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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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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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…