A SUCCESSFUL MUSIC INDUSTRY PANEL DISCUSSION – SERIOUSLY!
Anyone who has spent any amount of time in the music industry has been subjected to (or participated in) an inordinate number of pointless panel discussions. A lot of my jaundiced view stems from the experience that the people who populate panels are doing so more for the prestige and notoriety of proselytizing to the converted than actually saying anything meaningful. Let’s get real: anyone who knows anything about how to get ahead in this business is not about to reveal it to a room full of competitors. Actually, while the panels are going on, the real business is being carried out in the adjacent hallways, or at lunch, or in the hotel lobby bar. Enough said about that.
But after all these years of spending time on both sides of the dais, I recently witnessed a panel situation that actually worked! In reality, I was more than a witness; I was one of the panelists, although that certainly wasn’t the reason it worked. Never in my experience have I been involved in anything so well planned, so well produced, so well done. It was put together by the organizers of the House of Blues Music Forward Foundation’s Bringing Down The House program. It was held earlier last month, not just here in LA at the Live Nation studios in Hollywood, but also Skyped to House of Blues clubs in seven other US cities where similar events were being held. Bringing Down The House is a national program sponsored by the HOB Foundation where local high school-aged artists and bands compete for the chance to perform on stage at their local House of Blues in a special evening performance. This year, they decided to take it one giant step further and incorporate a series of Saturday morning educational panel discussions covering virtually every aspect of pursuing music as a career.
My panel’s subject matter covered everything from songwriting to home studios to label A&R to performing rights organizations, for which real experts had been invited. Then there were the “kitchen sink” topics, which had apparently been left for me to address. The questions came fast and furious from a panel moderator, but the best stuff came from the high schoolers themselves, not only in the LA studio but also from kids in each of the participating cities in a kind of Face Time, real-time, large-screen situation. How refreshing to find a crowd of young, talented musicians and performers who seemed to be soaking up everything we had to say. A rare audience indeed. Read on!
Here’s a sample of some of the questions and, from memory, what I think I said in response. OK, this is probably better than what I must’ve said that morning as I’ve gotten a chance to edit myself and make it sound like my off-the-cuff spiel actually had a beginning, middle and end.
What part does your professional role play in the dreams of these young musicians?
“First of all, let’s make a distinction about what business you’re in. Each of you has already made a commitment of time, energy and belief into learning as much as you could about either singing or playing an instrument or both. You’ve sat through boring music business classes, trying to figure out how publishing works. You may have done a few recordings of your original material and had the occasion to play them out. That’s great because it’s all about the music.
“However, you’re NOT in the MUSIC business – you’re in the ENTERTAINMENT business! Now you need to commit yourselves to spending even more time and energy to learn how to perform your music so that it’s ENTERTAINING. You know a LOT about music; but probably 90% of your audience won’t know anything about music.
My job is to ferret out the best parts of each of your songs, juggle the repertoire into a viable set list and then work on everything about the live show. By that I mean the entrance, the wardrobe, the walk, the talk, the CONNECTIONS with each other and the CONNECTIONS with the audience. These are the things that separate a great show from just a good show or, worse, a poor one. That’s the role that I play in helping young performers.”
You have a long history in the music industry and have seen a lot of changes. What’s the main change in how you represent your music clients now?
“Funnily enough, all the upheaval and change in the past 15 years or so have been on the record side of the business and all the aspects that deal with the sale of recorded music. The music itself and the live show haven’t changed much at all. Bob Dylan said that music today is living off of the table scraps of the 60s. To a certain extent he was right.
“Current pop music styles (song structure, catchy lyrics, vocal delivery) and the visuals (the staging and the outfits and the hair) are all basically the same as they were 50 years ago when it was new. Even the instruments themselves are the same. How many guitarists in the audience are playing some variation of a Stratocaster through a Fender Twin? How many vocalists are using SM58’s? Case closed.
“So everything I’m teaching is basically all the same stuff I learned when I was playing in bands, then tour managing, and then working with young artists on the road during my 20 years at Warners. It’s still all the same stuff.”
How can an emerging artist grow before they can get a manager or an agent on their team?
“You need to make yourself valuable. First, you need to have your live show together (and not just good, but GREAT) and have played out around your hometown or region of the country and have real fans for whom you have email addresses.
“You need to have your music recorded and up on all the digital sites with some semblance of sales and get yourself (and your songs) signed up to ASCAP or BMI as a writer and publisher for protection and potential performance revenue down the line. You need to have all your socials going full steam and be in daily contact with your fan base. You need to have merch items available (ones that actually sell) at your gigs, on your socials and at your website. When all of that is in place, you won’t have to look for a manager or an agent – they’ll come to you.”
What’s Your Final Piece Of Advice To Session Attendees?
“I can only pass along and paraphrase the advice James Taylor handed out some years ago: ‘Play out in front of people every chance you get, keep your expenses low, and avoid any addictive habits.‘ Good advice.”
(Thanks to Debra Young Krizman for the panel invite and Nazanin Fatemian for the photos!)