment Law Symposium, Harvard Law School, the American Bar Association, the Los Angeles Copyright Society and many others. He is also the president of the Music Industry Division and is a Trustee of the Artists’ Rights Foundation as well as vice president for the Center for Early Education. He recently released the Eighth Edition of All You Need to Know about the Music Business.
I have been fortunate enough to interview many amazing people since starting this website over three years ago, but Donald Passman is someone I have looked up to and quoted for many years, and his book was the first book I read when I knew I wanted to get into the industry. I can now honestly say I have interviewed the man who wrote the book on the music business.
Thank you so much for taking some time to talk, Don. How did you find your way to the music industry?
I always loved music. I played accordion as my first instrument, which at the time, I thought was really cool. My stepfather was a disc jockey as well, so I was always around music and listening to it. In college, I played in a band and kept playing throughout law school. But eventually, based on my musical talent, I discovered that I wasn’t going to be able to make a living at it, so I moved over to the business side.
Yes. That’s a familiar story, a lot like mine. And of course, you’ve written a really great book about the music industry that has had many new editions over the years. Which sections have you found you needed to update the most with each re-write?
In the Eighth Edition, the biggest updates were around the digital area of the music business, which is just changing so rapidly and radically. Of course, Spotify is huge. Jimmy Iovine at Interscope is also going to be launching a new streaming service next year, because he’s just bought MOG. Rdio and Rhapsody have become quite important in recent months and years, and YouTube has certainly become very meaningful as well. And we’re starting to see locker services. I don’t know how big a business that will ultimately be, but it does involve legal rights. All these things need to be covered, and the law involved with them is changing as are the best practices.
I definitely want to get more into aspects of the digital world, but having been involved with music and entertainment law for so many years, which areas in the music business do you think are the most commonly misunderstood by artists and others? When I was trying to make it as a musician, it was publishing that always baffled me.
Musicians understandably don’t like dealing with the business side, for the most part. Some of them are really good at it, but most do not enjoy it. And that’s really why I wrote the book: There are a few key concepts that, if you understand them, can really help you understand how your money comes in and where it’s supposed to come from. And then you can more intelligently participate in the decisions in your life.
Can you give some solid examples of people who were really taken advantage of because they didn’t understand the business side?
I have a few hundred thousand of those examples. There are some that are very publicly known, like Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen. They were stuck in very unfavorable long-term agreements and ended up being engaged in very public battles about them.
I was also told that Van Halen actually didn’t have a lawyer during their biggest touring years. This allegedly cost them millions of dollars.
Speaking of dollars (albeit not Millions) I do a lot of work in product management and thus deal a lot with digital and online music issues. I’m seeing all these pennies trickle in for artists. A million views on YouTube nets you something like $15 in performance royalties and the advertising revenue on YouTube is slim. Are there any areas of digital music you would recommend artists look into now because they are potentially more lucrative than others?
When you’re an aspiring artist, your goal is not so much to rack up the dollars as it is to rack up a fan base. The whole key to success these days is being able to get a lot going on your own. In fact, a lot of successful artists now never hook up with an indie or a major label; they just do it completely on their own. That’s happening more and more.
But it still depends. On the other hand, if you want to be a world-renowned artist on the radio, promoted in every territory, that’s something no artist has been able to do yet without the help of a major label that has money, expertise and clout.
Certainly in the beginning, whether you’re going to do it entirely on your own or attach to a label, you have to build a fan base, a presence and an audience.
You have a number of name brand artists as clients. Could you point to anything that those people do differently from the average musician that is not as successful as they have been?
Yes. They definitely do things differently. And this is something I’ve been a student of, because I have been very fascinated by why some artists are huge and others aren’t. The funny thing is, it’s not about talent, because I’ve known some incredibly talented people that have had only moderate careers or no careers at all. The real keys to success are drive and determination. You need to be willing to walk through walls to get to where you need to go and not get discouraged. I think that is something really big they have all had in common.
I definitely didn’t know that when I was an A&R guy. I always went after talent. But you’re right. Looking back, I realize the artists that really made it were those that had pure belief in themselves and did not have a Plan B. They didn’t feel that anything other than being a musician was possible.
Exactly. And they also don’t care how many times they are told “No,” or how many obstacles are put in front of them; they just keep moving.
And how are you seeing the heritage artists stay alive now that the master bundle of rights are not as valuable as they once were? Where are their businesses headed?
Heritage artists are mostly making their money off touring. It’s very difficult if not impossible for them to get on the radio, because their audience is older and not that interested in new music. They will have some success with it, but not at the level they enjoyed in their heyday. They also make money off their catalogs, which still sell quite well and make some money for them as well.
Most musicians these days have to run their own businesses in order to get started in the industry, so the line between “executive” and “artist” has become blurred. What piece of advice would you give to somebody just starting out in the music business?
I think being in the music business is all about relationships. It’s a relatively small business, and I think you just have to get out and get visible. You have to meet people and go to events. You also have to look at the trends and see where you fit into them and what your deepest passions are. My experience is that people who follow their passions – and this is true for anything in life – are going to be more successful than those who are just doing something in order to make a living. Passion is really the most important quality. The real breakthroughs in life, whether in business or in art, come from those who are driven, passionate and feel they simply have to do what they are doing.
And that passion element is really interesting. I work in marketing, so I talk to people all the time about what really makes them unique. “Dude Releases Record” isn’t really press worthy. Of your most successful clients, would you say that most of them had interests and passions outside of music that they also pursued?
Some of them do and some of them don’t. A lot of them are just completely dedicated to their music career, even to the detriment of their family and personal life. But you get that in any business. If you read the Steve Jobs book, you’ll see that his family wasn’t his top priority. I don’t think that’s unique to the music business. Some people have a lot of interests, others are more focused on one thing.
You mentioned the digital landscape has experienced the biggest change of all the music industry areas in the past few years. Are there any other major changes about how to make it in the music industry that you outline in the Eighth Edition of All You Need to Know about the Music Business?
Digital has really experienced the greatest shift, though obviously, there are other elements that have shifted around. For example, a lot of the percentages have changed and the deals artists are getting have gotten a lot smaller. All those details are updated as well in the latest version of the book.
To learn more about Don Passman and the work he does in the music industry, visit the Don Passman website. Please also check out the Eighth Edition of his best-selling book, All You Need to Know about the Music Business.
This is a re-post of an interview first published in February, 2013.
I often talk about how frustrated I feel when people ask me “how to get to the next level,” but then have no idea what that “next level” is. Hopefully this conversation will help you start to think about what the “next level” means to you and your career.
Dave Rose is the president of Deep South Entertainment and the author of the book Everything I Know about the Music Business I Learned from My Cousin Rick: The Musician’s Guide to Success. He got his start as a touring and recording bass player. Founded in 1995, Deep South is an artist and business management firm, record label and concert production company based in Raleigh, North Carolina. Dave has been guiding and developing the careers of multi-platinum artists for over 20 years, including Grammy-winning and Billboard-charting greats such as Bruce Hornsby, Little Feat, Stryper, Marcy Playground, Five for Fighting, Sister Hazel and Butch Walker.
Dave talked to me about the evolution of Deep South, and what inspired him to write a guide for artists to help them navigate the music industry. He also shared some practical advice for bands about how to build a loyal fan base and a successful career that balances carefully-crafted business and marketing strategies with creating great music, both live and in the studio.
I appreciate you taking the time to talk, Dave. How did you get into the music business?
I got into the business in 1995 with a dear friend of mine, my business partner of 20 years, Andy Martin. We started Deep South Records. The original idea was to put out compilation CDs, and the popular business model at the time was for bands to pay money to be on compilation CDs with the promise and hope that it would get played for bigwigs.
I remember that. And actually, a lot of people got signed off those compilations.
That’s true. But we ended up taking a different approach. We decided not to have bands pay anything and just pick music we like. We had some good success with the first one, which had Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy” on it.
Over the course of the first three CDs we put out in two years, 17 of the 60 bands got major label deals. I feel like we got more listens from the industry primarily because we got the word out that this music was handpicked, and thus nobody could write a check big enough to make us put them on there if their music wasn’t up to par.
Then, two of those bands, as they got record deals, were looking for managers. They came back to us and said, “You got us this far; would you consider managing us?” We said we would, and it kick started us opening the management side of our company. Over the years, we’ve handled Bruce Hornsby, Little Feet, the ‘80s Christian metal band Stryper, Marcy Playground and many others. I actually still work with Stryper as their business manager.
So, you basically segued into a management company, also handling business management for some artists.
Yes. We split our time between artist management and business management. Truthfully, as managers, our strength is really the financial side, making sure tours are profitable and that business affairs are intact. That’s why we end up working with a lot of career artists who really need to be on solid ground over a long period of time.
And five years ago, I opened a live music venue in North Carolina as well. We own and operate a small live music venue very similar to Arlene’s Grocery called Deep South, The Bar.
And why did you decide to write Everything I Know about the Music Business I Learned from My Cousin Rick?
From the day we put out the first compilation, I’ve always liked helping bands, much in the same way you enjoy it. I like helping artists navigate the strange marriage of art and commerce. We’ve both seen the industry progress over the past 20 years, and artists have really needed to discover alternative forms of income to make their living in the changing industry.
I had a couple artists I was working with that wanted to release small books or collections of small pieces of writing to Kindle to provide an additional stream of revenue and also to have another creative outlet. As a manager, I really didn’t know how to navigate the world of Amazon and Kindle on the book side of things. So, I decided to write little pieces about the process of figuring out the self-publishing world. One thing turned into another, and I finally got some people involved and decided to turn it into a big book.
It’s really not a big book. It’s 170 pages with probably not a single four-syllable word in it, very geared towards musicians.
Given all our attention spans, that’s a great length.
It is. And it’s split up in a way where you can really just open the book to any point, start reading, spend three minutes and get a short lesson about something you can do that day that will improve your career.
Can you share a common thread that runs through the book, or some basic concepts it outlines that a lot of artists might not understand as they are building their careers?
I’ll start you with who my cousin Rick is. He was my older and cooler cousin. He had long hair, knew all the hot girls and was the coolest guy I knew. He played me my first rock album, Boston in 1977. The theme of the book is that great music tends to find a way to be heard. If you make great music first and foremost, you will start to see a lot of the pieces to the puzzle fall into place. My book teaches you how to gauge whether or not you’re making strides forward in your career. Are people telling other people about your music? If they’re not, the book tells you some of the things you can do to change that as you move along, before it’s too late.
A very regular phone call I get is from bands that say, “We’ve incorporated our band. We’ve trademarked the name. We’ve set up an operating agreement and have opened a checking account. We have all the paperwork in place. What should we do next?”
And I’ll say, “Send me some music.”
They’ll respond, “Well, we’re not there yet. We haven’t started writing or recording, but when we do, we’ll send it.”
This book teaches you how to not put the cart before the horse and how to constantly remind yourself what is important. I know so many musicians that can tell me the ins and outs of a publishing deal, because they’ve read every textbook-style music industry book out there. But what they can’t tell you is whether or not they are progressing musically, or whether their fan base is increasing.
There are so many numbers out there for musicians. Ever since MySpace started, the idea has been that a musician’s self-worth is based on number of views, friends, tweets and re-tweets. What is your gauge? What should numbers look like if things are going well for a band after a year, 20 gigs, etc.?
I think the greatest barometer is your live show. I love to use the example of Butch Walker. I saw Butch play to about 12 people in my hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina in the mid-90s. He put on his signature Butch Walker-style show: Volume at 11 and giving 110 percent the whole time. After the show, he stayed in touch with those 12 people and told them when he was coming back. But those people were so passionate about what they had seen, that when he came back to Raleigh about four months later, he played to about 40-50 people. And the third time he played this market, he sold out a small room of about 150 people.
The live show is a perfect barometer. Keep track of your live show attendance. Are your numbers increasing or decreasing? If they’re decreasing, it’s a hard pill to swallow, but there is generally something wrong. People are clearly not passionately talking about your music to other people.
I think a lot of people are playing a handful of gigs to warm up with the understanding that they need to play live in order to get tighter and hone the performing craft. I don’t know when a band or an artist should realize, “I’m not going to get so much dramatically better that I will need to reevaluate my product” and stop that process.
Well, and I think the Butch Walker example is a really good one, because he had done his 10,000 hours prior to playing to 12 people in Raleigh. He had done over five years of being on a major label and touring nonstop. There are absolutely reasons to play live and do your thing beyond increasing your fan base. You need to try out new songs, get the band tighter and get yourself better as a musician. Just because your crowds aren’t improving immediately doesn’t mean you need to start completely over.
I’m not a guy who has played thousands of shows, but I’ve certainly played hundreds. And as someone who has played hundreds, my recollection is that the shows I learned the most from were the ones where I was playing to nobody.
Exactly. You get so much better because of those shows. And ideally, if you have done many, many hours of touring, playing and writing and are only playing to the bartender and the soundman, ideally you want to play the kind of show that the bartender and the soundman will talk about the next day when they are living their lives, at the coffee shops, telling people what’s going on in town. You want them to say, “I saw this show last night that was incredible. No one was there, but next time they come through town, you have to check this out. I’ll give you a call.” If you can create that reaction in even one or two people, you’re headed in the right direction.
It’s interesting that you are stressing artists’ offline efforts, because most people are so focused on online marketing right now. Are there other barometers artists should use online? I think people are so hell-bent on conquering social media that they have in many ways lost the plot.
I think you’re right. And there are definitely online barometers. There’s a chapter in my book called, “Social Media: It’s All about Pizza.” I was having a conversation with a 30-something musician who came into my office very distraught over his inability to conquer social media. The misconception is that because it’s free, it’s also easy. I looked at his tweets and Facebook postings, and they were all making the classic mistakes musicians make who are not good at social media. For example, “Hey Guys, I have a show tonight. Come out and see me at 7.” And then you don’t hear from the artist until he has another show or product release.
And this artist told me that he would post all this stuff on Facebook and nobody would re-tweet, comment or talk about it. He felt like everything he said was falling on deaf ears. And I told him, “Make a post about pizza. Everybody likes pizza. Ask your fan base where their favorite place to get pizza is and see what kind of response you get.”
That day, he posted: “Where is your favorite pizza joint, anywhere in the nation?” It was unbelievable the reaction he got. The point is, when musicians are missing the plot, it’s because they don’t realize you have to engage your audience. You can’t just provide information.
What did the pizza conversation lead to?
It led to a conversation, but it also led to a transformation in the way that the artist approached things. Instead of saying, “I have a gig Friday night at 7:00, and you should come out to see me,” he started saying things like, “Is anybody going to see the new Will Ferrell movie Friday? I hear it’s going to be big. I can’t make it because I have a show at Joe’s Pub at 7 p.m. Stop by after the movie if you’re around, but don’t tell me how it ends, because I want to go see it Sunday.” He started having conversations with his fan base rather than just feeding them information.
If you’re an artist, you need to make what you post on social media about the reader and not yourself. Facebook and Twitter are the new flyering. We used to go out as kids and flyer our shows. This is that. In the days of flyering, if you just walked up to someone and gave them a flyer as they were passing you on the street, you might as well ask that person, “Would you mind throwing this away for me?” Instead, if you actually got to know them through a two minute conversation, then handed them a flyer, they would be 10,000 times more likely to come see you.
I think on social media, broadcasting something is much more offensive than handing someone a flyer; broadcasting information via the Internet is like running at someone with a flyer and punching them in the chest with it.
That’s a perfect analogy.
So, musicians regularly make mistakes with their live shows and fan engagement. Is there a third mistake they frequently make?
Yes. The third is actually the first. I think the biggest mistake musicians make is that they don’t clearly define what their idea of success is. In the book, there’s a great transcription of a word-for-word conversation I had with a band that came to meet with me. In a nutshell, they came in, and I asked, “What do you want to do?”
They said, “We want to be successful. Do you know what I mean?”
And I said, “No, I actually don’t know what you mean.”
They said, “We just want to make a living playing music.”
And I said, “Well, that’s easy. Here’s what you’re going to do: Buy some nice tuxedos and suits, learn some Top 40 and wedding songs, and I’ll get you out playing the wedding and corporate circuit. We can have you up and running in 30 days.”
They looked disappointedly at one another, and they said, “No. That’s not what we want to do. We want to make a living playing the music we write.”
So, I said, “Well, that’s not as easy. But you can do it. There are some sports bars and menu venues where you set up and play acoustically over in the corner. You don’t get rich playing those, but you can definitely make a living.”
And again, they ducked their heads down and said it wasn’t what they wanted to do. They thought for a few seconds, then came back and said, “We want to be on the radio.”
So, I said I could have them on the radio by the afternoon. I told them, “There are thousands of Internet radio stations. All you have to do is upload your song. Very few people listen to the smaller ones, but you will get played by one of them by this afternoon and will have been successful.”
This conversation went on and on as they refined what they wanted. Finally, one of them pointed at me and said, “I see what you’re doing, Dave. You’re trying to confuse us.” I told them it was quite the contrary, because they were already confused. They wanted me to help them when they hadn’t even defined what they wanted to do.
And that is the biggest mistake. It’s amazing how many bands just float, never having a conversation about their definition of success and where they want to be. Once you define exactly where you want to be, it’s amazing how different that idea of success is from band to band. And it should be that different. For some, it’s playing successful weekend gigs and doing it as a wonderful hobby. For others, it’s having millions of fans and becoming the next U2. Regardless of what your definition is, you have to start making lists about how to get there: short-term lists; long-term lists. I go through examples of what some of those lists can and should be in the book.
I wrote a blog post recently called “Everything You Need to Forget about the Music Industry.” One of the things that drives me crazy is when people say, “We just want to get to the next level.” It makes me so mad, because I know 99% of the time, those people don’t know what “the next level” means.
No, because they’ve never defined it for themselves. A lot of what Everything I Know about the Music Business I Learned from My Cousin Rick does is get bands talking. It’s encouraging to see the hundreds of emails I’ve received from bands that say, “Because of your book, I called a band meeting for next week. We are outlining exactly what it is we need to do so we can figure out how to get there.”
You’re so right that artists don’t know what the “next level” is. The biggest underlying advice of my book is to regularly check yourself with your definition of success and figure out if the things you are doing are guiding you in that direction.
Do you have any parting words of advice for artists?
First and foremost, realize what you want to do. I promise you that you’ll never get there if you don’t know where you’re going. Even some nationally-known acts find themselves frustrated and disappointed 20 years into their career, and I have a feeling it is because they never sat down and defined what they wanted to do. You really need to define a plan and update it almost weekly. I actually encourage artists to write down their plan and then hang it in a visible place, like in their practice room, etc., so they can regularly remind themselves of it.
To learn more about Dave Rose, his book and the work he does with artists, visit the Everything I Know about the Music Business I Learned from My Cousin Rick website.
In celebration of the end of another year, I wanted to highlight some of the notable articles and interviews featured on Musician Coaching site in 2013. I chose the “Best of” listed below not only because they were some of the most shared on social media sites and the Web in general, but also because they touched on some of the most important issues I feel artists and others making their way in the music business should be focusing on as they build their careers.
In January, I talked to independent marketing and management executive Marty Maidenberg. With 25 years of experience in the industry, he started out at PolyGram Records as a publicist, then working his way up to a position as Senior Vice President of Marketing and Creative Services. He was Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing at Epic Records/Sony Music, co-founded #1 independent label S-Curve Records in 2001. He also acted as Joss Stone’s manager for six years, helping her establish her career as a multi-platinum artist, producing all her performances at live events, including the Super Bowl, Oprah Winfrey, The Today Show, PBS’ Kennedy Center Honors and many others. Marty was also part of the management team for Elton John, working through Twenty-First Artists, a division of the Sanctuary Group. After serving five more years as Chief Operating Officer of S-Curve from 2007-2012, he began his own marketing and managing consulting business, which he has been running for the past two years.
In this interview, Marty talked about the evolution of the music industry during the past 20 years. He said, “I think some of the major labels are slow to come around to new ways of thinking. There are people that have been in this business for 15, 20 or 25 years that are either not up to date on the digital arena or don’t understand how damaged the brand of the major label is. It’s no longer about signing artists to multi-album deals; it’s about signing artists with multi-platform revenue streams. That’s why I think a lot of the large companies who have these contracts with artists that are for three or four albums are suffering. They’re not flexible enough to adapt to selling singles, which is the way the market is going right now … In a way, we’ve gone back to the 1950s, where singles are a lot more important to people than albums … In the current climate, there’s a disposable element that’s around now that is being embraced by the old school, because that’s what makes money. There’s not a lot of focus on albums and careers at the major labels, or by people that used to do artist development … I think if you want to look toward making it and doing what you want to be doing for the long haul, you need to look at your career and make sure you’re lined up and running your business in a way that makes you sustainable.”
He also debunked some misconceptions artists have about building their careers: “People who don’t have a lot of experience and are managing their own career for the first time seem to have this idea that one or two big items or promotions will make a career. I can’t tell you how many people who have come to me and said, ‘How can we get into an iPod commercial or a movie?’ Licensing and television inclusion is the hot thing of the moment. And what people don’t realize is that sometimes it works, but most of the time … it ends up just being background music. It’s very rare that one promotion or link to an artist’s music is going to inspire people to go out and buy it and establish that artist’s career.
He added, “People aren’t necessarily aware that in today’s marketplace – while everyone is talking about how easy it is for people to be promoted online and through social media – that all these available tools have diluted their marketing efforts. There’s not any one placement, one TV show, promotion or review in Rolling Stone magazine that is going to make or break someone’s career. Having a solid career is about a series of events and being credible, because, in this day and age, if you’re not credible, people can find out online … To sum it all up simply, I think the biggest misconception among artists is that old idea that being a musician is easier than it actually is, and that there’s not a lot of work that has to go into the marketing or promotion of their music. It used to be, ‘Get a song on the radio, and you’ll sell albums.’ We all know that doesn’t work anymore. And it certainly isn’t, ‘Get your song in a movie, and it will explode’ either. Some people still think that’s the way it works.”
Finally, Marty admitted that building a memorable brand as a musician is passion and staying true to a clear vision: “… A music career has to be something you’re passionate about, because, this is a hard business that’s going to take its toll on you. And there are going to be so many more places down the line where you will have to compromise your vision and idea for the sake of commerce. You shouldn’t start out sacrificing who you are or compromising on who you are before you need to. It takes a strong personality to withstand this industry, both as an artist that is not successful and an artist that is successful. They each come with their responsibilities. You have to be ready to work and work on something that you’re going to be passionate about.”
In March, I talked to Chris Wallace, a singer, songwriter, producer and the former front man for the pop rock band The White Tie Affair. Chris grew up in the Midwest and picked up guitar as a teenager, looking for a way to channel his energy after a serious soccer injury. He played in local bar bands and eventually put together his own band Quad Four as he embraced his skills as a lead vocalist. His track “Allow Me to Introduce Myself … Mr. Right” became a huge hit on MySpace and earned him a deal with Epic Records and the opportunity to form The White Tie Affair. His debut solo album Push Rewind released in 2012. The single “Remember When (Push Rewind)” has been a hit on Top 40 radio and was named one of iTunes “Best Songs of 2012.” Chris’ entire album also won iTunes’ “Best Breakthrough Pop Album” honor that same year. Chris has toured extensively throughout the world, with both his band The White Tie Affair and as a solo artist, alongside mega artists such as Lady Gaga, Cyndi Lauper, the B-52’s, Andy Grammer and Olly Murs. He has been featured on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Access Hollywood and E! News and in Billboard magazine, US Weekly and Entertainment Weekly.
Chris shared some valuable perspectives about the challenges attached to becoming a successful artist and maintaining a real career, both with and without a label: “Sometimes in these early stages of being an artist, you’re kind of vulnerable. And you trust your peers to tell you if it’s good enough, even when you know and feel it is good. Still, you might write something you think is great and other people don’t agree. And of course, when you’re on a label, you have to please everybody; all people involved need to think a song is good. When I wrote ‘Candle’ and sent it to the label and my manager, and they didn’t even reply back to me about it. A few days later, I followed up and asked if they had heard the song. They told me it was alright, but that I should keep writing.”
He shared, “There isn’t a lot of consistency [in my day-to-day life as a working artist]. I’d say four days per week at least I’m flying somewhere. And they are all early flights, so it’s usually a 4 a.m. wake-up call in whatever time zone I am in. If I’m not flying, I’m driving to get somewhere. I have been doing a lot of morning radio shows and singing at different events. I recently sang the National Anthem at the Denver Nuggets/Lakers game, which was really cool. I’m getting to meet a lot of the radio programmers and the people who listen and win contests. And I perform for them in radio station lounges. My day usually ends with a dinner meeting with someone. And hopefully I make it to sleep by midnight to get up early again … It’s been a lot of that, which is incredibly taxing on your body. But once you get on stage or to the place you’re going to perform, you’re just so flattered that people want to play your song and talk about your music.”
He also offered up some tips about how emerging artists can find a solid support team to help them accomplish their goals: “When everything in your life changes all at once, you gravitate towards people you think you can trust. You don’t know necessarily that they are the right people, because you have no basis for comparison. You don’t know if you have the right lawyer or if you have signed the right deal. You try to find someone you trust and that someone else has trusted before and hope for the best. I ended up finding the right team through making mistakes. I knew they were the right team, because I had gone through some less-than-ideal experiences.”
Chris concluded, “I’ve always worked hard at what I’ve done. And I know nothing comes immediately or easily. I think if you want something – no matter what it is – you have to just keep working at it. Time will weed out the people who don’t want it enough and make way for the people who do.”
Late last spring, Musician Coaching Editor in Chief and professional bio writer Julia L. Rogers wrote a frank article outlining some of the most frustrating mistakes she sees artists make when writing their own bios. Julia is a published author, editor, journalist and has written about music, technology and entrepreneurial theory for The Huffington Post, Entrepreneur, Bitch magazine and Billboard and The Grammy® Foundation. She can be hired to write artist and band bios through this site. She is also a classically-trained musician and plays out regularly in New York City in various original projects as a songwriter, cellist, bassist, singer and pianist.
As Julia pointed out, the Digital Age has produced many helpful technology tools for artists. But it has also led to some rather thoughtless, amateur marketing strategies: “Our rapidly-evolving technological world has made both computers and the Internet accessible to almost everyone. And, in my opinion as a professional writer deeply in love with the wonderful nuances of words, that has led to one of the most nightmarish consequences of the Digital Age– a consequence that has profoundly affected the way people write about themselves: The Internet has evolved into an untended wilderness, where everyone is encouraged to vomit out (completely unedited) thoughts no one cares about, all over a global audience. Thanks to fully-accessible blogging platforms, Facebook, Twitter, text messaging and a variety of other tools that give all of us permission to speak like 13-year-old girls and casually throw the beauty of proper language and grammar under the bus (and then run over it several times to make sure it is truly dead), there is a very blurry line between ‘some notes and unfinished thoughts to get me started on writing my bio along with some stuff I like about myself, which occurred to me in the shower this morning’ and ‘my polished, professional bio, which I will proudly use to present myself as a serious person and artist.’”
She went on to outline five all-too-commonly-committed sins musicians commit when creating an eye-catching bio.
- Too much talk about the “child prodigy” years: “Briefly celebrating the earliest environment that nurtured your talent can offer an introduction to you. But you need to connect with that moment you decided to pursue your art seriously and made the grown-up decision to turn it into your life’s work and illustrate the thrill of that decision as part of your bio. That is likely where your real adventure began.”
- Grandiose statements about skill and talent without any real proof: “During one of my recent bio-writing workshops at an art school, I shared my pet peeve of bios that make grandiose, assertive, clichéd statements that are not supported by any hard evidence (or by any truly descriptive adjectives or cliché-free phrases). One of the students said, ‘Yeah. You can only do that if you are Prince.’ While I would argue that even Prince should not make obnoxiously-grandiose statements about himself, he probably has. And he can only get away with it because of his lengthy track record of proving his competency as a musician and performer and his “unique”ness as an artist, the unquestionably-loyal fan base he has built and the countless reviews he has received from reputable industry experts saying he is a pioneer in his field (and clearly explaining why).”
- A narrative that takes way too long to get started because it is spending all its time over-hyping the artist: “Present yourself and your music as objectively as possible, then respectfully let readers draw their own conclusions. You won’t make lifelong friends (aka, build a fan base that will support you for life) by strong-arming someone into liking you.”
- A messy collection of band member résumés: “While you certainly want to give your fans and others some personal details about you and your band mates, so you can get them invested in your success, the bio needs to have a focused story and purpose. Start your band’s tale with why and how you came together as a group. How are you connected to each other, and why do you make melodic, ugly, dark, dirty, gritty or [insert a description of your sound and sensibilities here] music together? Save your pet peeves, favorite colors and favorite place to eat cheese for a blog post.”
- A confused artist brand and overly-complicated artist personality: “I understand the feeling of needing to pay respect to each of your different personae as well as the fear of publicly embracing all the different aspects of your very-diversified artist career … [But] when you cannot find one way to celebrate your many different dimensions, you are communicating exactly the opposite of what you want to communicate to potential employers or collaborators. Instead of saying, ‘I am 100-percent committed to working hard at making music in all its forms, and I have a deep skill set that reaches into many different areas of the music business,’ when you have many different bios, you are basically saying, ‘I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, so I’m just doing a bunch of stuff to see what sticks.’ Or even worse than that, you are saying, ‘I will be whoever you want me to be,’ which will invite some pretty unsavory and counter-productive characters into your world.”
In September, I had a conversation with Nate Auerbach, “Music Evangelist” at the steadily-growing social networking platform Tumblr. Before joining the Tumblr team, Nate worked at Myspace for three years and was also a digital executive at The Collective Music Management. Now he works with artists to help them engage members of their fan base and produce quality content.
Nate revealed the benefits to musicians of using Tumblr as a marketing platform for their music: “I think what Tumblr does is allows musicians to be fully creative in the way they express themselves and connect with their fans. They can take full ownership of how they want to communicate their message and they can also control and harness the traffic they create … The glory of it is, you have one place where you can have everything. You can wrap in all the navigation you want. But more importantly, bands and musicians can approach Tumblr so it is not a task; it can be a completely creative outlet for them. And it’s a safe place for them to be creative, because there aren’t any restrictions or boxes we put them in. There are no algorithms keeping content from people and no character limits. There is a limit on the size of animated .gifs you put in posts, but that is just for your own benefit.”
Nate also extolled the spirit of positivity promoted by the platform: “The other thing we’ve seen is that artists really appreciate the fact that all the social tools on Tumblr are about love and positivity. For example, if you are going to say something about something I posted on Tumblr, you have to re-blog it. You need to put it on your own soap box. So, chances are, your blog won’t be a bunch of wisecracks; it’s truly expressing what you love. A lot of bands that are jaded by some of the negative comments they get on other social media platforms … On Tumblr, you can connect directly with the people that love what you post and then see what else they love. And then you can service them and grow and nurture that positive fan base.”
On top of giving some specific examples of mega and emerging artists using the platform well, Nate also outlined a few best practices for those looking to get the most out of their experience on Tumblr and other social media platforms: “The most important thing is to be yourself and be authentic. Everything else really flows from there. Share what inspires you, then use Tumblr to tell the story of what you love rather than focusing on, ‘This is what I’m doing.’ Often ‘this is what I’m doing’ gets reflected when you talk about what you love. But you need to let your passion come out, because it shows people who you really are … Artists are all about vulnerability, and it is that vulnerability that others hear and feel in their music. No one gets to see the artwork in music anymore. It’s just a thumbnail that’s on a digital player in your pocket. So the challenge is making those emotions that people used to package into a CD jacket come to life … Just have fun with it. Be creative. Because that is what being an artist is all about, and that is exactly what we want you to do.”
In November, I connected with Christopher Tyng, songwriter, composer, producer and the Founder of the Grow Music Project, a platform for independent artists and bands that allows them to record and produce their music at no cost to them, with no strings attached. Throughout his career, Chris has worked with many successful artists and has written music and songs for successful movies and TV series in Hollywood for the past 20 years. He has been a key member of the music team and the sole composer of the music scores on the television shows The O.C., Futurama, Rescue Me, Covert Affairs, Suits and many others.
In Part 1 of the interview, Chris discussed how music placement can be a way for musicians to diversify their revenue streams, but why navigating the film and television landscape is also challenging for many artists trying to break into that sector of the music business.
He revealed how he got started in the music business and also provided some sound advice and realities for musicians that want to get their songs into movies and TV: “All my peers who have had careers have really done it one piece at a time. There’s no secret and no short cut. It’s really about finding a friend who is doing a student film or a similar project. It sounds like such a boring answer to the question [of ‘How do I do it?’], but it really is what works. Everybody that I know who is working works because of relationships they built from the ground, up … When I was a pretty young musician, someone gave me a piece of advice that I have always kept with me: ‘Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.’ I had an extraordinary amount of luck. I continually can’t believe how lucky I’ve been as a musician.”
And which huge mistakes do artists make when putting their music out into to the world? “They just put all their music out at once. With the loss of the artist development phase, which was part of the old music industry, we’ve moved into a phase where everyone puts everything out. And of course, that’s not how record companies did it. You can argue subjectively about whether you did or didn’t like the choices, but one of the functions of a record company was to filter music that hopefully would be able to evolve, grow and get to a place where – whether someone liked it or not – if they liked it, the band could back it up … Bands are focused on getting everything out there as quickly as they can get it out there and building up their social presence before they even start to think about what their social presence should be.”
In terms of marketing, Chris said he understands the plight of every musician trying to make a living in today’s climate: “… Everybody now has to wear so many different hats … But in order to be a really fantastic guitar player, you have to spend some time on it. In order to be a really great marketing person, you have to spend some time on it.”
As always, I have more interviews and articles from some incredibly talented, knowledgeable folks coming up in 2014, so stay tuned. Happy New Year!
Jason Goldstein is a Grammy®-winning, and ten-time Grammy®-nominated mix engineer based in New York City. He got his start in the music business as a DJ in the clubs of Washington, DC, spinning old school hip-hop, R&B, house and new wave. After graduating from high school, he moved to L.A., where he started out sandblasting floors, washing dishes, and running errands at L.A.’s famed Ocean Way Studios, eventually working his way up to mixing. During the past 20 years, he has turned into one of the most in-demand mixers in the contemporary R&B/hip-hop scene, working with artists including Beyoncé, Jay Z, The Roots, Ludacris, Jill Scott, R. Kelly, Michael Jackson, Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie, LL Cool J, legendary production team Trackmasters (Will Smith, Nas) and many others as well as for companies such as Avid, JBL, AKG and Sonnox Plug-Ins. Jason is best known for his Grammy-winning mixing on Beyoncé’s BDay, an album that has racked up 3.5 million sales worldwide, and won a Grammy for Best Contemporary R&B Album. Most recently, he mixed comedic pop rock group The Lonely Island’s The Wack Album and Turtleneck & Chain. Jason’s work has been featured in Mix Magazine, Sound On Sound, SonicScoop and Pro Sound Web. He currently works mainly in his home studio and at Downtown Music Studios in New York City.
Jason talked to me about how he built a solid career as a mixer over two decades and what it takes to be a successful engineer in the current climate. He also shared some advice for artists and producers looking to choose the right mix engineer for their projects.
Thanks for taking some time to chat, Jason. So, you started out in the music business working at Ocean Way Studios.
I moved to L.A. right out of high school with no intention of getting in the music industry. I was a DJ, and I had responded to an ad in The Recycler, which was a huge print newspaper similar to Craigslist. I applied for a job at a recording studio, because I thought it would be a cool place to work. I had no idea what Ocean Way was or what into making records. I walked in, and there was one record after another on the wall, going back to things like Pet Sounds and albums by Nat King Cole.
At first, I thought Ocean Way was kind of a funny, dumpy place, as it hadn’t been remodeled since the 1970s. I now know there’s a reason for that, because the rooms sound amazing. And the talent of the producers, engineers and assistants working there was just incredible. I basically walked in and didn’t leave for three years, working about 80-100 hours a week. I was a runner from 6 p.m. in the evening until the last session left, which was often three or four a.m. Then there would be six rooms to clean, and we’d have to set up for a session the next day. Then I would stay the next morning and work on sessions for free to build my skills, go home and sleep for a couple hours and come back in the evening.
I was very fortunate to work with some very famous, skilled producers and engineers. But as I said, many of the assistants at Ocean Way were as good as some of those engineers, just waiting for their big break. And they were the ones that took me under their wing and taught me the trade. It was just a phenomenal place to work.
How did you segue into successfully doing your own thing? What do you think you did that kept you employed when so many other people fell by the wayside?
It’s a little tougher now than it used to be, because so much more music is being recorded in small studios or people’s bedrooms. That being said, how I and everyone else from my generation that is successful did it is by becoming someone’s favorite assistant. I worked a lot with Arif Mardin and Phil Ramone in L.A. I also often worked with Hans Zimmer’s engineer Alan Meyerson. Whenever he had a big string date, he would have me be his assistant. I ended up setting up studios for him and doing freelance work for Hans. There is also a producer named David Gamson, who on a couple different occasions would hire me to do an over-dub when he had one that didn’t require an A-list engineer.
For me, being successful really has been about being available and able to do whatever was asked of me. It was also about putting in the work. These people appreciated me being available to work hard. And because you have to work with somebody for 12 hours a day in a room, you have to have good people skills.
You have to be a good “hang,” or the people in the room are going to kill each other.
You really do. I would rather have an assistant that is not as qualified, who is a good guy or girl and open to learning and honest about strengths and weaknesses than someone that acts like they know everything and is kind of standoffish. There’s an etiquette that goes along with being in a creative situation: You have to be able to read the room and know when to sit like a mouse in the corner and when it’s okay to speak up or have a beer with the client.
To answer your original question as directly as possible, being successful as an engineer is about having people skills, the willingness to learn and attaching yourself to another producer or engineer that you can learn from. I will funnel work to assistants when I am too busy to take on a new client. There is a short list of people that get a call from me in that situation.
That’s interesting. I think we are of the same generation, and guys our age often did glorified slave labor just to get into the room and meet people who might help them build careers. How are people finding gigs as engineers and producers now in a climate where there are so many small and home studios? What advice would you give someone that wanted to make their way in the business in this day and age?
When I was starting out, there were not many schools that taught engineering. The studios were where you learned the trade, and I don’t think there’s any substitute for that. That being said, because there are fewer studios, colleges and universities are playing a bigger part in engineers’ success. I think studying at one of those schools gives you a leg up in terms of theory and other finer points. You can learn a lot online, too with all the YouTube videos. But there are still enough studios out there that if you present yourself in the right way, you can still get mentored.
If you go somewhere like Berklee College of Music, if you’re more engineering oriented, you can hook up with someone else who is in school there and make your own team. You can also offer to record the music majors there. I know that’s intrinsic in the program anyway. The point is, you just never know who the next big producer is going to be, or who will be the next big cellist, guitarist or songwriter. You just need to put yourself in as many situations where you will get to practice your skill as possible.
You can also get a job working for free at a studio, hopefully one with a decent turnover and client list. For example, in New York, there’s still Avatar, which is a great studio that still has vintage equipment. So, if you can get a gig there, you will still learn how to record drums from some of the best guys out there. Then, there are smaller studios around town that work more in mixing. And for indie rock, there’s The Magic Shop. There are a lot more places to go in L.A. than there are in New York. Miami also has some great places. But you need that studio exposure.
One of the biggest issues I have with kids just coming out of school is that they only know one way to do things. And in reality, there are just so many different ways to record and mix music. Still, I often learn from these people fresh out of school, because, while I have always been an early adopter, the older I get, the more caught up in my own system I can be. I’m not an 18-year old in school living and breathing the newest technology every day. But that is a skill set I can use, and it will benefit me to have access to someone that has a skill set I don’t have. No one can know everything. It really is true that if you try to be a jack of all trades – and a lot of young engineers coming up today are trying to be – you are a master of none. I feel that attempting to do everything yourself can create a mediocre end result in the studio. There’s a reason why the best songwriters team up with the best producers and engineers and why none of them try to do everything themselves: to create a superior product. The product is only as strong as its weakest link.
You’ve won a Grammy® and have been Grammy®-nominated ten times in total. How did you go from being a guy just trying to work steadily with clients of all different experience and skill levels to a guy who is at the top of his game? In other words, how did you go from having a good business to a great one?
Hard work and perseverance have been important. And some of my success has been about luck – being in the right place at the right time. But luck only gets you so far. You have to deliver once you’re fortunate enough to meet someone big land a gig.
I was always a big fan of hip-hop and R&B. And when I moved to New York City, I continued to work for Arif Mardin, Phil Ramone and a lot of other people. And the Trackmasters came into the studio I was working at one day. They did all of Will Smith’s biggest records, including “Gettin’ Jiggy With It” and “Miami.” They also did a bunch of music for LL Cool J and Destiny’s Child. They were hot in the mid-‘90s when I came to New York. When they came in, I just bugged their production person until they let me work with them. I was willing to do anything, and eventually I started doing B-list sessions and tracking B-list vocals. Back then, you did rough mix to DAT every night, so I would stay late and put together the best mix I could possibly do. Eventually, their normal guy wasn’t available for a mix, and they asked me to do it, because they felt my rough mixes were just as good as what they were getting back from the other guys. And that’s how I got the gig. I started mixing everything for them, and they became executives at Sony and hired other producers. They knew I could deliver a mix they liked, so they hired me to mix work by those producers, who in turn became clients. Then your name gets on some records. I ended up doing a big Jay-Z record.
I was fortunate enough to be able to learn from some of the best, and I’m able to translate what the producer hears in their head and give them what they want. I also strive to make every song sound the best in every environment. It needs to sound as good in a car as it does in a club and anywhere else. I think Quincy Jones said it best when he said, “Outhouse on the bottom and penthouse on the top,” meaning, it is big and full, but it also has clarity and cleanliness where it counts, which is usually in the upper registers.
I had never heard that quote. It’s a great one.
Those 80-100-hour weeks with the Trackmasters were really important to building my career. They would have two rooms at the Hit Factory going, and I would go back and forth. At one point, I had two mix rooms going simultaneously at Sony before the bottom fell out of the music industry.
I hate to generalize, but there’s sometimes a sense of entitlement with the kids coming up today. They think that because they busted their asses in school, they can just coast through the rest of their careers. I think you have to have the mindset that you’ll be starting over once you come out of school. I sandblasted the floor and tarred the roof at Ocean Way before I got to work in the studio. Then I worked my way up to working with Hans Zimmer on film scores. Then, when I moved to New York, I had to go back to assisting again, because I didn’t have enough clients to support myself here. I went from as low as you could go, to engineering on my own and making a good living on it, back to assisting for a third or less of what I was making. I had to build my way back up again.
The key is being flexible and willing to absorb everything you can.
Just to switch the focus to artists for a bit, what advice would you give for those looking to hire the right mix engineer for their records? Obviously you have to listen to a lot of records and do some research.
Obviously, the main thing is that if you hear a record you like and want your record to sound similar, the guy who mixed it is the guy you want to hire if you can afford him.
That being said, if you are a producer, you have to be realistic: Does your record sound like that record? The sound you can achieve is really all about the source. I’ve gotten records from someone who says, “I want this to sound just like X record you just mixed.” But, the person’s record is never going to sound like that, because it doesn’t have the right elements. I would need to do some production-related work on it to get it in the ballpark. The source has to be compatible with the finished product. An each song has to be taken on its own merit.
I definitely think people overestimate what a mix engineer can fix. If you what you track isn’t good, there’s only so much a mix engineer can do.
In this day and age, there is a lot I can do to sonically correct something. But if it’s a bad record, it’s a bad record. I can make it sound amazing, but it will still be a bad record. And my job is really to make every record sound amazing. It’s not my fault the melody’s not good or the playing wasn’t good.
As a producer coming up, you have to understand how to record things and what elements sound good together. For example, I get a lot of records where the kick drum sounds good and the snare sounds good, but it’s clear the producer never considered what everything would sound like together. At the end of the day, all the parts are coming out of a speaker and hitting someone’s ears at the same time as one entity.
The quality of the recording is really crucial. If there is a ton of air conditioning hum, and the vocals are over-compressed and distorted, I can’t do anything about it. If we’re talking about tuning guitars, replacing drums and adding some more elements to make it a little more interesting, I can make that happen. But a really poorly-recorded record gives me fewer options.
Also, when you’re feeling out a mix engineer, you need to talk to the guy. Don’t send out your record to him and then just expect magic to come back. You have to go through revisions with people. Music is subjective. If you don’t tell a mix engineer anything specific other than, “Do what you do best,” you can’t be upset by any result you get.
As a producer, be cognizant of what you are delivering to the mixer and be specific about what you like and don’t like. For example, if you say, “I just want you to use the vocals from the rough mix and then make it knock. I know the rest of the rough mix is too muted, but I love the way the vocals are sitting on top” or “I love the way the background vocals are blended,” that is information that is helpful to me.
My experience is that a lot of musicians lack the vocabulary to talk to mixers about what they want.
I think that’s very true. When I get a cold call or an inquiry through my website, I usually suggest, “Let’s talk about your project on the phone,” because things get lots via email and text. I think it’s important to clarify whether revisions are included in the price that you’re quoted. It has to be a professional relationship. You can’t be offended by criticism I give you, just like I can’t take the fact that you don’t like the first version of a mix personally. There has to be some sympatico, or you just get frustrated with each other, especially when you’re working long distance. If you are in the same room, you can work out the kinks more quickly. Whether or not I can be in the same room with someone depends often on budgets and the person’s location.
I mix 80% of the records at my house, then go into the studio for just a few hours, because it keeps the budgets down, but allows whoever is making the creative decisions – whether the producer or the artist – and I to be in the same room together and make the small adjustments that can make all the difference in the finished product very quickly. These adjustments can take forever when done via email.
Do you have any parting words of advice for people trying to make their way in the music business?
That’s a tough question, because it’s a totally different industry from when I started. Coming into this business, you have to be prepared to work hard, be rejected and not be afraid to put your music out there. But there is so much music on the Internet – hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people trying to be the next big thing discovered. And that’s not really a feasible or realistic goal.
You have to be old school in your approach. Network as much as possible. And if you’re going to produce, record and mix your own music, make sure you’re doing it at the highest possible level. Use songs that you like for reference and try to make your mixes sound as close to those songs as you possibly can. If you don’t a lot of A&R today can’t see past what they are delivered and don’t have time for artist development. They don’t hear really rough demos and think, “With the right producers and musicians behind this, it will be an amazing record.” They hear a rough demo, and it ends there. If you don’t hit them at the beginning, your stuff goes in the not-so-good pile. You need to fine-tune your craft until it is at the level it needs to be to compete.
You also have to expand. For instance, don’t get it in your head that film and television work is beneath you. If you look at someone like Bonnie McKee, who wrote a lot of Katy Perry’s big hits, she wanted to be Katy Perry, but that didn’t happen to her right away. So, she started writing songs and became a great hit songwriter. And now she’s back to being an artist again, because the songwriting aspect put her in a position to be able to be an artist. She got to know producers, artists and other people in the industry and was able to put out her own record. Writing songs was a way for her to break into the business. She succeeded in one area of the music and was able to more easily transition into another.
And look at revenue streams. Being a songwriter is a lot more lucrative than being an artist. But diversifying is critical.
Steve McMurry is a guitarist, vocalist and the leader of Acoustic Syndicate, an Americana/rock band based in Western North Carolina also featuring Steve’s cousins, brothers Bryon McMurry (banjo, vocals) and Fitz McMurry (drums, vocals) as well as Jay Sanders (bass) and Billy Cardine (dobro). The McMurry family has been in family farming in the same region of Cleveland County, NC since the 1700s. Their love of the land and their serious approach to its stewardship is echoed by the love of the music they make and the care with which they make it and has helped them develop a strong artistic brand nationwide. The seeds of the band were first planted when founding members Steve, Fitz and Bryon were encouraged as children by their parents to pick up instruments and play folk music at family gatherings and in church. In 1992, after briefly separating for college and other work, they officially formed as Acoustic Syndicate and began to play their original songs throughout Asheville, Charlotte, Boone and Greenville, NC. Acoustic Syndicate has been touring and recording music for more than 20 years and has built a strong following regionally and beyond, touring and playing festivals like Bonnaroo, MerleFest, the Telluride Bluegras Festival, Memphis in May and Farm Aid alongside well-known artists including Old Crow Medicine Show, Woode Wood and Band of Horses. They recently released their first record since 2004, Rooftop Garden, produced by Grammy Award winner Stewart Lerman (Boardwalk Empire, Patti Smith, The Roches, Antony and the Johnsons, Crash Test Dummies).
I talked to Steve about how he got involved in music and the process of building relationships with fans and industry people in order to grow Acoustic Syndicate into a nationally-touring act. He also shared some sound advice for other artists that want to successfully create a fulfilling career in music.
Thanks for taking the time to chat, Steve. Tell me a little bit about Acoustic Syndicate and how you first got into music.
Two of the guys in Acoustic Syndicate and I are blood related. Fitz, the drummer and Bryon, our banjo/electric guitar player are brothers and my first cousins, and we all grew up on the same farm together. My dad traveled around a lot because of his work, so in the summer, he would ship me off to live with my uncle on the family farm, where my dad and his brother had been raised, and the three of us would play music together.
The story of Acoustic Syndicate really started at Christmastime one year when I was 12, Fitz was 11 and Bryon was about nine, and our parents got together and decided they were going to make a band out of us. They gave me a fiddle, Fitz a guitar and Bryon a banjo, and we played music together at the various family functions. Once in a while, our parents would have us perform at church. We weren’t all that good at first, but we had a lot of fun and played mostly local folk music – old folk songs and work tunes from around the farm. We were fans of music anyway from an early age and just expanded on that.
We were definitely children of the ‘80s, so when we hit adolescence and early adulthood, we were really into New Wave music, though our tastes were pretty vastly different from the very traditional music we were playing. We were listening to The Police, The Who, Peter Gabriel and Steely Dan as well as alternative bands of the late ‘80s. We followed modern music as it evolved and tried to make our own music at the same time.
How did you first build up your fan base and start to go from a local band, to a band that was known regionally and also nationally?
We started out, of course, as totally local. And we drifted apart for a little bit post high school and during college while we were all doing our own thing. As that period came to a close, Fitz had a job doing corporate sales, and I was a technician. And Bryon was still working on the farm. We were still seeing each other a few times per year at family functions and remained close, but in the early ‘90s, we came back together. I went to the second MerleFest – a music festival in honor of musician Merle Watson in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina. And I got lit on fire for acoustic music again. I was playing guitar rather than fiddle in a couple local bands. I brought up the idea of getting back together with Fitz and Bryon and brought them in on what I was doing. From there, it really just took off by itself.
We initially had some picking sessions around the house and invited a couple friends to come play with us. And it just felt like we were heading towards something, so we eventually made our rehearsals private and worked more seriously on some tunes. In 1992, we found ourselves with enough songs to play a show. We got in touch with a friend of ours that owned a bar in Boone, North Carolina called the Klondike Café and asked if we could come play a show. We handmade flyers and passed them around Boone, and it took off from there.
Most bands don’t get the opportunity to tour nationally and many don’t pick up a support team with a publicist, etc. From a business perspective, what did you do to book shows and grow the band?
It was all from the ground, up and was not a speedy process. We did it the hard way, one gig at a time. We got in wherever we could. For the first five years of our existence, we didn’t have management and were playing music on a part-time basis. Nothing really gelled until about 1997, and we hired a booking agent out of Charlotte, NC. So, our first big step was finding someone to represent us.
And did you attract representation purely based on the music, or was it a combination of your history together and the music? What do you think first sold the booking agent on you?
We were building a pretty big name for ourselves just through guts and determination. We kept hammering away at local gigs around Charlotte, Asheville, Boone and Greenville, NC. Those were the places we could get to after work, so we focused on playing around that area in order to keep our jobs.
We attracted attention because we were always looking for gigs to play, but also because of the music. We always tried to maintain a flavor of individuality. We kept to our own material as much as possible. When we pulled covers into our sets, we tried to make them pretty special. We didn’t play anything that was Top 40.
So, we built on that idea of creating something cool and attracted a friend of ours, a booking agent in Charlottesville named Al Hinton, who ended up becoming our manager and a part of what is now Blue Mountain Artists, which is still our booking agency. We were also his first gig as a manager, and he got us into some places we would’ve never been able to get into on our own, like MerleFest and Bonnaroo. Eventually, the pieces just all started to fall into place.
We changed managers a few times as we outgrew each situation, but we have stuck with Blue Mountain Artists for booking. No relationship is usually as long lasting as the one we’ve had with them. The reason we’ve stuck with them is because it’s continued to be a good fit for the type of music we play and where we want to go. We’ve had a great working relationship and have become good friends, which is really important and very rare.
To be honest, a lot of where Acoustic Syndicate is right now is because of a combination of luck and determination. And I swear I’m not bragging here, but one of the key elements of success for the band is also that we’re one of the nicest groups of people you’ll ever run into. We try to make sure we’re friends with everybody we associate with. I mean that literally. Our parents raised us to be respectful, polite and really interested in other people. The world and music is not just about us as a band; it’s about all of us. I think that attitude is part of why we’re still around and why people still come to see us play and do business with us.
That’s interesting. I know you don’t look at building relationships and friendships as solely ways to boost your career, but did you find that there were some relationships that were more valuable than others to growing your career?
We’ve always treated everyone the same. My dad would never allow me to play favorites when I was coming up. I don’t know why, but that idea was very important to him. He always treated everyone the equally, and I think that was probably the most valuable life lesson I learned from him. My dad was a Methodist minister as well as a farmer, and we moved around a lot. That was why he used to send me to my cousins’ in the summer – to keep me grounded and off the streets of whatever town we were living in at the time. But I watched the relationships he built with people on a daily basis, and he was never lopsided, no matter who the person was. I think a lot of that rubbed off on us. His brothers and sisters were all the same way, and they were all the people that raised us. The McMurrys are the core of Acoustic Syndicate.
There is nothing hidden behind the veil of who we are. There’s no angle to being friendly … it’s just who we are, and success has been a great reward to being nice to people.
I often have to explain to musicians that being friendly to other musicians is as important as being friendly to music industry people. I think a lot of musicians chase industry as if there is one person that can change their lives. And it devalues what they are capable of putting into their own career.
That absolutely makes sense to me. Fitz and Bryon are probably the most social of the three of us. I don’t think Bryon’s ever met a stranger or anybody he didn’t like. He’s like Roy Rogers. But at the same time, I think I have always gravitated towards musicians first over industry people. When we were getting started, there was a group of musicians we regularly traveled around with and associated with like the Snake Oil Medicine Show, Woody Wood and others in the Asheville scene. And many of those people have gone onto bigger things. For example, Bill Reynolds is in Band of Horses now. When I think back, I realize I definitely spent more time thinking about other musicians than I spent thinking about industry people. I probably should’ve spent a little more time thinking about the industry, but it has been the way I’ve operated.
I think your attitude is a good thing. A lot of people get it stuck in their heads that they’re going to be Prince, do everything themselves and ignore everyone else that’s making music.
That will only work out for about one-half of one percent of people in music. Most people that think that way are going to wind up having a very short career.
Aside from playing in Acoustic Syndicate, you are all professional farmers. It must be difficult to juggle that gig alongside playing in a successful band. Which skills have you learned along the way that have made touring and playing music while tending to the farm possible?
It’s tough. Good planning and being able to look into the crystal ball and see what’s coming up next is crucial.
But let me back up for a minute. We were busiest with touring back in 2004. We traveled the country from top to bottom, right to left for about six solid years. The last three years of that were the most productive, leading up to our break in 2005. We thought we might be done back then, as we all were being confronted by some other issues in our lives that required more time than the band would allow us. Fitz had small children, Bryon had small children … and my wife had a serious health issue. It was almost impossible to do it all.
And 2005 was right about the time when the record industry was collapsing under the weight of itself, and labels were struggling to sell records. The industry was taking a turn, and we didn’t know which way it was going. The only viable way for us to stay in business at the time was to just keep touring, and we couldn’t figure out how to make that work given what we were all up against at home, so we took a step back.
We were off the radar for about two years, but our booking agent kept calling us, because people still wanted to see us play. He didn’t see why we couldn’t play a couple shows here and there. We shrugged it off for a while, but after a year of getting offers, we got a really serious offer to play a Thanksgiving show at The Orange Peel, a club in Asheville with about a 1,000-person capacity. We talked about it as a band and decided that even though it may not be worth doing, we would go for it. And we sold it out. It was obvious to us at that point that we still had a future, and that people still enjoyed coming out to see us play. After that, we started doing about 15-18 select shows per year. And it steadily started to come back around into something we could focus on again.
We had also been putting together a few songs, and I didn’t even know what I was going to do with a couple of them. About three years ago, we started putting together our most recent record, Rooftop Garden, which turned into one of the best things we’ve ever done. It’s probably my favorite record so far – a self-released album on Little King Records. It’s really breathed some new life into us. We had a great time making the record, and folks seem to be fired up about the new material.
Do you have any advice for musicians looking to build up a successful touring and recording career?
Our career has been a roller coaster. The thing that strikes me as being significant is the amount of time we’ve been playing together. Because of life – which has a way of throwing you some curveballs sometimes – things change. If you’re paying attention, you’ll adapt with the times. My wife passed away in 2007, and that was one of the reasons we had to back up and regroup. Children are born, people die, things happen. You change jobs and lose your way in the world and try to search for things that will give your life meaning. The whole experience is a journey.
And there’s no cookie-cutter formula for making a band successful, especially not when it comes to the type of music we play. We’re not in it to get rich or to be on some kind of reality TV show. We do it because we love to play music together; the music we write and perform means something to us and hopefully to other people as well. There is definitely a message that goes along with our music, and we feel compelled to keep sending out that message. Our feeling that we have a mission has definitely contributed to our longevity.
And our mission is really to put good-quality, positive music out there. There’s so much shit floating around on the airwaves, and it’s unbelievable. Sometimes it makes me nauseous. In my world, music is something you do together with other people that brings you joy and happiness.
I remember reading an interview with James Taylor about two years ago. He was looking back on his career. And say what you will about some of the soft rock or other music he has made throughout his career; he’s great. And back in the day, he was the man. He wrote a lot of great songs and experienced every single pitfall you could possibly run into as a musician. In this interview, someone asked him if he had any advice for young musicians, and he basically said, “There are three things you have to watch out for: always keep yourself out of debt; try to stay free of addiction as much as possible and always try to maintain a healthy relationship.” I thought that was awesome advice. I’d be hard-pressed to give you anything more profound than that.
Jeff Klein is a guitarist, singer, songwriter and the founder/frontman of the Austin, Texas-based “post-modern southern gothic soul” band My Jerusalem. Originally from upstate New York, Jeff picked up guitar when he was 11 and played in local bands throughout college before moving to Austin. He has put out three albums as a solo artist, is a skilled session musician and also played with The Gutter Twins and Twilight singers before starting My Jerusalem in 2010. With My Jerusalem, Jeff has been on tour with The Wallflowers, X, The Psychedelic Furs, Heartless Bastards and Peter Murphy, played shows with artists including Sigur Ros, The Cure, Muse, D’Angelo and Kings Of Leon and has been featured in Esquire magazine and on MTV. The band’s second album, Preachers was released in 2012.
Jeff talked to me about why he chose to make a career in music and what led him to start My Jerusalem. He also shared some tips for artists looking to build genuine relationships within the music industry, improve their live shows and grow their fan base in order to promote themselves and make a sustainable living through their art.
Thanks for taking some time to talk, Jeff. How did you first get involved with music?
When I was 11, I convinced my parents to get me a guitar and started playing. My brothers listened to a lot of music, so I had always been a big fan. When I finally got the guitar, I learned to play by listening to the records I would steal from them. At about 14, I started a crappy little band with my friends. We would get gigs at local bars in upstate New York.
I kept playing in bands throughout college and eventually moved to Austin, Texas. I played every open mic I could at every coffee shop, bar and venue. Eventually people started liking what I was doing, and I started recording on 4-tracks and putting out tapes. Somewhere along the way, enough different people heard my stuff and liked it, and I was lucky enough to have a company put out a couple records of mine.
The more I met people, the more I got involved in the business. I also started playing guitar on other people’s records, and I just never stopped.
And I would imagine some of your peers who played music with you when you were just starting out did not stick with it or get as far as you did. What do you think was different about the way you approached music that helped you establish a real career?
When I was growing up, my philosophy was always, “If you don’t have anything to fall back on, you don’t fall back.” I always figured out a way to make things work, pay my bills and make ends meet. And I found a way to make music. I think it’s hard to be successful at this if your mind is elsewhere. You really have to focus on your art and your trade and do it as much as you can. Otherwise, you give yourself an easy “out.” Music became my whole life. I didn’t give myself an option to be involved in anything else but music.
The guys I’ve known who have endured are simply the guys who have always had a gig bag on their backs.
Yes. I play music because I have to, not because I want to. It’s something I just have always done.
And now you’re leading My Jerusalem and doing well with it. Are you also still doing some work as a sideman?
Not as much, because My Jerusalem is taking up all my time, which is what I always wanted. When I started My Jerusalem, I was still playing a lot of gigs as a sideman. And it was educational and fun in some ways, but it wasn’t really holding my attention. I had already done a lot of solo records, and I just really wanted to be in a band with my friends. So, I recruited a bunch of them, and here we are.
And running a band is a lot of work, so it takes up almost all my time. Every once in a while I will get asked to play guitar or sing on someone else’s record, but My Jerusalem is my main focus now, which is a good thing, because it means the band is doing really well.
And you now have a Monolith PR on board for press and have, of course, personally been at this a while, so you have people that are familiar with you and the type of music you make. But what specifically do you think is driving this band to be successful?
I think we’ve had a lot of really successful tours and because of that, have been able to develop a great live show. It’s great to have a good PR company to get press, but it’s critical to be really good at what you do. By the end of this month, we will have done over 200 shows just for the Preachers record, and I think that’s what has helped us the most. We’ve gotten in front of a lot of people that didn’t originally know us, and now that they do, they are on board.
From the story you’ve told me, it sounds like you really became pro when you moved to Austin. How did you go from being a local artist, to a regional artist, to someone who is doing at least 200 shows per year?
I really just booked every show I could. Nobody wants to jump on a train until it’s already rolling. You just have to put in a lot of hard work and start booking your own shows and getting yourself out there. It’s physically and emotionally draining. I got to where I am just by being my own publicist, my own booking agent and my own marketing team. You have to be all of those things in the beginning. If you can juggle all those responsibilities, you will eventually attract other people that will support you.
The music business is a weird thing. When you get to the point where you have managers, publicists and a label, you are paying people to care about you as much or even more than you do. You have to show these people you have the confidence and ability to do it on your own, or they won’t want to help you.
A lot of people just starting out who come to me for help with their careers will email me cold and say, “I want a manager.” And my first thought is often, “Me too.” But as you said, you have to work really hard to get to that point.
You are a musician who has toured a lot. You also said you have worked really hard to fine-tune your live show. And I am of the opinion that because of all the recording tools that are inexpensive and readily available to musicians these days, bands don’t work as hard on developing their skills at playing live. What are some of the “do”s and “don’t”s of building up a live fan base and booking shows?
I think people, especially those running venues, appreciate it when you keep it short and to the point. When you do play a venue, you want to develop a positive relationship with promoters and others. Once you get to the club, you don’t want to be a jerk and start making demands when you are only drawing 10 people. You need to be cool, calm and collected and remember that you are fostering real relationships. Even if you are just playing at a really small place, five years down the line when you are doing a lot better, these promoters might be the same people who are now booking the bigger venues in town. And they will fight for you if you have established good relationships with them. Building personal connections is essential. Promoters are all trying to do the same thing you are as a musician.
You also need to make your financial demands and other things are in line with where you are in your career and be able and willing to do whatever you need to do to make shows happen. In the beginning, you’ll see very little payoff for a lot of work. And as frustrating as that can be, you can’t take that out on the promoters helping you out, or the fans that are supporting you.
And social media and other types of marketing have made things a little weird for musicians. But at the end of the day, your goal is to get your fans to tell their friends and get more people to listen to your music and come out to see you. A lot of marketing is still really grassroots, despite all the technology. The Internet makes things harder sometimes, because it creates a lot of white noise. But we all know that if we have friends whose opinions we respect, and they point us towards music that is good, we’ll check it out. You need to compel fans to share your music with others so you can increase your reach.
Basically, you want to be able to get promoters engaged and fans engaged. You want others to want to be a part of your band’s success and create special experiences that will compel people to want to help you. Fans want to feel like they’ve discovered the next big thing. And promoters also want to feel like they are contributing to the growth of a really good band.
I think people often forget that social media platforms are meant to be tools that amplify a grassroots up-swell rather than replace one.
On that note, which social media platforms and online tools do you feel have been most helpful to you at promoting your music and growing your fan base?
We try to use everything a little bit. I think we’re definitely able to show more personality and get more personal with fans on platforms like Instagram. You can see more personality through it. I feel like platforms like Facebook are designed to be a bit more informational.
There are just so many things to keep track of: Instagram; Twitter; Facebook; Vine … But you have to keep up with them, because there are honestly so many platforms and so much noise that sometimes it takes being really active in three different online environments to get one person to remember you. For example, you’ll play Philly, and then two days afterwards, someone will post, “Hey, when are you coming to Philly?” on your Facebook wall. Even when you’ve posted show announcements on Twitter, Facebook, Vine and everywhere else, fans will still miss them.
There’s a lot of competition for attention out there in the social media world, and even when someone is keeping track of your posts, they aren’t always really looking at them until 10,000 of their friends re-post them, and they see them in every feed.
And what are you doing offline that is helping you attract attention?
Honestly, we’re just working our asses off. We tour a lot. And every day we’re on tour, we’re doing interviews and events with radio stations. I’ll try and sell our art to anyone that will listen and show up anywhere that will have us.
I’m still constantly trying to meet new people. And as a band, you also need to hang out with other bands and make friends. You can always help each other.
A lot of people forget how important that is. They are really insular in their marketing activities.
Well, and as an example, I became good friends with John Doe from X, and X ended up taking us out on tour. Hang out with other artists. When you meet a band that is at your same level, you might be able to play shows or go out on tour together. Bands are stronger in packs.
Being involved in music is so competitive that you can forget how powerful a sense of community can be. Music has always been about scenes, and people often find out about a new band through other bands. You can’t just promote yourself; you have to promote a sense of community around you.
I am always amazed when I would see old footage of now-established bands, because they were always playing with other bands that are now established. They really did all know each other and helped each other succeed. It’s funny how the successful bands are all friends, and those friendships often preceded their success.
Your attitude is also important. Don’t let your ego get in the way. You have to be humble as you’re going up the ladder and continue to be a nice, cool and fun person.
I was going to ask you about that. You seem very bright and happy, without a lot of musician cynicism, which is nice to see. I know at times it’s frustrating to feel like you are constantly going out there and selling yourself. How do you maintain a positive attitude?
I’m happy because I’m not laying concrete, washing windows or bringing a Fortune 500 COO his coffee. I am eternally grateful, even on the days I don’t want to get up and sell my music. I don’t have many of those days, but they do come around every once in a while. There are so many worse things in life than getting up on a stage and sharing your art with people.
Also, I like actually having friends and living my life. I’ve been around people who are completely egomaniacal, and everyone hates them behind their backs. It’s no way to live. You’ll have more fun if you are friendly and mellow. I plan on doing this for the rest of my life. Stress is a killer in any work environment, and unless you go into your career with a good attitude, you will create major stress for yourself.
Knowing what you know now, what would you tell yourself if you were just starting out as an artist?
Don’t forget to have fun. There have definitely been points in my career where I have been so focused on trying to make things happen that I didn’t enjoy it. When you’re a kid, you dream of being in Rolling Stone magazine. And then one day, you’re in Rolling Stone or playing on Letterman, and you’re so wrapped up in everything that you don’t even enjoy it; you’re just obsessed with getting to the next rung on the ladder. Relax and enjoy the moment, and everything will happen.
This is a re-post of an article published several years ago.
Munsey Ricci runs an independent Radio promotion and marketing company called Skateboard Marketing. Skateboard Marketing puts hard rock and metal acts on Active Rock, Album Oriented Rock (AOR) stations and College stations that play metal. Munsey started his career as a guitar player, worked in a jingle house as an engineer and created the Metal department for Polygram records in 1989 before starting Skateboard Marketing. Over the past seventeen years Munsey has worked with Disturbed, Pantera, Megadeth, Black Sabbath, Marilyn Manson, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Anthrax, among others.
Munsey outlined the ins and outs of radio and how radio promotion works. He also discussed when bands should consider a strategy for getting their music to radio and offered up some tips for getting the attention of radio gatekeepers.
What does doing independent promotion entail?
When you do independent promotion you use your relationships at radio and in the industry to get records played on the radio. So if you’re a radio promotion company, you have your whole list of stations; we have 400 commercial and college and syndicated metal shows. We call radio every week. We have a bulk permit with the post office and do all our mailings in house. I schedule an ad date, set a record up with the trade magazines and from hat point we call radio every week.
We ship a record every week and send a tracking report: these are the people we called; this is where the record is getting played; these are the chart numbers it had. It’s not as easy as everyone thinks it is. A lot of bands could say, “I’m just going to send my stuff out or service my stuff out digitally.” Great, but by servicing yourself digitally, if you don’t have a relationship at that radio station or you don’t know how to get a hold of the PD or the MD or the person that does the metal show, your phone calls and e-mails are falling on deaf ears.
You have to know how to get to them, what they are into, what they like to play, when they like to play it, how to get them on the phone. Then you can be physically accepted and get your records played at that station.
Obviously, every station is different. Every metal show is different and every active station is different. How they program, and what records they put on really goes by the station. If you look at, for example, what Eddie Trunk does in New York at Q104, it’s not going to be the same thing that Full Metal Jackie does in Los Angeles. Eddie Trunk won’t play “Lamb of God.” He will play a Winger record or a Scorpions record. Full Metal Jackie will play Slayer and “Lamb of God.” That’s where the differences come from. You have to know what a station does before you call it up on the phone and give a laundry list; because it’s very counter-productive to do it any other way.
When is the right time to go to radio for bands just starting out?
There’s never a wrong time and there’s never a right time. You have to time it right. The end of the year, because of the holiday crunch and all the records going for ads is a bad time. If you’re an independent, it’s not that you’re going to get lost in the sauce, but it’s a bad time because radio will only have space for ten records. They’ll pick their ten favorite records, which will usually be made up of mostly more established artists.
If you’re an independent, they’ll say, “I listened to this record and I like this record but I didn’t like this other record, and I only have room for five.” So they’re only going to put in one. If you look at the schedules and say, “I know February and March are going to be pretty light; there aren’t going to be that many releases coming,” then you can schedule the record for February or March.
Really what that comes to is, once the band finishes their record, they have to stop and look at scheduling, see what’s on the schedule, know what’s coming out and what they can and can’t compete with. They have to know their limitations. The only way to know that is to look at the schedule. If someone wanted to go for ads this week [two weeks before Thanksgiving] and they are a brand new band, I’d advise them not to. I’d say, “Let’s go next week or the week after. Or let’s wait until January because there’s less traffic.” But that’s just 2009-2010. 2010-2011 can be a completely different ballgame.
What about timing in a band’s development as far as going to radio? Should a band be at a certain point in their career? What sells a new band to a program director or music director at a station?
Anything you do is good for hype. A band needs to be visible. There are some advantages to a band of getting a tour today. If you’re a developing artist and you’re not signed, to get a major tour is very hard. It’s usually a buy-on, and not unless they’re going to take you out. The only way to get a tour is to wind up getting on a packaged bill; and the only way to get a packaged bill is through an agency that sees the band has a publicist, a radio promotion company in place and that there is product readily available in the marketplace, because they want to see promotion. If you don’t have any of these factors, you’re not going to get a tour. If you do have all these factors, it’s still going to be extremely difficult if you’re not signed. If you are signed and are an independent, the chances of you getting a tour are better, because obviously you’re going to have a record company that will say, “Hey listen – I need to get my band out on the road, do you want to buy in?” And if a record company goes to them with $5,000 in tour support and asks what they can do, it’s going to open up a lot of doors. On the same token, it depends on the band and the record. Some bands make a great record, but it falls on deaf ears. Other bands make a bad record and other people say, “Yeah, I heard it and I really didn’t like it.” But at least people listen to it and you are able to close a few stations and develop the bands. Artist development always starts on the street level. You have to take the hype that the band did, all the press that the band had and combine it all together and throw it out at radio. Then you can say, “This is who my band is and this is why you should be listening.”
How do you recommend approaching stations as a band?
Twenty years ago, if you didn’t have a house PA system, you couldn’t tour. Now it’s a different story. The smart things most bands could do is take their time with the record. Don’t say, “Come on, we have to get it done!” Go in the studio, take your time. If it takes two months or three months, get it right. Get the tracks right, get the mix right. Get everything right. When you do artwork, don’t do cheesy artwork. Spend a couple bucks and get some really good artwork. Get a uniform barcode and get the album barcoded. Have it pressed from one of the pressing plants, whether it’s Digital Works or Play-It Productions. Bring it to somebody that’s going to do the printing right. When it’s all right, then is the opportunity to go get a publicist and get a radio promotion company to do it.
I take out new bands every week; we have all signed independents and majors. But the bands that aren’t signed need to do it that way. Otherwise it’s just another local band trying to get their stuff played. “Do it right and take your time” is my best suggestion to them. Then they come to me with a record that looks professional, sounds professional, has good songs on it, is shrink-wrapped and has a security seal on it, and retail can take it in. Then you have the opportunity to deliver finished product to a distributor and try to sell some records.
So actually having a physical CD matters?
You are never really going to abolish physical product. There is always going to be somebody that wants a physical record. Someone is always going to want to see artwork and liner notes and pictures of the band. They’re going to want to have the physical disc. If you look at SoundScan, some titles, downloads exceed physical; and on some titles physical exceed downloads. It depends on the band.
If you want to use this as an example – Dream Theater. Their fans are loyal and faithful, but still, when you go to a record store, fans would rather buy a Dream Theater record than just go and download it. As far as radio is concerned, will look at for digital delivery for radio is that it’s inexpensive and a lot cheaper than manufacturing and serving the old school way where you just throw it into an envelope and send it; but you still need to send some physical to select people.
That’s one of the ways you can cut your overhead on promotion and marketing costs as far as publicity, retail and radio is concerned by servicing everybody digitally, but there are still going to be industry people that want the physical product, and I’m one of them. I have a CD rack that goes from one end of my wall to another and from the ceiling to the floor. Every week I go to the store and buy stuff. I like to have the disc, and then I rip it into iTunes. As far as radio stations go, there are select radio stations I deal with, like Carl Schmidt at WVBR in Ithaca and Joe Wyatt at WEOS in Geneva. These are two prime examples. They’ve been doing the metal show at both of their stations for ions, and they want the physical product. They want to put it in their racks and are avid collectors. You’re never going to eliminate the collector or the real die-hard music fan that just wants to support the band they like. They’re going to go buy the records regardless. If you’re in the band, the most important thing you have is your fans, and you want to make sure you take care of your fans. Obviously ten years down the road there will be more digital than physical, but you’re still not going to abolish physical discs.
Knowing what you know now, if you were in a band today, how would you choose someone to help you bring your product to radio?
My suggestion would be, whether you’re metal, alternative, pop, urban or hip hop artist is to find out who the key players are first. The way to do this is to call somebody you know at a record company and say, “Hey, I’m an alternative artist, and I want to take my record out. Who are the companies you use?” Then you send each one of them a copy of the record and let them listen to the record. If the person says, “Yeah, it’s great, I’ll do it for five grand,” right away you know it’s not the right person. You want someone that gets the band and gets the music and is a fan of the band first. Then you want to see if this person is the right guy and where are his relationships, what is his past track record and what has he done? These are what you need to look at. Once you see that, then the most important thing is talking to other artists and asking them if they like the person, who they got the best vibe from, if they really like the person, if the person is right for you, etc.
The only way to do this is to physically pick up the phone, call someone, tell them who you are, give them the record and ask what they can do with it. That’s the only way you can do it. Anybody in a band knows people that are signed and have tours. You ask, “Who did you use for your independent radio promotion?” And there’s your referral. It’s a very small community and very tightly-niched.
What’s your opinion of the value of college radio in the current climate?
If you look at the big picture on college radio, usually about 60-80 college stations in the country have a cumulative audience – a cume – and affect sales in their market. If you look at WSOU in South Orange, NJ, they’re the largest college station in the country. And when they add a record, we see sound scan. There are only a handful of others. The other stations, they don’t really have a cume. If you’re looking at a small 300-Watt station, they have listeners – five, ten or twenty faithful listeners or their friends that listen when they play new stuff. And then you’ll get one fan who listens to the record and says, “Hey, I really like this band.” And then he plays it for two of his friends, and then this person goes out and plays it for two of his friends. If you sell five records, you did your job, and you developed the artist and created five more fans. And then you have five more fans to add to your fan base. All college is important. Because they are supporting what they believe in. If they are supporting my band, then I want to support them. I don’t care if they are 3 watts or 30,000 watts. Support who supports your band.
Do you have any general words of caution or advice for artists?
Take your time with your record and make sure it’s right. Once you know everything’s ready to go and you’re getting ready to pick the people to work with, make sure they are the right people to work with – the people you feel comfortable with. Don’t be afraid to call someone you don’t know. Pick up the phone and just do it. I take calls all the time from new bands. I’ll talk to anybody looking to make the next step. I just love being part of a new bands career.
For more information about Munsey Ricci and the work he does in the music business, visit the Skateboard Marketing website.