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 ‘Record Labels’
Russell Pollard is a songwriter and the founder of the band Everest, in which he sings and plays drums and guitar. A lifelong musician, he started playing in bands as a teenager, embarking on his first tour when he was 17. In 1997, he was asked to join Sebadoh as their drummer to help put together their final album The Sebadoh after members of the band saw him play a show in Louisville, KY. He went on to become front man Lou Barlow’s main songwriting partner and to play in bands including The Folk Implosion and Alaska!. During his time with Sebadoh, he also developed the passion for engineering, producing and studio work that would eventually drive him to put together Everest in 2007 with Eli Thomson, Jason Soda and Joel Graves. Everest will release its third full-length album, Ownerless, June 26 on ATO Records.
I recently spoke to Russ about his career path, his experience with labels and how, as an artist, he has navigated and adapted to the ever-changing music industry. He also shared some thoughts about why musicians have to take control of their own careers and continuously seek out new and creative opportunities in order to make a living at their craft.
Thanks for taking some time to talk, Russ. How did you get involved in the music business?
It was really a fateful accident. I’d always played instruments since I was a little kid, and I knew from that time that I wanted music to be a part of my life in some way, shape or form. I pursued business as my degree in college and never dreamt of putting the two words together as “music business” until I got a little older and realized that I had to think about things that way in order to survive.
I think when I really got serious about it was when I started Everest. I had played in bands throughout my early 20s. And I even did my first tour when I was 17, but I didn’t have a clue. I just had the drive and desire to do it no matter what. And I was willing to do whatever it took, which included getting kicked out of my parents’ life for a while, losing my apartment and struggling with maintaining any income or stability in my life. I bounced around until I got into Sebadoh.
And how did you get involved with them?
I joined later on, in 1997. I had just gotten out of college, and I was playing drums in a few bands out of Louisville, KY. I was really involved in the music scene there, which was very creative and insular, but not really about going out and making money from it. One of the guys in Sebadoh came out and saw me playing late one night. I had rushed to get to the show from my late-night pizza delivery job. My only ambition that night was to get the show to play for my friends and have a great time.
One of the guys from Sebadoh liked the way I played drums. At that time, they were going through conversations about finding a new drummer. I was 21, and they courted me and asked me if I wanted to come over one afternoon and play some songs with them. We ended up going through some Sebadoh songs, and they liked my playing. They invited me to come make their last full record with them, The Sebadoh. We wrote that record together and spent months working on it. It was my first time in a real studio. We went to Los Angeles and recorded, and it was all a really overwhelming, big deal for me.
I asked a lot of questions along the way. Those guys were older than me. And the engineers, studio owners and producers were all people I quizzed a lot and watched. I ghosted them, because I wanted to know how they were getting sounds. I realized I wanted to control that all myself someday. So, I got to tour the world for two years. I met a lot of lifelong friends and really good musicians, and I learned a lot.
Back then, I was still looking for something different. I moved to San Francisco, started my own band there and lived off what I had saved up off touring for a while. Then, I was drawn to Los Angeles to play with Lou Barlow again in the Folk Implosion. He was developing new songs and needed a partner and a drummer.
Now, was this Folk Implosion …or Deluxe Folk Implosion?
He called it “Deluxe” for a couple releases that involved ex members of Sebadoh and friends around Northhampton, MA or Boston. But it’s always been Folk Implosion. And John Davis was a part of a couple of the records. And when John decided he wanted to try something new in life, Lou brought me in, which was how I ended up in L.A., where I learned a bunch more and met Rob Schnapf, who produced Everest’s latest record. He’s a really skilled guy and has a way with people. He draws the best out of musicians.
I spent the last 11 years in L.A., and figured out in 2006 that I was ready to be fully committed to my own project with the people closest to me at that time. And these musicians – Eli Thomson, Jason Soda and Joel Graves – were of a caliber that I’d never played with before. These guys were all on the same trajectory as I was at the same time. And we just happened to all have the time to put this together. I think all of us were full of questions about how to do things right and how to not get screwed – how to protect ourselves and be smart about what we were doing. Because, there was a lot more at stake when we were starting Everest. It wasn’t so easy to just pick up and leave.
That’s the bitch about leaving your 20s behind. Somehow, things get a little bit more real.
Yeah. We knew realistically what it meant to go beyond just playing some fun shows and parties and saying we were in a band together, putting a record out by ourselves and calling it a day.
You guys wound up doing some impressive things. Clearly you had a track record at this point, and by the sound of it, so did your other band members. For a band that is still developing and growing, you’ve really pulled together some amazing partners, and that’s something a lot of musicians desire. What was the process of getting involved with a label like ATO like in the current climate? And how did you get hooked up with Girlie Action PR?
When we started, we were really immaculate in how we recorded. We took our time and were fortunate enough to catch the ears of music manager Elliot Roberts (Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan) through a friend that thought he would like what we were doing. I had wanted to release a record on Vapor Records a few years prior but had been turned down. He came to the studio when we were finishing up recording our first record, Ghost Notes. He listened to it, and about 15 seconds after the last song, he turned to me and said – with the tape still rolling, “So, do you want to release it in February?” That was that. That was his way of saying he was going to put our record out. And that turned into a performance on Conan O’Brien when he was still in New York doing his show. That really helped. And then Neil Young invited us to come play some songs in Europe. He was impressed with our live show, so he invited us out for what ended up being three legs of his 2008/2009 tour with Wilco and Death Cab for Cutie.
And then we did some shows with My Morning Jacket, who was on ATO and got in front of their crowd. I think ATO was already aware of us and knew that we were a hard-working band. They knew we were on the road a lot and that we were older guys who had established something cool with Neil Young and his label. They saw us as a good partner.
It’s interesting you put it that way, because I run into this misconception that I shared as a kid that people are purely investing in love of music. And you describing having built something, toured and been on an indie is less of an A&R – artists and repertoire – and more of an “M&A” – “mergers and acquisitions” experience. This was somebody who loved your music but also wanted to partner with a business, which people often forget.
Yes. And today, we all have to face it: The old model is over, and that dream is gone. Big, fat advances and your name in lights is probably not going to happen unless you’re someone big that is going to sell multitudes of records right in the beginning of when their record comes out. It’s all suits that are looking at numbers. All the A&R people are scared to take a risk, because they want to keep their jobs, and those jobs are going away rapidly.
When you talk to record label as an artist that doesn’t have a bit history or a big catalog, you’re going to them and saying, “How are you going to market our record?” Because, they’re not going to give you a bunch of money up front. And they’re not going to take a big hit on a band that doesn’t have a history of selling a lot of records and a lot of tickets.
ATO is one of those labels that’s excited to develop bands they believe in and acts they think are truly good. But there are still numbers involved. The day of a studio executive coming to a young band and saying, “Here’s $250,000 to make your record, and here is some living money and a tour van and a big, fat checking account for tour support” are gone. Now, bands have to become clever on their own about how they want to market themselves and how they can afford to tour, get out on the road and pay gas and shortfall prices when tours are not making the kind of money they need to cover expenses. We’ve had to find ways to grow our own business, whether that is through finding a sponsor to underwrite some of our touring and get us out in front of people, or taking on our own ecommerce and making money off that on the road.
Fans of music can’t look at bands taking corporate sponsorships or partnering with brands as a negative thing anymore. They’re bringing the bands to the fans. It used to be that they were the ones footing the bill. True fans of music and bands need to understand that when they see Portugal. The Man with a Jagermeister logo on their tour poster, that’s the reason that they’re in that club that night. They couldn’t afford to get there otherwise. It doesn’t matter if you like Jagermeister as a drink or think as a company. I think it’s ultimately the choice of the band. If they’re aligning with a brand, it’s a means to an end. It’s a way for them to get out to fans and support the cause.
That’s been a huge part of the learning curve in the industry in the past few years. And even labels used to do it. They would skim all the profit off that. Now, I think, more than ever, the artists are holding the cards. As long as they don’t get into those 360 deals and start losing future profits before they even make a dime, they can find ways to make money, whether it’s through publishing, licensing songs. That’s been happening for years and is obvious. But now I see a lot of sponsorship happening. I think that’s just the way things are going.
Clearly you came into this process with some business savvy. Do you still handle your own social media? What have you found is the most effective when communicating that way?
We do still handle our own social media. People are more engaged when we’re out doing stuff. But, the posts have to be meaningful and about something that people want to hear. You don’t want to drive people crazy with your posts. When we’re doing something cool that is important to us, we post it. For example, this month we’re out in D.C. doing a residency. And we repost other people’s tweets and Facebook status messages about us, which seem to pick up when we’re out and busy. Twitter has also been really effective for us. And anytime we put anything cool on YouTube, it points arrows to our records and iTunes for people to pick up our records.
You spent so much time on the road. Are there things you would’ve done differently looking back? Is there something you would want to tell yourself as a kid in Louisville just trying to figure things out?
I’ve always enjoyed it. And it’s always been hard at the same time. But that’s a tough question. I think, “Don’t take it too seriously” is one thing. When you show up on time and even early and are ready to go, most of the clubs you play when you’re just starting out have staff people who will show up an hour late and don’t care about you. So, I think advancing is important and making sure you have a club head person who knows you are coming and is prepared.
Promotion is another thing. When you’re out there driving and driving, thinking about the show, if somebody doesn’t promote it correctly, that can be totally frustrating. Try as much as you can to promote the shows yourself, because most promoters on a club level do the least possible for the budget they get. And sometimes that means no one comes to the show. And that’s regrettable.
You can learn more about Russell Pollard and his music on the official Everest website and also follow him on Twitter. The band’s new album, Ownerless comes out on June 26 but is currently available for pre-order on iTunes and through ATO Records.
Experts shed new light on two recorded music industry issues last week as Reuters presented some reasons why the EMI sale could weaken rather than strengthen Universal, and a professional study showed that music piracy may actually contribute to music sales. Also, the Bristol Institute of Modern Music (BIMM) revealed five tips aspiring artists and music business people can learn from Led Zeppelin’s manager Peter Grant.
Has the Label System Lost its Hold on the Industry?
Universal Music Group’s potential $1.9 billion takeover of the recorded division of EMI – which houses acts like The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Katy Perry – has been a hotly-contested topic of conversation since it was announced this past year. Concerns of a monopoly within the industry has caused Warner Music Group, consumer groups and independent musicians and companies to fight against what they see as a threat to future digital media.
However, according to an article in Reuters, regulators are likely looking at the other side of the coin as they decide whether the deal is viable. Major record labels might actually not be the Goliaths in this scenario, having been worn down over the years by big retailers and piracy that has driven the price of CDs and digital downloads and thus the profits of the recorded side of the industry down drastically.
Reuters interviewed eight antitrust experts about the EMI/Universal deal, and they were split about whether or not it would be approved. The music industry has changed so much in the past few years that many feel the 40-percent hold Universal would have on recorded music might not have as much of an impact as suspected, especially since the selling recorded music is no longer as profitable as it was a decade ago. Professor Daniel Sokol, who teaches antitrust issues at the University of Florida Levin College of Law said, “If [the U.S. Federal Trade Commission] block [the sale], it’s just because they don’t understand the market.”
Two other experts – who decided to remain anonymous – said that the decision might not even be influenced by the hard numbers; it ride instead on Warner Music Group’s success and persistence at arguing against the deal: “My sense is that the FTC could take a hard line depending on how good a job Warner does in generating complaints … It wouldn’t surprise me if it didn’t go through.”
Universal will go into discussions with the FTC in late May about potentially selling some assets to satisfy some regulators’ concerns. The label could also send a request to the FTC before early June to speed up approval of the deal so it can be finalized within 30 days.
The FTC is currently investigating the influence of Apple, Amazon and other retailers about its methods for pricing digital music and taking a look at the real impact of illegal downloads. The organization may agree with the idea that major retailers force music prices to be low, but Bert Foer, president of the American Antitrust Institute advocacy group said that piracy should not be considered relevant to the investigation: “It’s a passing issue and it will eventually get dealt with. It should not be the justification for allowing an anticompetitive merger to take place.
Consumer groups Public Knowledge and Consumer Federation of America have written letters to government entities asking them to look into the deal, fearing that the 40-percent hold Universal will gain could actually prevent innovation from occurring within the digital music space. Mark Cooper of Consumer Federation of America asserted, “If you control that much of the marquee content, they can determine the fate of new digital business models by withholding content.”
The Commission is also looking into allegations that have been made by various consumer groups about Universal’s resistance to license the biggest-selling items in its catalog to digital startups.
Universal’s Peter Lofrumento claimed consumer groups’ concerns about the sale’s negative impact on sales and music availability within the digital space are invalid: “The future of music also depends on providing consumers with as many legal alternatives to piracy as possible. We have licensed more digital music services than any other music company and will continue to do so to the benefit of our artists, consumers and the overall industry.”
The FTC has not publicly discussed Sony’s purchase of EMI’s publishing arm, but this transaction will likely not be under scrutiny in the U.S.
BitTorrent Sharing: A Promotional Tool?
A new study conducted by a Robert Hammond, a researcher from North Carolina State University revealed that BitTorrent music downloads could actually have a positive effect on album sales. Though major record labels continue to fight against illegal downloading, this paper reveals that this practice could actually be leading to more digital and physical sales.
For the past decade, a variety of researchers have been tracking the impact of piracy on the revenues of the recorded music industry. But until Hammond’s study, no one has had a large enough sample of download statistics from a BitTorrent tracker to get an accurate picture of the phenomenon.
Hammond published his results in a paper entitled, “Profit Leak? Pre-Release File Sharing and the Music Industry.” He collected download statistics of new albums released on the largest private BitTorrent music tracker between May 2010 and January 2011 and then compared them against sales numbers to create a model that would predict the correlation between sales and piracy on an ongoing basis: “I isolate the causal effect of file sharing of an album on its sales by exploiting exogenous variation in how widely available the album was prior to its official release date. The findings suggest that file sharing of an album benefits its sales. I don’t find any evidence of a negative effect in any specification, using any instrument.”
His sample included 1,095 albums from 1,075 artists. And his research zeroed in on albums that leaked on BitTorrent sites prior to their official release dates. Record labels have been the most focused the most on attacking pre-release piracy, and this type of illegal sharing has been at the center of anti-piracy criminal proceedings in both the U.S. and the UK.
However, this paper shows that attacking music piracy sites might actually have a detrimental effect on the industry. Hammond’s research points to the idea that piracy could be a promotional tool for artists and labels that mimics radio play and media campaigns. Still, piracy’s positive effect is modest: Hammond’s paper found that when an album leaks a month prior to its release, the result is only about 59.6 additional album sales.
Hammond’s study was also different from other researchers’ because it focused on album releases and not individual songs: “I focus on how file sharing of an individual album helps or hurts that album’s sales. The question of interest here is whether an individual artist should expect her sales to decline given wider pre-release availability of the album in file-sharing networks. I find that the answer is no.”
Hammond also found that popular artists profit more from piracy than new or emerging artists, who experience no negative or positive effects from pre-release piracy. This information contradicts other research, which Hammond said is because the data he had used is more complex and accurate than data that has been used in previous studies.
Five Lessons for Artists
The British music industry school Bristol Institute of Modern Music (BIMM) recently announced its three-year music management course and a £16,000 ($25,593) scholarship in honor of Led Zeppelin’s late manager Peter Grant, who was also responsible for artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Grant was known for his no-nonsense ability to cut deals with record companies and tour promoters that brought musicians bigger profits and changed the landscape of the music industry.
Grant continues to be remembered as one of the best-known, ruthless, but most successful band managers in history. In an article published last week in Bloomberg Businessweek, Cliff Jones, former frontman of the Britpop band Gay Dad who now runs music business at BIMM said, “We often talk about turning points in rock music – Elvis, the Beatles and the like – but the music business itself had similar sorts of turning points, similar awakenings, and in this area, Peter Grant was a stuperstar of management.”
This article, “Five Lessons From Music’s Most Feared Manager, Led Zeppelin’s Peter Grant” presented a list of five lessons aspiring musicians and music business people can take away from the knowledge and professionalism Grant learned during the course of his career.
1. “Music comes first.” Even when he was negotiating incredibly profitable record and tour deals, it was clear Grant loved his bands and their music. In 1974, he even took the helm of Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song Records to give the band and other bands signed to the label more creative control. He also regularly dismissed opportunities for short-term publicity in favor of campaigns that would have more lasting impact and ensure artists would be around for many years.
2. “What’s good for other bands isn’t necessarily good for yours.” Led Zeppelin was known for not pushing singles because of their belief in the power of the full album and for not performing on TV because, as Grant said, “You just cannot capture the magic of Zeppelin … on a 25-inch screen at home.” While he admitted that TV had worked for other artists like Elvis, he felt Zeppelin’s harder-edged sound was more conducive to live shows. Grant’s firm stance on this led to the band selling huge numbers of concert tickets.
3. “No file sharing.” Grant was firmly against bootlegging and piracy, and regularly visited record stores to collect illegal copies of Zeppelin records and destroy them.
4. “Go the extra mile.” Grant often toured with his bands and set the precedent for other managers. He carefully guarded expenses and made sure his musicians made money. In fact, in 1979, Grant did not believe them when Knebworth festival promoters stated only 100,000 tickets had been sold. So, he hired a helicopter to take aerial photos in hopes of getting an accurate count of the attendees. The crowd was double what had been reported, and Led Zeppelin profited.
5. “Punch people in the face.” Peter Grant was known for physically assaulting those that wronged his artists. He once beat up a promoter that tried to gyp Little Richard and broke a Led Zeppelin bootlegger’s arm. However, BIMM’s Jonessaid, “This is a very exaggerated part of his life … He had a reputation for strong-arming people but it usually wasn’t much more than that.” Jones added that perhaps #5 could be scratched from the list: “We won’t be teaching all of the business ethics that he used.”
For those who don’t know – Bif Naked is s a Juno Award-winning, American-Canadian rock singer-songwriter, poet, cartoonist, and actress. After re-connecting with her on Twitter she was kind enough to spend some time with me on the phone and tell me about her experiences becoming a full time musician.
Bif – give me a bit of background. How did you first put together a following and build up a band in what has become a twenty-year career?
I had no aspirations in any way, shape or form to go into the music business. I wanted to be a comedian, and decided to take theater at university, like a lot of liberal arts kids. In my first year of university at the University of Winnipeg, which for any reference just watch the movie Fargo, and that’s Winnipeg in a nutshell. There was a very healthy punk rock scene, like a lot of towns. This was ’89 or ’90 and I was a 17- or 18-year old kid just hanging out with some of my pals from theater and kids we knew that went to shows. We were all big DRI fans and Minor Threat fans. There was this band called Gorilla Gorilla, and their singer left the band very abruptly. He fell in love with a girl on tour, never to be seen or heard from again. And so they said, “We have this show coming up … why don’t you do it?” And I thought, “Yeah, why not?” For me, any experience on stage was what I was looking for at that time. I thought of it as a personal workshop for myself…
You weren’t a singer at that point?
Not at all. But you have to keep in mind, they were doing early Chili Peppers covers, Bad Brains covers, Black Flag covers and a couple of their own songs, which were just basically yelling. How hard can that be? Yell a bunch, hit the kids in the front row with the microphone. That’s basically what it was like. My mentors and idols at that time were Canadian punk pioneers like Joey Shithead, the singer for DOA and Chi Pig the singer for SNFU. That was the stage style and performance style that I loved and knew and was emulating…but as a female. At that time in Winnipeg, there really were no bands fronted by girls. We were very cautious about that because I was a very defiant little feminist wannabe at that point in my life. It was hugely important that I not be judged on my gender – very important. That was a bit of a fuel for the fire of trying extra hard to be very tough on stage. Frankly, it served me really well over the years. I cut my teeth in a certain genre of music during a certain timeframe in music fan society. We were playing to audiences that were extremely boisterous and rambunctious and at times rather violent. Back in the day they didn’t have a lot of clear etiquette for mosh pits and stage diving. We’re talking about little dinky punk rock clubs in the Canadian prairies. There was no security on the stage. Throwing kids off the front at a GWAR show. There were a lot of fist-fights. We used to have problems back then with Skinheads in Canada. Everybody would drop their gear and get mad at them. It was such a Gong Show. But I really love all those early memories. I think it was just such an innocent beginning for me. I was really naïve, and I think it served me well. There was no preconceived goal at all other than the show that day. Eventually we took that show on the road, and the novelty factor of me being a chick assisted us – much to my chagrin, as much as I tried to fight it. There was nothing else like it in that small little market in the Great White North at that time.
Were you performing as Bif Naked at this point?
Yeah, I was. Bif was a nickname I’d had. It was Gorilla Gorilla that really solidified that moniker. I had always been called “Bif” instead of “Beth,” clinging very dearly to wanting to be a tomboy. Bif Naked was the punk rock stage name I got. Everybody had their name. Mark Arm was Mudhoney, again with Joey Shithead from DOA. Everybody had their names, and there weren’t a lot of girls at that time. I wanted to be kind of provocative. And we were still trying to draw people to the shows. So if they came, everyone knew they had a chick singer in the band. “Gorilla, Gorilla, come see Bif Naked” would get bodies in the room. And we’d say, “Ha ha, we pulled one over on them.” But it got them in the room, and then we figured we’d just win them over.
How long did that go on, and what was the process of developing that band?
We were lucky because we would get a lot of opportunities to open for some of our touring friends that would come through town. We made a bit of a name for ourselves locally just by continuing to play, and play, and play and play at these little rinky-dink punk bars and skate parks – wherever we could. Chi Pig had split from his group SFNU and had started a side project called The Wongs. And The Wongs were going to do a cross-Canada tour in the fall of 1990. They asked us if we would like to open for them in a tour, and we said, “Yes, absolutely.” None of us worked. None of us had any money. We didn’t know what else to do. So the drummer, Brett Hopkins and myself decided to get married, because in Manitoba, which is very heavy with Ukranians- the tradition is to have a wedding social. A wedding social raises money for the young couple so they can either buy a potato farm or have a wedding, or usually she’s pregnant – who knows? So we had a wedding social. And people buy tickets and come and attend. And then we threw a wedding at a local cultural center – a place we played often – given to us for free to stage this wedding. We used a justice of the peace. And then what you do is say, “Presentation Only” on your wedding invitation, and that means “Don’t bring a gift, just put money in the jar.” So we got all this money, and as a result we had bought a Ford Econoline van that was just a piece of shit. But we bought that and a better drum kit for Brett, of course.
You’re basically telling me that you did the first fan-funded tour.
Basically… I continued that tradition the rest of my adult life. That was great. We did the tour and played in front of a much bigger audience than we ever had, and starved to death on tour like every band worth their salt that’s cutting their teeth. You split a burrito in the Mission District four ways and try to get free beer out of the promoter – none of us were straight-edge yet. We were flailing little teenagers basically. But it worked out well, and it was a great tour. And for us it was a big success in that it solidified us as a gang of four, and we slept in the van, did our shows, ultimately relocated to Vancouver from Winnipeg right after that tour because gone and played there and made a lot of great contacts with friends and other bands. We knew we needed to be in a bigger market.
Tell me about how that wound up and how you wound up starting a solo career and built that up as well.
Going solo was never anything I was really itching to do. I like the band situation and being on a team. I guess things run their course. Gorilla Gorilla – things were starting to change. My taste in music started changing a little bit as I became more exposed to music from the Pacific Northwest where we had just relocated. We were playing shows with MudHoney and Screaming Trees and these types of bands. And I was really getting into Soundgarden and stuff like Temple of the Dog. This was right after Andrew Wood died. I just wasn’t happy doing the punk/funk thing anymore. I was probably 21 or 22 and going through my own changes. And Brett and I, obviously that marriage didn’t last as it was done for a bit of the wrong reasons, even though we’re still great friends. I found an ad in the paper for this other band I’d been hearing about called Chrome Dog, and they needed a singer. So I thought, “I’m just going to apply. They’re looking for a guy, but I’m going to apply anyway.” And I applied and got the job, so the next thing you know, I’m in two bands at the same time.
It didn’t last. It was like having two boyfriends. I left Gorilla Gorilla and started playing in Chrome Dog, which was great. It was a very different type of music and a different genre altogether. I was able to really explore lyrics I wasn’t able to explore in Gorilla Gorilla, and that was hugely stimulating for me as a lyricist. I was able to start really trying how to learn to use my voice differently. That was extremely appealing to me, and I really enjoyed it. There was a different audience, a little more rock and roll. We started touring from Vancouver up and down the west coast of America and playing all the rinky-dink punk and thrash clubs we could. We were able to open for bands like Sublime and really start trying to carve out a niche for ourselves in that area. Again, starving in the van, sleeping in the van. It’s what you do.
Eventually two years in it started going sideways. A lot of the guys were not satisfied anymore with the small venues. We had an opportunity to open for a heavy metal band called Annihilator across Canada. That would’ve been a bigger tour for us. And I was dreading it. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to back on tour with those guys at all. I was starting to panic. By this time, because we’d played enough shows, people started writing up stuff about us in the local rags in our hometown. There was a guy who came out to one of our shows named Peter Karroll, and he had a management company. He was managing Annihilator, which is how we had an opportunity to do that tour as a support act. He started managing Chrome Dog.
It was probably pretty obvious given my immaturity and inexperience that I was discontent. It was actually with Peter’s encouragement and nudging that I decided to embark on trying to be a solo artist. He secured an opportunity for us to work with a producer who had a little baby label that was an offshoot of A&M in Canada at that time. So I made my first record with John Dexter who owned that label which was called Plum. He also produced my record. I got to write songs with him, which was a totally different thing altogether. Originally it was a dance label. So that type of songwriting was brand new territory for me, hugely stimulating and very creative.
We put the record out, and about two weeks later the company folded, as things go. At the time, it was the end of the world for me – tears, tears, such tears! My manager Peter just said, “Oh well. We’re going to form a label now.” And inconsolable as I may have been, that’s exactly what we did. We formed a label called Her Royal Majesty’s Records. And Peter started licensing it. The first place he licensed it was to Edel Records in Europe. And we went over there and toured. Around the same time Peter had started working with John Zazula of Crazed Management in the U.S. and some of his other metal projects, because Johny had Mega Force Records in the States.
I’ll never forget him, because he would call and announce himself as, “Rick, it’s Ever-Loving-Johny Z.”
That’s right and it was true… He’s legendary. He has the biggest heart in the universe, I swear. What an incredible opportunity for me. I was a fan of Anthrax and Suicidal Tendencies, all these bands I loved so dearly. He either managed them or put out their records or both, not to mention having started the whole Metallica thing. I couldn’t have asked for a more wonderful situation and opportunity to come up. It started getting co-managed by John and Peter at that point. And I licensed my first record to Edel in Europe, that at that point was headed by Jorg Hacker, who went on from Edel to be the head of Epic in Germany. We kept licensing wherever Jorg went, because we just loved working with him. We were lucky to be able to do that.
It ended coming out in Canada too, right?
It finally came out in Canada when Aquarius Records picked it up. Aquarius was an offshoot of EMI. Everyone from the rest of the world always hopes they can get a record out in the United States, and obviously we still held out that hope. After a few false starts with that first record, it was finally Michael Kaplan, who at that time was at Sony 550. I don’t know how it happened to come across his desk, but it did. And he wanted to move forward and do another record. We were very, very, very lucky. And the way it goes, as you know with labels, he introduced us to my producer, which would be Glen Rosenstein. Glen came up from where he lived in Nashville to Vancouver but with an engineer named John Petoker. And we started recording what would become the album I Bificus. When I think about it all in hindsight, it was really quite an amazing situation, and I don’t know that it happens anymore. We didn’t have an Aerosmith recording budget, but it was a very generous budget for an artist like myself, who really was just going on a prayer for these people. I didn’t have a platinum record that I was coming with or a huge tour bus tour and all this other business. It was really Michael Kaplan who really believed in me, and I was very lucky. We finished recording the record, which I was extremely proud of, and it got shelved. I’m sure it’s more detailed than that, and I as the ignorant artist trying to recall how it went doesn’t do the story justice. At that point, yet another situation where the rug is pulled out from under the artist, and the artist is left saying, “Gosh, I should just go back to University at this point.”
Jorg Hacker, who we knew from Epic in Germany helped us, and lawyers helped us, and Michael Kaplan helped us get that record back from Sony so we were able to license it to a company that did want to put it out that wasn’t changing guards. To make a long story short, somehow by the grace of God we met a gentleman by the name of Jason Flom who came and saw us play at the tail end of a big, grueling European tour. We had one stop in New York City. Jason was in the background of the venue, and saw us play in this Mickey Mouse show. I don’t even think there were proper lights on the stage – nothing. And that’s how we started working with Lava.
And you guys were there for the I Bificus record and the subsequent one, right?
After I Bificus we recorded a record called Purge. That was its own crazy adventure, because I had the great fortune of being able to write with people like Desmond Child and Linda Perry. I wouldn’t have had those opportunities had it not been for a bunch of visionaries at Atlantic Records taking a change on me – an artist who really didn’t have any remarkable sales, great numbers or great phones at radio. They still were willing to take a chance on me and put me in a room with those incredible writers. I had such a good time, really I did. I liked everyone I worked with. It’s very different when you’re working with a machine that works and works within the leverage of the history of their company and their artist roster. It makes a big difference, and it made a big difference for me, absolutely. I got to do a lot of publicity that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do had I not been with Atlantic as the parent company. And it was just fantastic.
We were on some great tours with some really amazing acts: Nicole from the Pussy Cat Dolls was the backup singer for Days of the New when we toured with Days of the New. And she was hot back then. It was just great. It’s always interesting, and you never know what’s going to happen. That’s the thing that keeps you going. If you’re capable of doing tours and just really living for the show, tour or die, never say die. I just think you can really go far; and by “go far,” I don’t mean money and Range Rovers and everything that a lot of kids today think comes today with being a recording artist. I just mean an experience and great sailors’ tales. I just think it’s incredible. I’ve always been the kind o f person to really pinch myself with every little crazy milestone that happens. It’s all Forrest Gump all the time. You just never know what you’re going to get, ever.
What’s it like for you today? You licensed the one record and did another record with Atlantic and are back to where you started, doing it on your own.
Yes. We did Super Beautiful Monster, a record I did when I was working with Bo Dog, and that was a different record too. Each record is definitely very different from the one before, and I really like that. I credit my first producer and writer John Dexter from Plum Records back on that first record. It was crazy. There was a rap song on there, a metal song, a punk song, ballads. It was eclectic and all over the map and nobody liked it. Radio in Canada were like, You can’t do that. You have to pick a genre.” John Dexter and my manager said, “Why? She likes every kind of music, why should she?” Because of that first record I really think that people just went, “Yeah, that’s that girl – that tattooed one that’s all over the place and crazy and makes all different kinds of songs.” So I’m proud of all the different records we were able to put out and work with all these different people from different companies. It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve always just had such a good time meeting people and working as part of their team and my job was to go up there and do the top hat and cane routine. Their part of the job was to make phone calls on my behalf and see if I had money for a burrito every now and again. It was just awesome.
Today we made this record called The Promise when I was in chemo. And again, that in and of itself was a great novelty for people – great novelty. I have to admit, it’s tough. It lends itself to a lot of self-consciousness in any individual that’s been through some “medical excitement,” if you will. Artists are hugely insecure, basically is my theory, because they’re in front of people. They’re just like a bunch of adult JonBenet’s on one hand, because you’re running around and people are going to look at you and talk about what you look like and what you sound like.
Musician Coaching: If everyone was looking at me all the time I’d be anxious about it too…
Absolutely. So it was really for me, psychologically, hugely riveting. Up here in Canada, we don’t really go to therapy. It’s not really part of our culture. So you just have to fly by the seat of your pants a lot of the time. When I look at it now in hindsight, because it’s six months ago, I start laughing and say, “You know? I was up there with stitches in my belly from having an ovariectomy, playing the Calvary Stampede for 30,000 people with these swollen lymph glands under my chin that really did make me look a bit like Rodney Dangerfield.” I don’t know how I did that, but I’m glad I did, and I can’t wait to do it again. At some point it’s just like, “I’ve kind of done it for so many years.” I have to look at where I’m at now and just think I always have such a good time I just can’t stop.
You’ve been doing it for such a while, why were you able to keep a career together when others couldn’t? What traits have you seen in others, other than talent, determined who made it?
At the end of the day, talent really isn’t going to get you through. There are a lot of people – the majority of people – who are much more talented than me, who are vocalists and songwriters.
What did you do well that made you make it through when so many didn’t?
I quit drinking alcohol at Pop Com in 1995. I think that’s a big part of it for me. You don’t want to do anything to compromise your ability to perform. You always have to be intellectually available when you’re doing press or when you’re shaking hands and doing “grip and grins” you want to be present. I don’t really know how successful musicians do it with alcohol and drugs – huge stars, mega stars. Somehow they manage to move forward and be successful with those hindrances in their lives. For me, it wouldn’t have worked out. I wasn’t very good at being a drunk. I would talk too much and lose my voice as a result. I didn’t sleep right, and that made me look pretty lousy. It was a no brainer. I either wanted to work hard or have fun. And I have fun doing anything, so it really wasn’t a difficult choice for me. That’s the first and foremost thing for me personally that enabled me to work hard. If you’re going to be a touring musician, you have to think like an athlete. You have to treat your body as your tool and you have to treat it right. The second thing for sure is always going to be the people that worked with me and believed in me enough to lend me a hand and worked very hard on my behalf – from management, to labels, to anybody. I could’ve never done it without thousands of other people that I’ve come across.
What tools are you using in a world that can be so direct-to-fan, and are the new technologies working for you?
It is interesting, because music has changed so profoundly for me even just since my last record. Technology changes so quickly, and everyone has to shift gears quickly and be flexible. I think that’s number one. You have to be mentally flexible. Because I went through almost all of my 20’s and most of my 30’s now being a touring musician, we were in vans and nobody had cell phones and nobody had computers all those years, so I never really joined a lot of my Gen X brethren with the Mac Book so to speak. I’m basically computer stupid to this day. I still don’t type well. I just think that if you’re computer savvy, you’re going to be able get your music heard and your name out there. I’ve discovered more artists on the internet by accident and by snooping than I did in my entire career. I think it’s like the Wild West and an amazing opportunity for bands to be heard. Now how you make a living doing it is going to be the part where you really have to be savvy. Don’t ask me how to do it, because we never made money on tour to begin with when we were coming up through the ranks. We really didn’t. I probably was on tour constantly for 10 years before I ever got a tour bus. A lot of people bail, because there seems to be a sense of entitlement that a lot of bands have. They get lost in the hype, and that’s just because they’re probably young and don’t know any better, but as long as you can really be savvy, you’re going to make money; but you have to be willing to starve, to really die for your art and get it out there to as many people that can hear it as possible.
Check out what Bif is up to on her official page
I was fortunate enough to meet with Jacob Slichter, the drummer from Semisonic and the Author of “So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star: How I Machine-Gunned a Roomful of Record Executives and Other True Tales from a Drummer’s Life”. Jake is actually the first person I am interviewing that I didn’t know whatsoever before interviewing but I found his book so accurate and intriguing that I tracked him down.
Jake, First of all thanks for your time. I guess let’s start at the beginning or close to the beginning. What was it like at the time getting the attention of label guys in 1993-94 for Semisonic? What did you do correctly to get their attention?
JS: We (Dan and John) already knew them through Trip Shakespeare. Trip Shakespeare had been signed to A&M Records years earlier, so they had gone around and met A&R people from various labels, and so by the time Semisonic came along they knew a bunch of people who had all traded labels and were on the carousel of A&R people. So, number one, they already knew them.
Number two, we made really good-sounding tapes. I think also our biggest advantage was also our biggest disadvantage, which was that we were swimming against the tide at the time stylistically. Really at that time the landscape was dominated by Nirvana and then everything that was in that end of the spectrum – dark, angry, huge, amazing music that we were never going to be able to make. We weren’t interested in making it; it just wasn’t who we were, even though we were huge Nirvana fans.
Talk to me about that. Did you feel like there was ever a temptation to say, “Hey, maybe we should knock that off”?
JS: We just never could’ve pulled it off. Never in a million years. It would just have been stupid to try. I think a lot of bands did try, and some of them did a fairly good job. There were a few bands that took the Nirvana direction and did great with it. We were never going to be that, and early on we realized that. I think when we were dealing with A&R people, ours were some of the few tapes that were bright pop music when all the A&R guys were looking for the next Nirvana. So our tapes stood out, and I think that helped us get attention. I think they were good tapes, and that was probably the main thing. Dan is just a really great songwriter, and I think we had pretty concise arrangements, and it sounded like radio-friendly music, so I think that also helped. I think the fact that we sounded as poppy as we did really made us unappealing to a number of labels, like Interscope. We had an A&R person there who really liked our tapes, but she knew it was really swimming against the tide of where the label was at. So she very wisely said, “Hey, this won’t be the place for you. If I sign you, you’ll just be buried.” So we ended up really with two labels that were most interested in us – MCA and Elektra.
Musician Coaching: I guess that was a tough ride through that first album cycle. That must’ve been really difficult on your interpersonal relationships. I know a lot of bands break up over that first record, because they’re pushing you at breakneck speeds, etc.
JS: I don’t know that they were pushing us at a breakneck speed, but we were going around the country. It wasn’t a strain on band relations anymore than any kind of touring is. Just being on the road with people is stressful. You don’t have a lot of personal space, so that’s why it’s such a strain. The band felt pretty tight, personally I think after that first album. I was frustrated, but I think Dan and John were kind of used to this because they’d been through it with Trip Shakespeare. I was kind of on a learning curve about how disappointment works in the music business. I probably took it the hardest. Actually everyone probably took it hard in their own weird way. I took it hardest in the sense that I probably was the most believing that the first record was going to break through. I always thought FNT would’ve done it. That was always my thought, but we’ll never find out.
Dan had written a bunch of songs, and I think it’s natural to feel disappointed when it’s the music you write. And John had been on the road for years with Trip Shakespeare, so I know he felt disappointment after that. And we all really felt proud of the record.
Musician Coaching: You toured with a lot of bands, played with a lot of bands. You were on tour for about ten years.
JS: On and off, sometimes 200 plus days out of the year.
Musician Coaching: Of the people you met, was there a defining or unifying quality of the ones who made it vs. the ones who didn’t?
JS: It’s hard to say. Not necessarily. There weren’t many bands that we toured with that I didn’t think were pretty damn talented on one level or another.
Talent is an X factor but were there personal habits of successful artists?
JS: There were all different shapes and flavors in terms of personalities, etc. But there has to be a ruthlessness of commitment. You can be a very nice person on the outside and still have that. I think they all had that. It’s more than drive. It’s a belief on some level in your own intuition. That’s the hard thing about the music business. You can only really make good things if you are trusting your own intuition. But in the end it’s not your own intuition that matters, it’s someone else’s. So I think people get kind of hung up trying to tap into the intuition of the masses. It generally never produces great music. I think a lot of people think that massively popular music is made with the public in mind. I don’t think so. It’s made by people that have intuitions that are very much like what the public’s intuition is at the moment. But I don’t think you can do it by trying to guess where everyone else is at. I think you really have to commit to a belief. And if you’re lucky, the stars align and you make it. So that’s what I would say they have in common – a ruthless belief in their own intuitions. Some of them I was kind of amazed at how wrong they obviously were, and there might be some cases where eight months later that band was rocketing to the top of the charts or having some form of success come along.
Our first record sold 30-some thousand records, but in the universe of rock records it was pretty successful. It got written up in all kinds of places. So I think our whole experience was one that was a privileged existence in the world of rock.
You got to take the ride while there was still a mechanism.
JS: They were putting money into it back then.
What’s your philosophy on social networking?
JS: I don’t understand it. I’m a Facebook member. I don’t use Twitter, and I don’t understand why anyone would be interested in what I Twitter, and I am not really interested in what other people Twitter. I was interested in the Iranian uprising, reading the Twitters when you couldn’t get news coverage. But, “Hey everybody, I’m going to Colorado to go skiing” or “Hi everybody I just had stuffed grape leaves for lunch” … I think they’ll figure it out, and they probably already have. Twitter and Facebook, since I know about them can’t possibly be the cutting edge of where this stuff is. They’re always catching up. I don’t think it’s possible to say, “What would’ve happened with Semisonic if we had been around when Twitter was around?” We would’ve been a different band.
I was curious if you had used them extensively, but if you haven’t …
JS: I think the thing I would have to say there is, you have to have a really clear idea of who you are, and then you have to have a really clear idea of who you think wants to hear or read what you’re up to. The social networking just gets plugged into that knowledge. Even faking requires a bit of self knowledge and knowledge of who you’re faking out and what they want to be faked out about.
Were you writing this book the whole time, or was this something you did completely in retrospect?
JS: I wasn’t thinking as I was writing the road diaries, some of which got incorporated into the book, “This could be a book.” All I was thinking was, “Well, if I can’t write as many songs as Dan, maybe I’ll write some road diaries and get my writing up in that way.” And then once we decided to press the pause button, I said, “OK, I have to write a book. That will be my next thing.”
What was the experience of re-purposing a musician’s skills to a different commodity?
JS: What did I learn by being a musician that I applied to getting a book deal? It’s all the same stuff. To get a non-fiction book deal you have to submit a book proposal. And a book proposal is very much like a demo – “Here are the things I’m going to be talking about, here’s a sample chapter, here’s my outline, here’s who I think I’m talking to,” etc. It’s very similar to music because whether writing a book proposal or submitting a demo, they serve different purposes to different people. For a band or an author, a book proposal or a demo is like a map – “Here’s where I’m going, here’s what I’m going to do.” If I feel like I’m getting lost, I’ll come back and consult this and think about what my original intent was and just try to stay on track with that idea. For a publisher or a record company, these things serve a very commercial purpose – “How are we going to market this thing?” These are things most bands aren’t really thinking about. I almost think you shouldn’t think about them. You should try to focus on making the clearest thing that is truest to your vision.
More often than not now when I read about an artist I’m reading about their marketing and not their music.
JS: I think that’s the era we live in. Some people are really good at it, so if they are good at it, why shouldn’t they? But I think you do run the risk of getting off target. That’s one reason I don’t really talk about what I’m writing. I don’t want to get into thinking about who’s going to read it and what their reactions are going to be. I just have to sort of go away in my head and write it. It’s either going to be accepted or not, but I have to cross the finish line in my own mind along the path that I set out on, not someone else’s. I know a lot of bands that say, “Here’s our marketing strategy.” If you’re marketing strategy is more interesting than your music, you’re really in pretty big trouble. And maybe you shouldn’t be a musician. Maybe your real gift is to be an A&R person. There’s a kind of magic to that – how to put together musicians with people that are going to like the music. And figure out in the flow of the world, how is all this going to work? That’s an important decision. I get e-mails from a few bands that send out these really dazzling e-mails and have all these bells and whistles around their promotion, but the bottom line is, the music is just not that great. If I want really great bells and whistles about something, there are all kinds of fun Web sites where I can waste time. If I want music, I’m not so interested in how well a band markets itself. I’m only interested in the music. I think everybody else is pretty much the same.
Would you say as Semisonic was winding down, the landscape had become competitive?
JS: No. We started out in the grunge era, and then there was a softening of the radio that happened right before “Closing Time” was released where there were things like “Bittersweet Symphony” by the Verve and “Brick” by Ben Folds 5. “Closing Time” sailed through that open moment. And then it got as soft as N’Sync and Backstreet Boys and then it took a hard turn back towards Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park and Korn – really loud impressive music. And our last record came out in that era, and it was not an alternative rock record. Our record company thought it was, and we were unclear ourselves. Regardless, I just don’t think it was the right time for that record. I really think that’s what it was about. I think we were lucky with “Closing Time” and our other two records had a lot of great songs on them, but just weren’t lined up with where people’s heads were.
What changes have you noticed in the way the industry functions or in the way we consume media?
JS: One change I see is that people conceive of coming up with one great song as the arc of their band’s life. I think that’s a little more possible with YouTube. You make a cool YouTube thing, and you may not ever see another great YouTube from that same band, but that’s fine. People go on and make another one. I think that may be one thing we’re heading towards; instead of having an enduring band identity you break off and do other things.
Some combination of the singles model vs. what movie studios do with other combinations of producers, directors and actors.
JS: One great thing about the music business now is that it’s so much cheaper to record that you don’t really need the studio. Most people don’t. They are at home, have their computers and are making recordings that 15 years ago would’ve cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. There’s probably a lot more music you can get to right away, but that makes your job harder as to how you’re going to weed through it. I think they’ll figure it out eventually. I don’t know how, but maybe someone with really cool tastes will gain followers and point out what’s good. I think one thing about the Internet is that it seems to me that there’s more impermanence. Things are more fleeting.
So people will only get 15 seconds of fame rather than 15 minutes?
JS: I never bought the 15 minutes thing. Many people have been famous way longer than 15 minutes.
What do you make of the fact that there hasn’t been anyone that has risen to icon status in the last decade or so?
JS: Give it time. I do think someone’s going to come along and think of the perfect way to think of the perfect way to exploit all the things the internet has to offer. It’s complicated, it’s tricky and it’s always changing. There are so many things you can do with it. That just makes it harder.
What do you make of the pay-as-you-will Radiohead premium model?
JS: An important thing to consider in the case of Radiohead – I think it’s awesome they did it – is the way they got to it was in part by being a major label band. What I’d like to see is, who will be the first band that will rise up from the Internet with no label backing?