THE MUSIC BUSINESS RUNS ON SUSHI – BUT ARE YOU DOING IT RIGHT?

Back in the early ‘80s, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, after signing Irish-rockers U2, decided to stay ahead of some imaginary country-of-origin curve and signed Japanese art/punk rock band Plastics (or The Plastics). As Island was at the time distributed by Warners, I was assigned to accompany the band on their maiden tour of America to facilitate promotional activities.

The best thing about the tour was that we would entertain radio and press at very nice Japanese restaurants in America where the band would order dishes not on the menu that defied description and pronunciation. Outside of the major markets, however, we would have to sublimate on just the sushi and sashimi on the menu. But as a result, I learned a lot from the band about the etiquette and procedure for properly ordering and eating sushi.

Fast forward to a sushi restaurant the other night (before a show, naturally) where I realized that, for all of the sushi consumption that keeps the music biz running on a daily basis, most of my colleagues are not aware of the correct ways in which one orders and consumes sushi. In fact, most of the others at the dinner admitted that they were only copying something they saw someone else do years ago, which wasn’t necessarily correct. Therefore, as an apparent altruistic public service, allow me to pass on a few major points about sushi given to me in the nicest possible manner by the members of The Plastics.

CAVEAT: A full comprehension of Japanese dining etiquette and the extensive nomenclature surrounding the art of sushi are way beyond the scope of this blog. But it’s kind of like publishing – if you know anything at all, you know more than 90% of anyone else in the music business.

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SO WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THE SHOW?

THE UNCOMFORTABLE BACKSTAGE AFTERSHOW MEET & GREET

There comes a time in the life of everyone in the music business when one must suffer through the dreaded aftershow meet and greet with the artist. To Fred and Marge from Iowa, it probably sounds like a dream come true – meeting the artist they’ve always loved and admired where they can gush over about how wonderful the show was and how the artist is their favorite all-time performer and how much they enjoyed hearing the song that was played at their wedding, ad nauseum. But we know it’s not like that, is it?

Now that all of the fan/winner/VIP hoopla has been relegated to the before show meet and greet, the aftershow is strictly the domain of the industry (agent/label/promo person), being coerced by management and tradition to meet with the artist on the artist’s turf and try and have a painless conversation, not unlike the photo above of the late Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records with Crosby, Stills & Nash circa 1974. How uncomfortable do they look? Actually, Ahmet seems fine.

Regardless, here’s how it works: Initially, you gather near a backstage entrance, like cattle being led to slaughter, if only to listen to a diatribe from a security or road person about having your stick-on pass visible. Then, like sheep, you’re led down a dimly-lit hallway or two (should you drop breadcrumbs?) to a large room, which is conversely lit up well enough for open-heart surgery. There you will congregate with the bass player’s distant cousins from Peoria and end up in a conversation with them over warm beer and vegetable/cheese trays left over from the before show function. After some interminable amount of time, the artist’s personal assistant will gather you and the other unfortunate industry dweebs for yet another journey down a few more hallways until you are shown into the inner sanctum – the artist’s dressing room.

First, there will be some embarrassing re-introductions because no matter how many times management has told the artist who’s coming backstage, it’s all forgotten. Then you’ll try and help the artist put together who you are, when you last met them, and what you mean to his or her career, oftentimes inflating it more than it really is just to get some kind of positive reaction. Then you’ll talk about what efforts you’ve been making on the artist’s behalf recently and what the results are so far. You can only hope that the artist isn’t more well informed than you are on the subject, otherwise a cross examination could begin that will turn ugly.

But in the end, since there’s really nothing else to talk about, the artist is going to ask you what you thought of the show. Now you have to make a choice. If it were a good show, you’re safe. You can go ahead and say complimentary things and the artist will bask in your intelligent opinions. But what if it were a bad show? What would you say then? If you want to get out with your pride and your pants still intact, read on for some tips. Continue reading…

A TRIBUTE TO THE ROAD MANAGER – PRAISE AND A PRAYER

“I have no use for bodyguards; I use two highly trained certified public accountants instead.” – Elvis Presley

When Elvis Presley’s fiancée Ginger Alden found him unconscious in the Graceland upstairs bathroom at 2:00 pm on August 16, 1977, she called to Joe Esposito, Elvis’s longtime road manager. Joe immediately ran upstairs, surveyed the situation, and went right to work. He called for an ambulance from the bathroom phone and he attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and heart massage, but to no avail. However, by the time the paramedics arrived, the bathroom and the adjacent sitting room had been cleaned up, as well as the vomit from the shag carpet in the bathroom. Anyone who has ever done the road manager gig for any length of time knows exactly what to do in these kinds of circumstances.

This month’s dictum is a shout out, a testimonial, some observations, a couple of pratfalls and a warning to the unsung hero of the touring business – the road manager. These men and women are also known as tour managers, the distinction being that on larger tours, the tour manager oversees everything and the road manager takes care of the artist(s). On mid-level to small tours, the road manager does everything. Everything.

At first glance, this road manager gig would seem to be the best job in the music business. It’s a total power trip for a control freak. Everything must be done the way you want it to be done. If you say the show is off, it’s off. If you say everyone must be in the van by 8am, that’s what everyone does. One does not question the road manager. He or she rules. Except that’s not always how it works. There’s also a downside.

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A BOOMER’S TEN CONCERT RULES FOR THE NEW MILLENNIUM

“People today are still living off the table scraps of the sixties.” – Bob Dylan

 

Ah, once again, a toast to the good old days of Baby Boomer music – back in the previous millennium when artists only had to churn out two great and ten good rock or pop songs and then their record company would handily foist those songs, 12 at a time, onto the waiting general public sponge through an all-too-willing radio station arrangement and a voluminous 9am-midnight record store.

That was the machinery that then allowed the artist to tour, virtually at will, to play all sorts of dumps and dives (and later the lawn seating general admission heat fests) at any time of the year that they so chose. Everyone had to put up with the long lines, the late sets, the uncomfortable (if available) seating, the bad food, watered down drinks, dark and scary distant parking – because we loved the music and we were all in it together. We needed to see and hear our favorite artists, live and in person, and we would go to any lengths to get there. It was a red badge of courage to detail to friends, family and co-workers the ordeal one had to go through to get tickets, fight the crowds, and stand for hours on end to catch the show. After all, the artist wouldn’t be back in town for at least another year or so, depending on how long it took to write and record the next album, which we were already craving. Continue reading…

A TRIBUTE TO THE ARTIST BIO WRITER

Is there no greater work of fiction in the English language than the artist bio? You know, the three-page laudatory pronouncement of some new musical genius suddenly discovered and spotlighted. Or how about the one that signals the mid-career change of musical direction? Or the end-of-career, where-have-they-been, and what-now variety?

The first is largely platitudes of the “most astounding debut of this or any previous musical season” variety, ultimately based on nothing but wishful hoping. The follow up bio usually has more meat to it, especially if the artist had made some kind of mark in the musical world in the interim; although it can become fairly evident by the third paragraph that the creative juices have dried up and they’re going to try something else now, in hopes of maintaining the already waning attention of a fickle audience.

But it is the final level of hubris that is the saddest of the three and generally the easiest to see through. The early promises and successes have been worn out and the second act didn’t prove nearly as fruitful. Worse, all of the previous character flaws that had gone overlooked or unnoticed now glare through. Then it becomes the job of the harried bio writer to take the facts of the matter as they lie and put that famous spin on them in hopes that this last gasp may catch the wave.

If you’re not sure what I’m getting at, read on. Even if you are sure what I’m getting at, what have you got to lose but maybe another few minutes? Like you have something WAY more important to do? Oh, come on.

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A BELATED TRIBUTE TO THE RADIO PROMOTION PERSON – SOMEONE HAS TO DO IT!

“The industry is both the enemy and the best friend of the artist. Trouble is, they need each other.” – Chrissie Hynde

You may not be familiar with a rather obscure Rolling Stones’ song “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man”. It was the American B-side of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” in mid-1965 and also appeared on the Out Of Our Heads LP. Before you read on, if you haven’t heard it, take three minutes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9IImmRrFBz4   (Ignore the vain attempt by the YouTube poster at synching other footage to the song.)***

The target of the song was the promotion rep for London Records on the West Coast in the mid-60s – one George Sherlock. In addition to getting the band’s records played on the radio, Sherlock traveled with the band to set up tour promotions. Apparently Sherlock was from a different time and culture than the Stones (shocker), and so the band was put off by his demeanor. They subsequently wrote and recorded this song about the experience. From all reports, though, the Stones eventually warmed to Sherlock and didn’t mind having him around.

Although the song is an indictment of the quintessential radio promo guy of the era, there is a line of truth in the song: “I’m a necessary talent behind every rock and roll band.”  Exactly. Records don’t just get played on the radio out of the blue. Someone has to bring it in the door and get it heard. Someone has to have, to quote Artie Fufkin from Polymer Records, a “relationship” with the programmer. (Ed. note: Spinal Tap is funny because it’s all true.) You can’t just walk in to a station and expect to get an audience with a radio programmer. Not going to happen. It takes a seasoned, experienced, professional radio promotion person to get a record played on the radio. There is no other way. None. Period.

Radio promotion is a sales job except that you’re not selling a tangible item – like shoes or cars or real estate – you’re selling an emotion, a feeling, a song and a sound – trying to convince a radio programmer that the song will make an audience feel so good that they’ll keep listening to the station just to see if whatever comes on next makes them feel that way again, over and over, day and night, 24/7/365.

But you have to remember that radio programmers are not really in the music businessthey’re in the music using business; that is, they utilize music to sell airtime to advertisers who want to sell something to a certain segment of the population, not unlike how TV and film use music to enhance a certain scene. So even though radio promotion people are trying to sell the relative value of one record over another to a radio programmer, it’s really the radio audience that needs to be sold to, thereby making the job even harder – convincing a programmer that despite his or her taste, it’s all about what the audience wants to hear.

So who are these radio promotion people and why do they do whatever it is that they do? I’m not sure. On the surface, it would seem like a real cool gig. Working as an important cog in the music business wheel, taking people out to lunch and dinner on an expense account, going to shows, hanging with the bands, and, from the Stones’ description, driving Corvettes and wearing seersucker suits. But much like the tour manager job described in last month’s blog, there is also a downside. Continue reading…

WHAT STEPS ARTISTS NEED TO TAKE BEFORE THEY GO TO RADIO

“Hey, Mister, That’s Me Up On The Jukebox!” – James Taylor

 OK, so, you’ve raised enough money from your friends, family and (let’s hope) fans to record that set of songs in the way you’ve always wanted them to sound and now it’s time to share your creative output with the world. And what better way to do that than through the time-tested path of radio. And, indeed, there is no better way for your music to become one with the masses than through the repeated plays of radio. And it’s free!

No, actually radio is not free. But even if it were, there are numerous steps that you first need to take along the yellow brick road to reach the radio stations of Oz. You’d better sit down.

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RADIO STATION LOUNGES & THE ART OF LIVE AND ACOUSTIC

“If you can’t deliver your song with just an acoustic guitar and one mic under one white light bulb dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, then you’re not a performer and it’s not a song.” – David Lee Roth

As an erstwhile bar band musician and singer in my younger days, I am always impressed when artists strip away the electronics and superfluous support system and perform their songs in the simplest form, in much the same way as Diamond Dave describes above. It lays bare the basics of the composition and the artist’s talents. I believe that it is only under these circumstances that songs and performers can be evaluated for craftsmanship and aesthetics. This is where it all comes down to the song (melody, lyrics and chords) and the performance (talent, craft, experience, artistry, style, dynamics and emotion).

Taking it down even further to its granular form, it all depends on the delivery. Two very able but different artists can deliver the same song under the same performance restrictions and the outcome will usually be decidedly different – not necessarily one good or one bad – but different. Lots of times it’s something that you can’t quite put your finger on; however, I find that the difference is usually in the emotion of the delivery. I’m not talking about histrionics or screaming or any outward visible signs of emotion (although such things can add to the effect); I’m referring to the indescribable but undeniable emotional timbre from within that connects the performer and the song to the audience and makes it all work.

That emotional something can’t be dissected or made into a list of checkpoints, and so, as a result, it can’t be taught. Playing an instrument, singing on key and various effective vocal inflections can be learned in school and mastered by anyone who has the patience and determination to practice, practice, practice. But there is no guidebook to emotional delivery and/or subsequent connection to an audience. The only thing I’ve found among those who have it and those who don’t, is that the former has spent quite a deal of time performing live in front of an audience and the latter hasn’t. Only experience can teach how to perform live and acoustic effectively and successfully.

These days, other than in small singer/songwriter clubs and coffeehouses, it’s difficult to experience those basics-only performances. Those who do play these venues are generally at the beginning point of their careers and haven’t yet mastered the qualities it takes to bring it all home. In fact, the only place I’m finding to weed out the wheat from the chaff is by listening to (and observing, if possible) live, in-studio radio station broadcasts, more popularly called “Lounges”. The beauty of the in-studio radio station broadcasts, or lounges, is that their logistics generally demand a low-tech performance. Small rooms, limited mics and inputs, and the difficulty in obtaining or hauling in massive amounts of gear all lend themselves to the kind of revealing standard that I prefer. Continue reading…

ART VS. COMMERCE: WHEN ROCK STARS MEET RADIO PROGRAMMERS

“The industry is both the enemy and the best friend of the artist. Trouble is, they need each other.” – Chrissie Hynde

 

Is there anything more uncomfortable or awkward than an artist meeting a radio programmer (as exemplified by the photo above with Bono and The Edge at KTIM-FM in San Rafael CA in 1981)? In the world of music marketing and promotion, it’s an essential piece of the puzzle that is intended to lead to airplay. It’s the artist bearing his or her wares to the marketplace by way of a pitch, a smile, a kind word, a thank you – some sort of person-to-person exchange of pleasantries. It gives meaning to the music and the musician, way beyond anything that a cold, faceless, piece of plastic (or WAV file) can summon up.

No matter how many fans, FB friends, record sales or website hits they have, musical artists (and the industry behind them) still need radio, one station at a time, to make it into the ears and the minds of the general public. Nothing has changed in that respect.

The Internet has not replaced the valuable face time between artist and radio programmer.

This strange bedfellow thing is not a recent development. Sinatra reportedly hung out in radio station studios with all-night deejays hawking his latest releases.  Murray The K deemed himself the “Fifth Beatle” when he befriended the quartet upon their first visit to New York and played their records non-stop and back to back on Top 40 powerhouse WINS. I myself spent 20+ years at Warner/Reprise hauling singers and bands into radio stations and backstage meet and greets – almost 5,000 such events by my count – so I know a thing or two about the execution, dynamics and purpose of this ancient rite. Continue reading…