This site is 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.
Posts Tagged ‘how to make it in the music industry’
Last week was marked by music catalog deals as Google added access to 5.5 musical works across 35 countries, and Universal prepared to sell off EMI assets. Also, L.A. Weekly’s annual “Music Issue” spotlighted innovative DIY artists and entrepreneurs.
Google Granted Access to Millions of Tracks
Google, Inc. signed a new licensing agreement with Armonia a Spanish/French/Italian collection of European publishers, artists and composers that will give the company’s customers the rights to listen to 5.5 million musical works in 35 countries from artists such as Lady Gaga and Rihanna. The new license will allow music fans in Europe to use Google Play and its other music-related features.
The deal’s terms are “in line with industry standards involving Google rivals like Amazon and Apple’s iTunes,” SACEM representative Catherine Kerr-Vignale reported to The Associated Press. Kerr-Vignale added that Amazon and Apple have European licensing agreements that vary by country, whereas Google has a uniform agreement that is the same in the 35 countries it will serve in Europe and also includes UK and American sections of Universal Music’s publishing library and Sony’s Latin arm.
Armonia is the pan-European organization for online licensing and comprises the Italian Society of Authors and Publishersm its French and Spanish sister organizations SACEM and SAGE and Universal Music Publishing International. New access to tracks by major artists will make it more competitive with other major digital music providers.
TechCrunch writer Darrel Etherington noted that because Google Play still features a great deal of content only available in the U.S., many outside the U.S. have had to use workarounds, like those detailed in a recent blog entry on the Geniusgeeks site.
Of course, this deal is also important to getting more royalties into creators’ hands and encouraging music fans to engage in legal online music consumption. Sami Valkonen, head of music licensing at Google said, “Licenses such as this are important in ensuring that artists and rights-holders are rewarded fairly for their creative endeavors, and digital service provides are able to bring innovative services to market for the benefit of European consumers … Armonia is a welcome development in the ongoing reform of pan-territorial licensing in Europe in helping simplify and speed up the music-licensing process, which is crucial in fostering ongoing rapid innovation by digital music service providers.”
Over Nine Industry Players Vying for EMI Assets
Major music industry companies and executives including Warner Music, Simon Fuller and Island Records founder Chris Blackwell expressed interest in buying pieces of EMI from Universal Music Group, as reported by an article on November 14 in the Financial Times. Universal has been forced into selling some EMI assets in order to satisfy the misgivings of regulators as part of the $1.9 billion deal it made to buy EMI’s recorded music division.
However, as auctions loomed, Billboard reported that John Rudolph, formerly the CEO of Bug Music as well as Lava Records founder Jason Flom will be partnering up to bid for pieces of the pie. Sources continued to report last week that UMG’s bankers were still getting signatures together for non-disclosure agreements and will likely not likely start to make deals until this coming week.
The European Commission agreement stipulates that EMI’s assets have to be sold to buyers with deep experience running and managing a music company. However, some have said that becoming a qualified buyer could be as simple as a company with money hiring a former label president to work with them.
Flom was a high-level A&R executive at Atlantic prior to founding Lava Records in the 1990s and has worked with Kid Rock, Tori Amos, Skid Row, Matchbox 20 and many others before moving onto Virgin in 2005 and eventually becoming the CEO of Capitol Records Group.
Rudolph left the large independent publisher Bug Music in 2011 when it was sold to BMG Rights Management for over $300 million. When he was CEO of Bug, he managed over 35 acquisitions, including the acquisition of the Windswept catalog and a deal with Kara DioGuardi’s Talenthouse company.
BMG Rights Management will likely also join Fuller, Flom, Rudolph, Blackwell and Warner in the EMI bidding process.
L.A. Weekly Spotlighting How to Make It in the Music Industry
L.A. Weekly’s 2012 Music Issue addresses how to make it in the music business, with a spotlight on notable DIY artists and groundbreaking executives who have learned how to make a living and find an audience in the modern industry climate.
The Issue points out that being a successful musician and music entrepreneur in 2012 means not only having deep talent, but also being willing to work hard and being able to employ innovating marketing techniques. L.A. Weekly highlighted indie artists including Stolen Babies, Jhene Aiko and Spaceships, label owner Leeor Brown and party promoter Perish Dignam as examples of those who are succeeding thanks to “passion and unique branding.”
As just one example, Philadelphia-born Perish Dignam is a party promoter who has traveled nationwide, studying industrial design, engineering and psychology. On his own since age 15, he developed a big social-media following before starting up his regular “Swoon” parties, which are much like steam-punk carnivals and feature women in bikinis with power tools, fire dancers, etc. Those music fans who show up with elaborate costumes and professional photographers are granted free admission. He funds the parties almost entirely on his own, then puts profits back into more parties to allow him total creative control. He designs all the sets, manages performances, hires staff and sells tickets.
And the EDM juggernauts the Flemming Brothers run a dance-party “enterprise,” Do Lab. Together, Jesse and Dede and Josh created the huge Do Lab movement in Southern California through multiple marketing techniques and will soon head to Egypt to tour. Youngest brother Dede said he believes the business works, because the brothers each accept responsibility for very specific aspects of creativity, development and business management. His brothers shape the vision and he takes care of the “logistics:” “We have these roles … so we can support each other.”
And as L.A. Weekly pointed out, the “DIY movement” is not a new phenomenon. Artists like Dr. Dre and others have been going their own way for decades. Dre’s album The Chronic was released 20 years ago. Before being picked up by Interscope, it was a self-funded project: “It took nontraditional sales tactics and the deep pockets of an incarcerated drug dealer to make it famous. Then as now, the do-it-yourself spirit was critical.”
Last week, Google announced the upcoming launch of its new music locker storage service in Europe and secured licensing with Warner Music Group (WMG). And the landmark “F.B.T. Productions v. Aftermath” lawsuit involving some of Eminem’s music was finally settled. Also, Trent Reznor delivered some advice for aspiring artists that want to navigate the modern music business.
Google Play to Launch in Europe
Google’s long-anticipated new free scan-and-match music locker storage service Google Play will finally launch in Europe on November 13. The music store will launch in the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain and will offer the full features of its cloud locker technology, Andy Rubin, Google’s SVP of mobile and digital content said in a blog post on October 29.
Rubin told users, “[You] will be able to purchase music from the Google Play store and add up to 20,000 songs – for free – from your existing collection to the cloud for streaming to your Android devices or web browser.”
He added, “We’re also launching our new matching feature to streamline the process of uploading your personal music to Google Play. We’ll scan your music collection and any song we match against the Google Play catalog will be automatically added to your online library without needing to upload it …”
The service will hit Europe before it hits the U.S., though it will soon be available there as well. All product features will be totally free, with free music storage, matching, syncing across devices and listening.
This marks a critical step in Google’s path to compete with Apple, Sony and Amazon. Google chose to launch its original cloud service without licensing deals, eliminating the possibility for a scan-and-match function.
Google also finally signed a deal with WMG – its only hold out label – to add its catalog to the store, so it now has a full set of major labels attached, a year after the official launch of Google Music.
UMG/Eminem Music Royalties Lawsuit Finally Settled
A federal lawsuit with big implications for digital royalties and the entire music industry was finally settled this past week, revealed a story published by The Hollywood Reporter. The case, F.B.T. Productions v. Aftermath Records saw Eminem’s early producers, Mark and Jeff Bass suing a subsidiary of the Universal Music Group, because they believed they were not getting royalties owed to them from iTunes and other digital store downloads. (We have been following this story at Musician Coaching for a couple years. You can read more about its origins by checking out the interview from 2011 with lawyer Patti Jones, Esq.)
UMG stated that royalties for the downloads should be the same as for CDs, but F.B.T. argued that the downloads should instead be considered licensed music, which is worth more money; artists earn 10-20 percent from sales of albums and singles and 50 percent from licenses for uses such as a TV commercial, etc.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in California ruled in favor of F.B.T. in 2010, overturning a previous jury verdict. And both sides have been engaged in a damages trial for over a year. Another trial was set for April, 2013, which would have given the Bass brothers a platform to reveal the details of the millions of dollars they were owed, plus the underhanded way UMG and other major labels dole out revenues between foreign and domestic factions before sharing with artists. In fact, in June, even the judge involved in the case accused UMG of trying to “dupe” him by providing misleading information about the way it distributes revenue.
However, on October 29, the lawsuit ended with a private settlement. While the settlement has been officially filed, neither side would reveal the final settlement amount or the terms of the agreement.
Eminem was not involved personally in the F.B.T. case. However, it paved the way for other litigation in the past two years. Musicians including Kenny Rogers, James Taylor, the Temptations, Weird Al Yankovic and Rob Zombie filed suits against their labels for huge sums. Sony settled a class-action suit earlier this year that gave a group of artists $8 million total in missed royalties.
Many in the music industry feel that this case will set a legal precedent for the label-artist relationship going forward. While Universal has argued that the case will not change the landscape, many lawyers disagree. San Francisco-based lawyer David M. Given, who has worked on many of these cases, including one filed by the estate of Rick James said, “The legal precedent the case has set has already had a profound impact … If UMG paid the price, which I think it probably did, then that will set the bar (which I expect will be high) for the settlement of other download royalty claims, like the ones in the James class action, for other recording artists.”
Trent Reznor, on How to Make it in the Music Industry
Trent Reznor had some words of advice to share with artists trying to make it in today’s challenging music business in a recent interview with Techdirt.com. After some misinterpretation of comments he made about going back to major record labels earlier in the month, he also decided to set the record straight and talk about his continued respect for the DIY journey and the importance for artists to understand the business aspects of their careers.
And Reznor asserted that the advice he would give to up-and-coming musicians looking to create a strong business model is the same advice he would give to established acts: “My advice today, to established acts and new-coming acts, is the same advice I’d give to myself: Pause for a minute, and really think about ‘What is your goal? Where do you see yourself?”
He detailed the danger of focusing on the ever-elusive “record deal” and why all artists need to instead focus on honing their craft and “brand” by sharing his own story: “As a 22-year-old kid in Cleveland, it seemed to me that just playing out in bars, hoping someone noticed your band, and then offered you a record contract, while that’s possible, I didn’t know anybody, and didn’t know anybody who knew anybody that that had ever happened to. The strategy then, was let’s work on getting a band, and something that means something, music that matters, music that I feel proud of, and a vibe and name and ‘brand’ of this thing, and then try to reach maybe some small labels that had music in the same vein of what I liked.”
In today’s music scene, Reznor said, artists have a lot of opportunities to build a strong fan base. And they need to define what their ultimate goals are now more than ever before and know when seeking out a record deal is appropriate, and when it is not: “If I were that person [starting out] today, there’s a hell of a lot of things that didn’t exist then, that exist now – like YouTube, like the ability to self-publish, like the ability to reach everyone in the world from your bedroom if they’re interested. I’d focus my efforts on what seems like a logical way to do that that maintains integrity. If my goal is to compete with Rihanna on the pop charts, I’d think that requires going through a major label system with a powerful manager.”
He stated that he made a decision to go back to a major label for his latest endeavor How to Destroy Angels, because it fit his current goal, which requires him to go beyond what he has built with Nine Inch Nails. He was concerned that only Nine Inch Nails fans would latch onto the new project. And a label offers him the chance to extend far beyond his current fan base.
He further explained, “The main reason I do what I do is I want to do something that matters. I want to be able to create art that reaches the maximum amount of people on my terms … That was a key component … Because it came down to us – us being the band now – sitting around and identifying what our goals were. And the top priority wasn’t to make money. It was to try to reach the most amount of people, and try to reach the most amount of people effectively, that doesn’t feel like it’s coming completely from my backyard.”
This article was originally run in November of 2009 but I have revisited it several times as advice for my own career as well as sharing it with others. I’ve done literally hundreds of interviews for musiciancoaching.com but in my opinion this one is the most valuable and the most timeless. When I looked back at the number of views it got I realized it needed to be read and shared again.
Gabe Roth is the bass player, producer, main writer and founding member of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and the head of their label Daptone records. Gabe also recently won a Grammy award for engineering the Amy Winehouse record “Back to Black”. I was lucky enough to be in a band with Gabe in college back when he was a drummer. He is one of those enviable musicians who can pick up any instrument and make it look effortless.
You founded Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and the Daptone Label and have been able to sell thousands and thousands of records and tour the world – how did you get to this point?
I think it was probably a little luck, just like with anyone else. Mostly I think I was in a unique situation because I was not that interested in being part of the music industry. I think that gave me a perspective and a pig-headedness. It was one of those things where I was too stupid to do things the way I was supposed to do them, and it ended up working out well. I never followed a lot of the paths and things that we were supposed to be doing to make, record and market records. We really relied on a lot of grassroots stuff and slowly built up an audience.
There was no real scene for retro soul prior to the predecessor to Daptone (a label Gabe founded with a Partner called Desco Records). You were the architect of bringing these people together, right?
It’s probably true, because there wasn’t really a scene then. It’s a strange perception and an inside-outside thing. You don’t realize there’s enough going on around you to consider it a “scene” until someone says, “Hey, where did this scene come from?” It’s like a spontaneous party on a subway platform. We never really architected it, planned it or anticipated it. I think by not trying to concentrate on what people were going to listen to and instead of concentrating on what kind of records we were going to make, we ended up making a bunch of records that people wanted to listen to.
You wound up collaborating and producing with tons of different people over the last ten years ago. Was that the plan or was that just what you did to get by?
It was mostly just what we had to do to make ends. The Amy Winehouse stuff and working with Mark Ronson (Producer – Amy Winehouse) didn’t open up the kind of doors that are perceived from the outside. For example, when we’d go on tour with the band and go play Madison, Wisconsin or some city where we’ve played for many years, and we went from 30 people, to 50 people, to 100 people to 200 people, to 800 people, to 1,000 and 1,500 people, we’d see this curve from our point of view that was based on going out and playing music and selling 45’s – a very grassroots, organic approach. But part of the timing of that Amy Winehouse project was the door that it opened. It was not that people listened to that record and came to us. There were really very few consumers and fans that we got from this record. At these shows, I’d go and ask people, “Where did you hear about the band?” The overwhelmingly most popular answer was “Terry Gross, Fresh Air.” Doing an NPR show is for an independent artist is twenty times more important than doing David Letterman or Conan O’Brien.
The thing about doing those kind of established shows and working with Amy Winehouse and doing these major label, major production things is that those things give a different perspective on who you are to the music industry, music writers and people like that. After the Amy Winehouse thing, there were countless writers that contacted us for interviews: Sharon; myself or anyone else at the label. They would tell us that they had been fans of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings or the label for years. They would tell us they’d been buying our stuff since the Desco days. But they could never go to Entertainment Weekly who they worked for and tell them they were going to write a story about us, other than some tiny little preview in the back. But the Amy Winehouse thing allowed them to go to the editor and say, “This is why this is a big deal.” It’s a little enigmatic – the Amy Winehouse effect, the Conan O’Brien appearance or having Sharon Jones in that Great Debaters movie. It wasn’t a direct marketing effect. It wasn’t that people saw those things and came to us as listeners or consumers. It was just that it opened the door and gave us a strange leverage with print editors and A&R people at major labels. It gave us a very strange clout that opened up different doors. Like you said, in a lot of interviews, especially after the 100 Days record, people would ask me, “How are you dealing with this overnight success?” For us it seems very bizarre. I couldn’t think of anything less sudden. We’ve been doing the exact same thing for fifteen years and very slowly record by record, ticket by ticket, people have been telling their friends and very slowly have been coming up. And then we finally breached a certain ceiling. It’s not the big ceiling – we’re not up there with Madonna or Britney Spears anything. But we breached a ceiling that acknowledged us as major independent artists. I don’t know where you’d file us – not as rock stars or major celebrities. But all of a sudden certain people said, “Where did you come from?” And we thought, “Are you kidding me? Where did you come from?”
How on earth did you just take playing around NYC with a bunch of guys living in Brooklyn into an international experience?
Firstly, we did no promotional gigs. I never played for exposure. We never played in exchange for exposure or to meet somebody. We actually do it more now than we ever did then. We played for cash and valued what we did. In this market there are too many people that are too hungry, and you can’t rely on marketing yourself. You have to rely on having something people want. We really tried to concentrate on creating demand by having something people wanted. We spent our energy thinking about how we could make the show better, not how we could get more people there, and let the people figure out how to tell their friends how good the show was. It took a lot longer. If you’re a major label, and it’s 1989 and you’re putting out a new Pearl Jam record, this is an irrelevant approach. But right now, the approach they had is also kind of irrelevant. It’s a different time and a different structure. The whole game has changed.
A lot of majors are complaining about the CD market shrinking, sales going down and the sky falling, but we’ve experienced a really successful time. It’s because the basis of our business is very conservative and value based. It’s based on the idea that the reason why somebody is going to buy a Sharon Jones record is not because they saw it in a Best Buy sampler or free with a can of Coke or saw it in a Disney cartoon. The reason people are going to buy it is because someone said, “Have you heard this record? It’s great,” “I saw the show” or “My local college record DJ played this.” It’s an old school, traditional record marketing technique. Most of what we’ve done that has been successful hasn’t been innovative. It’s been really, really conservative and old school – the way people promoted records years ago. It’s “Get on the road, get on the bus, talk to the DJ’s, talk to the record store clerks, keep everything on a grassroots level and try to connect with people directly.” We’ve stayed away from hype and big marketing schemes, big marketing money and the types of things that endanger our business and livelihood. We tried to sell records the way someone would sell ice cream or paint at the local store. We tried to cater to the customers and not think about, “How are we going to become bigger?” By staying away from that, we’ve kept ourselves safe, secure and stable in a time that has been very volatile for a lot of companies.
You were self booked, put together the label you signed and produced records on, didn’t have a manager until six or seven years ago. How did you go about breaking a second market? Who did you call?
The call I was making was to better musicians. I wasn’t staying up all night trying to figure out how to get people to shows. I was staying up trying to write a better horn chart. It was all value based. I never spent a lot of time trying to hustle friends and family down to shows. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but I have family and friends that come into town and ask to come to shows, and it was the same way before. They’re not calling me because I’m their buddy; they’re calling me because it’s a good show.
Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of tips other than that. I think concentrating on the music and putting a lot of heart into it is important. To be fair, I think a big advantage I had is I didn’t have a lot of illusions about or aspirations in this industry. That was a huge advantage. I think a lot of people have this itching in the back of their head: “How am I going to make it? How am I going to break this record? How am I going to break this band and take over the world?” Those things work against you and make a lot of people fall victim to predators in this business. There are a lot of people that make their living off artists giving things away. Artists are so hungry to make ten million dollars that they’ll never make $1,000. If you concentrate on making $100, next thing you know you’ll make $1,000, $10,000 and $100,000. But if you’re walking around the streets with your demo trying to think about breaking a record or being a pop sensation all you’re going to do is give yourself away for nothing. And if anyone makes money, it’s not going to be you, it’s going to be somebody else.
When you look at the whole American Idol picture of the music industry, you have a bunch of people signing the worst contracts you could imagine, because they want something so badly that it puts them at a horrible disadvantage negotiating wise. And you can say, “Okay, that’s kind of a far out hypothetical when you’re talking about a TV show and people coming from all over the world and signing a contract with the biggest label for a million dollars.” It’s an extreme situation, but I think it exemplifies the same psychology that goes on when a band drives from South Carolina to New York and plays a gig for nothing. The reason they’re playing a gig for nothing is because they think that’s going to make them bigger. If they were thinking, “How can we make $50?” they wouldn’t play a gig for nothing. Maybe they wouldn’t come to New York, but if they didn’t come to New York, the demand for bands would be higher. The club owner in New York could not be expecting bands to play for nothing. It really drives down the value of music when there are that many people out there that are that hungry and that anxious to give their stuff away.
That’s one of the problems in the CD market as a whole on a different scale. It has to do with devaluing music and trying to mass-market music. The only way you’re going to be able to sell a million of anything is to give it away. But that’s not a great strategy if you’re on the corner selling lemonade. It’s stupid to sit there on the corner selling lemonade for 25 cents and say, “I’m going to give this away for free for a couple days to people that look like they might want to buy lemonade, because in the future they’re going to want to buy lemonade.” It doesn’t make sense. Take the 25 cents and go make some better lemonade and keep going. I was patient enough to take those organic steps and it’s put me in a situation where I’m very secure and not depending on anyone for anything and it is because we were very patient and we didn’t take those huge leaps to try to make ourselves bigger. We tried to keep the business focused inward.
You did make certain bets. You borrowed money. You invested in your career but not in such a way that you couldn’t hope to pay it back without a huge titanic success. I clearly remember times you telling me your credit cards were maxed.
Yes, but they were my credit cards. They had a stake in my ass, but they didn’t have a stake in my music. There are a lot of perspectives on credit card money, especially now. But I built a career out of it. I built businesses that makes a lot of money off credit cards because that’s all I had. I borrowed money from people in my family and credit cards, and none of them have any interest in my business now. I was able to pay them back in full, and now I own everything completely. I’m not recommending that, but that was the only option I had. The other option would’ve been to try to find somebody who will invest money in my career. I never went that route, and I had a lot of opportunities. Since then, every day we have offers on the table to buy the label. If we wanted to sell the label and become an imprint of one of the majors, I’m sure we wouldn’t have problems doing that. We could get a lot of cash, and we wouldn’t have to worry about a lot of things, but in the long term we would lose interest. I think the other thing is I was never set on being wealthy. I want to have money and take care of my family, but if I can go to work every day and do something I love and own what I write and record and record exactly the way I want and live my life the way I want to, I’m going to be a lot happier than if I’m making ten times as much money but not doing something I enjoy. I definitely couldn’t stomach the music industry if I had to be part of it in that way. I don’t have the constitution for it.
A lot of times you find the things that are profitable are not necessarily the most fun. I’m no monk, we do a lot of things I don’t like doing. But there are some things that come out funny. For example, Chase commercials. When we got approached to do replay music for Chase commercials, it was very distasteful because I hate Chase. You go in there, and they’re assholes. They charge you too much, and it’s not a company I want to help promote in any way. But musically what they asked us to do was so unbelievably rewarding for me. They were asking us to replay Stevie Wonder songs. And what that meant was for me to go into the studio in one day and go soup-to-nuts rhythm section through background singers and strings and mixes and everything and try to recreate Motown masters. I learned more in those couple days doing that than I learned in years of engineering school. It was really going to school. It was a very humbling experience getting inside those masters in that way. It turned out to be a very enjoyable thing and it paid well. Of course, there have been other things I didn’t enjoy.
Any words of caution or mistakes you made along the way that you’d advise people to avoid?
The first thing I would say – and it seems little, but it crushes me every day – is that at Dap-Tone we get piles of demos and packages with full glossy photos and DVD’s, press clippings, CD’s with full artwork and digi-packs. I would tell people not to send anything unsolicited, because that’s a lot of money you’re spending. If you’re trying to make a living as an artist, you have to look at it as a business. You can’t be banking on selling a million records. You have to look at it and think, “How can I make $4,000?” The first way is, don’t spend $4,000 making and sending demos to labels that didn’t ask for them. It seems stupid, but it’s the first thing everybody does. If you’re looking at what you do as a career, it doesn’t make any sense. It is another thing driven by an illusion – that something like that is going to give you your big break. If somebody’s looking for a huge break, I don’t have any advice, because I never got one. If you’re looking to really do something like I did – more conservatively create your own business and market – you have to really watch your pennies and spend your money on things that are important like rent and food and paying good musicians – things that are going to make you survive and do this for a long time.
There are a lot of people that end up giving up on music because they feel like they fell on their faces, but I think a lot of times their energies are misdirected. Instead of looking inward and local and trying to create something small that they can build from and concentrating on their music and their craft and relating to people on a direct level, they’re shooting for stars. It’s like playing the lottery. It’s fun, and if you win it’s amazing, but it’s not a business plan. You don’t say, “Okay, we want to start a business and want $500,000. The first thing we’re going to do is buy $4,000 worth of scratcher tickets.” It’s kind of the same thing when you start sending demos around. If you have $4,000, don’t press up full CD’s and glossy pictures and sent them to me, especially if you haven’t done any research to find out if I’m into that music or I could be slightly into that music or you’ve never made any contact with me. I’m not saying people shouldn’t make demos or connections, because they should. But I think trying to make meaningful contact is much more important than any kind of shotgun approach.
Please check out Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings and their label Daptone Records.
Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings “Let Them Knock” LIVE @ 89.3 the Current
Bob Knight is a drummer and the owner of BEK Music Ltd., a company based in the UK that provides session musicians ranging from soloists, horn and rhythm sections, to complete orchestras. Originally from Harrogate in Northern England, Bob grew up studying music, eventually earning a jazz degree at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he studied with renowned musicians including Bernard Purdie, Clare Fischer and John Abercrombie. Throughout his 16-year career as a session musician and musical director, he has performed, recorded, toured with, and directed many prominent artists including Charlotte Church, Seal, Eminem, Nik Kershaw, Michael Bolton and Cee-Lo Green.
I recently got to sit down with Bob and talk about the evolution of his music career, the qualities an artist needs to have in order to get steady work as a session musician and some advice he has for musicians that want to make it in the music industry.
Thanks so much for taking some time to talk, Bob. What does your current work in the music industry entail?
I kind of have a dual personality. I exist as a drummer/musical director. And then I have a fixing company. The fixing company itself is called BEK Music Ltd. It’s really just a name for registration purposes, but I tend to go by my own name, because it’s a bit more succinct. It also avoids some complication, because sometimes people who work for me, especially the younger generation, don’t realize I play music. They just think I put things together, because they haven’t seen me play or I haven’t played with them. Sometimes people who know that I play don’t know I can put things together for them if they require it. The company is a way to make sure everyone knows about everything I do.
And how did you get your start in music?
I started out a lot like everyone starts out. I’m from the North of England, from Yorkshire County from a town called Harrogate, which was a great town to grow up in. It was very geared towards the encouragement of youth music and education, and the programs were beautifully run and well involved. It was kind of a middle-class town. I studied there privately with some great drum teachers.
After I left Harrogate, I moved to London to go to the Royal Academy of Music. I did the four-year jazz degree there, which was amazing. It’s a hard course to get into. They only take eight players each year from around the world: one drummer; one bass player; one piano player; a couple horns and a singer. It was a whole day of auditions. But they have the greatest teachers and the greatest visiting faculty. If someone’s in town playing a show, the college will get an “in.” So, I had master classes and one-on-one lessons with Bernard Purdie, Clare Fischer, John Abercrombie – really heavy people.
I studied there for four years. I’m quite lucky because my brother is four years older than I. He went to Berklee and then he came to the Academy. So, I’ve always had the benefit of hindsight, because I’ve been able to see – not the mistakes that he’s made, but the problems that he’s faced trying to get established in an industry that’s already oversaturated and unregulated.
Before I graduated, I made sure I had some teaching opportunities lined up and had made fairly decent in roads with corporate function bands, etc. So, I knew I could sustain a living from music regardless of “making it” in commercial music. For me, and for anybody on the session musician side of things – not necessarily if you’re an artist – you have to do a little bit of self preservation, because of the nature of the business; there are a lot of things they don’t tell you in college about taxes, bookkeeping and accounting. It’s all quite boring, but it’s incredibly necessary. There were a lot of musicians that came out of college and got massively stuck by either earning huge amounts of money – because they got on a big gig and didn’t deal with it properly – or who could’ve gotten benefits or paid less tax because they didn’t understand what they should be registered for and how they should deal with it.
I was prepared when I left college. And I did a couple years of teaching and scratching around, playing everywhere I could and never saying no to a gig; I still try to keep that as an ethos now, especially if it’s with people I never play with. But my brother and the guys I knew that were older than me and playing clubs had opportunities come their way, one of which was my friend Steve, who got made music director (MD) for Alison Moyet. I started with her in 2003, and I still play with her now. We’ve done six or seven big tours.
Alison’s manager used to do the press for Charlotte Church, so I started playing with her and working as her MD. She had just put an album out, and we did a very small tour, because she didn’t really like touring. And then, she got her own TV show on Channel 4 here, which at the time was more cutting edge than other channels. We did three seasons of that show – over 33 shows. We had a 9-piece house band, not unlike a Letterman-type situation. And at the end of the show every week, she would do a duet with the guest. We had artists like Fergie, Nelly Furtado and the Manic Street Preachers. My job was to sort the arrangements for the theme music and all the other music played. And then – just to meet the artist and make them feel comfortable – we would prep the artist and talk to them through email in advance and argue about the key, etc. and a lot of other things drummers don’t often think about.
It sounds like as much as you are a drummer, you are also a music director and thus somebody who knows his way around arrangement.
I’ll be honest with you. The key thing I do is book a really good band. If you book a great band, most of the arrangement takes care of itself. I never write arrangements out in manuscript form – never physically score or arrange music. I book great players. And I trust a great guitar player knows more about playing the guitar than I know. I can tell him the feel I want and what I’m looking for and then let him find the part. I do the same with horns. I always book a section that work together and know how to communicate. I am a pretty traditional drummer in the sense that my harmonic knowledge is fairly piss poor. It’s as basic as it needed to be to earn my degree. And since then, I haven’t spent lots of time working on it.
By booking the right people with the right mindset and the right ability, I am able to be the MD. I’ve found that the majority of the responsibility that falls on the musical director relates to dealing with record companies, management and making an artist feel comfortable, secure and supported. And it’s also about establishing a decent line between having a good time and taking care of business.
You’ve hired a lot of musicians over the course of your career. And I know a lot of people that have been banging their heads against a wall in their original project and saying, “I love playing music so much, I have to figure out a way to stay involved. I better do some hired gun work.” What is it that you’re looking for in a session player, other than talent? And where do you find quality session musicians?
I’ll tell you what I look for. And then I’ll tell you how I come across people.
The most important thing for me, talent aside, is finding musicians that understand the music. It sounds flippant. But I’m not a fan of the gospel chops approach of playing higher, faster, louder, better. I think a lot of people don’t really grow out of that. I’ve seen so many people blow auditions by getting their chops out, because they feel that they need to prove they can play rather than just play the song. The majority of things I book are song based. So, chops aren’t that important. You need to have a degree of facility or technique beyond the music you’re playing, but that’s kind of a given. We all studied lots of things we don’t necessarily need so they would open up our musical vocabulary.
Personally, I’m really looking for people with ears, people with a good attitude and people who go the extra mile when the paycheck doesn’t necessarily dictate that they have to. I want them to want to go that extra mile because they care about turning in a good performance. Obviously, budgets these days are a real fight. I’m also looking for people who are socially aware and know how to behave in front of an artist and with other musicians. And because I’m a drummer, I’m always looking for the feel.
From a non-musical perspective, I need people to be punctual, always. You can never be the last in the lobby. You should always strive to be the first for a bus call, a lobby call or a sound check. To turn up last, a minute before the call time and say, “I’m here on time” really isn’t good enough for me. Specific timings are set out by tour managers as the latest you can arrive, not the time you should arrive; because there’s something that can go wrong – public transport or your own private transport, etc. If people are late for me, I usually give them a three strikes option. And on the third strike, they get fired. I’ve seen it through on a couple occasions, and it’s not particularly pretty. I don’t think people think you’re actually going to do it. But in a professional environment, music can be a bit deceptive: it feels quite social; everyone is getting on; you’re not in an office. I think sometimes people forget they’re at work, and they think they can take a lot of liberties.
Of course, maintenance of equipment and general personal hygiene, etc., as ridiculous as it sounds, are all really important. You don’t want guys coming on tour with a toothbrush and one shirt when you’re away for six weeks. But you’d be amazed.
As a bass player, I’m a hobbyist at this point. But I was always amazed at the gigs I got to hang onto just by being sober, punctual and doing what the part called for rather than overplaying. I can play eighth notes and I can play them really well.
That’s all you need. You’re hired!
It’s just always funny to hear it out loud.
How did you progress past Charlotte Church into having a fixing business? And what exactly is a fixing business?
With the Charlotte gig, I fixed the band; I put it together. A “fixer” is essentially the same as a contractor in the States. But we don’t work on contracts in the UK, so the range of what I do is fairly broad. Because of all the guests that came on Charlotte’s show, I met all the record company people. As you know, there are only four labels: Universal; Sony; EMI and Warner Bros. And they pretty much own everything else, unless I’m missing anybody.
There are a few large independents, but those represent the majority, sure.
For over 33 shows, I met all the reps for promo and good in roads there. I should go back a bit. Even before I got a gig with Alison or Charlotte – in about 1998 or 1999 – there were a couple people I was working with doing this fixing kind of thing. Neither of them were musicians. And neither of them were doing it very well in my opinion, because they didn’t know who to book or what they were booking. Essentially, I saw a gap in the market. And I knew people at a couple labels.
I bought a crappy old black-and-white camera, got in my beat-up car and drove around the whole of London photographing friends of mine in black and white standing against brick walls to make a portfolio book and try to get labels to take meetings with me so I could tell them I could supply them with musicians. I had a meeting with Steve Lillywhite, who was head of Mercury Records at that point. I knew him through a few different degrees of separation. He and a couple other guys saw my portfolio, and I managed to speak to a girl at Warner Bros. who was head of TV promotions.
For a while, I didn’t hear anything from anybody. But I kept building the book. And I was dropping cold emails and cold calls to people to let them know this is what I did. It took two years before I got a call. And the first call I got was from Sarah Adams at Warner Bros, who needed a TV band for Craig David. He had a touring band, but they wanted a younger look to do his TV appearances. I had the photographs all ready and had scanned everything into my computer, so I put a band for his shows on TV together.
At the time, there were a lot more shows on TV in Britain than there are now. And that band I put together did the whole campaign, which was about nine or ten shows. And then someone else in Sarah’s office said, “That band looked great. Where did you get them from?” So, she passed my number along.
And that was literally how it grew. I’ve been doing it for ten years now. As I was saying before, it was all about booking the right people who had the right attitude and turned up at the right time with the right dress, had learned the track, etc. Pretty much 85% of the live music on TV in the UK is mine.
Are you also doing fixing for people who need a touring band when there’s no television appearances?
I’m taking all kinds of calls now. But it wasn’t that way at first. I was predominantly mining TV stuff. So, through that, I would meet management and other members of labels. Most live things tend to come from different parts of the company or direct from an artist or their management, rather than through promotions; because by the time a project gets to promotions it’s mostly complete.
That’s how my fixing business got started. And it’s really progressed from there in the same way your career progresses when you’re a musician. Through word of mouth, by being organized and by delivering what I’m asked to deliver when I’m asked to deliver it, word has spread. And maintaining relationships with people has been really important.
So, your business is built largely on being affable and on being someone people keep in touch with and vice versa. It sounds like you’re a living example of someone whose Rolodex has sustained his musical career.
Yeah. I would agree with that.
And how are you balancing running a music business with being a session player and keeping your chops together?
I find it easy, to be honest. The internet is everywhere, and I have a smartphone and all the other necessary tools. The only thing working against me sometimes is the time difference. But if I’m in L.A. or New York, and I have to get up at stupid o’clock, then I just have to get up at stupid o’clock. And when you’re touring, there’s plenty of downtime. So, if I have to deal with something urgent related to my business when I’m out on tour, I can usually get it done. Most things you get good notice on.
On the live side, things take care of themselves. It’s very rare someone calls me needing to fix a whole band. There’s a girl called Rumer on Atlantic who I’m MD’ing for at the moment. And for her, I don’t fix the band. I just put the band together, because it’s very important to me that everyone gets paid fairly and correctly. And when we got the gig, the wages weren’t spectacular. And I didn’t feel it was right to take a commission there. So, I took an MD rate. But while the band is answerable to me, they essentially work for themselves. They’re not invoicing me; they’re invoicing her or the label.
Some of my friends that are MDs will put their own band together. But then they might call me. For example, there’s a band called Hurts that’s doing really well in Europe. They’re just now going to arenas. Their MD Pete is a friend of mine. And he will call me and say, “I need a girl who can sing, play the saxophone and play the violin.”
That’s pretty specific.
It’s very specific, and it’s also very unlikely. But because I know loads of people from college, from being out of college and making it well known that I do this kind of thing for a job, lots of people have gravitated towards me or have been recommended. I knew one girl who could do all those things, and I had to see if she was free. She had been on the road for most of last year just playing violin, but had just finished. I was able to negotiate her wages, put everything in place and send her down for an audition. She got the gig and has been out with them for about seven months.
On a gig like that, I don’t have to deal with any day-to-day stuff. I just deal with the invoicing, any contract negotiations for DVD or TV buyouts and other things like that. She becomes the responsibility of the tour manager. She and I have no contracts. She knows if she decides she doesn’t want to work for me anymore, she’ll never work for me again and I’ll never put her up for anything again. More often than not, that type of relationship is good enough, so you don’t have to contract people.
Contracts for session musicians don’t exist here. I’ve never had a contract as a session musician ever. I don’t know what it’s like in the U.S. But over here, you don’t get a contract for a tour or anything else similar. At the higher end, I’ve had musicians with contracts. For example, I have a girl out on tour with Shakira playing violin and a bunch of other things that has a contract. When an artist is that big and is playing arenas and some stadiums, they obviously need everyone on contract because of the sheer volume of people. But on a tour with a six-piece band and a ten-piece crew that is doing festivals and five- or six-week runs in different parts of Europe, it’s very rare you have a contract.
With something like Shakira, there’s insurance and liability, etc. You’d have to have that all nailed down.
It also sounds like your music direction and your fixing has improved your ability to find gigs as a drummer and that you’ve really leveraged one against the other.
I already had a reputation as a drummer. And contrary to popular belief, I don’t just work for myself. I play with a lot of other artists and get booked by other people – including other fixers – to play drums. And playing drums is my passion. It is always first and foremost. But as a session musician, there is a lot of downtime. And I’m not one for resting on my laurels. So, with my business, I saw what I thought was an opportunity.
I definitely have gotten some gigs because I’ve done something well for somebody as a drummer. And then maybe they needed a guitar player or someone who played the saxophone or guitar and as a result has come back to me on their next project and said, “We need a whole band for this.” And if I’m suited to it, I’ll also play drums. I’m very much aware of what my strengths are and aren’t as a drummer. I don’t really work with electronics. That’s not to say I won’t, but I haven’t as of yet. If something in that category comes in without a lot of prep time, I have guys I call.
If I’m being honest, I’ve managed to keep the two things I do very separate. And I like it that way. That’s why I set up the company in a way that, although it’s my initials, it’s not instantly recognizable to someone who might say “That’s Bob Knight, I know him,” or, “That’s Bob Knight, I don’t know him.” I still feel like I have something to prove as a drummer, as a result of people knowing me for doing many other things.
From the perspective of your 16 years of experience, which advice do you think would’ve helped you if you had heard it when you were just starting out?
Always give a good account of yourself, professionally and musically. Make sure that wherever you are or whatever gig you are on – regardless of how bad or how brilliant (but mostly of how bad) it seems – you are always giving your best. People always say, “You never know who is in the audience.” And you think, “That’s bullshit.” But, for example, I play with Nik Kershaw, and I’m very proud to do so. I grew up listening to his music. And I got that gig because I played a wedding with Nik’s bass player. And unbeknownst to me, the bass player went back to Nik and said, “I know who we need to get to play drums on the next tour.” And I’ve been holding that gig down for three or four years now.
With that in mind, you should always give the best account you can.
To learn more about Bob Knight, his business and his music, please visit the Bob Knight Drums website.
eMusic Editor-in-Chief J. Edward Keyes has been writing about music since 1997 for publications including RollingStone.com, Newsday, the Village Voice and Entertainment Weekly. His piece “Where’s The Party? 13 Hours with the Next Franz Ferdinand” was selected for inclusion in Da Capo’s Best Music Writing 2006.
Recently Joe took some time to talk to me about how he got his start writing about music, how eMusic is helping new and emerging artists and what bands can do to get noticed by journalists, editors and other music industry decision makers.
How did you get your start in the music industry?
I started writing about music on the print side of things about 15 years ago. I wrote for some publications in Philadelphia, including Philadelphia Weekly and the Philadelphia Inquirer and steadily pushed my way along. Then I moved to New York and started working for places like Entertainment Weekly, the Village Voice and then Rolling Stone after that. I was fortunate enough to end up here at eMusic. I started as a production manager, and then slowly over the course of six years I worked my way up to Editor in Chief.
It’s been really exciting to be with a publication for that amount of time, and to see it really carve out its identity and figure out who we’re supposed to be and who we are supposed to be serving. Getting to be a part of that editorially and being able to lead that charge has really been one of the more exciting moments of my career as a writer and an editor. I feel like working at eMusic dovetails really well with my personal taste and the kinds of bands I’ve covered over the last 15 years. We’re coming up with really exciting consumer research to help us figure out who our ideal member is. As we’ve long suspected, it’s the customers who are really independent minded and have independent tastes and want to set themselves apart from the Top 40. They really want to dig deep and learn more about independent artists and artists with a singular voice and idiosyncratic point of view. For me as a writer, that’s perfect. Those are the bands that have always excited me over the past 15 years. To be able to focus on them and have a platform to expose independent and just starting artists out to an audience that is eager to learn about just those kinds of artists is a really exciting place to be.
I would imagine running a digital service provider like eMusic really does come down to magazine real estate in terms of people getting written about and placed. I’m guessing you have a lot of people vying for your time trying to get a featured spot. You’ve all of a sudden combined journalism with what was once a record company sales role, where people would be trying to get your attention to get prime positioning at retail. Is that a somewhat accurate description of what your position as an Editor in Chief entails?
In a way. But one of the things I’ve been proudest of is that we’ve been able to keep a wall around the editorial department and stay true to our indie music roots. I can honestly say that in the time I’ve been here, while we’ve been constantly getting pitches from labels about their priorities and what they think we should be covering, if it doesn’t feel right to us and we don’t believe in it, we don’t cover it. We really do have the latitude to do that and continue to cater to the independent-minded consumer. One of the things for me is that it’s not just about dictating the written editorial on the site, but also guiding the whole direction of the voice of the site in general: What kind of partnerships should be doing, and which artists should we be featuring across the site?
A good example of something we did recently that I was pretty proud of is what happened was surrounding the latest Lady Gaga record. It came out, and it was going to be a huge record and obviously something that people were going to be talking about. As an editor, I thought there was a value in talking about it, but we didn’t want to talk about it the way everyone else talked about it. So we had had Michaelangelo Matos – a long-time music critic for places like Rolling Stone and someone that wrote a book on Prince – write a feature on the site called “Six Degrees,” which basically connected Lady Gaga to people like Grace Jones and Lower East Side New Wave artist Christina. It’s really about thinking differently about even the really poppy stuff and trying to present it in a way that will be interesting to even the consumer that is interested in off-the-beaten-path music.
I’m glad you circled back that way. I definitely want to know more about the process of searching for your ideal customer, the person who is independent minded. In your research, have you discovered that there still a thriving, vibrant community of people who are shunning the Top 40?
Absolutely. We believe it’s a really strong market. I think in general you can see it anecdotally if you look at the kinds of bands that are in the news. Look at this week’s pop charts in general and who is at the top. It’s bands like Death Cab for Cutie, Adele and My Morning Jacket. Those are artists that you could broadly call “indie bands.” We’re coming off the back of some really interesting research in general that shows that the independently-minded consumer does exist in the market, and that it’s hungry for something different from the “big box digital stores.”
Is there anything about those demographics you can share?
Nothing beyond the fact that we know some of the characteristics of their personalities. They tend to be the types of people that like to turn their friends onto bands. They take a certain level of pride in their individuality and in stepping outside the mainstream. They have a really close, personal relationship with their music; what they listen to defines them. So, there is an even greater incentive for them to step outside the mainstream. It’s really more about personality than hard demographic. It can span a bunch of things, but it’s really more about their personalities and their tastes.
Malcolm Gladwell would probably refer to them as “mavens.”
It’s interesting to know that scene is still vibrant. Personally, I know when I saw Zeppelin end up in a Cadillac commercial, I don’t know what happened to me, but something shifted.
One of the reasons I wanted to interview you is because I want to know how artists can use your site to their benefit. Clearly there’s a benefit to being on a site that’s catered towards the long tail. Are there ways artists can get in and customize the profiles when their music gets picked up by your site through TuneCore or some similar service? Are there things artists should be doing to make the most of their music being on eMusic?
We have a couple things that are designed to work with artists just like the ones you described. First and foremost – and something I’m really proud of on the site – is a program called eMusic Selects. We’ve been doing this since 2008. The simplest way to describe it is that we scour the internet and go to tons of shows to find unsigned bands we like. And then we exclusively put out their records digitally for two months to our members. We give them the full eMusic platform. So they get full homepage coverage, a newsletter that goes out to all our members telling them about the record and some other tools. We have really designed it to be a stepping stone for artists who are just starting out and really need a leg up, but don’t have a label and just need broader exposure. I’m proud to say that there are artists who have been Select artists in the past who have then gone onto sign with proper labels: Best Coast; The Rural Alberta Advantage; Crystal Stilts. Next week we have a band coming out we’re really excited about called Army Navy, which is the next artist in the eMusic Selects program. Once every two months we try to find a band that we love and a band we think more people should be hearing and use all our resources to break them in the consciousness of our members.
I would say that one thing independent artists can do is let us know about their music and come up with a compelling pitch to get us to notice them or listen to them. It could be a viral video they make or a press release they send out – something that gets us excited about them. As I said, in addition, we’re constantly going out to shows and constantly scouring Myspace pages to find new bands that are good fits for our Select program. That’s one of the big ways we have to really boost independent artists and artists that are looking to get broader exposure on eMusic.
Another thing in general that goes hand in hand with that is, there are literally millions of artists – and especially unsigned artists – who are competing for a finite amount of space. I’m happy to say that eMusic has a more unique editorial department than a lot of the other editorial departments I’ve ever worked in. Everyone in the department really does listen to most of the things that are sent; they all go out of their way to find new bands. But the more compelling the pitch, the more interesting the thing surrounding the pitch – whether it’s a viral video or some kind of clever campaign – the more we’re going to pay attention to it. Sometimes it’s really helpful to put your music in a framework that will catch an editor’s eye and make them want to listen to it.
I know a lot of young bands shy away from comparing their music to other things that are out there. But it’s helpful for me when I get a press release if one of the first things I see in the first couple sentences is giving me an idea of what this is going to sound like and making it compelling to me and like something I want to click through. That’s something I respond to very well. And I do read those press releases and listen to them. A lot of it is about the presentation and how you present yourself, so any interesting things you can come up with to accompany that are helpful. You can make a video, a Twitter campaign or a creative Tumblr that is a spin on something you’re doing on your site. Interesting approaches tend to get the greatest amount of attention and make me want to listen even more.
Wonderful. And you’ve sat behind the desk where dreams go to die – and I mean that in the best way possible – for a number of years.
The one message I do want to get out is probably hard to believe for most artists: We do listen to the greater percentage of the stuff hat cross our desk, because so much of what we do is focused on indie bands and young bands. We know what the big bands sound like. We’re looking for the next big band.
You just mentioned a “to-do” for artists. Based on your experience as an editor, a journalist and someone that has been a bottleneck, can you tell me anything that artists should not do?
I have a lot of funny, anecdotal stories. For example, I remember a couple years ago I got an unsolicited package from a band, which was great; I always open those packages. But I think the band thought to catch our attention they should load it with hundreds of tiny pieces of foil confetti, which proceeded to spill all over my desk and all over the carpet. That was a bad decision. Lately bands also have been filling up their promo envelopes with candy, which is also a bad decision. If I open that, and in addition to your CD, I’m getting candy or something like that, it doesn’t really tell me about your music. And if anything, it feels like some sort of weird kind of confectionary payola. I would rather have an interesting spin on your record than goodies.
Also, bands should be really careful about how they select their band name. You would be really surprised at how many bands get dismissed from just having a corny or too obviously-jokey band name.
So band name is important . Along similar lines, is there a value in a good elevator pitch or mission statement? My favorite story related to that is about a band out of Boston that I asked, “What do you sound like?” And the kid confidently replied, “We’re the music you would want to listen to if you were robbing a bank.” I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I knew I wanted to listen to it.
That’s a perfect example; I would definitely listen to that. Here’s another example of that. We recently had a writer write about the band Tunes. And he described their music as “the sound of stopping a subway train with your face.” It was funny, witty and made me want to listen to the music. Anything like that is effective – something quick, and pithy and snappy. And it’s going to get my attention. If you come up with something funny or striking that makes me laugh, you will have earned my respect at that point. Its’ good to put a creative spin on it.
Here’s the question I’m scratching my head about: Has the advent of digital distribution, which has made the digital distribution model so accessible to everyone now made the eMusic offering any less unique? Do you feel like your catalogue is still deeper than other catalogues?
I think with us, the key is the curation. If you go to some of the other major retailers and hit the main page of their music store, you’re going to see the same 10-15 records. With us – and largely because we have such a vast army of writers who are digging through the stacks – when you hit the main page, you’re going to be see things you’re not seeing in these other stores. We’re surfacing more of the deep stuff. So, sure, maybe in the age of digital distribution, TuneCore, iTunes and services like that will have a lot of the same records we have. But you’re going to see them in a more prominent place in our store. It doesn’t do much good for both of us to have the same records if on the larger retailer you don’t know they’re there. What we try to do is make you more aware of them and bring them out a little bit more. And we’ve seen sales that correspond to that: albums that we’ve surfaced get bought.
I was going to ask about that. By the sounds of it, you guys may very well have more impulse buys because you are a destination that is based on editorial.
We do definitely see a correspondence between the things we put on the home page and the things that end up being on our charts. When we used to take an older record we liked or an older record from the catalogue and make it “Review of the Day” and check the charts the following day. Without fail, you would end up selling more.
I think people trust us. We’ve been around for a while now, and I’ve been here for 98% of that time. We’ve worked really hard to cultivate that trust and to curate a very idiosyncratic voice. I think especially with the eMusic Selects bands, people know that if we put our seal of approval on it, we’re not going to take that lightly. We relationships we value, and we’re not going to throw something out there that we don’t feel comfortable recommending.
For more information about J. Edward Keys and his company, you can visit the eMusic website.
An older interview with Derek Sivers but it has rather timeless advice.
Derek Sivers is best known as the founder of CD baby but he is also an experienced musician and Berklee college of music graduate something he accomplished in only two and a half years. Derek recently sold CD Baby to Discmakers and is now building up some new businesses. I had the pleasure of meeting Derek recently through a mutual friend and I continue to be more and more impressed by his drive and ability to focus.
First of Derek, thanks for your time. Just a bit of background for the few people who might not know can you describe how you became a successful touring musician?
I just said yes to everything, and pursued everything. Soon that got me a well-paid gig in a circus, and as a guitarist for Japanese pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto. In 1995 I learned about the college market and got some tips on how to crack that nut, so I threw myself into that completely, and ended up getting hired by over 300 colleges in the Northeast. That’s about it.
What do you think you did differently or better than your peers that got your music career off of the ground (and the same question for your business career)
I read a lot of books about marketing. I learned how to take books that were written for straight-up MBA business types and adapt their lessons to a music career. This single thing probably set me apart from my peers.
If you’re not putting aside the time to read lately, you should. It really helps give you all kinds of new insights that aren’t just influenced by what everyone else in your industry is doing.
Did anything about being a touring musician teach you the skills you would later apply to being a successful business owner?
Yeah – it’s not much different, is it? Learning about working with people. Setting expectations, communicating clearly, being strict but not an ass, keeping motivation up, taking responsibility for everything, and understanding that a lot of people just flake out.
During your time at CD Baby you worked with tons of musicians who went on to great success Did you identify a trait or handful of traits (other than talent) that lead you to believe someone was going to be successful as a musician?
Definitely. The successful indie artists are almost always looking at everything from the other person’s point of view. When contacting the media, they’re thinking of it from the point of view of the writer. They talk in terms of helping that person make a great story that readers will respond to. When contacting venues, they’re thinking of it from the point of view of the venue owner trying to make it a big profitable night.
It’s a funny balance of selfless and selfish. Ambition through selflessness. Or a selfish realization that the best thing you can do for your career is whatever’s best for others.
I noticed that you have extraordinary focus. When you set your mind on learning something or doing something you seem to be able to shut out the world and focus on the task at hand. You also seem unconcerned with what other people are doing in the space you are working in. Was this something that came natural to you and if not any advice on this front?
Focus is hard but important. It’s so tempting to just surf and check for the next email. But I’ve found all the big rewards come from the times you shut out the world and do something difficult.
Maybe it comes from being a musician, which requires thousands of hours locked away in a practice room, working hard on your technique.
You have managed to build up quite an online following for yourself as an entrepreneur both on your blog and on social media sites. While some of this probably had to do with your hands on approach building a thriving company- was there more to it than that? Any advice for musicians on how they should be communicating with fans and potential fans to gain followers based on your experiences?
Ah…. I think it’s something about being comfortable and casual, while still trying to make every sentence really worth someone’s time.
My online presence isn’t about me – it’s about them. Every time I post something, whether blog or Tweet, I’m thinking, “What could I post that’d be really useful to people?”
Whether I always achieve that or not, it makes me a pretty useful person to follow.
From your website I notice you are pursuing a number of new ventures which of these do you think will be the first to launch and when can we expect to see it?
The other ones didn’t get a huge response, so I might just let ‘em go.
The big dumb question… What do you think is next for the music business as the value of recorded music continues to decline? Have you seen any models out there that give you hope?
Oh I write all about that, here
If you haven’t already- check out Derek Sivers at http://sivers.org
“Making it” to me just means making a living playing, writing and recording music.
Top 5 Behaviors that will help you make it in the music business:
#1 PRACTICE & LEARN: It is ALWAYS about the music. Practice your craft daily. Learn everything you can about music theory and writing and reading music- this will make you much more employable than the dozens of hobbyists out there. Never ever stop learning and finding people to learn from. This has to be your number one priority no matter what happens. You have to keep finding new ways of challenging yourself because just keeping callouses on your fingers is not enough. If you really hit a wall with your instrument – pick up another instrument or get better at home recording techniques. Sometimes taking a break from your primary instrument can help but there is no reason to stop learning all together.
#2 NETWORK – seek out and befriend people who make a living making music be they session players, band members, music executives (at labels, publishers, management companies or booking agents) or producer / engineers… The music business is all about your talent and who you know. In many cases people can get away with less talent if they know the right people and can convince them to participate in their projects. Find conversation currency with these people and a way you can collaborate with as many people as possible even if it is just throwing networking events. A note about “conversation currency” – talking exclusively about yourself and how you want to be a star could put Sominex out of business – stop it already.
#3 PLAY AND RECORD OFTEN. Play live, get basic home recording gear so you can preserve your ideas and share them with other people. Join a band or two – co-write with anyone and everyone who will let you. Start simple with open mic nights and work your way up. Meet and keep in contact with everyone who is doing what you want to do. Your songs and recordings are like viruses – make sure you have lots of them out there and have the help of people with a vested interest in making them get heard. The best way to do that is to collaborate.
#4 BE PROFESSIONAL. The music business if full of flakes. Don’t be a dude, there’s a million dudes out there. Be a man. (please replace Dude with Chick and Man with Woman if this applies to you). Do you know why Spinal Tap is so F*cking hysterical? Because it’s based on too much truth. Start by being punctual. More than just punctual make sure you are paying attention – it’s your career! Ask questions rather than nodding your head as if you already know and remember the people you are dealing with when booking shows or making records or whatever are making a living in music too so be considerate of them and their time.
#5 LEARN ABOUT BUSINESS. Look at and learn all of the ways that money is made in the music business. A good starting point is Donald Passman’s “all you need to know about the music business” – if you understand where the money comes from in the music business it will be much harder for people to take advantage of you…and they will try. To this end- find knowledgeable people you trust and surround yourself with them. Nothing is more terrifying than things we are vague about.
This last one doesn’t need to be advanced accounting either. Take control of your financial life. Keep receipts for everything and make a spreadsheet of everything you spend (I do this – it has saved me lots of $$$). Most people find they are spending too much in some areas and not enough in others. I once advised someone to do this who realized after three months of record keeping that he spent more on beer than he did on his career… He is much farther along in his career now.
Got other practical suggestions for me or your peers about how to make it? I’d love to hear from you.
This is an interview I conducted about a year ago with Reverend Dave Ciancio – a gifted music manager and blogger and more recently a bar owner. If you are in NYC and have a taste for Bourbon look him up at the Idle Hands Bar. It is a re-post, sorry about that folks – I will be back to regularly schedule programming soon.
I was fortunate enough to sit down with my friend Reverend Dave Ciancio from Yeah! Management. Dave was one of the founders of the hard rock indie promotion, marketing and management firm The Syndicate and recently has started Yeah! Management. I have been fortunate enough to know Dave for a long time and have watched him help the careers of dozens of hard rock bands.
Tell me about Yeah! Management!
I run Yeah! Management, an organization within Artist Arena. Artist Arena is a company that handles VIP Fan Clubs and tickets. So for example if the Rolling Stones go on tour, you can by a seat on the stage and a drink with Mick Jagger for $10,000. We don’t do the Rolling Stones, but that’s the concept. What’s cool about it is that we have access to all the people that Artist Arena has access to, whether that would be Green Day’s manager or the people at Warner Music Group or the Agency Group people. So, it becomes beneficial for our own artists to learn and watch and piggyback onto what is happening in the larger company.
So you’re doing primarily hard rock and metal management, like Poison the Well and Shadows Fall. What are the other stand-outs?
DC: Shadows Fall is our flagship band, and I’ve been working with them since they were unsigned. They are kind of my band of brothers. They bring in a lot of attention from metal bands. A lot of our roster is hard rock, but we have a couple pop bands like TAT and VersaEmerge. We’re all over the place as long as it’s rock and roll.
What gets your attention as a manager business wise?
From my last couple years at The Syndicate I was on a signing freeze. I wasn’t looking for anything new. I really believed in our roster and felt really committed and busy and had enough going on that I didn’t see a need to expand the roster. When we started the new company, I realized that without having to be in charge of doing all the marketing stuff I definitely had time to bring on more. With bringing on new employees and being in a new situation, I realized we had room for new bands. It became about relearning a process I hadn’t done in a few years – looking for young talent. The more popular your roster gets or the more successful a band you manage gets, the more bands that come to you. I couldn’t pick out a particular attribute that really shines, but in the end it comes down to, “Do I have an appreciation for the songwriting? Do I like the band members as people? Are they business savvy or willing to be business savvy?” And then there’s that Superstar X Factor – “What makes this band stand out? Is it the actual players in the band, the vocalist, or are they pretty? Do they own some other company or do something else that might help jumpstart their career, like a merch company or are they a skater?” It’s any number of things, but my criteria has gone up, and I’m a lot less willing to jump on things because I like them. I’ve found many times in the past that just because you like a band doesn’t mean you should work with them, and sometimes it’s better to just be a fan or help people out. Criteria wise? Be awesome.
The online thing has changed a lot, and you’ve spent a lot of time working on marketing with bands. Are there things out there you think all bands should be doing to promote their careers that are low- or no-cost?
Everybody needs to be on Twitter and Facebook and Myspace. If you’re not there, what are you doing? You need to know how people are looking for something or how they are looking for music. Maybe it’s reading a magazine or clicking on YouTube all day or looking on Facebook, or maybe a friend has to tell someone about it. You never know how someone is going to find something, so you have to be everywhere. If a person likes listening to music on Pure Volume, be on Pure Volume. If a person likes listening to music on iLike, be on iLike. If people are on a Twitter frenzy, then be on Twitter and have something interesting to say. You have to be where the people are, and that’s the foundation. Once you’re there, you can market yourself; but if you’re not online, what’s the point?
I notice that you do a lot of social networking yourself. Do you have any suggestions for expanding your reach?
DC: The standard answer applies – be interesting. Find something you like to talk about or are an expert on, or something you think you can use to draw attention to yourself. For example, I like to talk about burgers, so I started a burger Web site. Aaron from Underoath is a big foodie, and people are starting to know him because of the food. It takes him out of being just an artist, or the drummer in the band or the singer in a band; he’s now a food guy. So there’s another reason for people to pay attention. I think one of the problems with marketing today, especially for bands is that is becomes very unilateral – “Talk about the music.” People who are into music are into lifestyle. I think if you’re going to be on Twitter and Facebook and bother to have a Tumblr blog, you need to realize that the audience you have probably isn’t just interested in music. If you can bring something else to the table, bring it. Social networking is all about tools, and you have to know how to use them. There are all kinds of Twitter applications that can help you find new people or stay on top of your account. I check my Twitter karma once a week for my marketing stuff – Am I following all the people that are following me? Am I following too many people that don’t matter? In the Twitter world this is looked at as spam. It’s really about knowing how to use the tools.
Musician Coaching: Talk to me more about aspiring artists and what they should be doing to maintain relationships with their fan base?
DC: There’s nothing more important than engaging a fan base. If people have found their way to you, you have to assume it’s not just about music. I can’t tell you how many times I listened to Pantera as a kid, and all they did was talk about smoking pot. I liked smoking pot as a kid, so that appealed to me. I’m not saying every band should go on their website and start talking about pot, but you need to find what you do and figure it out and use it. It all comes back to be interesting and find out how to network. As far as generating mailing lists, it’s just natural. If you’re going to have a Myspace page, get a Mozes account, and if you’re going to have a Mozes account, get a Reverb Nation account. You can collect e-mails and phone numbers. For young bands, I’m a big fan of Ning and Drupal Sites. You can create your own Myspace and social network. We did this with Shadows Fall, and had a lot of success. We had a couple thousand people and called it a fan club, and told people to sign up for free. To use that appropriately, I can send people on there a message with the click of a button that says, “Tickets for our new tour are on sale today. We’re going to give you people 24-hour access before the public.” Things like that are really good.
Being a hard rock band or a metal band, the road has to be a part of your life. What was the process of building a touring base like?
It’s really hard, especially in modern times and the modern economy. There’s no money out there. You have to give to get. When I first started in the music business and I wanted to manage bands, there was certainly not enough money on the table to do what I wanted full time, so I had to DJ at a club on Tuesday nights just to make the rent. It’s a matter of how much you’re willing to sacrifice. If you’re a young band and you want to build a touring base, get on the road and figure out how to stay on the road and maximize on the road. Keep costs down.
Are there any specific tricks or common mistakes you see when people overspend?
DC: I think the most common one I see is that bands will spend a significant amount of time on the road getting paid $100 per night, scraping nickels together to get to the next gig and just pulling into town with three drops of gas left in the tank, and the minute they see a little bit of success, it becomes a game of luxury – “Now we want three guitar techs and two buses.” The magic disappears at some point. Not everybody can get up and stay up. And then they get accustomed to it and can’t adjust their business to fit economies of scale. The biggest mistake I see is getting a taste of it and not realizing you may not see it again. It’s better to get a taste of it and then try to keep as many of those methods of saving money with you so you keep your money.
Do you think it’s necessary for most artists to discuss something other than their music?
It depends. I love to look at a band like Pantera. For years all they were was “F**king Pantera,” and they didn’t need anything else. Then the DVD’s came out and we saw them backstage and partying and playing these massive shows and that took it to the next level. That’s how they got their personality. Even if you’re Dream Theater, and you’re clearly a musicians’-based band, play that up. They talk about drum lessons and guitar lessons and tablatures. Maybe they’re not talking about the new single on the record, but they are still talking about something else and appealing to the audience. I think it’s important to talk about something more than the songs and the tour and the record. What else are you doing that makes you who you are?